In 1939 local business man Francis Haddow Bethwaite went out into the central business sector of Whanganui and took a series of black and white photographs of buildings, businesses and street scenes.
Bethwaite was closely involved with the local Chamber of Commerce and it is probable that this photography project was connected to its activities. The Chamber was a driving force in the Whanganui contribution to the Centennial Exhibition in Wellington in 1940 and Bethwaite was the Chamber’s primary planner.
Bethwaite was a keen amateur photographer who recorded family occasions and outings, business events and local developments. He was also a painter in oils, a sportsman and an expert in horticulture, being one of the initiators of the New Zealand Camellia Society.
The photographs were taken with a Kodak, probably a folding bellows camera that packed down into a neat flat leather-covered packet, convenient to carry and very reliable. The images were printed in black and white 8 x 10s, a standard photographic printing size of the time.
In 1939 New Zealand was preparing to mark the centenary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. Whanganui was in full swing, planning and producing an exhibit for the Centennial Exhibition in Wellington that demonstrated its material progress as a leading provincial centre.
The large public amenities, the Sarjeant Gallery and the Alexander Museum, had already been built. The new Alexander Library was designed to complement the Sarjeant and opened in 1934. They contributed to a grand civic centre but the town now had to maintain and pay for them.
The new Post Office was under construction to a contemporary grand design. New buildings had not been a primary feature of the town, the Depression of the 1930s limiting changes to repairing or altering building facades that suffered damage during the 1931 Napier earthquake.
By the late 1930’s Whanganui was an increasingly prosperous town, recovering from the effects of the Depression and the Great War, soon to be known as the First World War.