Colonial New Zealand, History and Etiquette

   Seek and Ye Shall Find; 

Helpful Treasures on the Shelves of My School Library

by Guest Blogger, New Zealand's Newest Etiquette Enthusiast, Corey Peterson

At school, I had finished my assessment task a while before the rest of the class, so I had some free time to do as I pleased. After searching the school library for books on etiquette, manners and silverware, I found they had a book by Debrett’s titled ‘Etiquette & Modern Manners.’  I was even more surprised to find, that I was able to take it out of the library.  My school library has many books that are to be read only there,  most of which are to my taste. I began reading this book in my last class of the day.  I started with the section on ‘Table Manners’ and was shocked at how complex it was for women of the upper-class to play hostess.

The seating plans seemed complicated. A woman had to make sure that everyone was seated in their position, according to where they stood in society, i.e. Dukes over Lords, Lords over Barons, etc... Then the way everyone had to sit with a conversational partner. The list went on! It was just as hard for the servants; the order of serving, the process of decanting of vintage wines, how to handle the port, the champagne. Pouring of wines and champagnes from the bottle, and so on. 

I have always had an interest for titled families and their homes.  My favourite is Highclere Castle, the real life Downton Abbey building, as shown at the beginning of the show.  I am interested as well, in the servants the large houses had.  I even used what I had learned to give a speech at school. The theme of the speech was "Life in Service, pre-WWI Great Britain. I also did my formal writing on the same topic. The book is gold in my eyes, but obviously others don’t share my enthusiasm.  The book hadn’t been taken out in years! I have decided, I want my own copy as it is so rich in information. 
What happened to European women after they arrived in the raw New Zealand colony? From period letters, diaries and cookbooks the story of these early colonists emerges, while recounting struggles to find housing, food and fields. How they kept food fresh without refrigeration, how illnesses were treated without antibiotics and how entertainment was found, without radio, television or movies.
I had another look, but this time I found a book, called ‘Colonial Fare,’ written by Jill Brewis. Inside are quotes, recipes, stories and tips for making everyday processes easier for Colonial New Zealand housewife. New Zealand was only colonised in 1840, making us a very young country. 

Between the period of 1840’s until around 1870, was when New Zealand had the biggest surge of English migrants. All were searching for the same thing; a new, better life.  Most of those who came, were disappointed with what they found, and many longed to return to their homeland. But many also stayed, persevered and began to shape New Zealand into almost, but not quite, a newer version of England.

 One example is the Karangahake Gorge. The early settlers carved a roadway for their horse and carts through the rough terrain, with many deaths and many injuries, alongside the mighty river. The road was the foundation of the road there today, and in some parts you can still see the scars. Karangahake was also a booming mining town, with many tunnels and shafts, a few of which are still open to the general public, free of charge. Sadly, the boom died as quickly as it started, leaving the township empty of work and a ghost town. 

The book is fascinating, with ‘Etiquette for Women’ as a chapter. The Girls’ Mutual Improvement Society was set up and had a strict list of rules and manners.  If a member was not following this code of protocol, the member would have been expelled.  The code included rules like these;
  • “Never take your pet dog on a call. Children, also, should be left at home.”
  • “Your gloves should always be of kid; silk or cotton gloves are very vulgar.”
  • “When a lady is crossing a muddy street she should gather her dress in her right hand, and draw it to the right side.”
  • “To wear a bonnet fit for a carriage when not in one is the extreme of bad taste.” 
  •  “It is always silly to try to be witty.”

This dress code would have been hard to follow over the years, as getting many different bonnets, or materials sent to one in New Zealand from either England or America, was extremely costly, time consuming and was seen as a non-essential by many husbands.  If a woman ordered 25 yards of light, violet silk from a London shop, it could take
Advertisement of The New Zealand Company 1837-1858
up to nine months to arrive.  Out of that nine months, the ship had to sail to New Zealand, pick up the mail bound for England with the order, sail back to England and then be delivered to the recipient there.  Then it had to sail back for New Zealand, deliver the product to the postman and then the postman would have to deliver the silk to the buyer. By the time it arrived, the colour might have gone out of fashion.  Or the product you received, may not be to your liking, wasting your time and your hard earned money.

Women were lucky if their husbands allowed for them to send away for fabrics from England, as it was hard to earn enough money to live.  Given the price of importing livestock, seed and other goods from the two main exporters, America and England, early colonists had to be cost conscious. 

Colonists had the cost of a plot of land.  Most settlers bought their land sight unseen.  Unethical sellers sold land many times, as being "flat" or fertile", when most of New Zealand was hilly and rocky.  This led to many settlers finding out that they couldn’t live off the land.  Even if they could, it would have taken more time than anticipated to prepare that land.  

My third-great grandparents arrived from England in the early 1870’s.  On their voyage, they lost a son to extreme seasickness and malnourishment.  After they arrived, they settled in Blenheim, which is in the South Island of New Zealand. The house they lived in was very small and was made mainly by roughly cut planks of wood. They had about 12 children here in New Zealand, with my third-great grandfather leaving behind his two eldest. 

Life was hard for them, but they had an advantage, as many of the children were male. This meant they had a labour force.  The colonial families, and in particular the women, were very resourceful and hardworking. Women tried to keep the traditions of England in a land far, far away. For that, and all their work, they get my respect.



  1. "Silk or Cotton gloves are vulgar"? Funny! I would think in warm weather, silk gloves might be welcome. Cotton? I kind of get it, but it was s snobbery, no less. Nice post with interesting topic. Must look for the book on colonial foods.

  2. Well, I guess if you have to leave your child at home, and your dog, your dog could protect your child. This was interesting. They left England, to make a mini-England. Too bad there was no Walt Disney around. He could have created "England World". It may have been more fun. Our guess is that they left England for other reasons, but were a bit homesick when they saw the conditions there. It is nice that they developed into their own, unique & wonderful place. We love New Zealand!

  3. I agree Millie, but only to a point. Those women were stuck in a society to which they had to either conform for acceptance, or be shunned. We were the same here in the U.S., don't forget. I do not think I would fit in to that society well, but I do miss the days when people flew and went out to eat, or shop, dressed in appropriate attire. We traveled recently and it was like watching a campy movie or parody, the parade of sloppily, dressed (and almost undressed!) people boarding the flight. Please, make it stop!

  4. All these fascinating old rules :) Terrific!


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