It is hard to imagine what New Zealand must have been like in 1918. The First World War was finally over, leaving more than 18,000 New Zealanders dead and tens of thousands more seriously wounded – over 5300 soldiers died in 1918 alone. Between October and December another 8600 people (including 2160 Māori) died during the influenza pandemic.
The New Zealand population on 31 December 1918 was about 1,150,000 (so multiply the figures above by four to get some idea of the relative impact today). Of this total about 50,000 were Māori, the majority living in rural areas away from the main centres. About 60% of the population lived in the North Island. Auckland was the biggest region (with 308,766 people), followed by Wellington (232,114) and Canterbury (181,869).
Little more than half of the European population lived in urban centres. Influenza historian Geoffrey Rice tells us, 'Boroughs varied greatly in size in 1918, ranging from the typical small country town of up to 2,000 people, like Temuka, to the regional centres, which were often twice the size of the next largest town in the region. Only six of these regional centres topped the 10,000 mark in the 1916 census. Wanganui was the largest, with a population of 14,380. There were another six smaller regional centres, while twelve more boroughs would qualify as larger towns or ports; these included places like Hastings and Oamaru. The rest (more than eighty per cent) were small market towns, mining or timber settlements, with fewer than 2,000 inhabitants'.
William Massey had been Prime Minister since 1912 (and would remain so until 1925). Although he was leader of the Reform Party, Massey's Ministry from 1915 until 1919 – referred to as the 'National Government' – was an uneasy wartime coalition with the opposition Liberal Party. Sir Joseph Ward, the leader of the Liberal Party, served as deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance.
Labour stalwarts Peter Fraser, Harry Holland and Bob Semple were all first elected in 1918 via by-elections.
The King's (and British government's) representative in New Zealand was Lord Liverpool. His title had been upgraded from governor to governor-general in 1917, though this move didn't change anything in practice.
Almost half the population said they were Anglicans, while another 25% were Presbyterian. The other two main religious denominations listed were Catholic (about 15%) and Methodist (about 10%). Only 0.39% of the population said they had no religion. In November 1918 Tahupotiki Ratana began his Māori religious movement after experiencing a vision of the Holy Spirit, which had come to him in the form of a strange whirlwind-like cloud. Earlier in the year the Māori prophet Rua Kenana was released from jail early, having been arrested and charged with sedition in 1916.
A massive prohibition petition with 242,001 signatures was presented to Parliament in 1918. Six o'clock closing in pubs, which had initially been imposed as a wartime measure, was made 'permanent' (it was to remain in force until 1967). Women other than those related to or employed by the licensee were not allowed to be in or 'loiter about the entrance' of any licensed premises after 6 p.m.
Only one person was convicted for murder and one for manslaughter in 1918, though punishment for the former was execution.
Victor Spencer from Invercargill (Otago Regiment) was executed for desertion in February 1918, despite suggestions that he was severely traumatised by shellshock, having fought in and survived several campaigns. He was the last New Zealand soldier to be executed during the First World War.
There were only 54 convictions for offences against property (including theft and burglary offences). There were 78 convictions for ‘sly-grogging’ (selling alcohol without a licence).
Of the 380 petitions for divorce filed in 1918, 194 were for adultery and 146 for desertion; the others were mainly a combination of these two and/or drunkenness and cruelty. Out of this total, 279 petitions were granted.
Unemployment was about 1.5%, though 83% of women were classified in the Census as 'dependents'. The biggest single employment sector was agriculture, mining and other primary production, which employed 22% of the male population. Just 3% of women and 4.5% of men were listed as being in 'Professional' employment.
There were nearly a quarter of a million houses with an average of 4.52 occupants per dwelling (occupants per dwelling had been on the decline for the past five censuses). Of these houses, 92.21% were built of wood; 2.97% were brick and 1% (2391) were of canvas. The majority (160,000 out of 238,000) of these houses had four to six rooms.
About 85% of New Zealand's exports came from the pastoral sector (wool, frozen meat, butter and cheese). The majority of these went to the United Kingdom (£18.2 million out of a total of £28.5 million), though in 1918 a much higher percentage than in earlier years went to the United States, Canada and ‘other’ countries.
The main imports were clothing and textiles and metals and machinery. Imports of automobiles had increased steadily since 1911, though only the better-off could afford them – most people relied on horses and bicycles for transport.
More than 12 million telegrams were sent during the year. Only 6.5% of the population had telephones. Electricity generation and domestic usage was increasing steadily, though, and in December the first power boards were created to control electricity distribution.
More than 83% of the population could read and write. Public schools were free and ‘purely secular’. It was compulsory for children aged from 7 to 14 to attend a registered school. There were 2280 tertiary education students. The School Journal, then in its 11th year, included special numbers issued for Empire Day and Arbor Day. A total of 170,900 copies of the three-part November 1918 issue were printed.
Most of the information on this page is taken from the 1919 Official New Zealand Year Book. Feel free to add other 1918 information to the Community Contributions area at the bottom of this page.