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Response to Review of An Accidental Utopia? Social Mobility and the Foundations of an Egalitarian Society, 1880-1940

We are grateful for Dr Jim McAloon’s thoughtful engagement with our book, An Accidental Utopia? In the course of his review he raised some interesting questions that, as principal author, I would like to respond to.

Dr McAloon engages especially with several methodological issues, so I’ll start with them. First, he is quite right that our book is ‘rather weak’ on rural occupations. The issues that concerned us, from the start, related to the form taken by social class in a new urban-industrial area in a new society. At one stage we had hoped to investigate movements between rural-farm and urban society but to our regret we were never funded to do this. As Dr McAloon knows from his own work, that task will prove doubly difficult because in our period terms such as farmer and settler are extraordinarily elastic. We agree with him entirely, however, that the rhetoric of opportunity was as much rural as urban. Second, he is also right to point out that another urban area might have generated other patterns. Indeed this is one of our reasons for adopting a case study (although by no means the only one).

Dr McAloon notes one respect in which southern Dunedin might have differed from another urban area when he reflects on the fluidity of southern Dunedin’s marital mobility rates. He observes that the relative absence of private secondary schools in Dunedin, especially compared with Christchurch, might help explain the openness of southern Dunedin’s upper-middle class. In general terms there can be no gainsaying his point but I have a couple of caveats. Although by 1950 the proportion of children attending private secondary schools was higher in Christchurch than in Dunedin, the proportion at that date was only 16.8 per cent and Christ’s College, arguably the most significant of those schools, had a national catchment. At the start of our period, however, less than 2 per cent of all children old enough to attend secondary school did so and even in Christchurch less than 1 per cent attended a private secondary school. The figures were not much different at the end of the First World War. Nor is there any evidence that those who attended private secondary schools monopolised the more lucrative and prestigious occupations.(1) As Dr McAloon remarks, nor is it known whether such schools reinforced marital endogamy. (Before the Second World War, apart from the Catholic schools, there were virtually no private primary schools in either city.)

We have obviously rattled Dr McAloon’s native dags with our claim that southern Dunedin may have been one of those areas that pioneered the fluid patterns of marital and intergenerational mobility our study identified. We made that claim not to annoy natives of Christchurch, but because Professors Miles Fairburn and Stephen Haslett demonstrated that in the ten provincial cities they studied across much the same period residential segmentation by socio-economic class was fundamental. Our data showed that residential segmentation by class in southern Dunedin, by contrast, was weak, with the result that primary schools in the area were also socially mixed, and we attach considerable importance to those facts in explaining the fluidity of the marital and intergenerational mobility patterns. In speculating about why the inhabitants of southern Dunedin might have forged such unusually fluid social arrangements, I (as the author of chapter nine) noted among other things the important role of the local Labour Party Members of the House of Representatives on the Labour Bills Committee. In doing so I had no wish to downplay the contribution of William Pember Reeves, Christchurch’s famous radical son, to the origins of compulsory arbitration. Reeves himself, of course, was generous in acknowledging that without the Labour Members he could not have succeeded in this or other matters.(2)

Although I have no wish to challenge the reviewer’s right to decide on issues of balance, in concluding may I regret that his close – and welcome – attention to our analyses of marital, work-life and intergenerational mobility, has meant that he paid less attention to our explanations and assessments of the patterns identified. Nor does he discuss the seeming paradox that a class-based political alignment emerged in this fluid society. Given Dr McAloon’s own interest in working-class mobilisations we look forward to further engagement regarding the relevance of our data on work-life mobility to class formation and the emergence of a solid electoral base for left-wing politics. As the existing literature completely ignores this possibility, we believe that this aspect of our study – about one-fifth of the entire book – is worth noting.

We remain grateful to Dr McAloon for his thoughtful and lengthy review.

Erik Olssen


  1. I have relied on W. J. Gardner and Ralph Winterbourn, ‘Education, 1877–1950’, in A History of Canterbury, ed. W. J. Gardner (Vol. II, Christchurch, 1971), pp. 389–415 and Dr McAloon’s ‘The Christchurch elite’, in Southern Capital Christchurch: Towards a City Biography 1850–2000, ed. John Cookson and Graeme Dunstall (Christchurch, 2000), pp. 193–221.Back to (1)
  2. As I explained at some length in my Building the New World: Work, Politics and Society in Caversham, 1880s–1920s (Auckland, 1995), pp. 194–5.Back to (2)