Month: September 2014

Letters from the Front

With centenary commemorations of the First World War underway and continuing for the next five years, more and more stories are emerging; stories of love, stories of loss, and they all help us to remember the effect of the war on everyone at the front and at home.  The Museum was lucky to have recently been donated a collection of archives and images from the Wilson and MacKinnon families in Whanganui that tell yet another wartime story.

2014.61.2 a Arthur Wilson served as a Private in the 24th Reinforcements F Company of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.  He was trained at Featherston Military Camp before relocating to Trentham and finally embarking for England on 16th April 1917.  Like many soldiers he wrote regular letters home, including to his sister Mag (Margaret) Wilson who lived at Alton Villa on St John’s Hill in Wanganui, and several of these letters are included in the collection.

2014.61.30Mag was a suit maker during the war, and Arthur made comment in his letters that she would be running out of clients based on the number of troops he witnessed coming into camp.  Once overseas, Arthur tells Mag about his continued weapons training and the conditions both in camp and at the front.  He comments on the ton of mud that stuck to his boots while serving in the trenches in France, and that his feet were never warm.  A highlight for him, despite the circumstances, was being in isolation with measles which took him away from the action during November 1917.

In March 1918 Arthur wrote about another break from the front: “We are away behind the line just now, & it is just alright to be there. Four of us are doing guard work in a small village just now. I can hear those guns roaring away, I simply hate the sound, & I don’t want to be any closer to them but I suppose we will soon be up near them again.”

2014.61.41Another common theme in Arthur’s letters is his love of his hometown Wanganui, and he often expresses the desire to return to the quiet town and live out his life in peace.  However, Arthur did not come home again; he was killed in action on 24th August 1918 at Bapaume, France, aged 35 years.  He is buried at the Grevillers British Cemetery at Pas-de-Calais.

2014.61.22Throughout the letters, Arthur refers to his friend who was also Mag’s sweetheart.  Duncan “Mack” MacKinnon was from Edinburgh, Scotland, but enlisted in the 10th Reinforcements New Zealand Engineers of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.  Mack embarked to Suez, Egypt, on 4th March 1916, but this collection includes only one of his letters, which he wrote to Mag on 28th May 1918.  He thanks her for the portrait she sent but writes that he is awaiting “the other one”, stating he wished he could be there to take it himself but it would require them having the house to themselves to do so rather than risking it by ‘their tree’ or round by the lake.  There is no mention if this photograph was created or received.

Mack survived the war.  He sent a telegram to Mag in February 1920 saying he had been demobilised and would return home, but he didn’t make it back to New Zealand until May.  They wasted no time and were married before the year had finished.

My Dearest Mag…

As World War I centenary celebrations are carried out, we remember the people involved; those at the front and those at home, and sometimes the romantic links between them.

The Whanganui Regional Museum was recently donated a letter written by Duncan “Mack” MacKinnon, to his sweetheart Mag (Margaret) Wilson, of Whanganui.  Mack served in the Navy and wrote this letter while in port on 25th May 1918.  He writes that he loves her and wishes he could be with her, but also has an interesting photographic request and some keen observations on the local ladies.  The original letter had very little punctuation with only four full-stops over all three pages, so it has been added to the transcription.

Read on…

2014.61.8 address

H.M. “Flying Foam”

C/o G.P.O. London

28th May 1918

 My Dearest Mag,

Just a few lines in answer to your welcome letter, which I received just before we came away from our base. I mean the one with the little photo in it.  Is very like you dear, but my word why didn’t you smile instead of looking so serious? But I wouldn’t have minded it for anything Mag dear! You can depend I will look well after it but of course, greedy like I am, waiting until the other one comes. Of course I had to have another look in the envelope to see if you had sent my mascot but no such luck, unless it is on the road now. Now you be a little sport & send the lot if you have not already done so. Wish I was only there to take it myself. My word, I bet you would make a fuss! Of course we would have to wait until we had the house to ourselves as I think that would be rather a dangerous job under our old tree or round by the lake, what say you dearest? But I think I would risk it no matter where it was. I have your photo in front of me now & I fancy I can see you laugh as I write this.

2014.61.8 little sport

I am rather amused about what you tell me about Schniede, Mag dear.  But strange, Mag, I always thought to myself that he would never so any good, & the way he was carrying on things like that leak out & soon quite a lot of people get to know about it on the quick, & you know what like a place Wanganui is for gossip. I got to know quite a lot of things, & about people, with knowing Jim Barry. Of course, they make that their business.

2014.61.8 photograph

The picture at the top of this is the entrance to where our base is, although you can’t see the wharfs. We always lie off this pier you see in the picture. A little further out than those little sailing boats you see a little further round is a another pier, although you can’t see it, reserved for ladies if you please for bathing. I often watch them with the glasses when we are in, bobbing up & down & cutting all the capers imaginable. Some of them have got a nasty habit of keeping their behinds well out of the water, especially those built like Mrs McIntyre! Dinkum, if you were only close enough you could smack them with a stick. I don’t think any of them have got any mascots, at least I can’t see any with the glasses but it’s great sport watching them. Of course, if they only knew any one was spying on them there would be a general clear out. I wish you were only among the lot Mag dear, I would soon spot you & then chaff the life out of you afterwards about it.

Well dear, since we came round to this new base we have had hardly any time to ourselves, we have been kept that busy. But I wouldn’t mind that if I could see the end of it in sight & I was on my way back again. I know it will be a great relief.

My 2nd is going to bring his wife over here next month. He belongs to Bristol & has four of a family – three girls & a boy. The girls are all well up & quite able to look after the house while the mother is away.

Well, Mag dearest, news is about as scarce as hens’ teeth until I get your letters so will have to close with kind regards to all, & with lots of love & thousands of kisses from one who loves you dearly.

2014.61.8 kisses

I remain your loving sweetheart,

Duncan MacKinnon

P.S. Have you been pinching any more bike pumps?



His charm and charisma worked on Mag and the couple were married when Mack returned to New Zealand in 1920.

A Treasure Trove of Moa in Whanganui

Last week the Moa Gallery opened at the Whanganui Regional Museum in Stage I of a visible-storage project that sees the entire moa bone collection out of boxes in the basement to where people can see it, both in display cases and on the internet. But why is the moa collection so important? Why put it all on display?

North Island giant moa (Dinornis novaezealandiae)

North Island giant moa (Dinornis novaezealandiae)

Whanganui has been known for its moa bones since the earliest days of European settlement. As far back as the 1850s Anglican missionary Richard Taylor collected enormous bones from old pa sites and sent them to the eminent zoologist Professor Richard Owen in England. Owen was the first scientist to recognise that these bones could only be from a giant flightless bird, and coined the name Dinornis for them; a “terrible bird” in the same way a dinosaur was a “terrible lizard”.

Moa bones are found throughout the country, and collecting them was a popular hobby from the 19th century onward, so most museums in New Zealand have a moa collection. You can find the bones in caves from birds that wandered in, or fell down sinkholes; in dunes, where the shifting sand covered and protected their skeletons; or in swamps, where moa were trapped and sank into the mire, accumulating in huge numbers over the centuries.

The 1937 excavation at Todd’s Hole

The 1937 excavation at Todd’s Hole

As more of the pool was extracted, excavation continued as walls were built to hold back the liquid mud

As more of the pool was extracted, excavation continued as walls were built to hold back the liquid mud

One such moa death trap was near Ūpokongaro, up the Makirikiri Valley, in a swampy pool named Todd’s Hole on the Todd Family Farm. Beneath a thin crust of soil was a funnel of liquid mud full of moa bones, plus a few more from farm stock that had wandered in more recently. At first the bones could be just yanked out with an iron claw, but when the vast size of the deposit became clear, representatives from the Museum, with a £1200 excavation budget, began a proper excavation. Over 1937 and 1938 a crane, bucket and sluice were built, hundreds of cubic yards of mud sorted through by hand and about 2,000 moa bones extracted, cleaned and sorted.

Back at the Museum, the Curator George Shepherd began assembling skeletons from the pile of bones, putting together 10 in all. In those days moa classification was not well understood and many species were thought to be represented in the find, some from just a single bone.

Today with the help of DNA we can put the bones from Makirikiri into just three species: Mantell’s moa, a small species found around forest edges and wetlands; the bush moa, another small slender species that lived in the forest and seems to have been the most common kind of moa in the area; and the North Island giant moa, with gigantic females 1.5 m at the shoulder and weighing perhaps 200 kg, with males only half that size.

Photo of the Makirikiri Moa skeletons in the new Museum wing 1968. They’ve since been reassembled into positions more like those of a living moa.

Photo of the Makirikiri Moa skeletons in the new Museum wing 1968. They’ve since been reassembled into positions more like those of a living moa.

The skeletons were put on display in the Museum and the rest of the bones put in storage until they were re-examined in the late 1980s by moa expert Trevor Worthy. He was the first to recognise that the moa collection from Whanganui was of international importance. Although other large moa deposits had been discovered, especially in the South Island, most of those bones had been sent around the world, traded, lost, or destroyed. The Whanganui collection is one of the most important in the world because it has stayed almost completely intact, which lets scientists study an entire community of moa trapped in the swamp over thousands of years: their age, growth rate, size and male/female ratio.

These bony rings support the trachea, or windpipe, of a moa and are sometimes found in a pile in the middle of a very well-preserved skeleton.

These bony rings support the trachea, or windpipe, of a moa and are sometimes found in a pile in the middle of a very well-preserved skeleton.

The moa species that ate leaves and twigs would also swallow small stones, known as gastroliths or gizzard stones, to help grind up their food, in the same way chickens swallow pebbles and grit. Sometimes one or two kilograms of smooth stones can be found in a pile in a sand dune long after the rest of the moa skeleton has crumbled away.

The moa species that ate leaves and twigs would also swallow small stones, known as gastroliths or gizzard stones, to help grind up their food. Sometimes one or two kilograms of smooth stones can be found.

The goal of the Museum is to make this collection accessible by putting it all on exhibition and also by photographing, registering, and 3D-scanning the bones so everyone in the world can see them, not just people able to visit Whanganui. The whole process will be happening in the gallery itself, where visitors can watch and ask questions. We’re hoping that our moa collection will put Whanganui on the map, not only for moa biologists but for anyone interested in these amazing giant extinct birds.


Dr Mike Dickison is the Curator of Natural History at the Whanganui Regional Museum.

Music from The Great War

Deborah Wai Kapohe checks out some century-old sheet music.

Deborah Wai Kapohe checks out some century-old sheet music.

Sheet music from many ages abounds in the Whanganui Regional Museum, and examples from the era of World War 1 will come in useful as the centenary of the Great War looms.  Deborah Wai Kapohe, Wanganui District Council arts facilitator – and opera singer of note – and Libby Sharpe, museum curator, recently brought out some of the collection and talked about the songs.
“This came out of a meeting we had with the museum, the heritage library, the Sarjeant Gallery, all the Queens Park collecting institutions, in direct relation to World War 1 centenary projects,” Deborah says.
With her musical background and Libby’s interest in historical music, it was a foregone conclusion that songs from 1914-18 would somehow feature in the planning.  “These collections have never really been looked at properly, not been catalogued, so I knew there were secret treasures awaiting,” says Libby.
“I was looking for World War 1 New Zealand songs for possible community fundraising projects,” says Deborah, “for a concert or series of concerts, and perhaps to record a few of the best – just simple piano and voice – for people to download from the internet.”
The museum’s sheet music comes from a half dozen large collections donated over the years, some from families, some from music teachers.  “Some 200 war songs were written and published in New Zealand during World War 1,” says Libby, “and some of those were published in Wanganui. I’m assuming there were also some Wanganui composers and librettists.”
Libby sees the music as historical documents, as well as published songs. “There seems to be a general trend,” she says, “that songs at the beginning of the war were patriotic, but as the war progressed they became more mournful. I think that’s an interesting progression. I also think some of the artwork reproduced on the pages is worth looking at. It was the advertising of the day.”
For Deborah it is the music. An accomplished sight reader, she says she can hear the music in her head. She says she can see a simple concert project with music and perhaps readings of letters from the war. “It’s about what happened here at home as well as overseas.”
One of the songs is The Call of the Fern Leaf, (music by Godfrey Copley, words by Alfred S Hughes) from a time when the leaf of the fern was a symbol of New Zealand nationhood, and Pakeha children born in this country were referred to as ‘fern leaves’.  The artwork on the sheet music is a collection of Kiwiana of the day, complete with bandaged, moustached soldier, and it looks like it was executed in crayon. “As a work of art it’s a bit twee,” says Libby, “But as a representation of feeling or sentiment, it’s amazing.”
Another patriotic piece by Copley is Anzac Memories, Poppies of Flanders (for piano and cornet), the art work of which depicts a lonely moon over a graveyard of crosses, the picture surrounded by bright red poppies and a soldier wearing a ‘lemon squeezer’.


Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek on 24th July 2013. Reproduced with permission from the publishers.

Early School Memories

Education has been an important feature of the Whanganui region since its earliest beginnings. For Māori most learning was done within the whanau, but there were also schools of special learning. With the arrival of Christian missionaries English-style schools were set up. Because of the importance the local community placed on learning, Whanganui became the education centre of the central North Island.

The school logbook was used by the head teacher to record the activities of each day. Attendance records, punishments, problems and the weather were constantly commented on. The quotes used here come from the Brunswick School and Kai Iwi School logbooks, dated between 1880 and 1915.

The School

Yesterday the School was used for election purposes and when I opened the school in the morning I found things had been left upside down generally. I insisted upon the Returning Officer, who came along at the time, putting things as they were found. I really think, when the school is used for any purpose outside school work it should be left as found especially as I am responsible for the care taken of the school and its furniture. The Returning Officer seemed to think that it was the teacher’s place to put things straight.

 Found on opening the school that the seat of a long desk had been broken during last night’s church service: reported matter.

Throughout today the ponies in school grounds having been quarrelling and squealing at 3.20 pm one of them kicked the school porch breaking one of the boards.

Gonville School Staff in about 1915. Back row: Miss D Martin, Mr W Williams, Miss K McCormick, Miss S T Andrews, Miss M S Tuffin, Mr C H Bowater, Miss M Curham. Front row: Mr H Wood, Mr S H Gould

Gonville School Staff in about 1915. Back row: Miss D Martin, Mr W Williams, Miss K McCormick, Miss S T Andrews, Miss M S Tuffin, Mr C H Bowater, Miss M Curham. Front row: Mr H Wood, Mr S H Gould


Attendance was often irregular for a variety of reasons.

Robert absent for week. Doctor suspects scarlet fever symptoms.

Weather wet. Attendance very bad only 2 girls present.

Attendance this week has been very poor owing to harvesting in the district.

Fine weather this week.  Elder boys kept at home to assist with ploughing and planting.

Race day: only 19 scholars in attendance.

Harvest Festival put together by Central Infants School pupils, who colloquially referred to themselves as the Sinful Infants, 1921

Harvest Festival put together by Central Infants School pupils, who colloquially referred to themselves as the Sinful Infants, 1921


Monthly exam. P2 Work needing most attention Arithmetic, Geography & Drawing.

Have adopted a new plan for the drawing lessons and am trying figures of birds and animals to be copied from B.B. These at any rate, are more interesting to the children than the conventional figures they are so tired of. Took a pig and a rooster this week and, for first attempts, got some very good work.

Arithmetic in Standard V is rather weak. In St II it seems to be very fair; but very foolish mistakes are sometimes made. Recitation throughout the school is now very good. There sometimes seems to be some of the old carelessness left even yet, but it does not often crop up.

Queens Park School newly built in 1920

Queens Park School newly built in 1920


Planting and maintaining a good school garden was considered useful training and had special resonance in rural areas.

Garden Tools: 5 Spades, 5 Digging forks, 5 Dutch hoes, 5 Garden rakes, 6 Hand forks

The following seeds were planted today: 1 pkt cabbage (Enfields Market.2oz S. Ammonia), 1 Row onions (Giant Rocca 1oz Super Phos), 1 Row onions, (Giant Rocca 1oz Sul. Ammonia), 1 Row Potatoes (British Green ½lb Nitrate Soda), 1 British Green (½lb Blood), 1 Row Beet, (¼lb S. Ammonia), 3 Rows Purple Top. (3oz Blood), 3 Rows Purple Top (3oz Superphosphate).

The weather continues fine and favours the gardening.

Observed Arbour Day when 50 hedge-plants were planted along the road-side.

St Johns Infant School, Primer III class, 1915

St Johns Infant School, Primer III class, 1915

The Teacher

Taking lessons seemed to be only a small part of the teacher’s job.

Received note from Mr. B objecting to his son remaining after school to take part with others in sweeping the school. Answered that school cleaning was in the hands of the Committee … It was decided that the Committee cannot force a child to take part in sweeping if its parents object.

Lunches have been missed from school porch this week. Boys suspected one of the Primers as the culprit. Have been informed that the thefts were committed by a certain stray dog which took bag, lunch etc.

Pupils and staff of Raumai School, 1920.

Pupils and staff of Raumai School, 1920.


Children were physically punished for many different reasons.

Five boys stayed at dinner-hour in paddock (to which they are allowed to go to play cricket) 15 minutes after time. Caned them according to age and size. Lost time to be made up at Playtime tomorrow.

I have found it necessary to cane all pupils in 2nd Standard for not learning the Spelling lesson with meanings.

Caned John for carelessness in Arithmetic … after caning him I observed that he managed to get the whole perfectly correct without being shown a single sum.

Caned David (6) for stealing an apple from the school porch.

Brunswick School, 1922

Brunswick School, 1922


Without modern medicines children were often absent, sometimes for quite long periods.

Found on one child tiny white nits adhering to the hair: reported matter to the Chairman suggesting that notices to parents should be sent direct from Committee as such a notice coming from a teacher would entail endless disputes with parents.

Four pupils are at home with Influenza, while a new epidemic is now visiting us in the shape of sore throats accompanied by troublesome swellings. Am seriously contemplating interviewing the Chairman re closing the school for a week.

Kaitoke School pupils with teacher and school dog, 1902

Kaitoke School pupils with teacher and school dog, 1902


Important occasions were often celebrated with a holiday.

Tomorrow is a general holiday for all schools on account of Election Day.

School closed Nov. 18th Wanganui Agricultural & Pastoral Show – People’s Day.

The Committee at its monthly meeting last evening decided to forego the usual annual picnic and ask the pupils to make the proceeds as a present to the Belgium Relief Fund …


The Whanganui Regional Museum has been working to the beat of the drum recently, courtesy of the New Zealand Army.  The army has been carrying out military exercises and training in the region over the last week, culminating in a series of marching drills and band practices on the forecourt in front of the Museum building.


As well as this, the troupe have been undertaking manoeuvres with Light Armoured Vehicles and weapons, with blank firing happening on occasion.  A “beat-the-retreat” ceremony will be taking place today (September 16th) at 4pm to round out the week of exercises and the public are welcome to attend and view the precision.

Durie Hill – The Garden Suburb

View from Victoria Avenue looking at Durie Hill, 1918

View from Victoria Avenue looking at Durie Hill, 1918

Durie Hill is named after Major David Stark Durie who arrived in New Zealand in March 1840. In the 1850s he was appointed Resident Magistrate in Whanganui. He built his home, Glen Durie, on the hill across the river from town.

Working Bee on Durie Hill Steps, 1910

Working Bee on Durie Hill Steps, 1910

In the early days of the settlement Durie Hill’s height was both its best and worst asset. Its wonderful views were a short but energetic journey from town. Even though the first town bridge was opened in 1871 it was not until the early twentieth century that the development of the suburb began to take hold.

In July 1919 Samuel Hurst Seager, an acknowledged expert in town planning and garden cities, was in Whanganui. He had been engaged to lay out the site of a garden suburb on Durie Hill. At the time there was a huge amount of enthusiasm for the idea of garden suburbs throughout New Zealand.

View from Victoria Avenue to Durie Hill under snow, 1901

View from Victoria Avenue to Durie Hill under snow, 1901

Seager said the sixty two acre site on Durie Hill was ideal for the purpose. The estate was to be developed on true garden suburb lines “not only must the site be subdivided for the houses, but there must be a good proportion laid out for the amenities of life.” There were to be recreation grounds with children’s play areas, croquet lawns, tennis courts, and bowling greens, and also quiet places, well planted with shrubs and flowers.

Paramount to the design was the idea that the houses would be sited in such a way that the greatest possible number would be able to enjoy the view. He also remarked that Durie Hill would be an ideal site for a residential college or other similar educational facility.

Access to the top of the hill had been a problem for many decades and even improved roads only made the journey tolerable. The opening of the new elevator on 2 August 1919 by Mrs W. Polson greatly assisted the growth and development of the new garden suburb.

The views from Durie Hill, now officially a suburb of Whanganui, was just a pleasant ten minute walk and a short elevator ride from the Central Post Office.

View from Durie Hill overlooking Whanganui town

View from Durie Hill overlooking Whanganui town