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A short history of nudity in New Zealand before 1914.

A short history of nudity in Aotearoa/New Zealand before 1914.

In colonial times attitudes towards male nudity  were quite relaxed in NZ.  Males had considerable freedom to be naked in a public situation. Public opinion allowed males to swim without having to wear a swimming costume. In towns the social convention was to restrict this to beaches early morning or late evening, but this condition was often broken by young people. In country districts youths swimming in rivers simply swam naked without any restriction. The early swimming pools in towns provided segregated swimming and the practice was for men and youths to swim naked. It would appear that sessions for women were limited. There was considerable pressure from newspapers to restrict the right to be nude. The regular reports on the “nude bathing nuisance” invariably were accompanied by demands for the “authorities” to take action.  Early bylaws in Wellington allowed nude swimming in the sea in certain hours in a public situation. Certain beaches were known for their nudity and their nude beach culture. Nude swimming in public pools in Wellington was over in 1904 and around 1910 in Lyall Bay reflecting a general conservatism.  Maori forces in the New Zealand Wars fought naked. Originally the haka was naked and Maori children were commonly naked, with girls only up to puberty. Males were commonly naked in day-today life. Maori adopted the prevailing European view around 1900.  Naked swimming survived at the Rotorua baths into the late 1960s.

The subject of naked bathing on the beach came up in the early days of the New Plymouth settlement. Bathing in the natural state was permitted by custom during the early and late part of the day in a secluded location (“Taranaki Herald”, 7 January 1879). In the early 1890s the Borough Council banned naked swimming and furthermore ensured swimming on the town beach was segregated: males were allocated the early morning and evening and women in between. And away from residences and hotels. The allowance for women is interesting as most records in colonial newspapers are of males (“Taranaki Herald”, 17 January 1894).  At any rate boys under sixteen were exempt from wearing a costume.  Later on there were problems caused by housing spreading and naked men becoming visible. The test was whether offensive had been caused   (“Taranaki Herald”, 15 January 1895). In 1879 there was trouble caused by boys going down in the afternoon and riding up and down the beach naked (“Taranaki Herald”, 7 January 1879). In 1887 the Mayor said he had received numerous complaints about naked boys on the beach and he himself had noticed naked people on the beach (“Hawera and Normanby Star”, 15 February 1887). In 1895 the issue according to the “Taranaki Herald” was more of the scanty swimming togs male bathers were wearing in the vicinity of the Railway Station, though it had been reported that bathing without costume was being investigated by Sergeant Duffin of the Police, though the Police were under instruction only to prosecute boys over 16 years. No reports of any prosecutions can be found, leading to the conclusion there were none. Council had in fact banned all swimming in the vicinity of the railway station in the early 1890s. But rescinded the bylaw in 1893 requiring full costume to be worn. (“Taranki Herald”,  14 February 1893.)

In 1865 according to the “Daily Southern Cross” (26 January 1865)  naked bathing was  common in certain parts of the Waitemata and in secluded locations of Auckland.  Periodically there were complaints from householders and the press (“Daily Southern Cross”, 26 January 1865). In 1872 the same newspaper objected to men bathing at Parnell in front of private houses (28 December 1872). There was an earlier complaint printed in the “New Zealand Gazette and Wellington Spectator” copied from “Auckland Chronicle” late 1843 about  Maori women living in commercial premises in the vicinity of Shortland Crescent. It being claimed that “at times they come out of the side door almost naked” (13 September 1843).

In the middle-late  19th C several public swimming pools were built in Wellington.    Te Aro Swimming Baths were opened in 1862 and for many years were run by Henry  Meech. On his death in 1885 his wife Matilda took over the business. Her tenancy was terminated in 1898 to allow for the building of the Te Aro Municipal Saltwater Pool, which opened in 1900. Noted features of this were completely separate men’s and women’s sections separated by a high fence. The Freyberg freshwater pool, opened in 1963 is on the site of the old women’s section (“Evening Post”, 4 October 1962).

In 1875 a privately owned pool was opened at Pipitea Point, Thorndon.  Around 1897 this was re-built further west at Thorndon, on a site now part of the railway yards, as a municipal pool. A new freshwater pool was opened above the yards in 1924.

With Meech’s Baths and the Thorndon salt-water pools, swimming was segregated. Men and boys.  Women  and girls.  Swimming garments were required for the second group.

The Petone Pool  was a mixture of salt and fresh water, and in a further difference was on the land.

At Te Aro, a private operation, and  as with Thorndon, the pool was formed by enclosing part of the sea. Te Aro was in 1895 about 55m long and about 25m wide. The depth varied from less than a metre to about 4 metres at the deep end. The baths were described as being securely protected from the visits of sea monsters. In terms of hours the baths were open daily in the season : for ladies 9am to 2pm. And gentlemen  outside these hours.   (“Cyclopedia of New Zealand”, 1895).

Jackson’s Baths, the Petone Swimming Baths, was owned by Edwin Jackson, was seasonal, and provided for the same segregated swimming but with longer hours for the ladies. (“Hutt and Petone Chronicle”, 26 October 1892)

Swimming at Te Aro was evidently popular and the subject of regular comment. One case was in November 1882 was when naked men and boys could be seen on a summer’s day by passersby on Oriental Parade. They had climbed on to the walls enclosing the pool (“Evening Post”, 14 November 1882).  In 1897 a letter was printed in the local paper objecting to “men and youths” being “seen in a state of nature from the roads “ and “from the houses overlooking the [Te Aro] bath” (“Evening Post”, 27 January 1897). When the later Thorndon pool was opened in 1897 the practice of naked male swimming continued, (“Evening Post”, 29 January 1897). But the enclosed area was open to the view from those living above. Another imperative to dropping nude swimming was the growing  popularity of mixed swimming.  The change appears to have occurred in 1904 when it was expressly stated that swimmers were not to appear outside the dressing rooms at both locations without bathing costumes. This is contained in a Letter to the “Post” printed on 2 December 1904. The writer blamed the “great body of officials whose business it is to formulate laws and regulations to justify their own existence” for the change. He was one of “many” who had swum wearing trunks, but sunbathed without any covering afterwards.

A correspondent to the “North Otago Times” (15 November 1894) claimed to have come across that day “good sized lads running around the land side of the[Oamaru sea] baths in a state of absolute nudity” and questioned why no action was being taken  on the “naked bathing nuisance”. The Oamaru baths were opened in 1877.

In Petone the Town Clerk wrote to the Constable on 27 January 1908 drawing his attention to “persons bathing in the sea… without wearing sufficient apparel” . An incident of a man walking naked in Jackson Street, Petone, one evening, was mentioned in the “Free Lance” of 11 March 1905. To passersby he explained that he had been “spearing flounder in the harbour.”

Evidently in Wellington naked swimming in public areas occurred as well. This occasionally brought comment from the “Evening Post”. In April 1877 the “Post” reported  that some youths were swimming naked in the Harbour at the rear of Mr Barber’s premises, Willis Street and mentioned this was a regular occurrence (5 April 1877). In 1892 it was reported that a number of members of the Wellington Rowing Club were naked in the sea near the Te Aro reclamation one Sunday. It was claimed they not being contend with swimming in the water near their Star Boat shed had climbed on to the wharf at the north end of the shed and dived into water without wearing costumes. Oddly the claim of nudity  was denied by the informant in a note appended to the report in the “Post”.   (“Evening Post”,  12 January 1892). Another account of naked youths and boys swimming in the vicinity of the Rowing Club appeared in the “Post” of 17 March 1892. The practice of young men bathing in a naked state from Waterloo Quay before 7 o’clock in the morning was brought before the City Council on 29 November 1897. The men were within their rights under the existing by-law, but it was decided that in framing the new bylaws bathers should be required to wear decent clothing at all times (“Post”, 30 November 1897). Some years later, in 1910, a young man threw of his clothes at Oriental Bay and swam over to King’s Wharf. He was arrested for his trouble (“Evening Post”, 24 January 1910).

In 1885 a letter to the “Post” alluded to the practice of  nudity elsewhere in Wellington, claiming that there was nudity in the Basin Reserve from time-to-time involving athletes training naked  (“Post”, 1 December 1885).

In 1886 there was quite a commotion when it was found that a mother in North Street, off Tory Street, was allowing her children to roam naked, despite being given clothes for them. “They appear in them for a few days, and then return to their former state, i.e. nakedness” (“Evening Post”,9-10 March 1886)

Yesterday afternoon, according to the “West Coast Times” of 27 October 1874 a number of naked boys and youths were disporting themselves in the calm sea [at Hokitika]… this was between three and five o’ clock. According to the newspaper there were no restrictions with reference to bathing on the beach.

A Press Association report  in 1883 described how two boys had swam out naked from the Ocean Beach, Dunedin, to collect the eggs of sea birds from an offshore rock, had become trapped by the incoming tide, were stranded naked for 6 hours until they were rescued by a party of 60 and were no worse for their experience (“Evening Post”, 16 November 1883).

In Colonial Wanganui nude bathing occurred in the river in the centre of town.  The local newspaper reported on this in 1878 (“Wanganui Herald”, 28 December 1878).  In 1882 a  resident took the law into their hands angered by boys swimming in the river near to where they lived. There was a hearing in the Wanganui Court  concerning the removal of clothing of a boy named Ryan swimming by a Mr J. Abbott. Ryan’s father sought 5 pounds damages and claimed that his son had been stranded for several hours naked “on the sand”. The Magistrate ruled that whereas Mr Abbott had been subjected to great annoyance owing to nude boys disporting themselves on the river bank,  Mr Abbott was not entitled to remove clothing and fined him 1 pound and costs. (“Evening Post”, 12 May 1882) On 30 January 1886 the “Wanganui Herald” said that the problem was not the nude bathing as such but when, and displayed a pious concern for women and children who had to be protected from this kind of activity. In 1909 it was again reported that “young men and youths are seen displaying themselves in the nude from the banks of the river, even quite close to the town.” The journalist further mentioned that a man was sentenced “this morning” at the Police Court to 14 day’s imprisonment  “for indecently exposing himself on the River Bank near the bridge…yesterday afternoon” (“Wanganui Herald”, 12 January 1909). Police were unable to gain a conviction for a previous incident of a seaman diving naked from a vessel at Castlecliff on 24 December 1906. His counsel was able to argue with success that the act was unintentional. The Magistrate found anyway  that there was no penalty for a person bathing in a public place in a nude state. (14 January 1907).

At Hawera around Christmas 1903 seven men were seen bathing in a nude state at the local beach. (“Hawera and Normanby Star”, 28 December 1903)

The “Wairarapa Daily” in early 1897 related a story reprinted in the “North Otago Times” of a group of eight youths skinny dipping in the Waiohine River, near Carterton, and having to chase naked across fences and paddocks  a number of Maori women who had grabbed their clothes objecting to the boys using a Maori canoe to dive from mid-stream. Only some items were recovered (3 February 1897).

In Rotorua a meeting was called attended by 350 people in 1901 to hear the Government’s responce to objections moves requiring swimming costumes to be worn in the Rotorua Sanatorium Baths. The Government  said that the wishes of the majority would be respected and that the use of garments would be prohibited as before (“Evening Post”, 12 January 1901). Some unusual protests had occurred before the Government backdown. Several males entered the baths naked, in defiance of the regulations. They were thrown out. The next day they entered the baths with their bathing trunks tied around their necks. The authorities were outraged, but couldn’t show the clause of the regulations which required the garments to be worn on any particular part of the body (“New Zealand Free Lance”, 2 February 1901).

The settlement of Sydney in 1873 had several swimming baths and two in Woolloomooloo Bay which were run by the City Council. The gentlemen’s pool was outdoor. Swimming was without costume. The Ladies’ pool was enclosed and swim wear was required. The gentlemen’s pool was “easily seen into, both from the water and the land”. (“Otago Witness”, 3 May 1873). In 1909 the “Post” reprinted an article from the “Sydney Daily Telegraph” objecting to youths and men sunbathing on Sydney beaches not being fully attired (Evening Post, 9 November 1909)

The question then in Wellington was also one of attire and how males were wearing revealing costumes (“Evening Post”, 25 February 1905).  In 1910 the Wellington City Council was horrified at the “indecency” of this and attempted to push a by-law through requiring the wearing of the heavy Canadian suit. This brought protests from the Lyall Bay Surf and Lifesaving club who commented that the new suit was not satisfactory for those who actually swam in the sea. The Council backed down (“Evening Post”, 4 November 1910). Another attempt to introduce the heavy suit was made in 1914 (“Evening Post”, 11 March 1914). And was again objected to. The difference between the usual male suit and the Canadian was a skirt arrangement and so was more modest. Interestingly the “neck to knee” suit was considered better than the “scanty bathing trunk” popular in 1905.

In the early years Lyall Bay was known for its nudity. The “Post” in an editorial article entitled “In the nude by the sea” (8 March 1909) provides a detailed description. The paper begins by mentioning that the “clothesless army has been much recruited lately” and goes on to say “On Saturday afternoons and on Sundays youths attired as lightly as wrestlers of ancient Greece, have romped the sands. The newspaper called for the bylaw to be enforced.  By 1910 Police acting on complaints from the City Council had brought the practice to an end (“Post”, 17 January 1910). This appears to have resulted in a further push to require the heavy suit. Council moves were similar to those of the New Brighton Borough Council, with the exception that their counterpart in Christchurch required bathers to wear an overcoat above the high water mark  (“Post”, 30 September 1910).  Lyall Bay in the early 20thC had extensive areas of dune country well away from the tram route. Also in 1910 there were complaints about drivers swimming their horses at Oriental Bay and undressing in public and not wearing “proper costumes” (“Post”, 17 January 1910).

In 1911 the “Post” printed a copied article from an English newspaper reacting to the unnecessary modesty of bathing and looking forward to the day when “we all shall bath naked without shame” and hoping for a change in public opinion.  (“Evening Post”, 21 October 1911)

The battles of the New Zealand Wars in the Waikato were closely covered by the press. It was recorded that the Maori troops who fought against the Colonial and British forces were naked,  this expressed in a way to denigrate Maori. What  was of particular and more pressing concern was, however,  the fighting ability of Maori.( “Daily Southern Cross”, 30 July 1861, ”Canterbury Press”, 16 April, 1864.) Fighting naked was in fact the practice of Maori, not that the settlers would have known that.

An account of Maori nudity in combat, immediately before the colonial period,   is contained in “Old New Zealand” by Frederick Edward Manning, published in 1863. The following excerpt was printed in the “Daily Southern Cross” of 14 February 1863 and describes Maori troops about to enter into a fight. “The men  are all equipped for immediate action, that is to say , quite naked, except  their arms and cartridge boxes,  which are the warriors’ clothes…. As I have said, the men are all stripped for action. But I notice that the appearance of nakedness is completely taken away by the tattooing, the colour of the skin, and the arms and equipments. The men in fact look much better than when dressed their Maori clothing [European garments].”

The Hauhau  or Pai Marire , were a Maori religious movement active in Maori opposition to the colonial state between 1865 and 1868 and combined elements of traditional beliefs including nudity with an interpretation of the Old Testament. A document explaining Hauhau beliefs in Maori seized by the Colonial forces in 1867 refers to Maori  “standing in a state of nudity” and are the “lost sheep of the House of Israel” (“Daily Southern Cross”, 26 April 1867). Te Kooti [a Maori leader] is often associated with the Hauhau but this not the case, though it is known the some of Te Kooti’s guerrilla force were  Pai Marire. Both troops were naked in the Maori tradition. (“ Otago Witness”, 30 June 1866 for the Hauhau. “Daily Southern Cross”, 16 January 1869 for Te Kooti’s  forces.) There was a major fight involving Te Kooti’s forces in 1868 which led to Te Kooti being forced into the Ureweras. Skirmishes with Te Kooti continued to 1872. In 1883 he was pardoned. In 1885 there was a huge gathering of Maori outside Napier at a place known as Petane with the purpose of welcoming Te Kooti. According to the press reporter he was received at the river by the Petane natives, stark naked,  who then gave haka in the original way. (“North Otago Times”, 24 December 1885) Te Kooti founded the Ringatu Church.

Reports of Maori nudity are of male nudity. But in 1866 the press reported a strange case from Port Waikato involving one Maraea Rangingu who has been running about in a state of nudity who was sentenced to be detained at the Auckland Lunatic Asylum. (“Southern Cross”, 16 July 1866).

In 1867 there was huge gathering of Maori at Wairoa. A grand gala day was organised.  After  the exhibition of military tactics had  ended the Wairoa Maori divested themselves of all clothing and commenced a haka. The return haka was given by the guests from Nuhaka, Te Mahia, Turanga (Gisborne) and the East Cape. From the description of the  journalist the hakas  were naked in the fullness of the tradition. On the next day the whole body marched to Hatepe, and with some other tribes formed a column 4-5 a breast and 600 yards in length. A rough guess would indicate the total strength of 2500-3000 troops. On nearing the pah they stripped themselves of clothing and advanced in a state of nudity where they were met in a like manner by the Hauhau leader Te Waru and his people. Then ensured a series of war  dances and haka.  (“Southern Cross”, 30 April 1867).

The “Taranaki Herald”  reported an incident involving Tuta Nihiniho in Gisborne of a naked haka involving Nihoniho and his “whole hapu” with fire-arms being discharged. (11 July 1879)

In 1895 two correspondents for the “Hawera & Normandy Star” visited Te Whiti’s settlement at Parihaka and witnessed several naked haka between the followers of the Te Whiti and someone described as his rival known as Tohu Kakahi. On their way in, they reported that the “road before  us appeared  thronged with natives attired much as Adam might have been after the Fall”. (2 March 1895) The same newspaper reported of the activities of Paora Eta in 1880 who had set up a religious cult in the Wairarapa in which his followers, “men and women bathed perfectly naked in a stream each morning” as a religious rite “believing they would be cured of all diseases by doing so.” (19 May 1880)

According to the “Waikato Times” of 25 March 1882, quoting the “Auckland Star”, “the haka in a state of absolute nudity” was being performed at Ohinemutu [now part of Rotorua] and for money to boot.

A story carried by several newspapers in 1892 concerned the description of a trip by canoe down the Wanganui River, a sort of travelogue. The party seems to have been made up of European and Maori with a guide. In the “Otago Witness” of 2 June 1892 the reporter refers to himself taking a mid-day bath at Athens. His guide was not so concerned about where he swam “and plunged in from the canoe, as did the girl. The natives seems to bath a good deal, and are not very particular about securing privacy , though the girls usually retain a garment at least when bathing near the village.  As we passed several villages we saw lots of lads playing in the water … and sometimes girls, who modestly crouched down while we glided past.” The “Taranaki Herald” of 6 June 1892 carried  a further account. The reporter describes the scene as they are about to embark on the second day : ”small canoes are darting about, dexterously managed by naked boys, bronze figures in action, some wading the river chin deep, and near the bank small girls bathing, being actually clothed in bathing dresses. I wonder what the old Tory Maori think of this innovation.” [Written 2008]

About the author: Gerald Davidson
Have been a member of the Wellington Naturist Club since 2013, the FBG since 2006. Have attended 7 rainbows in NZ and two Kiwburn festivals (For the last I wrote a story for the FBG newsletter, which also appeared in the Rainbow family publication, I can let you have it.) I also edit the rainbow publication and make an effort to encourage nudity Aside from that I help at a large garden in the rural part of Wellington where I can work naked if conditions are suitable.

clothes free life

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