The Big Smoke

The Big Smoke

New Zealand Cities, 1840–1920

Winner of the 2017 W. H. Oliver Prize and the 2017 NZ Heritage Non-fiction Book Award; shortlisted for the General Non-fiction category of the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards 2017!

Unlike in Europe, North America, Australia and elsewhere, urban history has never been sustained as a distinct field of scholarship in New Zealand. This is surprising, considering that since the early twentieth century most New Zealanders have lived in towns and cities – 86 per cent were urban in 2014. Yet we know surprisingly little about these urban dwellers and the spaces in which they lived.

The pursuit of city life is one of the most important untold stories of New Zealand. The Big Smoke is the first comprehensive history to tell this story, presenting a dynamic and highly illustrated account of city life from 1840 to 1920.

It explores such questions as: what did cities look like and how did they change; why were women especially drawn to live in cities; in what ways did Māori experience and shape cities; how far was the street a living room and stage for city life; and why did New Zealand so quickly become a nation of townspeople?

At a time of national debate over housing and the growth of our cities, Ben Schrader’s superb new history reveals how our urban origins have shaped the people we are today.

Ben Schrader speaking at the launch of The Big Smoke, held at Unity Books, 16 October 2016.

Available in paperback and ebook formats from booksellers and using the ‘Buy’ buttons on this page. For more information on these purchase options please visit our Sales FAQs page or email us.

Print publication:
Ebook publication: Oct 2016
Pages: 480
RRP: $59.99
ISBN: 9780947492434
ISTC: A0220160000000FE
DOI: 10.7810/9780947492434

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‘Ben Schrader’s The Big Smoke is a compelling reminder of the centrality of cities in New Zealand history. This book brings to life a neglected dimension of our collective past and should change many New Zealanders’ understanding of both place and history.’ Tony Ballantyne, Professor of History, University of Otago

The Big Smoke impressively fills a large gap in our social, economic and cultural history. Engagingly written and beautifully illustrated, Ben Schrader’s book makes a convincing case that it is our urban rather than our rural identity that has been central to most New Zealanders.’ Philippa Howden-Chapman, Professor of Public Health, University of Otago


See Ben Schrader in Wellington on Sunday 11 March 2018 at the New Zealand Festival.


'Pioneer History', Sarah Lang, Capital Magazine, 20 July 2017.

'Listen to reflections on the Big Smoke', National Library, 1 June 2017

'Book review: The Big Smoke', Guy Marriage, Architecture Now, 9 May 2017

'Ben Schrader: Best Books I Never Wrote',, 12 November 2016 

'The Big Smoke – putting New Zealand's cities centre stage', Ben Schrader,, 27 October 2016  

'Ben Schrader: Why the future of our cities can be seen in the past', The Dominion Post, 26 October 2016 

'AFTERGLOW: The Big Smoke by Ben Schrader', Unity Books, 18 October 2016

'Ben Schrader: New Zealand's urban history', Saturday Morning, Radio New Zealand, 15 October 2016 



'Written with exceptional grace and clarity, the book covers a range of important themes in urban history, and some of the chapters – especially those about crowds, people, dirt, and the rural and suburban attack on the city – are particularly compelling. This is evidently a book written by a historian expert in the field; it is based on extensive research, is well illustrated, and is above all thought-provoking.' Jim McAloon, Judge of the 2017 NZ Heritage Non-Fiction Book Award

'Ben Schrader gives Dunedin its due place in this handsomely illustrated history of urban New Zealand. The city's prominence in the 1860s and 1890s is well covered and the social history intriguing.' 2016's best books, Otago Daily Times, 23 December 2016

'Schrader trashes the myth of our essential ruralness to describe the role of our cities in shaping New Zealand society.' 'The Best 100 Books of 2016' The Listener, 20 November 2016 

'Schrader focuses in his book on eight aspects which are chronological but also thematic. These include foundations of the cities, material concerns, culture, sociability and conflict on the street, Maori and environmental concerns. He also touches on religion and the role of women. This is no dry tome. The pages are illustrated with maps, early photographs, sketches and documents.' Kathy Watson, Booksellers NZ Blog, 15 November 2016

'Schrader's fascination with [the cities'] built and human geography shines through the pages of a lively, absorbing book that, although written from an expert's perspective, will engage most readers. The illustrations are especially absorbing, underpinning the author's view of our cities as dynamic, restless entities that have constantly attracted us from their beginning and that will continue to have a profound effect on our lives. A fascinating, important book.' Chris Moore, The Listener, 12 November 2016

'This new book fills a gap in our cultural and social understanding. It gives us a new perspective on New Zealand's settlement and it couldn't have been published at a better time, just when housing is the topic du jour.' Anne Gibson, New Zealand Herald, 5 November 2016