Country Living, Country Dying: Rural Suicides in New Zealand, 1900-1950

By Weaver, John C.; Munro, Doug | Journal of Social History, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Country Living, Country Dying: Rural Suicides in New Zealand, 1900-1950


Weaver, John C., Munro, Doug, Journal of Social History


In the major settlement colonies of the British Empire and successor states, notably the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, protean myths thrived about the independence of rural life and the contentment of small farmers relative to urban wage earners. A mix of anti-urbanism and rural nostalgia was a continuing theme in British literature. It readily migrated to New Zealand where a relatively mild climate nurtured a green landscape that sustained representations of Arcadia. Periods of extraordinary rural expansion and prosperity papered over acute and chronic rural troubles.

In several North Island regions, principally Taranaki, diversification from sheep grazing to dairy farming boosted local prosperity by the early 1900s. Generous land-granting schemes for farmers and immigrant promotional literature contributed to notions of rural life as a healthy national fixture. Governments subscribed to the myth. New Zealand not only assisted approximately nine thousand veterans to secure farms after World War I, but launched rural improvement schemes during the Great Depression. (1) "The advisability of diverting our surplus labour to the land," wrote Prime Minister G.W. Forbes in 1932, "is fully realized by the Government." (2) Depression era relief programmes subsidized farmers to hire unemployed men to improve existing tracts. (3) The first Labour government (1935-1949) resuscitated rural settlement after World War II. The Land Department maintained in 1946 that "the small farmer working on his own farm for the profit of himself and his family is in general a more contented and stable citizen." (4) This social justification of farming regularly surfaced in post-war plans to open remote locales.

Agricultural produce was New Zealand's largest earner of export income and this fact contributed to the widely held perception that farming was a necessity as well as a virtue. (5) In the late 1940s, the future Prime Minister Keith Holyoake, himself a farmer, proclaimed that "Farming is the very basis and lifeblood of our country. ... The farmer [is] always an individualist (a private enterpriser) with [a] self reliant independent spirit." (6) Crawford Somerset, author of Littledene, a sociological study of a rural community written during the late 1930s, depicted the community as extraordinarily cohesive and, by implication, typical of the rest of rural New Zealand. (7) By contrast, the fiction of the time presents economic and social realities inconsistent with the national myth. Frank Anthony's "Me and Gus" stories and his novel Follow the Call, set in the dairy farming area of central Taranaki in the years immediately after World War I, portray physical hardship, the burden of debt and inter-person disharmony, while John Mulgan's Man Alone graphically emphasises the harshness rural life in the 1920s and 1930s. (8) More dramatically, Jean Devanny's portrayal of sexual oppression in rural marriages resulted in The Butcher Shop (1926) being banned by the government censor.

As Devanny explained, "Probably the book was banned because of its brutality, but that cannot be helped, for it is a true story of New Zealand country life. I know it is true. I have lived in the country and seen for myself." (9) Some historians too are sceptical of the rural myth, finding little favour in the notion that rural life was more wholesome and socially integrating than its urban counterpart. (10)

Testing the competing paradigms of New Zealand rural life can be problematic. Conventional sources that could furnish insights--diaries, letters, and memoirs--are rare and subject to debate about typicality. (11) One remarkable set of routinely generated records can provide glimpses and enable comparisons with circumstances in towns and cities. New Zealand law required inquests into all suicides and suspected suicides. The resulting files hold witnesses' depositions that contain personal information and remarks on motives. …

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