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Māori Workers’ Dwellings at Pukehoke

Pukekohe dwellings 1948a
Maori Home Front Blog Avatar
Lachy Paterson
26 March, 2021

Housing, or rather a lack of it, has been a festering sore in New Zealand for some years, with the current government seemingly unable to fix the problem. Today’s situation has some parallels with the accommodation issue for Māori workers on the Pukekohe market gardens before, during, and after the Second World War, with everyone acknowledging a problem, with lots of talk, but very little action.

As market gardens closer to Auckland were bought up for residential housing, and as road and railway infrastructure developed, Pukekohe, about 50km from the city, became a primary area for growing vegetables.[1]  This was hard work; mainly Pākehā owned the land, leasing it out, often on short term contracts to Indians, with Māori working in the fields.[2]  The northern slopes of Pukekohe Hill were ideal for vegetable production, and growers could normally achieve three growing seasons, supplying food to Auckland all year round. 

Although some Māori were seasonal workers, many settled there permanently, often working in family groups in a number of different gardens, on “piecework” contracts.  The dwellings provided were particularly poor; and while perhaps tolerable in the busy summer season, were totally unsuitable as permament housing.  Similar situations also existed in other areas near Auckland, such as Māngere, Panmure and Tāmaki.[3]

Apart from the living conditions, there was little consensus on how many workers there were (the Mayor guessed 500 in 1944), how many were transitory or permanent labour, or where they came from.  The Franklin District in which Pukekohe sat had been alienated from Māori ownership many years early, and none of the workers were considered to be “local”.  One Native Department officer suggested that most were seasonal, and came from Thames, Rotorua, Bay of Plenty, North Auckland, Waikato and King Country. Mr Waka Clark, at a meeting with the Native Minister in 1944, suggested that only a quarter were “migratory tribe type . . . but most of the northern people go back home for the kumera season.”[4]  Others thought that they were mainly from Northland, but certainly “there is no kainga or pa . . . where tribal control could be exerted!”[5] Neither were commentators free from making judgements.  Visiting medical students undertaking fieldwork in 1948 described them as “outcasts” and “homeless, landless, illiterate people; the poorer types from many different tribes.”. . . “their only positive features being their ability to work under hard and adverse conditions”.[6]  

A government enquiry in 1929, looking at suspected immorality between Māori women and Chinese and Indian growers, also identified poor living conditions.

The committee declares that at Pukekohe the accommodation provided for the Maoris is disgraceful. Overcrowding is prevalent and sanitary accommodation is most primitive. The general health of the Maoris was good, but living conditions must have a degrading effect.[7]

The committee recommended “strict control of the living conditions in market gardens”, presumably by the Native Department.  Neither were the dwellings conducive to good health. In 1934 the Pukekohe coroner, C.K. Lawrie, reporting on recent child deaths, recommended “a hostel similar to that in Tuakau, where these unfortunate people can go”.[8]  This met with some resistance from the Pukekohe townsfolk, mostly Pākehā, and the Akarana Maori Association, which thought it might encourage more Māori migration to the area, and set a precedent for other districts.[9]  In the end a Māori rest room was built, which at least gave the families a meeting place and public conveniences when in the town.

A number of commentators (such as officers from the Health, Housing, and Native Departments, local body representatives, medical students, and others) surveyed or reported on conditions through the years.  One example will suffice, when Mrs. A.G. Clark discussed with the Prime Minister in 1938 the Pukekohe Maori Women’s Association’s own inspections of Māori housing.

She quoted the case of thirteen Maoris living in a shack of about 12 x 8 ft., the walls of which were of corrugated iron lined with sacks, and far from weatherproof, with one small window.  The fireplace in this dwelling could not be used as it had not been built for a home in the first place.  The cooking was done on two primus stoves and the water had to be carried  about 200 yards.  There were no facilities for washing or drying clothes.  In this particular home there was a child of 18 months with pneumonia after measles who had died since she had made an inspection of the houses a fortnight ago.  This was probably one of the worse cases but it was typical of the general discomfort on the Maoris as a whole.[10]

Much of Pukekohe’s prosperity was based on Māori labour in market gardens.  At a Pukekohe Chamber of Commerce meeting in 1929:

Mr M.G. Duffy stated that if the Maoris were shifted back to their pas, it would be detrimental to the growers and the business people. He added that he paid between £600 and £700 a year to Maoris and most of this money was spent in Pukekohe, while other growers paid away more than he did. If the Maoris were removed it would be difficult to obtain labour and consequently the growers would have to reduce the productive areas, which would mean there would be less produce, and less money for circulation in the town. No one wanted this to occur.[11]

But few growers were prepared to provide adequate housing for their workers.  However, after winning the 1935 election the first Labour government was prepared to look at the state of Māori housing, partly due to health concerns, but also as a means of assimilating Māori to more European modes of living.[12]  But unlike other places, where Māori were expected to make available a building site from their own land, and the government would supply a loan to build it under the Native Housing Act 1935,[13] this was impossible for Māori at Pukekohe who owned no land.

In late 1937, the government decided to act, after investigations showed that the Māori accommodation did not meet the requirements of the Agricultural Workers Act 1936, under which farmers were expected to provide reasonable housing for their workers.  Representatives from the Departments of Health, Labour, Public Works, and Native Affairs, inspected some of the homes, and met with the Pukekohe Mayor.  It noted that of the 102 growers, only 47 provided any shelters, of which three were good.  The committee then recommended a settlement of 25 huts (and 20 tents for seasonal workers), with separate latrines and wash-room.  Each hut, 25’ x 10’ (7.6m x 3m), with a fireplace for cooking, “would make provision for a family of 5”.  A caretaker “with Police authority” would oversee the behaviour and health of the settlement.[14]  The workers themselves were not consulted.[15]

Matters came to a head soon after.  In the winter of 1938, George Parvin, a member of the Pukekohe Borough Council, Franklin representative of the Auckland Hospital Board, and a local farmer, wired the Prime Minister that 16 Māori children had died in the last six months. Blaming the living conditions, he demanded immediate action.  He too suggested a Māori settlement out of town.[16]  The Acting Native Minister, Frank Langstone,[17] declared the idea of a model Māori village was “not in keeping with the Government’s Native policy”, and stated that their aim was to send the Māori at Pukekohe back to their own tribal rohe.[18]  This rather unrealistic proposal went against the needs of both the growers for Māori labour, and the workers’ own need of income.

The government also saw the housing problem as a “district” issue, rather than “native” one.  The growers should be held to the Agricultural Workers Act, and after 1939 could borrow money at a cheap rate through the Rural Housing Act.[19]  But the government realised that it would have to do something.  The Minister asked the department to investigate the minimum labour requirements in the gardens, to build huts or houses for the smaller families, and send any larger ones home.[20]  This plan was not actioned.  In 1940 the Native Department instead decided that building a limited number of three-bedroom rental cottages would be the way forward, with the aim to scatter them across a number of sites, “in order to avoid segregation”. The idea was not to house all those needed it, but to allievate the problem somewhat.[21]   After gaining £20,000 it started to seek out potential tenants, and suitable properties in and around the town, up to acre in size, as “we don’t want Pa conditions”.[22]   

As the Secretary to the Minister, M.R. Jones wrote to Rev. P. Moke, Māori were prone to drinking and gambling on cards, and “the Minister doesn’t want those house to sit all together in case they’re too close for these types of activity.”[23]  Most Māori wanted a separate village, out of town where they could live more as Māori and where specific amenities, such as a separate school and health clinic, would be available.  However, the government wanted Māori to live amongst the Pākehā, for children to go to the town school, and to pay a significant rent in line with their assimilation aims.  “The payment of rent involves responsibility, and responsibility is what the Maoris of Pukekohe must be taught if evils they are at present charges with can be overcome.”[24] 

The ratepayers of Pukekohe, and their Council, also wanted a Māori settlement so long as it was outside of the borough limits.[25]  There was clearly prejudice against the Māori workers, especially about Māori families congregating in town on the weekends.   When the Native Department bought sites considered too close to town, ratepayers petitioned the Council, arguing that their property values would decrease, and Pukekohe’s growth would be stymied, by “putting Maoris at the whitemans [sic] front door”.[26]  Despite Langstone writing that “a little sympathetic interest instead of intolerance would be more in keeping”, and that Māori were deserving of better living conditions “as the original inhabitants of these islands,”[27]  the government nevertheless sold off some of the town sites, and after a number of delays, built eleven houses in 1942.

The only other improvements came in the form of ex-army Public Works huts.  When Japan entered the war and U.S. troops came to New Zealand, the demand for vegetables increased, and the Pukekohe Production Council, representing 110 growers, expanded the area under cultivation by 935 acres, to produce 8,000 additional tons of produce for the military.  However they needed 150 additional workers to cope with the extra work.  This had been exacerbated by skilled Māori garden labourers leaving for work in essential industries, effectively taking themselves and their families out of the fields.  Unfortunately for the growers, market garden work had not been declared essential work, so workers could not be compelled to stay.  In an effort to keep their Māori workers and to attract new ones, the government indicated it would provide 50 to 60 huts  to accommodate them.[28]

This, however, merely lessened the problem rather than solved it.  The Native Department still believed that the growers were obligated to provide accommodation under the Agricultural Workers Act, and pressed the Labour Department to enforce it.[29]  The Labour Department responded that workers sometimes lived on one garden, but worked on another, and that the father of a family, because he negotiated a piecework rate with the grower, was technically a contractor and therefore the employer.  If added that the growers were often on short-term leases, and would be forced out of the industry if they also had to build houses.[30]  The departmental response was to appoint Capt. Rangi Royal to undertake another survey of Māori housing in 1945.[31]  His report showed a need for 84 houses for 500 people.[32]

When the medical students undertook their survey in 1948, they found 779 people housed on the gardens, 410 of whom where children under 15 years old.  These 132 Māori families, who made up 80% of the workforce, were living in 126 buildings, 39 of which suffered from “gross overcrowding”.  They determined that only 13 (including the 11 cottages built in 1942) were “good”; 66, including the ex-Public-Works huts were “fair”, although half were overcrowded; 12 dwellings were “poor”, and the remaining 35 were “hovels quite unfit for human occupation”. [33]   Donald Hunt wrote his MA thesis, “Market Gardening in Metropolitan Auckland” in the mid-1950s.   He noted that many of the Māori workers lived in ex-PW huts, but some still lived in “corrugated iron sheds, with earth floors and primitive sanitary, washing and cooking facilities”.[34] However, due to Māori pressure, and no doubt from the Pākehā townsfolk as well, a separate Māori school was established near the gardens in 1952.[35]

Clearly, despite the first Labour government’s construction of state houses after 1935, and its efforts to improve Māori dwellings on their own lands, the problem of poor housing for Māori workers at Pukekohe persisted throughout its time in government.  The Native Department recognised that the poor living conditions had direct consequences for Māori health.  Decent housing also aligned with its aim to assimilate Māori into a more European lifestyle.  It was also unwilling to allow a separate Māori settlement that went against government policy, although this was the general desire of both the Māori and Pākehā communities, although for different reasons. The government’s inaction can be largely put down to its unwillingness to spend money, believing that Māori housing was the growers’ responsibility rather than its own.  In the meantime, it was the Māori workers and their families that suffered before, during and after the war years.


Image: Māori Dwellings in 1948.  From S.L. Horwell & A.J. Seeley, “The Pukekohe Maoris”, Preventive Medicine Dissertation (Otago, 1948). Hocken Collections.


[1] Donald T. Hunt, “Market Gardening in Metropolitan Auckland”, New Zealand Geographer, 15, 2 (1959): 132, 152.

[2] Hunt (1959), p.145; Notes of Interview between the Prime Minister (Rt. Hon. M.J. Savage) and Mrs. R.C. Clark, Wesley College, Paerata. Accommodation for Agricultural Workers in Pukekohe District 1937-1941 MAW2459 Box 174, 19/1/324 (1), Archives New Zealand, Wellington,[AAWPD, 1937-1941]; Clipping, New Zealand Herald, 11/7/1944. Accommodation for Agricultural Workers in Pukekohe District 1940-1946 MAW2459 Box 175, 19/1/324 (2), Archives New Zealand, Wellington, [AAWPD, 1940-1946].

[3] Secretary, Te Akarana Maori Association to Editor of the Star, 27/7/1938. AAWPD, 1937-1941.

[4] Minutes, Native Minister meeting with Pukekohe representatives, 16/11/1944. AAWPD, 1940-1946.

[5] T.H. Te Anga to Registrar, Native Land Court Auckland. 17/2/1938; Registrar, Native Land Court Auckland to Under-Secretary, Native Department, 1/7/1938;  AAWPD, 1937-1941; Minutes, Native Minister meeting with Pukekohe representatives, 16/11/1944. AAWPD, 1940-1946.

[6] S.L. Horwell and A.J. Seeley, “The Pukekohe Maoris”, Preventive Medicine Dissertation (Otago, 1948), pp.1, 22. Hocken Collections.

[7] Auckland Star, 8/11/1929: 7.

[8] Franklin Times, 24/8/1934: 5.

[9] Auckland Star, 15/11/1934: 14; Franklin Times, 29/3/1935: 4.  See also, Te Akarana Maori Association to Prime Minsiter, 1/7/1938. AAWPD, 1937-1941.

[10] “Notes of Interview between the Prime Minister (Rt. Hon. M.J. Savage) and Mrs. R.C. Clark, Wesley College, Paerata.” AAWPD, 1937-1941.

[11] Franklin Times, 23/8/1929: 5.

[12] Angela Wanhalla, “Native Housing Surveys and Maori Health in New Zealand 1930-45”, Health and History, 8, 1 (2006): 101, 103.

[13] Wanhalla (2006): 102-3.

[14] “Report of the Committee set up to discuss the question of accommodation of Maori workers in the Pukekohe District ermpoyed on Market Gardens”. AAWPD, 1937-1941

[15] T.H. Te Anga to Registrar, Native Land Court Auckland. 17/2/1938, AAWPD, 1937-1941.

[16] George Parvin to Prime Minister, 28/6/1938.  AAWPD, 1937-1941.

[17] The Prime Minister, M.J. Savage, was also the Native Minister from 1935 to his death in 1940.  During this time, Langstone was often acting on Savage’s behalf, then took on full responsibility from 1940 to 1943, after which Rex Mason assumed the role.

[18] Acting Native Minister to A.G.A. Sexton M.P. 19/7/1941. AAWPD, 1937-1941.

[19] Secretary for Treasury to Minister of Finance,  22/7/1940; Clipping, NZ Herald, 31/8/1940; Interview between the Native Minister (Hon. Frank Langstone) and Representatives of the Growers, Franklin District Council, and Pukekohe Town Board, at Pukekohe – 30th August, 1940. AAWPD, 1937-1941. 

[20] Native Minister to Under Secretary, Native Department, 2/8/1938. AAWPD, 1937-1941. 

[21] Native Minister to Under Secretary, Native Department, 24/7/1940. AAWPD, 1937-1941. 

[22] Under Secretary, Native Department to Registrar, Native Land Court Auckland, 26/8/1940. AAWPD, 1937-1941. 

[23] Secretary to Native Minister to Rev. Percy Moke, 25/10/1940. AAWPD, 1937-1941.  “Kaore te Minita i te pai kia noho huihui aua whare kei tata rawa mo enei ahuatanga.”

[24] “Pukekohe Maoris”. n.d. AAWPD, 1940-1946.

[25] For example, Town Clerk, Pukekohe Borough Council to Native Minister, 18/9/1941. AAWPD, 1940-1946.

[26] Petition to Mayor, Pukekohe Borough Council, 28/11/1940. AAWPD, 1937-1941.  The petition also claimed that Māori would bring disease, make too much noise, and make the streets unsafe.

[27] Letter, Native Minister to P. Maloney, 2/12/1940. AAWPD, 1940-1946.

[28] New Zealand Herald, 20/8/1942: 2; 9/9/1942: 4.

[29] Native Minister to Minister of Labour, 4/8/1944; Under Secretary, Native Department to Native Minister, 4/8/1944. AAWPD, 1940-1946.

[30] Minister of Labour to Native Minister, 17/8/1944. AAWPD, 1940-1946.

[31] “At Pukekohe on 16th November, 1944, the Hon. H.G.R. Mason, Native Minister and Minister of Education, met the Tribal Committee”. 17/8/1944. AAWPD, 1940-1946.

[32] Native Minister to Minister of Housing, 25/5/1945.  Housing Maoris, 1944-1946. AEFZ W5727 22618 Box 547.  Record Number: 1062/0011. Archives New Zealand, Wellington.

[33] Horwell and Seeley (1948), pp.1-3.

[34] Hunt (1959), p.142.

[35] “Pukekohe Maori School, 1956” Auckland Council Libraries, (accessed 20 March, 2021); Frances Winiata and Piripi Winiata. “Winiata, Maharaia”, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 March 2021)


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