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NZ Naturist Magazine


   A chronological overview   

This history is largely sourced from the longest-running Naturist publication in this country: the New Zealand Naturist - now known as gonatural.

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(Pre 1910 items.)

Thorndon Esplanade

An early example of how nudity was viewed by the locals in the late 19th century was indicated in this extract from the Wairarapa Daily Times 14 February, 1895:- 

"It is an everlasting disgrace that in a city of something over 30,000 inhabitants, there are 110 better provisions for public baths than exist at present. One small private swimming bath is all that we have, and that is situated in such an inconvenient locality as to be practically useless, except to a few who live in the immediate vicinity. During the present stiflingly hot Summer the want has been severely aggravated, and yet in spite of all the agitation which has taken place, we are no nearer the possession of suitable baths than ever. As matters are now, police regulations notwithstanding, large numbers of men and boys daily bathe from the breastwork, or from the skids of the boating sheds. It is true that most of the adult bathing is performed in the early morning, but all day long, at the Thorndon end most particularly, hordes of boys, in puris naturabilis, are to be seen disporting themselves in the harbour. One can hardly blame the lads very much, but it is an outrage on public decency nevertheless, which should at once be put a stop to. The favourite resort of these bathers is just at the end of the Thorndon Esplanade, a spot constantly passed by women and children all day long. It was only the other day, on a public holiday, that a whole host of naked urchins were seen disporting themselves in the water, in full view of trains and carriages, which were taking people out in large numbers to the Hutt races." (Extract - note that the picture, not originally included, seems to include several beach-goers at the bottom left.)

I'm indebted to Gerald Davidson for the following contribution.

A short history of nudity in New Zealand before World War I.

[Quite a lot is known of the recent history of nudity in this country. This is an attempt to collate reports of the early events, and the contemporary views of them.]

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.[1] In the early 1890s the Borough Council banned naked swimming and furthermore ensured swimming was away from residences and hotels; on the town beach, and segregated: males were allocated the early morning and evening and women in-between. The allowance for women is interesting as most records in colonial newspapers are of males.[2] However; boys under sixteen were exempt from wearing a costume. Later on though, problems were caused by the spread of housing and naked men becoming visible. Then, as now, the test was whether offense had occured.[3] In 1879 trouble was caused by boys going down in the afternoon and riding up and down the beach naked.[4] In 1887 the Mayor said he had received numerous complaints about naked boys on the beach, and he too had noticed naked people on the beach.[5] In 1895, according the Taranaki Herald the issue was more a matter of the scanty 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 police Sergeant Duffin. Though the police were under instruction only to prosecute boys over 16 years. No reports of any prosecutions can be found, suggesting there were none. The council had in fact banned all swimming near the railway station in the early 1890s. But it rescinded the bylaw in 1893, and required full costumes to be worn.[6]

In 1865, according to the Daily Southern Cross of 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.[7] In 1872 the same newspaper objected to men bathing in front of private houses at Parnell.[8] In late 1843 a complaint, copied from Auckland Chronicle; had been printed in the NZ Gazette and Wellington Spectator about Maori women living in commercial premises in the vicinity of Shortland Crescent. The claim was that, “at times they come out of the side door almost naked.”[9]

In the mid-to-late 19th century, several public swimming pools were built in Wellington. Te Aro Swimming Baths 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. A noted feature of the new pool was completely separate men and women’s sections, separated by a high fence. The Freyberg freshwater pool, which opened in 1963, is on the site of the old women’s section.[10]

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

As in Thorndon, a private operation at Te Aro in 1895, had the pool formed by enclosing part of the sea. This pool was about 55m long and about 25m wide with a depth varying from less than a metre to about four metres. These 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 for gentlemen, outside these hours.[11]

The Petone Swimming Baths were owned by Edwin Jackson. These opened in 1897 and were a mixture of salt and fresh water; and also: inland. They was opened seasonally, and provided for the same segregated swimming as Te Aro, but with longer hours for the ladies.[12]

Swimming at Te Aro was evidently popular and the subject of regular comment. For example, in November 1882, naked men and boys could be seen on summer days by passers-by on Oriental Parade,  because they had climbed on to the walls enclosing the pool.[13] In 1897 a letter in the local paper objected to “men and youths” being “seen in a state of nature from the roads,” and “from the houses overlooking the [Te Aro] bath.”[14] When the Thorndon pool opened, later in 1897, the practice of naked male swimming continued.[15] But the enclosed area was open to the view from those living above.

Another cause of dropping nude swimming at Thorndon and Te Aro, was the growing popularity of mixed bathing. 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, according to 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[16] claimed that day, to have come across “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 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 one evening, of a man walking naked in Jackson Street, Petone, was mentioned in the Free Lance of 11 March, 1905. To passers-by, the man explained that he had been “spearing flounder in the harbour.”  

Evidently, naked swimming in public areas of Wellington had occurred as well; as indicated by occasional comment in the Evening Post. In April 1877, it reported that some youths regularly were swimming naked in the Harbour at the rear of Mr Barber’s premises; Willis Street.[17] In 1892 it reported that one Sunday, some members of the Wellington Rowing Club had been naked in the sea near the Te Aro reclamation. It was claimed that, not being contend with swimming in the water near their Star Boat shed without costumes, they'd also climbed onto the wharf at the north end of the shed and dived into water. Oddly, the claim of nudity was denied by the informant, in a note appended to the report in the Post.[18] Another account of naked youths and boys swimming near 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. Under the existing bylaw the men were within their rights, but in framing the new bylaws, it was decided that bathers should be required to wear decent clothing at all times.[19] Some years later, in 1910, a young man threw off his clothes at Oriental Bay and swam over to King’s Wharf. He was arrested for his trouble.[20]

In 1885 a letter in the Post alluded to the practice of nudity in Wellington's Basin Reserve from time-to-time, involving athletes training naked.[21]

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”[22]

“Yesterday afternoon,” between three and five o’clock, 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. 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, stranded naked for 6 hours until they were rescued by a party of 60. But they were not harmed by their experience.[23]

In colonial Wanganui, the local newspaper reported in 1878 that nude bathing occurred in the river near the centre of town.[24] In 1882, angered by boys swimming in the river near his house, a Mr J. Abbott took the law into his own hands, confiscating the clothing of a boy named Ryan. In the subsequent hearing in the Wanganui Court, Ryan’s father sought five pounds in 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 riverbank, Mr Abbott was not entitled to remove clothing and fined him one pound and costs.[25] On 30 January 1886, the Wanganui Herald said that the problem was not the nude bathing as such, but when ­– displaying 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 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.”[26] But 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 because his counsel was able successfully to argue that the act was unintentional. The Magistrate also found that there was no penalty for a person bathing naked in a public place.[27]

At Hawera around Christmas 1903, seven men were seen bathing naked at the local beach.[28]

In early 1897, the Wairarapa Daily related a story reprinted in the North Otago Times of a group of eight youths skinny-dipping in the Waiohine River, near Carterton, who; across fences and paddocks, had to chase a number of Maori women who had grabbed their clothes. They objected to the boys diving from a Maori canoe, anchored mid-stream. Only some items were recovered.[29]

At a meeting called in Rotorua in 1901, 350 people heard the Government’s response to objections to making swimming costumes mandatory in the Rotorua Sanatorium Baths. The Government accepted the wishes of the majority, deciding that garments would be prohibited; as before.[30] Some unusual protests had occurred before the Government back down. Several males entered the baths naked, in defiance of the new 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.[31]

The settlement of Sydney in 1873 had several swimming baths. Two in Woolloomooloo Bay were run by the City Council. The gentlemen’s pool was outdoors with no costume required. The Ladies’ pool was enclosed but swimwear was required. The gentlemen’s pool was “easily seen into, both from the water and the land.”[32] In 1909 the Post reprinted an article from the Sydney Daily Telegraph objecting to youths and men sunbathing on Sydney beaches while not being fully attired.[33]

The question in Wellington was also, how males were wearing revealing costumes.[34] In 1910 the Wellington City Council was horrified at the “indecency” of this and attempted to push a bylaw through requiring the wearing of the heavy Canadian suit. The difference between the usual male suit and the Canadian was a skirt arrangement and so was more modest. But the Lyall Bay Surf and Lifesaving Club protested that the new suit was no good for those who actually swam in the sea. The council backed down.[35] Another attempt to introduce the heavy suit in 1914 again created objections.[36] 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”[37] provides a detailed description. It begins, “The clothesless army has been much recruited lately” and goes on, “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.[38] This appears to have resulted in a further push toward the heavy suit. Council moves were similar to those of the New Brighton Borough Council, except that their counterpart in Christchurch required bathers to wear an overcoat above the high water mark.[39] Lyall Bay in the early 20th century had extensive dune areas 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”.[40]

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.[41]

The battles of the New Zealand Wars in the Waikato were closely covered by the press. It was noted that Maori troops fighting the Colonial and British forces, were naked; this expressed in a way to denigrate Maori. What was of particular and more pressing concern though, was the fighting ability of Maori.[42] 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. An excerpt was printed in the Daily Southern Cross of 14 February 1863 which 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 in their Maori clothing.”

The Hauhau, or Pai Marire, was a Maori religious movement active in opposition to the colonial state between 1865 and 1868. It combined elements of traditional belief, including nudity, with their 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 being the “lost sheep of the House of Israel.”[43] Te Kooti is often, in error; associated with the Hauhau. It is known the some of Te Kooti’s guerrilla force were Pai Marire. Both troops were naked in the Maori tradition.[44] In 1868 a major fight involving his men resulted Te Kooti being forced into the Ureweras. Skirmishes with Te Kooti continued to 1872, but in 1883 he was pardoned. In 1885 a huge gathering of Maori at Petane, outside Napier, welcomed Te Kooti. According to the press reporter, he was received at the river by the Petane natives who performed the haka in the original way; stark naked.[45] Te Kooti founded the Ringatu Church.

Reports of Maori nudity generally apply to men. But in 1866 the press reported a strange case from Port Waikato involving one Maraea Rangingu, who, having been running about naked, was sentenced to be detained at the Auckland Lunatic Asylum.[46]

In 1867 a grand gala day was organised at Wairoa. After an exhibition of military tactics ended, the Wairoa Maori divested themselves of all clothing and commenced a haka. The guests from Nuhaka, Te Mahia, Turanga (Gisborne) and the East Cape gave a return haka. From the journalist's description, both haka were performed naked, according to the tradition. The next day, they all marched to Hatepe, and with some other tribes, formed a column 4-5 abreast and 600 yards in length. At a rough guess, that's about 2500-3000 troops. On nearing the pa they stripped and advanced naked; where they were met in a like manner by the Hauhau leader, Te Waru, and his people. A series of war dances and haka ensued.[47]

The Taranaki Herald reported an incident in Gisborne involving Tuta Nihiniho and his “whole hapu” in a naked haka, with firearms being discharged.[48]

In 1895 two correspondents for the Hawera & Normandy Star visited Te Whiti’s settlement at Parihaka where they witnessed several naked haka between the followers of Te Whiti and a Tohu Kakahi, described as his rival. On their way to Parihaka, the correspondents reported that “the road before us appeared thronged with natives attired much as Adam might have been after the Fall.”[49] In 1880, the same newspaper reported of the activities of Paora Eta who had set up a religious cult in the Wairarapa, where “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.”[50]

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 – and for money, to boot.

A story carried by several newspapers in 1892, described a canoe trip down the Wanganui River, as 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 mentions 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 seem 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.”

To sum up; in colonial times attitudes towards male nudity were quite relaxed in New Zealand. Males had considerable freedom to be naked in public. In towns, the social convention was to restrict this to beaches in the 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, but it would appear that sessions for women were limited.

There was considerable pressure from newspapers to restrict the right to be naked. Regular reports on the “nude bathing nuisance” were invariably accompanied by demands for the “authorities” to take action. Early bylaws allowed public nude swimming in the sea, during specified hours. Some beaches were known for their nude beach culture. But by 1904, swimming naked in Wellington's public pools was over, and by 1910, Lyall Bay, reflecting a general conservatism; had followed suit.

Nakedness had been a tradition among Maori. They fought the colonial state, naked; during the New Zealand Wars. Originally, the haka was performed naked and children were commonly naked, though with girls: only up to puberty. Males were commonly naked in daily life. They adopted the prevailing European dress culture around 1900. Limited naked swimming has survived at Rotorua.

By Gerald Davidson. 15/4/08.

[1]  (Taranaki Herald, 7 January 1879)
[2]  (Taranaki Herald, 17 January 1894)
[3]  (Taranaki Herald, 15 January 1895)
[4]  (Taranaki Herald, 7 January 1879)
[5]  (Hawera and Normanby Star, 15 February 1887)
[6]  (Taranaki Herald, 14 February 1893)
[7]  (Daily Southern Cross, 26 January 1865)
[8]  (28 December 1872)
[9]  (13 September 1843)
[10] (Evening Post, 4 October 1962)
[11] (Cyclopedia of New Zealand, 1895)
[12] (Hutt and Petone Chronicle, 26 October 1892)
[13] (Evening Post, 14 November 1882)
[14] (Evening Post, 27 January 1897)
[15] (Evening Post, 29 January 1897)
[16] (15 November 1894)
[17] (5 April 1877)
[18] (Evening Post, 12 January 1892)
[19] (Post, 30 November 1897)
[20] (Evening Post, 24 January 1910)
[21] (Post, 1 December 1885)
[22] (Evening Post, 9-10 March 1886)
[23] (Evening Post, 16 November 1883)
[24] (Wanganui Herald, 28 December 1878)
[25] (Evening Post, 12 May 1882)
[26] (Wanganui Herald, 12 January 1909)
[27] (14 January 1907)
[28] (Hawera and Normanby Star, 28 December 1903)
[29] (3 February 1897)
[30] (Evening Post, 12 January 1901)
[31] (New Zealand Free Lance, 2 February 1901)
[32] (Otago Witness, 3 May 1873)
[33] (Evening Post, 9 November 1909)
[34] (Evening Post, 25 February 1905)
[35] (Evening Post, 4 November 1910)
[36] (Evening Post, 11 March 1914)
[37] (8 March 1909)
[38] (Post, 17 January 1910)
[39] (Post, 30 September 1910)
[40] (Post, 17 January 1910)
[41] (Evening Post, 21 October 1911)
[42] (Daily Southern Cross, 30 July 1861, Canterbury Press, 16 April, 1864)
[43] (Daily Southern Cross, 26 April 1867)
[44] (Otago Witness, 30 June 1866 for the Hauhau. Daily Southern Cross, 16 January 1869 for Te Kooti’s forces.)
[45] (North Otago Times, 24 December 1885)
[46] (Southern Cross, 16 July 1866)
[47] (Southern Cross, 30 April 1867)
[48] (11 July 1879)
[49] (2 March 1895)
[50] (19 May 1880)


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