Part One

A Home in Auckland Central: Introducing Auckland’s Dalmatians

by Helena Wiseman*

It is a natural desire to be able to point at a place and call it home. We share a need to feel grounded somewhere, and to let that place shape who we are.  Home is more than geographical space: it is a construction of connections and identity that we build for ourselves – and sometimes, rebuild. The story of the Dalmatian immigrants who came to Aotearoa New Zealand is overwhelmingly one of rebuilding ‘home’. It is also a story of Auckland.

Dalmatians came to Aotearoa from a relatively small area – only a few hundred kilometers, a handful of villages – on the Adriatic coast of what is now Croatia but was historically the culturally distinct Roman region of Dalmatia.[1] Being from Dalmatia was the immigrants’ primary identity. At a secondary level we can call them Yugoslavs.[2] 

Figure 1: My family’s village, Drašnice. Source: personal photo.


There were several waves of Dalmatian immigration. The earliest settlers came to Aotearoa in the 1860s only temporarily, often to Northland, looking for work so that they could return home to support family in economically stricken Dalmatia.[3] Permanent settlers began to arrive in around 1900 in order to escape conscription into the Austrian army. Later waves came after the formation of Yugoslavia.[4] Significant migration to Auckland began to really develop late in that first wave. Why the shift towards the city? It is the decision to stay that brings us to Auckland. 

The Yugoslav community used the central city as a social core around which they could order their new lives, without losing touch with the ones they had left behind. Those who came to Aotearoa profoundly missed Dalmatia’s rugged coast, azure waters, and close-knit villages perched precariously on cliffs. They cared deeply for the people and lands of Yugoslavia. But they had also made a deliberate decision to integrate themselves with Auckland. These dual social needs were pressing.[5]

Figure 2: Radojkovich Boarding House, 117 Victoria Street West. Source: Dalmatian Genealogical and Historic Society, Dalmatians in the Inner-City, Box 1 of 2.



When I began to research the place of Auckland in this history, my history, I had my own family in mind. My great grandparents left Dalmatia at separate times and for separate reasons. As is common in the history of Auckland’s Yugoslavs, they came from one small village called Drašnice (so small that today its entrance is marked by a sign stating it is home to a few hundred “souls”). Yet despite their common origin, Marija Urlic and Ante Papic would only meet in a boarding house in central Auckland. Central Auckland brought a community together, allowing Dalmatians to re-establish the social networks that would link them not only to the ‘old country’, but to their new Auckland home. 

The formation of two cultural clubs, in the very heart of Auckland city, was a critical element in that social process. Yugoslav Club Inc. settled into 106 Hobson Street in the late 1930s. By 1939, the Yugoslav Benevolent Society (established in 1932) had opened rooms down the road at 79a.[6] The clubs chose their location to provide a centre for socialising and events. Dalmatians were urbanising, and the clubs were not the only institution to choose the inner suburbs. But in so doing they began to draw members of the community in from across Auckland. By the time the Second World War broke out Hobson, Federal and Victoria Streets were lined with Dalmatian-owned shops, restaurants and boarding houses like the one in which my great grandparents met.[7]  

Figure 3: Club members Ivy Babic and fiancé Tom Cibilich stand on Hobson Street in front of the Yugoslav Benevolent Society above Haynes Catering. Source: Dalmatian Genealogical and Historical Society Archive, Dalmatians in the Inner-City Box 1 of 2.


The concentration in the central city only increased as the Second World War ended. By 1944, Hobson Street alone was home to the two cultural clubs, as well as five Dalmatian-owned private dwellings and four boarding houses. Also situated along Hobson Street, reflecting the shift of Auckland Dalmatians into the secondary industries, were two restaurants such as the Royal Café, one billiard saloon, a confectionary shop and a fish shop – all Dalmatian-owned.[8]

In this period of urbanisation and an increased move away from agricultural sectors, the years of isolation for Dalmatian immigrants began to end. With that change came an increasing awareness among every day Dalmatians of the need to protect their language and culture, which also meant helping other Aucklanders understand them as a community. The Yugoslav clubs seized upon that cultural consciousness.

Post-war, the clubs increased the work they did for Dalmatian immigrants, and for wider Auckland.[9] The focus was on providing cultural connections for their community, but the function of the clubs in reaching out to Aucklanders was not negligible. As Stephen Jelicich noted in a lecture on the Yugoslav community, they played a role as a “mouthpiece to officialdom” and the fundraising balls were events that drew patrons from across Auckland society.[10] Reports of the cultural spectacles dot the newspapers throughout the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. The clubs also held weekly functions, which drew Dalmatians into the city centre. Members from other suburbs would often travel over an hour from the older settlements in Henderson and Oratia to see friends and family.[11]


Figure 4: Dalmatian wedding party on Hobson Street, October 1938. Source: Dalmatian Genealogical and Historical Society, Dalmatians in the Inner-City, Box 1 of 2.



Knowing the importance of the central city for my family, I expected to find mainly a story of how a new place shaped its new people, of assimilation and adaptation. But the more I have read, the more I have realised that the relationship between Dalmatian immigrants and Auckland city is symbiotic. In choosing this place to rebuild their home, Dalmatians brought the language and culture, the tension and politics, of their homeland to bear on Auckland. This symbiosis is embedded in the very process of social identity and cultural maintenance the Dalmatians undertook, which occurred most strongly through the two clubs (the Benevolent Society and Club Inc.). These clubs situated Yugoslav fears and disagreements about what was occurring in the homeland, in Auckland city — an influence that lingers. 

As such, we can draw similarities between the history of Auckland’s Dalmatians and wider histories of immigrant communities around the world: many places that played host to diasporas bear that cultural imprint on their cityscape through food, neighborhoods, families and politics. As John Canvin argued in his Master’s thesis on the Yugoslavs in Auckland, clubs are a distilled means by which to integrate a culture into a new city, whilst performing a simultaneous function of helping the community adjust.[12] This double effect of cultural clubs and activities is a distinctive element of the Dalmatian experience in Auckland, and it means that the connections forged between Dalmatian settlers and Auckland city run both ways. 

The cultural activities of the Dalmatian community touched all of Auckland city, be it through venue choice, political affiliation, the invitation list, or coverage in the media. The disagreements that punctuated these activities were in fact shaped by Dalmatian immigrants’ determination to become Dalmatian Aucklanders. When Dalmatian immigrants decided to stay in New Zealand, Auckland central became the setting for a story in which the histories of Dalmatians and Auckland weave together as my people tried to cope with the stresses of keeping hold of who they were, and settling into who they would become in Auckland. Making Auckland their home was a decades-long process and the story is of equal parts political tension and cultural celebration. It begins on Hobson Street.

[1]Stephen Jelicich, ‘The Yugoslav community’, lecture, 1990, University of Auckland Special Collections, New Zealand Glass Case, Cassette LC90-42.

[2]Andrew Trlin, Now Respected, Once Despised: Yugoslavs in New Zealand, Dunmore Press, Palmerston North, 1979.


[4]A.D. Trlin, ‘Yugoslav Settlement in New Zealand’, New Zealand Geographer, 24,1, 1968, p. 2.

[5]Trlin, Now Respected.

[6]Dalmatian Genealogical and Historical Society Archive, Dalmatians in the Inner-City, Box 1.

[7]Dalmatian Genealogical and Historical Society Archive, Dalmatians in the Inner-City, Box 1.

[8]Dalmatian Genealogical and Historical Society Archive, Dalmatians in the Inner-City, Box 1.

[9]Dalmatian Genealogical and Historical Society Archive, Dalmatians in the Inner-City, Box 1.


[11]Tony Barbarich, oral history interview by Smita Biswas, 30 July 2015, Record OH-1210-020, Dalmatian Genealogical and Historical Society Collection, Auckland Central Library Special Collections.

[12]J.A. Canvin, ‘Yugoslavs in Auckland’, Masters Thesis in Anthropology, University of Auckland, 1970, p. 49.