Social Security

How it All Began

The birth of Social Security in New Zealand took place in Kurow, where the government’s second South Island hydro electric scheme was constructed. The three main figures were Kurow School’s Headmaster, Mr Andrew Davidson, Presbyterian Minister, the Rev Arnold Nordmeyer and town Doctor David McMillan.

It was the time of the great depression (late 1920’s and early 1930’s).  Conditions for the up to 2,000 people living in Waitaki Dam’s work camp were often appalling. In addition, a village of about 350 unemployed workers sprung up a couple of kilometres down the road.  They lived on the riverbank in makeshift huts of willow branches, flattened petrol cans and tents.

In order to maximise the number of men employed on this scheme the only machine used was a crane.  The work was done essentially by hand with pick, shovel and wheelbarrow.

The Headmaster, Minister and Doctor regularly came in contact with these labourers and their families. So affected were they by the appalling living and working conditions, that they met regularly with a committee of local representatives to address what they saw as a great social injustice. They developed a medical scheme funded by small weekly contributions from member staff on the dam project.

Arnold Nordmeyer and Dr McMillan joined forces with the radically new Labour Party lead by Michael Joseph Savage. McMillan and Nordmeyer were charged with developing their scheme into a national welfare system, which was to become the Social Securities Act of 1938. This idea that two men started in the small town of Kurow grew to influence the world, changing how governments regarded their responsibility to the welfare of their people.

[abridged from the pamphlet Heritage Trail Guide.]

Visit Kurow’s Museum and Information Centre to get the full story of the birth of Social Security in New Zealand.