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He Tohu Aroha – Fundraising for the Mobile Canteen

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Saran Christie
27 October, 2021

World War II shaped the everyday lives of people in communities far from the fighting front lines. This blog is about how small rural Māori communities and, in particular, their tamariki, responded to the impact of war on their lives with organisation, hard work and aroha for the men who had volunteered for the 28th Māori Battalion.

By the end of 1940 one of the most evident impacts of war for the approximately 10,730 children attending the country’s Native Schools was the absence of whānau.[i] The 28th Māori Battalion had embarked for overseas duties on 1 May 1940. At their official farewell in the Palmerston North Opera House, Apirana Ngata revelled that Māori enlistments corresponded to one in every thirty-two of the Māori population.[ii] As such, farewells to fathers, uncles, brothers and cousins would have played a significant part in the early war experiences for most of the children. When a fundraising appeal was issued by the Education Department at the end of 1940 to support the troops overseas the Native Schools responded with enthusiasm to supply a mobile canteen that could provide sustenance and comfort close to the front lines. [iii] 

By May 1941, the 146 Native Schools and their communities had managed to raise over £900 towards the purchase and equipping of a mobile canteen for the Māori Battalion.[iv] The Minister of Education, the Hon. Henry Mason, in an interview to mark the funds being turned over for use to the Patriotic Fund, commented on the ‘keenness of the children to contribute their pennies, never too plentiful, toward this fund.’[v] One school of 60 students in the North Auckland district contributed £70, and many schools raised at least 5 shillings per student at a time when 5 shillings bought a pair of child’s sandals or canvas shoes.[vi]

Tamariki participated in this appeal with creativity and enthusiasm. At one school in the Urewera district, the name of which was unfortunately not recorded, the students held small weekly concerts, charging a penny for entrance, with one group of boys and one group of girls taking turns to develop and perform the show. Fundraising may have been for a serious purpose but that did not mean it was not also an opportunity for entertainment and levity. Additionally, the school held stalls selling crafts and other home-made items and gathered waste products to sell for recycling (such as metal and paper). Collection tins were also placed in classrooms in case there were any spare pennies that children had not already spent on concerts or crafts and still wished to contribute. A letter to the Minister of Education accompanying the donation from this Urewera school to the Canteen fund spoke of the children’s ‘wish to help and show the men we have not forgotten them’ and their hope that ‘each school will receive a small photo of the canteen.’[vii] The fundraising for the mobile canteen was not an abstract appeal for these tamariki and their whānau. Children saw their fundraising effort as a way to support the men from their communities whose absence was palpable to them.

At a national level the government had centralised community fundraising with the creation of the National Patriotic Fund Board which aimed to ensure there was only one body appealing for patriotic funds rather than the hundreds of different and competing appeals that had operated during World War I. Yet, the actual fundraising in the communities remained intimate and personal. This is highlighted by the actions of the students at Pukepoto school who ‘adopted’ all ex-pupils of the school who were serving overseas, fundraising and personally knitting items to be sent in Christmas parcels to the 16 men on the front line and six in prisoner of war camps.[viii]

The fundraising for the Mobile Canteen was an intensive effort within a much wider and longer endeavour by children to support whānau on active service.  Pukepoto students raised money for the Canteen fund through concerts, bottle-drives and selling goods made at the school. They also contributed to the Red Cross, raised money for parcels for soldiers and to purchase wool for their incredible knitting campaign. Between October and December 1939 all students at the school were taught to knit by creating peggy-square quilts to be included in evacuee parcels. As part of their ongoing war-support efforts, by December 1941 the children had knitted an impressive 950 items to be sent to troops overseas: 352 balaclavas, 291 scarves, 297 pairs of mittens, 5 jerseys and 5 pairs of socks.[ix] Some teachers, such as those at Pukepoto, sought to incorporate these fundraising efforts into their curriculum. Students at the school elected their own executive committee to oversee fundraising activities and learnt about keeping records of accounts which were then overseen by the district school inspectors.[x]

Tamariki and rangatahi were supported by their communities in their fundraising and war effort work. In Pukepoto the women and senior girls joined together for weekly aid and home nursing classes held at the school and came together once a month for a sewing bee, renovating clothes and undertaking sewing and mending for Kaitaia Hospital. The efforts made by the young people of the town was in turn recognised by the women of the district who held fortnightly card parties in order to raise money to supply the school with a radio as a reward for all the fundraising and sacrificing the children had done. [xi] 

Patriotic fundraising was often combined with existing community events. Calf-clubs, where students learnt about and raised their own calves, were popular in rural communities and actively promoted within Native schools by the government in their attempts to direct Māori students into agricultural careers.[xii] Several Native Schools donated proceeds from their annual calf-club field days. Nūkaha school in the Hawkes Bay, raised £20 towards the Canteen Fund from their annual calf-club day in December 1940. The children paraded the stock for inspection and the Nūhaka Co-operative Dairy Company presented a silver cup to the winning child before everyone present enjoyed the prepared hangi.[xiii]

The funds raised by all the Native Schools were turned over to the Patriotic Fund Board in May 1941 for them to purchase, fit out and stock the canteen. The Native Schools’ canteen was one of five canteens purchased for the Army by the Patriotic Fund through community fundraising. Two were donated by the staff of Woolworths New Zealand, one by the New Zealand Federation of Shop Assistants and the fifth by a Masonic Lodge. On 20 August 1941 a ceremony was held at Parliament House, presided over by the Governor General Sir Cyril Newall, to present the canteens to the Army. Members of Parliament, including Apirana Ngata, and the general public heard speeches and inspected the canteens.[xiv]

Each canteen weighed three and a half tonnes and was painted in two tones of green to provide camouflage. The canteens were equipped with reserve petrol tanks and water tanks with pumps that allowed for running water at an internal sink. One side of the vehicle could be opened up to create a canopy and counter to enable the canteen to serve the soldiers their refreshments. Each canteen displayed the names of the donors.[xv] The canteen destined for the Māori Battalion was inscribed in both English and te reo:

Presented to the Maori Battalion as a token of love from the children of the Native Schools of New Zealand

He Tohu Aroha na nga Tamariki o nga Kura Maori o Niu Tireni ki te Ope Whawhai o te Iwi Maori e tau mai ra i te Pae o te Pakanga i te Mura o te Ahi.

The Māori Battalion canteen was referred to as ‘Tohu Aroha’ in newspaper reports – the ‘Token of Love’ from Māori children to their male relatives fighting overseas. The importance of this gift coming from the children was acknowledged in the Governor General’s speech:  ‘There is nothing,’ he said, ‘like a children’s gift for touching the heart.’ Sir Newall also described the importance of canteens as a means of support and welfare for troops during combat. The gifts of canteens, he said, ‘catered for the inner comforts of man, and sometimes in war that was the most difficult place to comfort.’[xvi]

The men of the Battalion felt this awhi deeply when the canteen appeared on the battlefield in Northern Africa in November 1941. On its arrival to the Battalion’s front line in Libya, Padre Harawira wrote to Sir Apirana Ngata:

E Api, heke ana te roimata i te mea e korero ana i nga tuhituhi.  Ae ra, e te whanau ma tae mai ana ta koutou taonga ki te mura ra no o te ahi.

Oh Api, tears fell when we read the writing on it. Oh yes, families at home, know this, your gift has reached the very heat of battle.[xvii]

For many soldiers the fact that school children had organised and sacrificed on their behalf imbued the vehicle with special meaning. It was a physical manifestation in the battlefield of the love and support of their whānau and communities at home.

In a Radio New Zealand documentary produced for ANZAC Day in 1980, veterans of the Māori Battalion described the connection between the children’s fundraising and what the canteen meant to them. What made the canteen special to one veteran was that it had been fundraised ‘solely by school children, a penny here, a penny there, a penny there.’ This meant that in times of strife it acted as a ‘morale booster’ and a direct connection to home. ‘[When] you saw it,’ he recalled ‘you saw tau iwi, your people, everything.’[xviii] As another veteran succinctly put it: ‘It’s a thing that has been donated to us by the organisation of the children. Through that, it has its mana.’[xix]

The mobile canteen was a tangible connection between the soldiers with home, and a reminder that the members of their community, down to the little children, were doing their part and sacrificing where they could to support their men while at war.[xx]

Wartime fundraising was an all of community effort. The example of the appeal for the Māori Battalion’s mobile canteen demonstrates the ways in which tamariki actively participated in the home-front war effort. Children and communities turned existing events into fundraising opportunities as well as coming up with novel ways to earn money for the appeal. School time was given over to fundraising efforts and parents and teachers used the opportunity to introduce new skills to children such as knitting and financial management. The incredible fundraising effort to purchase and provision a canteen in 6 months remained a point of pride for school children long after the war.


Image: Māori Battalion Canteen truck, Te Rau Aroha. Ref: 1987.1510, New Zealand Army Museum. 


[i] AJHR, 1941, E3, 6

[ii] Monty Soutar, Nga Tama Toa The Price of Citizenship (Auckland: David Bateman, 2008), 66.

[iii] ‘Mobile Canteens,’ Nelson Evening Mail, May 22, 1941, 2.

[iv] AJHR, 1941, E3, 6; ‘For Maori Troops,’ Evening Post, 22 May 1941, 11

[v] ‘Funds for Canteen,’ Gisborne Herald, 22 May 1941, 9.

[vi] ‘Annual Winer Sale – Advert, Stewart Robinson,’ The Press, 30 July 1940, 11.

[vii] ‘Mobile Canteens,’ Nelson Evening Mail, 22 May 1941, 2.

[viii] ‘Pukepoto Native School “Adopts” Soldier Ex-Pupils,’ Northern Advocate, 8 December 1941, 7.

[ix] ‘Pukepoto Native School “Adopts” Soldier Ex-Pupils’.

[x]  ‘Pukepoto Native School “Adopts” Soldier Ex-Pupils’.

[xi] ‘Pukepoto Native School “Adopts” Soldier Ex-Pupils’.

[xii] AJHR, E-3, 1940, 2.

[xiii] ‘School Calf Clubs,’ Gisborne Herald, 4 December 1940, 3.

[xiv] ‘Mobile Canteens,’ Evening Post, 20 August 1941, 6.

[xv] ‘Mobile Canteens,’ Evening Post, 20 August 1941, 6.

[xvi] ‘Mobile Canteens,’ Evening Post, 20 August 1941, 6.

[xvii] Letter, Kahi T. Harawira to Ngata, 30 December 1941, MS Papers-6919-0782, quoted in ‘Te Rau Aroha,’ 28th Māori Battalion,, excerpt from draft of Monty Souter’s Nga Tama Toa, 2008, 194, accessed 28 September, 2021. 

[xviii] Te Roopu Rua Tekau-ma-waru a Tu: 28 Māori Battalion, documentary, broadcast 25 April 1980, Radio NZ, produced by Stephen Riley and Whai Ngata. Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision,, accessed 28 September, 2021.

[xix] Te Roopu Rua Tekau-ma-waru a Tu: 28 Māori Battalion, Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision,

[xx] For an account of Te Rau Aroha in warfare, see National Army Museum, ‘Te Rau Aroha’,, accessed 22 October, 2021.

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