How New Zealand got its national anthem by accident

Original sheet music of 'God Defend New Zealand' national anthem. Photo: File
Original sheet music of 'God Defend New Zealand' national anthem. Photo: File
Many people know the story of how God Defend New Zealand came to be written, but fewer know that it became our national anthem by accident. Max Cryer tells the story.

Irish-born Thomas Bracken gathered experience in New Zealand as a writer, poet, and also as an editor. In the late 1800s he was editing the Dunedin-published Saturday Advertiser news-magazine into which he often put pieces of his own writing - sometimes disguised with a fictitious name.

In July 1876 the Advertiser featured a five-verse poem "by Paddy Murphy" and described as "a National Hymn". It was called "God Defend New Zealand".

Public reaction was warm enough for Bracken to reveal himself as the author and, going further, he published that a prize of 10 guineas was offered for a suitable "air" to be composed to fit the words.

Twelve New Zealand-composed melodies were entered and sent to be judged by three eminent German musicians in Melbourne. Unanimously they awarded first place to a young Otago school teacher called Joseph Woods.

The song very quickly became popular. In 1940 the New Zealand Government bought the copyright and made it the country's "national hymn" in time for that year's centennial celebrations - and then to be used at the British Empire Games from 1950 onward.

Public affection for God Defend New Zealand slowly grew. But in the worldwide context – such as the Olympics – the official national anthem from the Treaty of Waitangi onwards had become, and still was, God Save The Queen.

Gradually, with all respect to the Queen, many New Zealanders thought we should have an anthem of our own – and not just the same anthem as all the other Commonwealth countries.

In 1972, the Olympic Games were to be held in Munich, then West Germany, and a New Zealand men's rowing eight was scheduled to take part.

Some months before the Games' opening date, Don Rowlands, the rowing team's manager, was keeping an eye on the set-up in Munich for the international rowing teams. Because of business commitments in New Zealand, Rowlands was unable to travel to the event.

Rowlands' secretary was Alison Suckling, a sister of former bronze medallist rower Norman Suckling, and herself familiar with rowing matters. Rowlands decided to send Alison Suckling to Germany to report back on matters relevant to the rowing team.

So in January 1972 Suckling travelled to Munich and examined the set-up for the rowing - the venues, the accommodation, the distances between various places, and other information the New Zealanders wanted.

As Suckling was leaving the German Sports Foundation, the German chief of protocol came in and produced a big book of "Songs for all Nations". He said that if New Zealand won any event, he must be sure that the country's national anthem was lodged in advance with the band.

He and Suckling leafed through the book. She stopped at God Defend New Zealand, handed the book back to the chief of protocol and said: "That is our national anthem."

The remark, combined with what followed during the Games, had a considerable effect on the New Zealand public.

Like many dozens of other Kiwis, Suckling really believed that God Defend New Zealand was our national anthem.

She went back to Belgium, unaware that her brief conversation with the Olympic protocol director would mean that if a New Zealand team won an Olympic event, for the first time a truly New Zealand song would be heard and seen by audiences all over the world. (Instead of God Save the Queen - which actually was our national anthem).

The rowing eight won ... and the band played God Defend New Zealand. This had a wide and long-lasting effect back home.

The live (6am) radio broadcast of the rowers winning gold and on the winners' podium hearing the band play God Defend New Zealand caused considerable pleasure. By the evening's TV item, the nation was united in that (a) New Zealand had first-class rowers and (b) at last we had seen and heard "our own" national anthem up there, level with other winners and equalling their anthems.

The impact of gold-medal-plus-anthem was abundantly evident among the eight rowers themselves. Charismatic team-member Wybo Veldman cheerfully announced later: "We were blubbing like babies".

Following the song's airing at the Munich Olympics, a campaign began in New Zealand to have it officially adopted as a national anthem.

Support wasn't difficult to find. Four years after Munich introduced "God of Nations" to the world, in 1976 a petition was presented to Parliament asking that the song formally be made New Zealand's national anthem.

On November 21, 1977, the then-Minister of Internal Affairs, the Honourable D.A. Highet, announced in the New Zealand Gazette: "The national anthems of New Zealand shall be the traditional anthem God Save The Queen, and the poem God Defend New Zealand written by Thomas Bracken, as set to music by John Joseph Woods, both being of equal status as national anthems appropriate to the occasion. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II has given her consent."

There seems to be a not-written-down but understandable necessity that if the actual monarch is physically present, then to play/sing God Save the Queen/King would be polite.


Unfortunately New Zealand was not blessed with the great European composers the likes of Haydn (Germany), Mozart (Austria) or Gounod (Vatican). We did a number 8 wire on our anthem and did the best we could.

I'm pretty happy with it regardless. It's quirky, tuneful enough for kids and it does the job. And at least it's better than Australia's!

Max Cryer always likes to tell a good story and I’m not sure if this one is totally correct. The Germans were sticklers for protocol and knew as it was not yet a national anthem, this contravened Olympic rules.
I have always been to understand it was a case of “mischief” in that both Germany & NZ did not want ‘God Save’ and as ‘God Defend’ was already our national hymn & already used at Commonwealth Games, it was a case of use it – not one of “flick through the book, use that”.
It saddens me when we have people who don’t like the words (and yes they need modifying) also want the tune ditched. There are many newspaper reporters currently dishing out heaps of articles wanting a new anthem – and they suggest pop songs.
An anthem is a reverent hymn. It has to be played by organ, bagpipes, brass bands, choirs and sopranos!.
Our anthem is regarded by military bands around the world as one of the best with a stately pacific theme.
I am a world authority on anthems & worked extensively with military band internationally.







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