Month: February 2015

Fire on Ridgway Street

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On the evening of 8 and early morning of 9 February 1994 six heritage buildings in Ridgway Street burnt to the ground in a spectacular blaze described by a senior firefighter as the worst fire in Whanganui in the 20th century.  The fire was well established by the time the fire brigade arrived and took more than 65 firefighters two hours to bring under control. Senior Firefighter Peter Langford’s first impression was of … a mass of flame … obviously this was a big job, we needed backup and as soon as possible. Four appliances from Whanganui, one from Palmerston North and volunteer units from Feilding, Waitōtara, Marton, Bulls and Rātana were called to the blaze.

1. WC 774-7The heat was extreme, absolutely extreme … (Senior Firefighter Duncan Troughton) and … flames were in fact roaring out at ground level and curling back… into the windows of the next level up …  What really surprised us … was that the tar on the road itself was actually alight. That’s something we don’t often see. (Peter Langford)

Firefighters also battled to save buildings on the opposite side of the street as the intensity of the blaze blistered paint and shattered glass.  Several shops, a law office, an architectural office and two flats were completely destroyed.

2. WC 780-1It is like starting again – we have lost everything – we did have a fire-proof cabinet but the intensity of the fire destroyed everything in it.  Mark Southcombe Architect (Wanganui Chronicle 10 February 1994)

Solicitor Terry Refoy Butler, who on Tuesday night watched his office… burned to the ground, had an anxious 10 hours until firemen yesterday recovered his deed box and other important legal documents from the old fire safe. (Wanganui Chronicle 10 February 1994)

Numerous fires have occurred in Ridgway Street over the past 140 years.  One of the greatest fires in the history of Whanganui started at 11am on Christmas Day 1868 when a recently erected American bowling saloon in Ridgway Street caught alight. Desperate efforts were made to confine the blaze but, fanned by a strong wind from the north west, the fire soon spread to the Howe’s Assembly Room building next door and then to the Rutland Hotel.

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With no public water supply, a double bucket line was set up to pass water between the river and the fire but to no avail. The wind changed and flames from the Rutland Hotel blew towards buildings opposite and soon the military hospital was alight.  Patients were quickly evacuated.  Three further buildings burnt down while “good people carried trays of watches and jewellery from Robinson’s, cloth from Harding’s, bottles from Gower’s, and sundries from all three to the Oddfellows’ Hall, but many things had to be left”. G F Allen).  A barber’s shop in Victoria Avenue was pulled down to stop the fire spreading further. It finally burnt out at about 3.00 pm.

4. B-H-084Within 12 months a new and larger Rutland Hotel rose from the ashes of the old one.  But in 1880 there was a minor kitchen fire in May and a major conflagration in September where the fire started upstairs in a bedroom and destroyed the interior of the hotel.

… the strained attention of the large crowd of spectators was focused on the adventuresome firemen as they challenged the flames, which seemed to engulf the whole building.  Wanganui Herald 5 September 1880

In 1904 the hotel was again rebuilt on a much grander scale. Architect A Atkins produced a design for a three storey brick building with a dome on the corner, and six shops and 17 offices on the ground floor.  On 30 December 1946 the fire alarm sounded yet again for the Rutland Hotel on Ridgway Street. The fire was on the first floor so guests were evacuated from the verandah roof. Within thirty minutes the top floor was burning furiously and the roof had collapsed.

The hotel was again evacuated when, in 1983, fire hit once more. The Fire Brigade was able to contain the fire to one room. In 1986 the hotel was closed, the fittings sold, and the building fell into disrepair and neglect. A major refurbishment was completed in 1993. Fortunately, the only damage that occurred during the 1994 fire in Ridgway Street was blistering of the new paint.

The 1868 fire was commemorated in a poem by Laura Taylor, the daughter of Reverend Richard Taylor and his wife Mary Caroline Taylor.

 Wanganui, Christmas 1868

All hail, all hail, this bright December morn

It is the day our Saviour Christ was born

And early in this town the church bells chimed

I liked to hear them, tho’ they brought to mind

Many sad thoughts! Of Christmas days long past

And more than all, of how we spent the last…

But thoughts have carried me far, far, away

The subject I resume and try to tell

Of all I saw today; and what befell

Poor Wanganui – The people in their best,

Did soon assemble – many gaily dressed

To join in worship to our Sovereign Lord

And also to listen to his Holy Word.

The prayers were scarcely o’er e’er dread alarm

The fire bell rang; the people quickly swarm

To lend their aid, and soon a goodly band

Was there: ready to work with heart and hand

It was indeed too true, the town on fire!

See the black smoke, the flames are rising higher

Yes, higher still they rise & soon will catch

A second house tho’ all are on the watch

Alas! The want of engines now is felt,

All they can do is form a double belt;

The water quickly hand from each to each

Until the dreadful flames at last they reach

All did not much avail, the fire still spread

The smoke and blaze – are curling overhead

The large hotel the Rutland soon burnt down

It was the very best we had in town

Unfortunate; the wind was very high

And far and wide the burning sparks did fly

The flames soon crossed the street, & then the sight

Was grand indeed! though fearful to recite

From out the windows – bright red tongues of fire

With scorching heat, soon made the crowd retire

And then you saw one high and burning mass,

A minute more it fell with a loud crash.

In this way up the street it quickly passed

And anxiously we hoped each would be the last

At last providentially the wind did drop

And slightly changed, or else we feared the block

In which the bank now stands, could not be saved

And those nice shops where all the street is paved

They pulled some houses down to make a gap

And tried to put an end to this mishap

So after all the dreadful enemy

Was conquered, but – his ravages you see

The blackened ruins all lie smouldering there

Which but this morning looked so fresh and fair

It was indeed a grievous sight to see

Poor women with their goods; who tried to flee

From the fierce fire; and then in safety place

The little treasures, which their homes did grace

The streets were filled with furniture and goods

And busy carts were carrying great loads

Yet some bad boys, who could no pity feel

Were looking round to see what they could steal

Their hearts; if hearts they ever had

I’m sure indeed they must be very bad

To rob, and steal when folks are in distress

And thus to make their little savings less

And now I’ve told you all about the fire

From public view I think I must retire

And hope that when I wish to write again

A more propitious subject I may pen

Three fires in sixty eight which now is gone

In sixty nine may we ne’er hear of one

The summer comes apace, with it our friends

Then let us hope that these sad times will mend.

To selfie, or not to selfie

Love them or hate them, selfie sticks are very popular for those who don’t have arms long enough to take a good self portrait with their phone/digital camera.  Rather than take a tripod with you and set up the timer on your camera, the small collapsible sticks are easier to use and transport.  But, they pose a certain danger to Museums and the artworks and artifacts on display.

Several museums around the world have introduced a ban on selfie sticks.  The ban is not a social commentary on the equally loved and loathed sticks that seem to divide popular opinion, but rather a safety mechanism for the collections.  There have been unfortunate cases in the past where visitors with tripods have swung around the photography tool and accidentally ripped artworks or knocked over objects, and the selfie stick is seen by some institutions to offer the same threat and has been banned to try and prevent damage before it happens.

There have been a few notable instances of other damage to museums collection items.  In 2010 a woman accidentally fell into Pablo Picasso’s The Actor; and in 2006 a man tying his shoelaces slipped and smashed three Qing dynasty vases.

In New Zealand, Te Papa has bravely declared they don’t have a problem with the sticks and their visitors are welcome to use them in the spaces where photography is permitted.  As for us, we have a blanket policy of no photography within the galleries, and that includes the sticks.

Why we use Latin names

While filling a display case with native birds of the Whanganui area, we were writing labels, which is not as easy as you’d think. Which of several English names should you use (Waxeye, Silvereye, or White-eye)? Māori names also vary from place to place – Bellbirds are both korimako and makomako. My suggestion: add Latin names to the labels, to make things clearer.

The Bellbird (Anthornis melanura) has its habits and distinctive features captured in its name: a flower-bird (anthus ornis) with a black (melas) tail (oura).

The Bellbird (Anthornis melanura) has its habits and distinctive features captured in its name: a flower-bird (anthus ornis) with a black (melas) tail (oura).

Why use names in an obscure language like Latin? Centuries ago, Latin was the universal language of scholarship, spoken by natural historians and philosophers across Europe no matter what their mother tongue was. Animals and plants would be referred to by a short description in Latin, but you would never know if you and someone from a distant country were both talking about exactly the same bird or tree. In 1735 the Swede Carl von Linné – known in Latin as Carolus Linnaeus – invented a system of binomial naming, in which everything got a precise name with just two parts, a genus and a species (like Homo sapiens). By sticking to those Latin binomials, everybody could be sure they were talking about the same thing.

The kererū (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae) is especially well-named: a hemiphage is a “half-eater”, a description of the way this bird can swallow fruit as large as karaka berries, which then pass through its body half-digested and are deposited somewhere else to germinate and grow.

The kererū (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae) is especially well-named: a hemiphage is a “half-eater”, a description of the way this bird can swallow fruit as large as karaka berries, which then pass through its body half-digested and are deposited somewhere else to germinate and grow.

Nearly 300 years later, Latin names are still useful. Ninox novaeseelandiae got its scientific name back in 1788; in New Zealand it’s called a Morepork or ruru, but in Australia the same species is a Boobook Owl. A White Heron or kōtuku in Aotearoa is an Eastern Great Egret in Australia, but Ardea modesta in both places. A widespread bird or fish can have a dozen different common names but only one Latin name.

Scientific names are always written in italics, by the way, and the genus – the first part – always starts with a capital letter, while the species never does. The Wanganui Chronicle is one of the few newspapers that gets this right.

The tūī, once referred to as the Parson-bird for its clerical collar, has its white feathers captured in its Latin name, Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae: a prosthema is an appendage on the dera or neck.

The tūī, once referred to as the Parson-bird for its clerical collar, has its white feathers captured in its Latin name, Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae: a prosthema is an appendage on the dera or neck.

A recent book by Roger Lederer and Carol Burr sounds like the most boring title in the world: Latin for Birdwatchers. But it’s actually fascinating for someone who loves birds but might not have taken Latin in school to unpack familiar names and see how they make sense. The Kingfisher (Todiramphus sanctus) is a little bird (todus) with a big bill (Greek ramphos). Fantails belong to the genus Rhipidura: literally, fan (Greek rhipis) tail (oura). The New Zealand species is Rhipidura fuliginosa, or “sooty fantail” from the Latin fuligo or soot, because a small percentage of New Zealand fantails (especially in the South Island) are coal black.

The Harrier Hawk is in the genus Circus, which refers to a Roman circus or racecourse (not one with clowns), and describes the way these birds circle endlessly looking for prey.

The Harrier Hawk is in the genus Circus, which refers to a Roman circus or racecourse (not one with clowns), and describes the way these birds circle endlessly looking for prey.

Latin names aren’t just handy labels: they’re classifications, and designed to tell a story about the ancestry and relatedness of species. The common Blackbird (Turdus melura) is in the same genus as – and thus a close cousin of – the Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos), but also the American Robin (Turdus migratorius). American Robins are named after the European Robin (Erithacus rubecula) but are actually a type of thrush, as you can see from the name. New Zealand Robins aren’t robins either, but they’re close cousins of Tomtits or miromiro: both are in the genus Petroica.

The North Island Robin or toutouwai (Petroica longipes) is named for it habit of perching on the forest floor (petra, rock, and oikos, home) and its big feet (longus, long, and pes, foot).

The North Island Robin or toutouwai (Petroica longipes) is named for it habit of perching on the forest floor (petra, rock, and oikos, home) and its big feet (longus, long, and pes, foot).

Latin names aren’t perfect, of course. You can find at least five different renderings of “New Zealand” in Latin: novaezelandiae, novaezealandiae, novaeseelandiae, novae-zealandiae, and novae-zelandiae. And because names are classifications as well as labels, they can change as we get a better understanding of a group’s evolutionary history. Recently the many species of the popular native shrub Hebe were reclassified into the genus Veronica, and nurseries had to rewrite all their catalogues. This affects the Museum too; our moa bone collections were classified in 1988, but since then two of the three species have been given different names. Changing an electronic database is easy, but I’m hoping we don’t have to redo the labels in the bird case any time soon.

Chrysococcyx means golden cuckoo, and lucida, or shining, describes the iridescent greeny-gold plumage of the Shining Cuckoo or pīpīwharauroa.

Chrysococcyx means golden cuckoo, and lucida, or shining, describes the iridescent greeny-gold plumage of the Shining Cuckoo or pīpīwharauroa.


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

When the pen evolved into a machine

When the pen evolved into a machine

Before word documents, before word processors, even before dot matrix printers, there was the beast called a ‘typewriter’. On a variety of models were great novels written, duplicated via carbon paper and produced only in hard copy. Not a computer file to be found. Now, sadly, say some, the typewriter has been relegated to the museums as a historical oddity, a relic of that time before technology made us completely reliant on the national grid.
Deep beneath the museum, Yvonne O’Connor and I were looking at two early typewriters: A 1907 Royal Bar-Lock. and a (1893) US-made Blickensderfer with an unusual keyboard layout. Yvonne’s interest in these old machines stems from her mother’s advice to get a job as a secretary. Advice she took, although these days the job has evolved to encompass all aspects of administration. Her mum’s advice was more of an instruction, really, and one doesn’t argue with one’s mother. Yvonne says her mum gave her a toy typewriter one Christmas with a painted keyboard. She says you turned a dial to get the right letter then pushed a button to hammer it through the ribbon on to the paper.
“And that was my first typewriter,” says Yvonne, who then went on to Wairarapa College to take the commercial course, which included typing, shorthand and all things secretarial.
From black Imperials the class upgraded to the big, clunky grey models with keys that made a noise like a car door closing. Her typing teacher was a male, a Mr Boredman. He must have been a rarity.
The Blickensderfer is particularly interesting because a small wheel – a bit like the ‘golfball’ of much later electronic models – can be removed and replaced by another with a different font. Very advanced for 1893. The keyboard is not of the QWERTY variety either, but laid out in a way the designer thought was more efficient, with the most commonly used letters in the bottom row. The Blickensderfer did not use an inked ribbon. The lettered wheel touched a tiny ink pad on its way to the paper after the typist struck the key. This company, based in Stamford, Connecticut, would make the first electric typewriter.
The Royal Bar-Lock machine of 1907 is cluttered with a huge number of keys, but lacks a (usually) important one. There is no ‘shift’ key because each letter is represented in both upper and lower case. Both machines, however, are armed with the @ symbol … is it possible they were anticipating email more than 100 years ago?
“Sadly,” says Yvonne, “we’ve got no provenance on any of the typewriters except for the one used by Major Kemp.”
We spent ages observing and analysing each machine, looking at the differences and talking of things historical, discussing the evolution of the typewriter as a machine to save time, rather than just make the letters uniform and legible. Yvonne’s knowledge and extensive research on the subject made the time interesting and we had a look at the museum’s collection of similar machines as well as teleprinters, adding machines and other things of a bygone era. This story was written on a Dell keyboard using Cyberpage on a Dell screen.


Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek in April 2011.  Reproduced with permission from the Publishers.

Transforming Flow into Flour

Like most migrants, our earliest colonial settlers missed familiar foods from home, and in addition, New Zealand’s native food sources were often difficult to procure in edible form. Dairy and meat supplies were relatively straightforward to establish, but staples such as bread proved more difficult.
In 1813, Northland Chief Ruatara became the first Maori to cultivate wheat, which was ground using a hand-mill provided by Reverend Samuel Marsden. Hand mills were portable but broke easily, and were often thrown away rather than being repaired.

Mill at Pipiriki

Mill at Pipiriki

Mechanised flourmills quickly became the most widespread industry in New Zealand, and remained one of the largest local industries throughout the 19th century. Wanganui’s first wheat was grown by William Bell in Wanganui East in 1844, and the first local flourmill was built by Tom Higgie at Putiki in 1845. By the late 1800s, a further five mills had been built at Pipiriki, Matahiwi, Jerusalem, Koriniti, and Kaiwhaiki. They were among the earliest mills in operation in the country. A millstone from the Jerusalem mill is currently on display at the museum.

Kawana Mill, probably early 1900s

Kawana Mill, probably early 1900s

Kawana Mill, near Matahiwi, is the only one of these mills remaining. It is also the oldest water-powered flourmill still in existence in New Zealand. Kawana Mill – full name Kawana Kerei Mill – was named for Governor George Grey who donated the millstones as a personal gift to the Nga Poutama people. There was also a Kawana Kerei Mill at Pamangungu near Rotorua, although like most early mills this one has not survived.


The Matahiwi mill was built in 1854 by millwright Peter McWilliam using salvaged totara logs, millstones from Australia, and machinery and bearings from England. Canoes were used to transport the heavy millstones upriver. In contrast, stones for a mill at Waitotara had to be rolled from Wanganui by hand.
Richard Pestall from France was Kawana’s first miller. His son continued to operate the mill after his father’s death until the mill closed in 1900 and was abandoned in 1913. The mill has a 5 metre iron-and-timber high-breast wheel, with water supplied at above axle height. Overshot wheels (where water falls from above the wheel) are more efficient, but they are also more difficult and expensive to construct.

Kawana waterwheel prior to repair in the 1970s

Kawana waterwheel prior to repair in the 1970s

The 1.2 metre diameter millstones are made from quartz pieces fixed together with a cementing compound (the French traditionally used plaster of Paris), and trimmed to interlock and work as a single stone of even quality. They are bound with an iron hoop around the outer edge.
The bedstone is fixed with a flat but grooved upper surface, while the runner stone above it has a concave lower surface and rotates via a central shaft geared to the waterwheel outside. The bedstone’s dressings are carved in ‘French burr’ (cheese segment) fashion and allow flour to flow via centrifugal force from the central eye where grain is fed from the hopper above, out to the stones’ skirt and through a chute to a sack below.

Dresser at Kawana with internal rotating brushes for grading the flour

Dresser at Kawana with internal rotating brushes for grading the flour

Stones are ‘dressed’ using a small pick to ensure grooves remain clean. Blunt or clogged stones produce poor-quality flour – and can cause machinery to jam. The stones are housed in a wooden tun, with a wood-framed ‘horse’ above to support the feed hopper. Wooden cogs in the cast iron wheel reduce operational noise, and a leather strap across bottom of the hopper rang a bell to alert the miller when grain ran low.


After grinding, flour was cooled before being returned to the upper floor for grading using a wire mesh cylinder with waterwheel-driven internal brushes. Kawana Mill had three dressers positioned one above the other – Grade 1 flour was collected from lowest level.
The waterwheel and millstones at Kawana are authentic, but the mill building is a replica designed by architect Chris Cochran and opened by Governor-General Sir Keith Holyoake, in October 1980.


Article by Karen Wrigglesworth, local engineer and writer.

The 25 Pounder Gun


With the centenary of World War I now upon us there is currently a global interest in the recovery and conservation of military objects. These relics, many from both World Wars, are now eagerly sought after by Museums, collectors and historians. Fuelled by this enthusiasm, some of the world’s rarest military hardware is now being recovered from various sites and conserved. For many people these objects embody and symbolise the sacrifices made by our forebears, and their conservation will enable future generations to view, touch and appreciate what has gone before.

High on the list of the most interesting are artillery guns and the Whanganui Regional Museum has such a weapon in its collection. It is a 25 pounder Vickers Armstrong Mk2 /1 which was built around 1942. This type of gun is notable for being among the first light field artillery guns to embody the multiple role capabilities of field guns, anti-tank guns and howitzers all rolled into one. The Vickers Armstrong 25 pounder was considered by many to be the best light artillery gun of World War II. An additional benefit of its multi-role capability was that the Army could retire all of their howitzers and anti-tank guns and only had to mass produce one type of gun.

GL1All the Mark 1 25 pounders were sent to France. When the British withdrew from Dunkirk all had fallen into German hands. The Germans tested them and liked them so much that they kept them right to the end of the war; when their supplies of captured British ammunition ran out they manufactured their own. All subsequent 25 pounders were built from scratch as 25 pounders, as opposed to modified 18 pounders, and were designated Mk 2/1, signifying an all-new Mark 2 barrel in a Mark 1 frame.

GL2The Museum’s 25 pounder is one of these and was probably built in 1942 before being sent to New Zealand for army training and military exercises during the war. There is a possibility, however, that it may have been used by the New Zealand contingent that served in Korea. Because all the brass plaques that could have told us when it was made, which factory had built it and its service serial numbers, were removed, it is difficult to say where it was used with any certainty.

GL3Donated to the Whanganui Regional Museum by the New Zealand Army in 1979, this weapon was mounted in Queens Park until 2010 when it was removed so that the Wanganui Antiquities Trust could undertake a major conservation and stabilisation task upon it.


GL4Generously sponsored by Emmetts Civil Construction, the gun was lifted from its mount and transported to Boyds Auto Museum on Great North Road in Whanganui. There it was stripped of its smaller parts before being moved to Garmac Engineering for the removal of its axle, barrel and recoil frame and for an assessment of its overall condition.

GL5It then went to Edmonds Industrial Coatings where the myriad of parts were sandblasted to remove corrosion and lightly painted in preparation for later conservation. Corrosion was also removed from the frame and new steel added.


GL6Trips were made to New Zealand Army Museum in Waiouru so that missing parts could be identified, measured and photographed. A trip to Dannevirke by the team to visit veteran WWI gunner, Gordon Menzies, yielded a copy of an original 25 pounder parts manual.

To date all the major parts have been repaired, repainted and reassembled. All that remains to do now is the ancillary parts; these small parts are often more time consuming and require more skills than the large parts. With the barrel reinstalled and now back on its original wheels, the project completion is not far away.


By Geoff Lawson, Wanganui Antiquities Trust

You fixed it with what?!?

The Egyptian Museum in Cairo has recently come under fire for fixing an artifact with epoxy glue.  Oops!

The mask of King Tutankhamun was being cleaned when the iconic beard came off, and was rumoured to be hastily reattached with the inappropriate adhesive.  And poorly reattached too, with reports the remnants of the glue were visible to viewers of the object.

The Museum sector has guidelines for the correct materials and methods to be used in the conservation, preservation, and repair of historic items, and we do our best to stick to these rules as much as possible.  Acid-free, pH neutral, non-corrosive, and ideally reversible if need be.

For more information on caring for, and fixing, artifacts, check out the Canadian Conservation Institute here.  Or, visit your local museum or archive center for a chat with a friendly conservator or collection manager.  We are always willing to help!