The roaring twenties

While for many the roaring twenties evoke thoughts about the USA, Great Gatsby and feather headbands, there is actually a lot to be said about the 1920s in New Zealand.

Radio, cinema, gramophones, motor cars, electricity, fuel, the broadening of educational and professional sectors and cities were all expanding as ‘modern’ New Zealand came of age.

Farm production was helped with the electrification of milking sheds and the use of tractors. With modest growth, the export of meat, dairy products and wool to Britain provided a high standard of living for New Zealanders.

Rail had its golden age during this decade, with annual passenger journeys topping 28 million a year, and tourism becoming more popular due to the railroads. Beach culture was helped by the railways, with cheap holiday train fares and cars encouraging people to take holidays to the beach and the lakes.

A 20s timeline

Some notable events happened during the 1920s in New Zealand.

The school dental nurse service was established in 1920, and 1921 saw ANZACday become a public holiday.

The first radio stations were on the air in 1922.

Forest and Bird was established in 1923, then called the Native Bird Protection Society.

1924 saw the first trans-global radio transmission sent from New Zealand to London.

In 1925 the Women’s Division of the New Zealand Farmers’ Union was formed.

Anna Pavlova, the Russian ballerina visited NZ in 1926. She is most famously remembered for being the inspiration for the Pavlova dessert we all know and love.

Daylight saving time was brought into place in 1927.

In 1928 postal voting was first introduced for a general election, with 7977 votes cast this way.

In the last year of the decade, 1929, the Auckland War Memorial Museum and cenotaph were opened.

The year’s events show us the progress made in the 1920s, much of which remains with us in 2021.

The early 20s in Ashburton

In the 1920s Ashburton had a population of about 11,216, compared to Ashburton’s population today of around 34,100 (as of 2018), which shows how much we have grown as a town in the last 100 years.

One notable event that happened in 1920 was the Royal visit from the Prince of Wales, Edward VIII. In the Ashburton Museum collection there is a hockey tournament trophy won on the day of the Princes’ visit to Ashburton, and a Royal Doulton plate with gold and blue edging that was created for the Prince’s visit.

From 1920-1921, B McCleary from Ashburton was the amateur heavyweight boxing champion of New Zealand. He went on to become professional after being unbeaten in 32 amateur contests, winning the New Zealand Heavyweight and newly created Light Heavyweight professional titles. He even became an All Black in 1924 and 1925. McCleary was dethroned as champion in 1922 by A.McCormick, who defended the title in 1923. 

Ashburton also played a part in the first regular airmail services, which went from Christchurch to Ashburton and Timaru. Unfortunately the venture of George Bolt, a pioneer aviator, was not profitable and was soon discontinued.

The new Borough School building was opened in 1920, and the Ng King Bros market garden was also established in the 1920s.

Sly-grog shops were extremely common in the 1920s, due to prohibition and the town running dry from 1903.

As the decade went on, the town’s farming was helped with an economic boom and improvements to farm production, leading many to have a more prosperous life.

Families benefitted from this, and this is most evident in the clothing worn of the 20s, being of high standard.

Shops in town would have benefitted too, as noted by the long running success of the Staveley Store.

Who knows what the 2020s will bring for Ashburton?

By Rosie Twamley

This post has been modified for this blog and was originally published in the Ashburton Guardian, 4th of February 2020.


  1. Edward Prince of Wales meeting returned soldiers, Ashburton, New Zealand.
  2. The Staveley store in the 1920s, with Ted and Hilda standing out the front.
  3. 1920s staff at the Buchanan’s flour mill.
  4. A young woman in fashionable dress of the 1920s.

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