Month: October 2017

Hōne Heke and the Flagpole

Getting close and personal with taonga (treasures) that speak of people and nations is one of the many things that make working at the Whanganui Regional Museum special. It would be easy to write a sexy piece about something elaborate or breath-taking, but I have chosen a very unassuming chunk of a painted wooden pole.

1. Flagpole

“Part of a flagpole”; one, in fact, cut down by Hone Heke. Ref: TH.1321

The label simply reads “TH.1231. Part of a flagpole”. Some pretty intense research, however, has revealed an amazing story. This 50cm length of flagpole is an important part of Aotearoa history; it is a section of the fourth flagstaff that the legendary Hōne Heke chopped down.

At school we were taught about this “troublemaker”, the flagpole-felling rebel who was finally subdued by Governor George Grey. But there is more to Hōne Heke than meets the eye.

Hōne Wiremu Heke Pōkai was a great rangatira (chief) and war strategist from Ngā Puhi, who was the first to sign Te Tiriti o Waitangi. After Māori leaders of The United Tribes signed the Declaration of Independence on 28 October 1835 and declared their sovereignty, Hōne gifted a flagstaff to Kororāreka (Russell) so that the United Tribes flag could be flown.

In 1836 King William IV sanctioned The United Tribes Declaration and the flag, making it our nation’s first official flag. Used until 1902, this flag featured on the medals presented to soldiers who served in the South African War (1899–1902).

2. First NZ flag

 The first NZ flag, sanctioned by King William IV in 1836 and used until 1900, was chosen by Māori of the United Tribes who signed the Declaration of Independence on 28 October 1835.
Source:, the website of Manatū Taonga-Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Licensed by Manatū Taonga-Ministry for Culture and Heritage for re-use under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 3.0 New Zealand License.

After the signing of the Tiriti o Waitangi, Governor Hobson had the United Tribes flag removed from the flagstaff and flew the British flag there. Hōne Heke saw this as a rejection of the equal status of Māori with the government. He wished to show his objection without hurting or alarming settlers so cut his flagstaff down on 8 July 1844, and wrote to the new Governor Fitzroy on 19 June:

 Friend Governor… I am thinking of leaving off my rude conduct towards the Europeans. Now I say that I will prepare another pole … in order to put an end to our present quarrel. … The pole that was cut down belonged to me, I made it for the native flag, and it was never paid for by the Europeans.

The flagstaff was replaced and the British flag re-flown, increasing Māori disquiet. Hōne cut down replacement flagstaffs on 10 January and 18 January 1845. A military presence was established in Kororāreka in February and Governor Fitzroy posted a £100 reward for the arrest of Hōne Heke. It is rumoured that Heke responded by offering a £100 reward for the governor’s head!

On 30 December 1897 the Wanganui Chronicle published a letter by Samuel Drew, our Museum founder, stating that James J Clendon Esq, RM, sent him the piece of flagpole and “vouched” its authenticity. Clendon was a ship owner and captain before settling in Pēwhairangi (Bay of Islands) in 1832. A successful merchant, farmer, JP, Police Magistrate, and eventually Magistrate of the Court, he collected the pole whilst holding the position of Police Magistrate. The article reads:

… the last chopping down of this staff that was the starting point of that Hone Heke war which proved so disastrous to our troops. …  He considered that while the British flag was floating there the Pakeha would acquire Maori land and with it a power that would oust the Maori, much in the same way as the white people were doing in Van Dieman’s Land and Australia …

Drew continued:

… to prevent any more chopping iron plates were fastened round its base, and a block house built round it so that the staff came through the centre of the roof. This time it was left unmolested until March 11th, 1845, when in the first grey of the morning an attack was made. … The strong iron casing on the flagstaff did not protect it for the Maoris quickly dug below the iron and soon chopped it through. Here it fell and lay on the ground for many years. … Our soldiers were afterwards sent several times to chastise Heke. He was a noble old warrior and fought well, and was never beaten, but our troops suffered severely in the assaults on their strong pahs.

This plain, humble piece of wood is the essence of our nation’s history.


Āwhina Twomey is Kaitiaki Taonga Māori and Kaiwhakaako at Whanganui Regional Museum.


The Mysterious Adzebill

New Zealand was once home to many flightless birds. Some, like the moa, are well-known, but others, like our flightless ducks, geese, and owlet-nightjar, are familiar mostly to palaeontologists. One bird that deserves to be better known is the mysterious adzebill.

1. Adzebill Martinson

A North Island adzebill (Aptornis otidiformis) eyes up a tuatara in a 2005 painting by Paul Martinson.
Photo: Te Papa / CC-BY-NC-ND

There were two species of adzebills, Aptornis otidiformis in the North Island and Aptornis defossor in the South. Both were huge. When their bones were first discovered, they were mistaken for a small moa. Fully-grown birds would have weighed perhaps 20 kg, larger than a swan or pelican.

Adzebills had massive heads with heavy down-curved beaks. The beaks tapered to a point, and Dr Richard Holdaway, who coined the name “adzebill”, once confessed to me that “pick-bill” would have been more accurate. The robust vertebrae in their neck would have anchored strong muscles and allowed them to deliver a powerful blow.

These birds also had massive feet, with strong tendons, that would have made them good at digging. For some time biologists debated what they ate. Did they dig up roots, pluck leaves or break apart rotten logs? Their beak wasn’t hooked like a bird of prey.

A technique called stable isotope analysis which lets us analyse animals from the composition of bone – you are what you eat – revealed that adzebills were carnivores. We can imagine them tearing open trees for huhu grubs, plucking lizards or baby birds off the forest floor, digging up giant earthworms, and excavating tuatara, or even nesting seabirds, out of their burrows.

A second mystery was what adzebills were, exactly. They didn’t resemble rails like the weka or takahē, and for some time were put in their very own family. Some ornithologists thought their closest relative was the flightless kagu of New Caledonia. Others thought it belonged with chicken-like South American birds called trumpeters. The debate continued fruitlessly for decades.

Alex Boast is a PhD candidate at the University of Auckland, working on ancient DNA. Improved techniques now allow us to recover and examine fragments of DNA from bones and eggshell of extinct birds, not enough for Jurassic Park cloning, but enough to construct a family tree and determine their nearest relatives. Alex analysed adzebill DNA and compared them to numerous other birds, and the results suggest that adzebills are not kagus, or trumpeters. They are flufftails.

2. Flufftail Keugelmans

The white-spotted flufftail (Sarothrura pulchra), painted by John Keulemans in 1894. This delicate little bird seems to be the adzebill’s closest living relative.
Ref: Wikimedia Commons

Flufftails (nine species in the genus Sarothrura) are secretive ground-dwelling birds about the size of a starling, rusty brown and spotted. They do indeed have fluffy tails. What’s unusual is that flufftails are all found in Africa, and on the island of Madagascar, nowhere near New Zealand.

Africa and New Zealand were once connected as part of the supercontinent Gondwana of course, and fossils tell us that adzebills have been here for millions of years, plenty of time for their ancestors to get here and evolve into a giant flightless predator. Intriguingly, the kiwi seems to have done the same thing. Its closest relative is another African species, the elephant bird of Madagascar. The difference is, while one flightless bird survived the arrival of human beings and became the symbol of New Zealand, the other was wiped out. The not-so-mysterious adzebill is now mostly forgotten.


Dr Mike Dickison is curator of natural history at the Whanganui Regional Museum.

Wanganui Swankers’ Club

1. Swankers photo

Members of the Wanganui Swankers’ Club dressed in full Swanker regalia while engaged in a public fund-raising event. With them is a woman dressed in a Red Cross Nurse’s uniform and a bulldog, presumably a mascot. This dates to World War I when the Swankers focused on supporting the Red Cross and its nurses.  Ref: 1988.67.10

The Wanganui Swankers’ Club was formed during World War I to raise funds for patriotic purposes, supporting in particular the Red Cross and Red Cross Nurses; hence, the red cross is part of the Wanganui Swankers’ Club badge. The Club ran from 1915 to 1929, in its later years raising funds for a wider range of charities. Concerts, Mardi Gras and other functions were held where all members appeared in top hat and tails. Among its well-known members in Whanganui were Bert Fry, A Trelord and F Donaldson Senior. One member used to ride a horse to its functions but he still wore the official uniform of top hat and tails.

Swankers, as members were called, had a light-hearted approach to a serious purpose.The word swanker means a dashing, smartly-dressed or stylish man. Swankers wore a distinctive garb of top hat and tails, usually teamed with formal striped trousers and spats.

2. Swankers certificate

Swankers’ Club membership certificate accepting George Goldsack as a member, 1926. Ref: 1972.68.4

And anything for a laugh! For example, a Swankers’ Club membership certificate in the Museum collection has a comic drawing of a man in top hat and tails standing beneath the Swankers’ Club logo. Made out to George Goldsack, the certificate reads “This is to Certify that Mr G Goldsack has been duly accepted and admitted a member of the Swankers’ Club, he being a fully qualified, inveterate and accomplished Swanker”.  It is signed by “Ikan Kiddem, Swanker scribe”.

The Dominion newspaper edition of 15 November 1916 provides a brief, and facetious, history of the Swankers. Originating in London, the Swankers’ Club “found its way to Wanganui, where it was taken up by a number of good sports, who are really only waiting for avenues of usefulness outside the Avenue that divides the city into two halves.” It goes on to describe members as those who are too old or infirm to fight but who wish sincerely to support the war effort. They have no ties or obligations to the London Swankers; the allegiance they hold is to “… the Empire, and they mean to hang together until smiling peace glorifies the world once more”.

At this stage, in 1916, there were about 200 Wanganui members who had already raised over £1,000 for the Red Cross.

After the war, the Swankers were very active during the Influenza Epidemic of 1918-19. Members continued to raise money for the Red Cross and to establish and maintain the Wanganui-Waitotara Patriotic Society and support other charities. Swankers did themselves proud while raising funds as is evident in a menu designed to feed the dancers at a Charity Ball in 1922. Laid out in seven courses, the menu had several luxury dishes in each, including whitebait, oyster patties, sardine eclairs and Charlotte Russe. Soup was served as the guests departed.

3. Swankers badge

This nine carat gold badge was designed for the Wanganui Swankers’ Club. Five small imitation rubies are set within a cross flanked by two fern fronds, reflecting the Wanganui Swankers’ allegiance to the International Red Cross.  Ref: 2005.67

The Swankers’ fund raising events were very successful. In 1923, for example, their “Help the Blind” appeal raised £1,217, a considerable sum at that time. And in 1925 they assisted the annual YMCA street appeal, raising £121 2s 6d, which was equally divided between the Swankers’ Club and the YMCA. The Wanganui Swankers Club closed in 1929.


Libby Sharpe is Senior Curator at the Whanganui Regional Museum.

Health and Beauty Movement

In the early decades of the 20th century, attitudes towards women’s health and beauty began to change. The growth of aestheticism in the 19th century had seen the advent of art appreciated for its beauty rather than its morality, and the belief that beautiful objects – including women – were there for the sole purpose of being admired.

But some women refused to accept such a passive role and the “new woman aesthete was born, a woman interested in experiencing art and beauty in a different and more active way. Mary Bagot Stack was one of these women.

In the early 1900s Stack spent time in India with her husband. She learned yoga and observed the differences in the way women moved when wearing the tight, restrictive European clothing, compared to the loose and free-flowing Indian garb.

She returned to England and attended Mrs Josef Conn’s Institute of Physical Training in London and learned about exercise as a way to stimulate health. Inspired by this and her experiences in India, Stack opened her own fitness centre in 1910, offering both private and public classes.

Post-war attitudes were changing and health professionals were beginning to acknowledge the benefits of exercise and changes in fashion on women’s health, which Stack had previously witnessed and understood. In the 1920s she developed her own system of exercise, set to music, a novelty for the time. This system was also meant to be a social event to help women recently bereaved by the Great War. The programme proved to be so popular that it grew from small classes to a mass movement, which in 1930, was named the Women’s League of Health and Beauty.

1. Poster

 Poster advertising a Demonstration of Health Exercises and Revived Greek Dancing, 1930s-1940s. Ref: 2017.18.8

The exercises were based on the understanding that movement was essential for a healthy life and generated beauty from within, without the need of extensive make-up and other common beauty trappings. The 12 sequences drew from dance, callisthenics, remedial and slimming motions, and rhythmic exercise, and often incorporated Greek dancing and poses. The poses required women to replicate the positions held in classic Greek statues, generating empathy for the work of art and embodying the balance and beauty of it within themselves.

The League’s popularity spread throughout the United Kingdom, then further out to the Commonwealth. Millicent Ward trained as a Health and Beauty Teacher under Stack before immigrating to New Zealand in 1937, settling in Auckland. Ward ran demonstrations and classes, which were very popular among young businesswomen, and was even called upon by some larger companies to offer classes specifically for their female employees.

Demand grew and there was a call for further classes to be opened elsewhere in the country. Ward trained new teachers and the programme spread throughout New Zealand, known here as the Health & Beauty Movement. When invited to the 70th Anniversary Celebrations, Ward recalled her time training new teachers, and in particular mentioned Wynn Newsome who taught classes in Whanganui.

2. Street parade photo

 Photograph of a street parade in Whanganui, with the float of the Health & Beauty Movement in the procession, 1940s. Ref: 2007.19

At the outbreak of World War II many classes around the country were forced to close, but the Whanganui branch remained open. A Whanganui Regional Museum volunteer recalls attending classes in the 1950s, held on Saturdays in the McGruer’s building on Guyton Street, wearing a uniform of white shirt and black sateen romper shorts.

Mary Stack died in 1935 from thyroid cancer, but her daughter, Prunella, took on her work and continued its popularity and growth. Mary Stack’s legacy lives on today with the movement now known as the Fitness League with the motto “Movement Is Life”.


Sandi Black is the Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.