Teaching Module

New Zealand Childhoods (18th–20th c.)

Juvenile Depravity Suppression Bill [Political Speech]


This Dunedin politician's speech could be analyzed for its tone as well as its (edited) content. Notions of morality and responsibility can be identified, along with an attitude that children should be protected from adverse influences. The proposed legislation would have given police the powers to apprehend young loiterers and return them to their parents. There was some debate in the House over a suggestion that police could be permitted to use a supple-jack in the process. Ironically, while the general position of politicians was one of opposition to that, corporal punishment was in constant use in the country's schools at the time and remained so until abolished in the early 1980s.

Although neither the Juvenile Depravity Suppression Bill (1896) nor a subsequent Young Persons Protection Bill (1897) were passed into law, debates over how best to deal with youngsters not under "proper" parental care continued to surface regularly over the next century. Anti-social behavior could be defined in a number of ways: the "street larrikins" of the 1890s, congregating on street corners and behaving discourteously to adults transmuted into "milk-bar cowboys" by the 1950s, and "boy racers" and graffiti "taggers" at the end of the 20th century. Sexuality, latent or overt, was another key area of on-going concern for politicians and social commentators. A mid-century enquiry into "juvenile delinquency" (alleged immorality and depravity) in the post-war suburban development of the Hutt Valley (Wellington) resulted in some 300,000 copies of the 1954 Mazengarb Report being disseminated, one to every household in the country that received the family benefit and/or additional state welfare assistance for children. The Report's recommendations included advocacy of more suburban leisure and recreational facilities; better education for parents; and stricter censorship of comics and other potentially "harmful" publications. From the 1960s, the influence of more sexually explicit television programs and advertising became the focus of concern; and, by the end of the century, the Internet, computer games, and mobile telephone technologies.


New Zealand House of Representatives. "Juvenile Depravity Suppression Bill." Second reading, 18 August 1896. New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, vol. 94, 1896, 323–24. Annotated by Jeanine Graham.

Primary Source Text


Mr W. HUTCHINSON [member for Dunedin City] said this was a Bill entirely on the right lines, and he congratulated the Premier on its introduction; at the same time, he would allow him to say that it did not go far enough. The question was one of momentous importance, deeply affecting all the towns, and more especially all the cities and principal centres of population. . . . There were a number of young children amongst us painfully demoralised – so young, some of them, that the policeman could not think of interfering with them – children suffering from a so- called liberty run unto utter license and lawlessness; and all this arising largely from parental carelessness or positive neglect. He was not going to trouble the House with statistics. He did not know that statistics bearing precisely upon this point were available, and he had no wish to draw any darker picture of the case than the facts warranted. They were bad enough as it was. From communications he had had from Auckland, he found that this city suffered terribly from this blight of juvenile vice. . . .

He had no information that he could quote from Wellington or Christchurch, but there was little doubt that these cities were neither better nor worse than their neighbours. . . . He was glad to say that the large majority of our people cherished the love of their children and the purity of their households above all other possessions; they desire such legislation as is now proposed; and this all the more because there were poor children of the streets – strayed and straying – whose numbers were sometimes recruited by children from very respectable families – showing us a cruel and savage side to our civilisation. These mere children got together at the street-corner or under a dark verandah; they talked, or they listened to talk, not the sweet babble of childhood, mixed with its laugh of innocence, but talk that need not be described; they got into temptations of all kinds before they understood the disastrous results which certainly followed. He ventured to suggest that these young children should be dealt with before they come to those of more advanced age. The Bill before them took no note of this incipiency in vice, yet it was here the mischief began. The Bill was a police Bill, pure and simple; but they needed more. It was an out-worn but still perfectly true axiom that prevention was better than cure. Children up to ten years of age living in all our towns should be under the shelter of the household roof after nightfall; and the parents and guardians of these children should be responsible that it was so, under a penalty. If the children were out of doors they should be in the care of some grown-up person. Did anyone who knew what childhood was – its susceptibility to external influences and its facile aptitude to learn and assimilate impressions – doubt this proposition. There was a social gangrene. He would cut it out of the body politic by clearing the streets of all young children after dark. Surely there would be no hardship – no invasion of liberty, rightly understood – in doing so. A certain number of young children – very young children – had drifted away from parental care, and hung about the streets at night. It was not only wretchedness for themselves, and from which they had to be protected, but they were too apt to lead others into equal wretchedness; so that their protection was not only for themselves, but for others who might fall a prey to their evil example. He would not proposed to punish these unfortunate children. They had been neglected by their parents, and it was therefore on these parents the blame primarily rested. They must exercise their lawful authority, and see that their children were in the house at reasonable hours or take the consequence. . . . Turning to another phase of the question, he had become acquainted with cases in which the father told the Magistrate that his child was beyond control – that the child was unmanageable; and he dared say the father was correct. But it was only a confession of culpable and criminal weakness all the same. The child was certainly not beyond control when first he or she was permitted to roam the streets at improper hours; and the parental neglect demanded punishment. . . .

How to Cite This Source

"New Zealand Childhoods (18th–20th c.)," in Children and Youth in History, Item #93, https://cyh.rrchnm.org/items/show/93 (accessed August 10, 2021).