New Zealand beach culture

As we are in a heatwave here – heatwave for Wellington means a temperature in the high 20s (Celsius) – obviously not the same as a heatwave in Australia, but enough to get me into the sea swimming, as I did this morning, I wondered when our love of the beach began. I’m sure it wasn’t with the first English settlers being rowed ashore at Petone beach in 1840 – the women in their Victorian dresses – living in tents, and soon flooded by the Hutt River and moving the nascent town of Wellington to the other side of the harbour. They arrived in January – perhaps it was hot and some young men and children may have been tempted into the water; but perhaps not – I don’t know how many could swim.

Drowning was called the New Zealand death for a long time. Rivers, sea, and harbours played an important part in transport and in the lives of most New Zealanders until into the 20th century. Beaches still do…

4onrock  swimpkb

Young women at Pukerua Bay – my aunt Ruth is second from right, early 1930s? Family and friends group at Pukerua Bay, 1920s. My grandfather, Walter Morrell is second from right at back. My father is the boy in the middle front.

Beach holidays[1]

“For many New Zealanders the beach is the essence of the Kiwi dream – the sun, the space, the physical beauty and the sense of a relaxed escape into nature. Easy and free access to the beach has been seen as a national birthright. The beach is considered to be the place to go for a holiday. For over a century it has attracted campers, and about half of New Zealand’s campgrounds are located at beaches. For some, a holiday at the beach is spent at the weekend crib or bach.[2] This was a humble dwelling, often with the marks of the home handyman and painted in bright colours. It had old furniture and fading photos, along with collections of shells, discarded jandals, beach equipment and fishing gear. Initially there was little public regulation of these beach houses, and there were few facilities such as piped water or sewerage systems.” (Now, beach houses are usually expensive to buy and many are much grander than the humble old bach.)

fields  4onrock2

The Field family at Pukerua Bay (family friends); Four young women, including my aunt (1920s/30s).

Pukerua Bay

In March 1921, the coastal area of Pukerua Bay – 33 kilometres north of Wellington – was subdivided and 28 sections were up for sale.[3] My grandfather, Walter Morrell, who was a builder in Wellington purchased four sections – my father, who was about aged four at the time, said (in memoirs he wrote in the 1980s) his father bought numbers 7, 8, 9 and 19 Ocean Parade. My father – “We always travelled by train from Wellington as my parents had no car and in any case it was quicker by train … There were quite a few baches and boatsheds around the bays.” Pukerua Bay comprises a hill-top area and the beach is down a steep cliff – there is now a narrow road down to the beach but my father said there was no road in the early days. There was a sledge track and a draught horse would bring heavy material down; but for their milk and bread they went to the railway station – the bread came on the train and they had to be there when it arrived if they wanted any.

pkbplan  fish (Unknown men with fish at Pukerua Bay)

Although I grew up in the inland town of Masterton, many weekends and holidays were spent at our bach at Pukerua Bay, built by my grandfather. Ours was No. 8. My father was a very keen fisherman.

Pukbay  kidsbeach (My father is the only boy in this photo, my three aunts are at back, right and front – and two other girls on the left, 1920s. The bach at No. 7 (with its porch enclosed) is in the background.)


At Pukerua Bay when I was a child we used to start swimming at Labour weekend (late October – spring and still often fairly cold) and go until Easter, regardless of the weather!

“Most New Zealanders live within easy reach of lakes, rivers, swimming pools or the sea, so it is not surprising that swimming and associated aquatic activities are popular recreations.

A 2008 survey conducted by Sport New Zealand found that with 1.13 million participants, swimming is the country’s third-most popular physical activity, behind walking and gardening. Swimming was rated the top activity among people aged 16–24 years…

At one time, for modesty’s sake, enthusiasts had to swim at a secluded beach, river or lake. However, as the activity became more popular from the late 19th century swimming pools were built in towns and cities. Some of the earliest were sited on beaches, and took advantage of the tides. These included the salt-water pools in Oriental Bay, Wellington, which opened in 1864. At such pools swimming was segregated until around the First World War, and flags were used to indicate men’s and women’s hours.”[4]

Te Aro baths 1908

Te Aro Baths, Oriental Bay, Wellington, 1908 during the Wellington Centre Swimming Sports. Smith, Sydney Charles, Ref: 1/1-019795-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.

Swimming Clubs

“New Zealand’s first official swimming body was the Christchurch Amateur Swimming Club. Formed in October 1880 the club started a trend and at least 15 similar bodies were established throughout the country by 1895. They included Hamilton (1881), Auckland (1888), Ashburton and Gisborne (1891), Whāngārei (1893), Dunedin, Napier, Wellington and Palmerston North (all 1894).”[4]

“The New Zealand Amateur Swimming Association was formed in 1890, which was 10 years after the first club was formed in Christchurch. At this time, few other national swimming organisations were formed (the English Amateur Swimming Association and a club or two in the United States).

In 1892 the association asked the Minister of Education to recognise swimming as a school subject, and in 1900 the government approved money to encourage swimming in public schools. In 1903–4 NZASA clubs began teaching children to swim, issuing certificates to those who became proficient.” [5]

My primary school years were spent at West School in Masterton and I still have my swimming certificate – I got stamps for water skills, for swimming 25 yards, 50 yards, and 100 yards. I didn’t get a stamp for ‘resuscitation: expired air method’.

“The first national swimming championships were held in Wanganui in 1905. A year later B.C Freyberg (later to become the Governor General of New Zealand) won the 100 yard freestyle and the 400 yard freestyle. New Zealand swimmers have competed in the Olympic Games since the 1912 Stockholm Games when Malcolm Champion was part of the gold medal winning 4 x 200m freestyle relay for the Australasian Team.”

Togs (what we call swimming costumes)

“While swimming was considered a wholesome pastime, Victorians were concerned that swimming costumes revealed too much flesh. Many local authorities made bylaws about the style of costumes that could be worn on beaches, and similar regulations were enforced once mixed bathing became accepted at swimming pools. For many years the NZASA stipulated the exact styles of bathing suits that could be worn, and insisted that women wore a cloak outside the pool as late as the 1940s.” (from Jock Phillips, Te Ara entry)

winnie  ruthvera

Surf-life saving – see the photo on my Edwardian photo album post of my great-aunt Evelyn Read and her surf-life saving team – and her medal from 1911. I didn’t realise she had joined a club so early in its New Zealand history. This is from the Surf-life saving organisation’s website:

“Surf Life Saving is one of the best imports we’ve ever had from Australia. It was on its long sweeping beaches and in its crashing waves that lifesaving was born in 1906. The traditions that took root there first came to the shores of Lyall Bay [Wellington] and New Brighton [Christchurch] in 1910. By the end of the year, four more clubs had sprung up and started patrolling….But women still had to battle for equality. Though they were originally welcomed into clubs as full clubbies, the 1930s saw the heroic bronzed and tanned man become the idealised image of the beach. When those young men went overseas to fight and die in World War II, women again found their rightful place. They took up the reel and patrolled the beach on summer weekends… However when the men returned, those women were often relegated to fundraising, tea making and cake baking. Many broke off and started ‘ladies’ lifesaving clubs, often near the clubhouses of their former colleagues. These days women stand alongside men on surf patrols throughout New Zealand and compete in all the same events.”

Swimming Cook Strait – I remember as a child various people swimming (or attempting to swim) Cook Strait (the strait between the North and South Islands of New Zealand). I see from the NZ Sports Hall of Fame the first successful crossing was in 1962:  “The challenge to be the first in recorded history – there are unsubstantiated tales of Maori swimming the strait in pre-European times – to swim Cook Strait was likened to other sporting challenges such as Roger Bannister’s first sub-four minute mile and Sir Edmund Hillary’s conquest of Everest. Wellington surf lifesaver Barrie Devenport was the first to overcome the challenge on November 20, 1962, when he swam from Cape Terawhiti in the North Island to Wellington Rock in the South in 11 hours and 13 minutes. The swim gained national attention and instant fame for Devenport: among his rewards were a television set and a truckload of manure.” (Surely only in New Zealand?!)

A source I should read but haven’t (as yet): Caroline Daley, Leisure and pleasure: reshaping and revealing the New Zealand body. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2003.


[1] From: Jock Phillips. ‘Beach culture – Beach culture’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 13-Jul-12

[2] Pronounced ‘batch’ – see the Wikipedia entry for more information.

[3] The newspaper advertisement says 26 sections, but the plan says 28.

[4] John McBeth. ‘Swimming – Swimming for recreation and sport’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 9-Jul-13

[5] From Swimming New Zealand website.


One thought on “New Zealand beach culture

  1. Goodness, Vivienne, I didn’t know you were such an accomplished swimmer! I like the way you weave personal family history into social research.


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