Month: November 2017

The Tickner Envelopes

R A Tickner was a great correspondent. He was also handy with a pen and ink. In 1919 he was writing regularly from Hornchurch in Essex, England, to members of the Downes family living in Helmore Street, Whanganui. Tickner later married the sister of Sydney Herbert Downes and Thomas William Downes, the well-known Whanganui author, artist and historian. By the early 1920s, Tickner was writing to his family back in Hornchurch, so we can date his migration to New Zealand fairly accurately. This information can be gleaned from the date stamps and addresses on the envelopes.

3. Tickner Envelopes Montage

 Montage of the Tickner Envelope Collection. Ref: 1989.15.

Why is this at all interesting? It is because Tickner decorated, in great detail, the envelopes that contained his letters, sent between Hornchurch and Whanganui. His drawings depicted temporary events or fashionable styles, a lot of it tongue-in-cheek. His elaborately drawn and inked envelopes were gathered up by the extended family in both Hornchurch and Whanganui, and mounted in three frames. They were donated to the Museum by the daughters of Mr and Mrs Sydney Downes.

Letter writing was an important part of the social structure of the day. Families were on the move to find work and houses, in both Europe and America, and many other parts of the world. Long distance telephone calls were very costly, so trunk calls and telegrams were used only in dire emergencies. Letters kept families and friend in touch.

2. Tickner Envelope Xmas Pudding

Decorating envelopes had become something of a folk art tradition by the 1930s and 1940s, in the United States. Its roots, however, go back to the 1840s in England when postage stamps and envelopes were first used. A prepaid postal wrapper decorated with a coloured printed image was the forerunner of the modern envelope. And it became fashionable to hand-decorate plain envelopes with flowers or animals or woodland scenes.

In the 1860s, the American Civil War gave rise to another sort of printed decorated envelope. Both Confederates and Unionists employed fairly unsubtle propaganda to eulogise their causes or point out the duties of fighting men or merely wave the flag, all on the front of commercially produced envelopes.

1. Tickner Envelope Roman Guards

Current affairs and popular culture influenced many envelope decorations. During World War II, for example, many USA servicemen decorated their envelopes with comic training camp scenes, often targeting officers or NCOs, the food or the latrines. The mid-1970s saw a new outbreak of decorated envelopes in the USA. The envelopes themselves might be made of  silk or satin or patchwork cotton pieces, or denim or oilskin, and then were decorated with feathers, photographs, plastic cut-outs, embroidery, newspaper cuttings and occasionally, even sweets. Whatever the era, or the fashion, decorated envelopes became part of popular culture of their day and were collected by aficionados, just as stamps or postcards were collected, and just as the Tickner envelopes were.


Libby Sharpe is the senior curator at Whanganui Regional Museum.


Powerful Pompeii

The city of Pompeii was located in the Campania region of Italy, founded by the Oscans around the ninth or eighth century BC. It was built on lava terracing produced over centuries by Mount Vesuvius, about 10 km away, and was a rich and fertile land which helped the development of a thriving agricultural town.

Contact and trade with nearby Greek colonies lead to the adoption of Greek lifestyle and religion in the settlement. The lava terracing on which it was built offered some protection from invasion, but Pompeii was still fought over by the Greeks, Etruscans, and Samnites before finally becoming part of the Roman Empire and formally named Colonia Cornelia Veneria Pompeii in 80 BC.

1. Postcard

 A postcard of the remains of the garden at the house of Marco Lucrezio Frontone, a nobleman living in Pompeii at the time of the eruption. The garden is rich with ornamentation which includes statues, paintings, pillars and fountains. Ref: 1802.2770.

Pompeii’s population grew to around 20,000 residents, and the economy became so strong it was considered a prestige location with higher status than other Campania towns. The standard of living rose dramatically across most strata of society and the middle class merchants and entrepreneurs competed with the noble families of the town in their displays of wealth. Large and opulent villas, luxurious embellishments and precious ornaments and jewellery displayed the affluence of the town and its inhabitants.

But the peace and prosperity would not last. On 5 February 62 AD a violent earthquake shook the region and devastated much of the city and surrounding countryside. Associated damage included the death of 600 sheep after breathing “tainted air”.  It took a long time to recover from the disaster and buildings were still being repaired and strengthened when the next catastrophe occurred.

On 24 August 79 AD, the previously dormant Mount Vesuvius woke and began one of the most famous eruptions in history. The volcano spewed a massive cloud of debris over 20 km into the air and rained ash, lapilli (loose rock) and lava down over the surrounding towns. Most of the population of nearby Herculaneum and Stabiae were evacuated and many people from Pompeii had left for good, but a significant number had remained in the town.

2. Artifacts from Pompeii

 A needle, ring and brooch recovered from Pompeii. Ref: 1908.2.1-3. 

The eruption continued for several hours before the pyroclastic surges began. These clouds of ash, pumice and gas rolled down the volcano and over the towns, travelling at over 110 km per hour and reaching temperatures over 700ᵒ C, annihilating everyone and everything in the path almost instantly.

By the time the volcano had quietened and the debris settled, an area of around 200 square miles was covered, Pompeii was buried under five metres of ash and lapilli, and thousands of people had died. The landscape had changed so much that there was no visible evidence of the town remaining and in time Pompeii was forgotten.

Explorers rediscovered Pompeii in 1748 and were surprised to find the city remarkably intact, due to the debris being soft ash and lapilli, rather than harder rocks and lava, which destroyed other towns and turned them to stone.

The level of preservation was incredible and allowed a glimpse into the daily life of Pompeiians. Electoral propaganda and risqué jokes were written on walls. Signs above shop doorways advertised the businesses. Foodstuff was still sitting on tables and counters or in storage jars. Artworks and mosaics were very well preserved, providing valuable insight into Roman paintings of which very little was known.

3. Narcissus

A copy of a statue of Narcissus which was found in the ruins of Pompeii. Ref: 1903.24.

During further excavation in 1863 the diggers were surprised to come across pockets of air among the hardened ash. Giuseppe Fiorelli realized these pockets were probably left after dead human bodies had decomposed. He started filling them with plaster before digging them out, resulting in striking casts that captured the terrifying last moments of those who remained in the town.

About a third of Pompeii remains unexcavated. Mount Vesuvius last erupted on 17 March 1944, destroying several villages and causing damage at a nearby United States Army Air Force Base. With its history of sudden and violent eruptions, and three million people living within close proximity, Mount Vesuvius is considered to be one of the most dangerous volcanoes on the planet.


Sandi Black is the Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Whanganui River Mouth – Te Kai Hau ā Kupe

Where a river meets the sea is a place of great fascination to people all over the world. It’s usually a place of great abundance for fishing as well as gathering whatever interesting wrack gets washed down the river and cast up onto the shore. If the river is large enough it becomes an entrance for shipping or boating, with all the consequent dangers associated with channels, rips and sand-bars.

The Whanganui River entrance has been shaped and changed by major human intervention from its original form. When we at look at old photographs or paintings of the river-mouth, what we see is very different from what is there today.

The building of channel-protecting moles on either side of the river entrance completely transformed, not only the river mouth, but also the coastal area to the west. Interrupting the longshore current that flows from west to south east causes the suspended sand to gradually accumulate against the obstruction. This has created expansive sand-dunes at Castlecliff and has moved the shoreline steadily seawards.


1. Castlecliff photo

 Whanganui River Mouth, Castlecliff Beach; Frank Denton, 20th century.  Ref: 1802.1016

One early image of the river mouth is a photograph of Castlecliff Beach by well-known Whanganui photographer Frank Denton. You can see beach visitors enjoying a stroll on the sand. The beach stretches around a natural curve at the river mouth and the sea-swell washes into the river. Ladies lift the hems of their long dresses over the wet sand while children play and paddle in the shallows at the edge of the river. In the far distance a line of surf marks the edge of the sea.

A set of three small watercolour paintings by itinerant artist Christopher Aubrey show the river mouth prior to the construction of the moles. Although the paintings are faded and damaged by long exposure to light and damp, all the details are still visible. Each painting depicts the curve of the river towards the entrance at different times of day. Looking closely, we can see that in 1894 there was a significant sandbar, indicated by a thick line of surf across the across the river entrance. The line of surf across the river-mouth ends at a sand-spit that stretches out from a large cliff on the Castlecliff bank of the river.

Along the river margin stretched a beach with a gentle sloping edge, forming a useful pathway for riding horses or for herding a flock of sheep to the freezing works in the background. The Wanganui Freezing Works were established in 1891 to process the farm animals produced in the surrounding rural areas and freeze them for transport out of the region by ship. The paintings also show ships berthed in the river adjacent to the freezing works, a large ship anchored just offshore and a small vessel crossing the sandbar.

Despite the better shipping channel created by the construction of the moles, the difficulty of negotiating the sand-bar and surf have resulted in a number of shipwrecks over the years, including the Port Bowen which, in 1939, ran aground on a sand-bank, fully laden with a cargo of mutton and lamb from Whanganui destined for export to England.

With the proposed development of Whanganui Port it will be interesting to notice and record further changes to the landscape of the Whanganui River mouth and see how future sea-going vessels manage the difficulties of “crossing the bar”.


Margie Beautrais is the Educator at Whanganui Regional Museum

Halloween tradition Spooktacular

Love it or hate it, it’s Halloween season and the shops are full of ghosts and witches to celebrate. This version of Halloween is a relatively recent event on New Zealand’s calendar, but is gaining in popularity every year. Like Christmas and Easter, Halloween decorations are appearing on the shelves earlier and earlier, and more and more community events are held to get the public into the spooky spirit. The origins of Halloween are, however, a little darker than our modern LED candles and holographic ghosts.

What we call Halloween started with the ancient Celtic festival Samhain (pronounced sow-in), celebrated at the end of the bountiful summer and autumn harvest and before the cold, dark and potentially fatal winter approached. It was believed that All Hallows’ Even was the time when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was at its thinnest and it was possible for the recently departed to come back in search of a living body to take over for a year. In order to try and repel possession, the Celts would extinguish the fires to make their homes cold and unwelcoming, then dress in ghoulish costumes and loudly parade around their townships to scare away any spirits.

2. Witch doll

A witch doll, a familiar figure at Halloween. Ref: 1982.1.30

By the time the Romans had conquered the Celtic lands in AD 43 they had merged two of their own festivals with Samhain; Parentalia was the commemoration of the dead culminating with the Feralia Feast, and the festival for Pomona, the Goddess of fruit and trees, symbolized by the apple.

Christianity spread, and in 835 AD Pope Boniface IV declared 1 November as All Saints’ Day to honour the saints and martyrs.  Around 1000 AD the Christian church made 2 November All Souls’ Day to honour those who had died within the last year.  These events were celebrated with bonfires, parades and donning the costumes of saints, angels, and imps.

The Celts would leave offerings of wine and food for passing ghosts to take rather than livestock and crops, but the Church encouraged offering soul cakes instead. The practice of “going a-souling” was when the poor and homeless would beg for food and be given soul cakes in exchange for their prayers for the dead.

By the 16th century this practice was known as mumming or guising. Participants would dress up in costume and go from door to door collecting apples and nuts, food, or coins in exchange for performing a trick such as reciting a poem or song. Some believed wearing a ghoulish costume would offer protection from the spirits they represented, while a household offering food would bring them luck. To not offer anything was to invite bad luck, and this soon became the excuse to play pranks on those who didn’t contribute.

1. Halloween dress-ups

 “Guising” has been a Halloween tradition for centuries and can take many forms. These school children have chosen clowns, babies, soldiers and nuns, amongst others. Ref: SCS-MISC-054

The three days of All Hallows’ Even, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day were collectively referred to as Allhallowtide, or Hallowmas. The term “Halloween” first appeared in reference to the festival in 1745. Other older customs were still practiced, including hollowing out turnips and carving faces on them to use as lamps, and telling fortunes or playing games with apples and nuts.

The idea of Halloween was introduced to America by Irish migrants in the 1840s and continues to grow in popularity around the world. In 1875 the Wanganui Chronicle reported on the Halloween celebration held at Balmoral Castle, where servants and tenants carried lit torches in procession to a bonfire and then had an evening of dancing reels with Queen Victoria joining in.

By 1910 Halloween concerts with a distinctly Scottish feel were held in Whanganui featuring nights of songs, stories and dancing while pipes and drums provided the music. The feature performance was a recitation of Robert Burns’ poem Halloween.

The superstitious aspect of Halloween has, in most circles, died away, but many of the practices still remain and are carried out around the globe, the emphasis being on having fun rather than fending off ghosts and goblins.


Sandi Black is the Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.