The Whanganui Regional Museum is a seemingly never-ending source of local treasures, one of which was unearthed by front-of-house staff member Liz Hamblyn. It’s a book, printed and published in 1915 by the Wanganui Chronicle, entitled Wanganui New Zealand Who’s Who.
Published just four years after Wanganui Coronation Souvenir 1911, and following a similar format, Who’s Who is a rich depository of Wanganui pictorial and textual biography and snippets of contemporary information and interesting historical trivia.
It’s a fascinating historical document that is almost impossible to obtain. For an overview of the important male population of the time there is nothing superior.
“It’s got everybody,” says Liz. “It’s got Mr Sigley, master plumber, borough councillor, director of public museum … vice-president of the Wanganui branch of the Political Reform League. These chaps were busy!” And there, in glorious monochrome, is a photographic portrait of the illustrious gentleman; splendid, hirsute and unsmiling, as studio poses were then.
The names read like a street index of modern Wanganui, so many of these chaps gave their name to a piece of bitumen or some feature when the town was still establishing itself. “There’s Mr Spriggens,” noted Liz, referring to the chap who gave us the Grand Hotel and the name for a prominent sporting park.
There are photographs of the newly-built Wanganui Collegiate School in Liverpool St and a portrait of AA Willis nearby. We looked at ‘Photographs of Merit: portraits by FJ Denton’, who was a photographer of note at the time.
Being 1915, with the Great War in full swing, there’s a strong military presence and photographs of men in uniform fill many a glossy page.
I noted there seemed to be no women included in the publication but Liz searched and found a few, including CM Cruickshank, MA, MSc, principal of Wanganui Girl’s College; and Miss Elizabeth Dunn, Divisional Surgeon of St John’s Ambulance Brigade.
“It reflects an era, a time,” says Liz, when asked why she chose this book as her ‘Vaults’ subject. “And you know these people; you read about them.” Not only that, but many of us are descended from them. That makes this book a valuable family album of sorts. Liz reeled off name after famous name – Polson, Porritt, Poynter, Purnell … The book also features photographs of landmark buildings, many of which remain.
The book begins with a long, glowing, wordy introduction that reads a lot like an advertisement, enticing the traveller to visit, the citizen to stay and anyone else to set up shop and house here: “Wanganui, already one of the most important towns in New Zealand, is destined to rank outside the four cities as the foremost port in the Dominion. It has been most favourably endowed by nature and the people of the town and district being alive to the magnitude of its potential so nothing can stop its progress.”
The introduction then goes on to give the depth of water at the port, suggesting that even ocean liners could berth at Castlecliff. The text lists the industries and businesses that made the town prosper and makes much of Wanganui’s natural beauty and the existence of a beautifying society to enhance what nature provided. The population at the time, as noted in the book, was more than 13,000.
This reporter would like to know what happened to the 45,000 volumes which comprised the Cosmopolitan Club library, as mentioned in the book.
Just before publication, the publishers, the Wanganui Chronicle, sent a letter to the Borough Council asking if arrangements could be made, similar to those made for the Wanganui Souvenir, when the council purchased 2000 copies for distribution on ocean liners “trading between the Mother Country and New Zealand” and for the principal libraries of the world. There is no newspaper record of that having taken place for the Who’s Who.
One thing Liz did point out was the appearance of the odd “rare, interior shot”. The outside of buildings is a common photographic subject, but seldom do we see the inside.
Mostly, the book consists of miniature portraits of people with their name and occupation listed beneath. “If you read the old newspapers,” says Liz, “you’ll see these names on committees.”
A reader could spend hours poring over the portraits and pictures, making discoveries on every page. If it ever makes its way on to the book stands in facsimile form, I’m sure it would be guaranteed a substantial market.
Article originally appeared in the Wanganui Midweek on 30th January 2013, and reproduced with publishers permission.