Go to the site map page Go to the search page Go to the contact us page To to the Government Portal www.govt.nz Go to the top of the Page

Great Depression 

The 1930s Depression caused mass unemployment in New Zealand and changed the socio-political landscape. Job and wage cuts left people desperate, and families and charities struggled to cope. In 1932, the unemployed rioted, demanding better government help. Explore these desperate times, which set the scene for the growth of the welfare state.

‘Surely never before has a new year dawned under such a universal cloud of fear, uncertainty, and want.’
H J Kelliher, businessman, 1935

The Great Depression was triggered in 1929, when the New York stock market crashed. The economic and social effects rippled rapidly around the Western world.

New Zealand was vulnerable because it depended on Britain buying its agricultural exports. As export earnings plummeted, farmers stopped spending – with drastic effects. Jobs and wages were slashed, and soon many families were desperate.

Mass unemployment & work relief schemes

Work relief schemes were the only government support in these tough economic times, even when reported unemployment hit 15 percent. This figure excluded women and Maori – real unemployment was believed to be around 30 percent.

Relief-scheme work had to be rationed because such large numbers of people applied. It was often demoralising, and some schemes were dubbed ‘slave camps’.

Wealth in poverty

Despite widespread hardship, a small portion of the population remained wealthy – and some even benefited from reduced prices. They still bought luxury goods and continued their high-society traditions.
Some of the better-off tried to help the poor. They collected money, food, and clothes, organised fundraising events, and offered odd jobs.

The limits of charity

Many New Zealanders were forced to rely on charity in the absence of adequate government support. But the limits of private support were severely tested by the numbers in need.

Accepting charity was too humiliating for some people, who looked for other inventive ways to get by. ‘Do-it-yourselfers’ made or recycled anything they could, created backyard vegetable patches, or hunted and fished.

Riots of the unemployed

In 1932, riots erupted in Dunedin, Auckland, and Wellington, reflecting the growing frustration of the unemployed. Police, armed sailors, and volunteer ‘special constables’ responded with force, injuring or arresting many rioters. The government reacted by introducing tougher ‘public safety’ laws, and sending unemployed men to remote labour camps.

These desperate times set the scene for change

More stories


Watch videos

The stories of the 20th century could be told through images alone.
Watch these valuable resources


Have a go at our interactive games


Can you survive in the early 20th century, identify famous New Zealanders, and guess which decade you're in? 

Play the games.


© Copyright Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington, New Zealand.