Author: Whanganui Regional Museum

Pat Hanna and The Diggers

Even as we go through the first days of autumn, there is still unfinished summer business to attend to before Easter. New Zealand is playing England in a test match, with a pink ball it is true, but nonetheless a traditional highlight of the season since 1879 when the first England team sailed into Christchurch after a thorough drubbing in Melbourne – and en route to a showdown with the gentlemen of Hoboken, New York.

Even though it wasn’t until 1956 that New Zealand won an official test match, and another 22 years before they finally beat England, cricket dominated summer sport here for a hundred years or more. There were dozens of clubs in Whanganui, many hundreds around the country, and a swirling social life beyond the boundary. Visiting teams came and went, though for many years not the cream of Australia as we were usually considered worthy only of non-test playing B teams – mixtures of old stagers and up-and-comers.

New Zealand did provide Australia with one legend of their game, Clarrie Grimmett. Born in Dunedin on 25 December 1891, Grimmett took his leg spin skills to Sydney at the age of 22 and eventually became the first bowler to take over 200 test wickets, all of them for Australia. Although his team mate Bill O’Reilly described him as “the best Christmas present Australia ever received from that country”, he joins Phar Lap and Russell Crowe as one that got away.

2. Pat Hanna, WWI

 Pat Hanna in uniform during World War I. Courtesy of the Australian Variety Theatre Archive http://ozvta.com/entrepreneurs-g-l/

The Whanganui Regional Museum has unearthed a cricketing link with another trans-Tasman celebrity amongst its extensive collection of early gramophone records. Pat Hanna was a member of the Otago Regiment which fought in Egypt, France and Belgium during World War I, and remained behind with the occupation forces in 1919 as an entertainment officer. This posting grew into a fully-fledged vaudeville troupe called “The Diggers”. On Hanna’s return to New Zealand, the troupe was demobilised into “Pat Hanna’s Diggers”, a concert party of up to 25 singers, dancers and humourists, which toured the country to great acclaim.

His on-stage showstoppers, developed from war-time routines, were monologues in the role of a stereotypical army chaplain. The best-known of those were “The Gospel According to Cricket” and “Discourses on Cricket – Even Unto the Fifth Test Match”.

1. Pat Hanna recording

 Pat Hanna recording: Pat Hanna Discourses on Cricket. Ref: 1802.7093

Hanna, like Grimmett, was soon lured away to Sydney where he became a bit of a star, first with the increasingly Aussie “Diggers” and then as a solo artiste. His stage and radio fame led to a recording career. A 78 rpm thermoplastic disc of one of those old hits, “Discourses on Cricket”, is in the Museum collection. He later tried his luck on the big screen as writer and star of the second-ever Australian sound movie called, perhaps inevitably, “Diggers”. Next he moved into directing with the sequel “Diggers in Blighty”, which was not a great success. Undeterred, Pat Hanna continued in film and radio for decades before retiring to Britain where he died in 1973.

 

Frank Stark is Director of the Whanganui Regional Museum.

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Reunited with the bones of their ancestors

Over the last few years the Whanganui Regional Museum has been working on repatriating the human remains in the collection.  After extensive research and testing, these tūpuna are finally being sent home to rest.

Check out the last repatriation here:

https://www.maoritelevision.com/news/latest-news/re-united-bones-their-ancestors

 

The Raetihi Inferno

Recently we saw the 100 year anniversary of the Raetihi Fire. It started with a customary scrub burn-off which gale-force winds fanned into a devastating inferno that transformed the landscape, and memories, of the local people.

Doris Wallace remembered the events of 19 March 1918. She woke to a strange stillness and a dark sky and thought she could smell smoke. She recalled that the wind was so strong she was afraid to let go of her son’s hand in case he was whipped away from her. Her husband Bert returned from gathering rams and told her “Raetihi was burning”. Around 10.00pm the night before, a red glow had been seen on the horizon, and that glow had evolved into a massive fire stretching from Mangoihe to Makaranui, about 26 kilometres wide, burning everything in its path.

1. Letter exerpt

Letter from Charlotte Barron to Annie Montgomerie. Charlotte was looking after Annie’s property while she was in the UK with her sons during the war. This part of the letter reads, “You would read in ‘Auckland Weekly’ the account of that awful fire, we had doors blown in and windows blown out and the house was in an awful mess, leaves and twigs everywhere, the fire would have been through here too only for the rain coming when it did, that hill of Fernie’s (over from Brass’s flat) was blazing and the sparks had set fire to some of the trees on this side of the river so that the fire had only to get into this bit of bush on the track in front of the house and the whole thing would have gone, I cannot describe to you how awful it was we had got that basket of silver out of the sitting room and clothes and a few other things and were preparing to go to the shearers where when down came the rain”.  Ref: 2017.35

The autumn had been long and dry with little rainfall, and fighting the fire was very difficult. Some families had been evacuated, while others had tried to get out on their own, but the smoke was so thick that they were driven back into their homes. The Wallaces decided to stay at home on their farm, their young son lying on the floor so he could breathe better. While the phone lines still worked, neighbouring farms rang each other intermittently to see how they were faring.

At midday the smoke was so thick it nearly blocked out the sun. Bulls School was closed because of the smoke covering the town, and even Wellington was affected by a smoke pall forcing motor car drivers to put on their lights.

Like many families in the region, the Wallaces started to patrol their house and douse the many sparks that tried to take hold. Then finally, relief. The wind changed direction and the rain began to fall. Despite the rain, the fire continued to flare up throughout the night so that, according to Doris Wallace, “the hills twinkled with a myriad of lights and darkness was shot with showers of golden flowers”.

Doris also remembered trying to make a simple cup of tea to settle everyone after the awful events. The water in the tanks, however, was smokier than a ham, and the river was full of dead fish and ash. She put out milk pans to collect rainwater over night, but found her son swimming in them the next morning!

Stories about the fire are filled with near misses and close calls. The very heavily pregnant Mrs Sopp was at home with her two children when the fire hit their property.  They escaped the house and had to crawl along the fence line to get away from the flames and smoke. Dr Crawford of Whanganui sent his Model T Ford up to the farm to rescue the family.

2. Bags of potatoes

 Bags of potatoes harvested from the Kowhai Park gardens, ready to send to Raetihi as a gift after the fire. Ref: 1802.3160.

Another man ran from his house holding his baby but slipped into a culvert and three feet of water. He somehow managed to hold the baby above the water, and his wife was able to rescue them both.

The devastation was huge. Thousands of acres of farmland were destroyed and nearly sixty homes and businesses were burnt. The Akersten family became the only human casualties. They were found in their house dead, the mother and the father shielding their baby in a vain attempt to shelter it. While most cattle sought refuge in the river, thousands of sheep perished in their paddocks and were found piled against fences or hiding under logs, and many of those that survived were so badly burnt that they had to be destroyed. The smell affected the area for weeks.

Government loans helped to alleviate the suffering, and allowed for crops to be replanted and new stock purchased. Families lived with friends and relatives or in tents until their homes could be rebuilt, which was difficult as much of the milled timber had been destroyed in the fire.

But the optimistic spirit of the region persisted. When government and local authorities visited, the women insisted on making them lunch while the men showed them areas where the grass was already beginning to grow again.

(Ref: The Generation Gap: Unimportant People and the Parapara. Wallace, Doris; 1973)

Sandi Black is the Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Stick Insects

Stick insects are often overlooked, and that’s the way they like it.

New Zealand is home to a wide variety of stick insects, from the horrid stick insect (Argosarchus horridus) with a body as long as your hand, to spiky creatures smaller than your little finger. Most species of stick insects are found in the tropics, so it’s peculiar for a cool-temperate country like us to have so many, even a mountain stick insect (Mimarchus tarsatus) that lives in South Island tussock that’s covered by snow all winter.

1. prickly stick insect

Prickly stick insect (Acanthoxyla prasina).  Photograph: Alan Gilchrist.

Although they’re relatively common, stick insects excel in hiding. Our New Zealand species are flightless and defenceless. If discovered, they will sway gently like a twig in the breeze, or drop comatose to the ground, where can lay immobile for up to half an hour before reviving and climbing a tree again. The best way to find them is by beating. Hold a white sheet or umbrella under a tree or shrub and hit the branches sharply with a stick and down they’ll drop. Over the last few months the Whanganui Regional Museum has been doing that on field trips around Whanganui and the Manawatū, and we now have a half dozen stick insects of different species, sizes and colours in captivity.

Stick insects are easy to keep. They only need a regular supply of green leaves (pohutukawa seems to be a favourite) and an occasional spray with a plant mister. They’re happy to be handled, and are a great “gateway insect” for children who might be nervous about handling a creepy-crawly, as they’re completely harmless. They spend most of their time slowly munching on leaves and laying eggs.

2. stick insect cage

Stick insects live happily in a cage as long as it’s not too hot and dry, and there’s a constant supply of fresh leaves. Photograph: Whanganui Regional Museum.

It’s possible to breed stick insects even if you only have one, because some of the most common species, the spiky stick insects (Acanthoxyla), are parthenogenetic. This means that no males are needed, with mothers laying eggs from which hatch only daughters. In fact, until this year, no males had ever been seen. Then one was found, in England of all places. The species had been introduced to England in the 1920s and is doing well. Males seem to be very rare mutants, not required for reproduction.

Because some stick insect species have just one sex and others have both, their genetics are very interesting to entomologists. Studying their DNA has also revealed unknown species hiding in plain sight. One of the new species was recently given the scientific name rakauwhakanekeneke, te reo Māori for “the stick that walks”.

3. stick insect eggs

If kept in a damp dish, but not allowed to go mouldy, stick insect eggs will hatch after a few months into tiny versions of the adults. Photograph: Whanganui Reigonal Museum.

The stick insects in captivity in the Museum have been growing steadily, and we’ve collected dozens of eggs, which are currently incubating. The hatchlings will be released back into the bush. Unfortunately, stick insects have a short life expectancy. They hatch in spring, reach full size in a few months, and usually don’t survive the winter. When ours die, we’ll preserve the bodies and put them on display in a new insect exhibition ready for when the Museum re-opens in October. Visitors will be confronted by a case full of sticks and invited to work out how many of them are insects.

 

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

Whanganui – forgotten capital of the Arts and Crafts Movement

With a number of cultural festivals and events unfolding over summer, this time of year is especially busy for Whanganui. The town has long stood out as a magnet for arts and culture, drawing creative people in from far and wide. At the turn of the 20th century, it was a major centre of New Zealand’s Arts and Crafts Movement.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the Arts and Crafts Movement was overturning the cluttered look we associate with the Victorian era. A response to urbanisation and mass-production in Britain, it was a design approach which recalled the pre-industrial world. It embraced hand crafting, simplicity, and nature-inspired patterns.

In 1892 Whanganui became the fourth city in the country to establish a formal arts school. This was the Wanganui Technical School (which eventually merged into the Wanganui Technical College). At this point, design training was an important part of most trades. The Wanganui Technical School taught both boys and girls – woodwork and metalwork were popular for girls and allowed for a career in the design world. Staff had Government funding to travel to all surrounding settlements in the Whanganui region and teach regular classes – art and design was equally accessible in rural areas.

3. Art class at Wanganui Technical School

 Art class at Wanganui Technical School. Auckland Weekly News, 15 August 1901.

While work was sent back to England for marking under a British syllabus, students were encouraged to incorporate native plants into art nouveau designs, and Māori carving and weaving was brought in for exhibition, appreciation and study. New Zealand materials like pāua shell and pounamu were inlaid into finely crafted domestic objects, such as picture frames and mantelpieces. The Movement evolved into a unique New Zealand form.

Edith Collier is the most well-known ex-student of the Wanganui Technical School, but her sister Dorothy was also an accomplished artist. A hammered pewter clock made by her is in the Museum collection, and it is a fine example of the art nouveau look that was emerging in the 1900s.

1. Dorothy Collier clock

Clock with pewter body made by Dorothy Collier. Ref: 2007.52

The Wanganui Art Society was founded in 1898, and a local Arts and Crafts Society appeared in 1901. These groups provided plenty of opportunity for locals to hone their artistic talents, holding regular competitions and exhibitions. For those Arts and Crafts enthusiasts with money to spend, Whanganui also had New Zealand’s first Liberty of London outlet store – one of the most luxurious department stores ever.

2. Liberty Shop

 The Victoria Avenue Liberty shop. From Wanganui Coronation Souvenir 1911.

Opened in 1905 by Mrs Martin, customers could buy “art furniture”, “art needlework”, William Morris fabric, and Tudric pewter ware. Some artists frowned upon Liberty’s as it was suspected that items on sale were mass-produced. The shop was eventually taken over by the Alcorn family; Margaret and Mary Alcorn had one Liberty outlet in Wellington, and a cousin ran another in Christchurch.

4. Liberty Advertisement

 Liberty Advertisement from the Wanganui Chronicle 3 July 1907, page 3.

The Arts and Crafts Movement remained popular in New Zealand right into the 1950s, long after it had faded from popularity elsewhere. A number of local houses were built which carry a distinct cottage look typical of the style. Durie Hill was planned by prominent architect Samuel Hurst Seager according to Arts and Crafts ideals. The state houses of the 1930s-1950s are a further legacy of the Movement. All in all, Whanganui is a forgotten capital of the home-grown Arts and Crafts Movement and deserving of greater appreciation.

 

Scott Flutey is a student of Museum and Heritage Studies at Victoria University of Wellington. He is working as a summer intern at Whanganui Regional Museum.

 

Hidden in the Seams

The Whanganui Regional Museum houses a textiles collection with about 3,600 items ranging from early pieces of clothing, including dresses, skirts and shirts, jackets, hats, gloves and lingerie, as well as samples of needlework, lacework and embroidery. There are also domestic items such as tablecloths, quilts, tea-cosies and household linens. Add tapa cloth and mats and rugs, and the range is significant. The items provide important information about their role in different eras, and in the skill required to create them.

1. Silk dress

 Silk taffeta dress from around 1860. Ref: 1968.13.1

The way a garment is constructed can tell a lot. The choice of fabric, the quality of materials used, style, silhouette and colour combinations can offer hints about the era when it was made and about the person who wore it. Even something as simple as the stitching can tell a story.

The craft of sewing by hand was a necessary skill for women settlers in colonial New Zealand. Sewing materials like thread, fabric and needles arrived in Church Missionary settlements as early as 1820, and the ability to create, mend and repair textiles was essential. Dressmakers and tailors started to arrive by around 1840 and offer their services, but many people were in isolated areas or simply could not afford to have clothing made by professionals; therefore, sewing from home remained an essential part of life for women and girls.

As a seamstress, a woman was required to know a myriad of stitches for different purposes: hem stitch, top stitch, straight stitch, blanket stitch, tack, chain stitch, darning stitch, slip stitch, pad stitch, buttonhole stitch, to name but a few.

For many years clothing was either prohibitively expensive or fabrics were hard to source. Sewing was important in making clothing last longer, let alone creating something from scratch. Mending was an art. When clothing was faded, it was taken apart and sewn back together wrong-side-out, or the fabric used as trim or lining for new clothes. When the fabric wore out it was reused to make quilts or other functional items. These settler people understood Reduce, Reuse, Recycle out of pure necessity.

2. Inner of silk dress

 Lining of the same dress showing its hand-sewn construction.

In time, the arrival of retailers who sold ready-to-wear men’s and young children’s clothing made clothing the family easier. For many years, however, the intricate design, shape and fit of women’s clothing meant mass production was not viable. Even with the availability of more widely used domestic sewing machines in the mid-1880s, the skill and ability to sew by hand was still required. Many New Zealand women were involved in the handcrafted construction of clothing until well into the 1950s and 1960s. Thereafter the practice of home sewing started to decline, due to the availability of factory-produced and relatively cheap clothing.

In comparison to today’s world, sewing an item of clothing was a hands-on, intimate, lengthy and skilled process. Today as a society we do not have much of a connection to what it takes to make a garment, because much of the manufacturing involved is offshore and very much an industrialised process. It might even be fair to say many people today would struggle to be able to thread a needle.

 

Rachael Garland is the Events Coordinator at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Celebrating Boys in Japan

After the Nagaizumi-Whanganui Sister City Friendship Centre closed in 2015, the Whanganui Regional Museum received a donation of many of the objects it had housed. Cataloguing these objects required some research into Japanese culture and traditions.

1. Lacquered box

The lacquered box. Ref: 2015.32.51g

One of the most intriguing is a beautiful black lacquered box which has a fitted removable lid and six legs with five sides. Each leg has a brass cap engraved with leaves on four outer edges. All corners have etched brass corner protectors. The inside of the box is lined with patterned white paper. It contains a Gogatsu Ningyo, a samurai warrior doll complete with an elaborately decorated tachi (sword), a yumi (bow and arrow) and two folding lacquered screens, also with decorative corners. There was also a wooden plaque with Japanese characters and a length of green cotton felt with a flowered silk brocade border.

2. Samurai doll

The Gogatsu Ningyo, Samurai doll. Ref: 2015.32.51a

Putting the doll together was a little complicated as he came in many pieces. A head is covered by an ornamented helmet, shoulder plates, shin guards, upper leg plates and fur boots. He sits on a lacquered pedestal.

In Japan, Gogatsu Ningyo are used on 5 May every year at the Tango-no-Sekku festival, to wish for the healthy growth of boys. The armour, helmet, sword and bow and arrows were once worn by brave warriors and hence the desire for strength and good health. This tradition originated in a ritual using sweet calamus (a plant used both medicinally and to make fragrances), held at the Japanese Imperial Court more than 1,200 years ago to ward off evil spirits. It was believed that sweet calamus had strong power because it was among the first plants to sprout in early spring. Later in the feudal era, this ritual evolved into a ceremony to pray for good fortune for boys and success in wars, and then gradually spread among the common people as a festival for children.

Families with sons also celebrate this day by flying carp-shaped streamers called koinobori. In Japan, carp are known to be strong fish that can leap up waterfalls. The koinobori symbolise parents’ wishes for their sons to be as strong as carp. The Museum also received two windsocks as part of the donation. They are each three metres long and painted in shades of blue and pink. In Japan today, koinobori are commonly flown above the roofs of houses where children live, along with the biggest black koinobori, coloured black, for the father, the next biggest, in red or pink for the mother and an additional smaller carp of a different colour for each child in decreasing order by age.

 

Kathy Greensides is a Collection Assistant at the Whanganui Regional Museum.

Margaret Bullock – Whanganui Suffragist

The Women’s Franchise League (later renamed the Wanganui Women’s Political League) led the campaign in Whanganui for votes for women. Margaret Bullock was the Wanganui League founder, vice president, president and committee member until 1900. Born in Auckland, Bullock moved to Whanganui in 1877.

Widowed with five sons, she worked as a reporter and assistant editor on the Wanganui Chronicle, owned by her brother Gilbert Carson. She also worked as a special parliamentary correspondent for several colonial newspapers. In later life she supported herself by writing a novel, short stories and government tourist guides. As a journalist and parliamentary correspondent, however, she gained a credible place within a predominantly male profession. She also played a pivotal role in the nineteenth century women’s movement at both local and national levels.

Margaret Bullock believed women had the same mental ability as men, but lacked men’s knowledge of methods, public affairs, political questions and the world’s needs. Her particular passions were removing what she termed “women’s disabilities” and promoting economic independence for women.

Through her work as a parliamentary journalist, she acquired knowledge of the parliamentary system. With this knowledge she was able to help the passing of the Electoral Act 1893 when she warned leading New Zealand suffragist Kate Sheppard of possible obstruction. Bullock sent Sheppard a telegram that read, “Electoral Bill returned House for strangulation ostensibly amendment wire Parliament instantly.”

1. Telegram to Sheppard

 Facsimile of a telegraph from Margaret Bullock to Suffragist Kate Sheppard. Ref: 1805.417

The Act specified that every person aged 21 years and over (who qualified and was registered) was entitled to vote. The Act declared that the definition of the word “person” included women. After the 1893 election Margaret Bullock visited every household in Whanganui, signing up hundreds of women on the electoral roll.

In December 1899 local printer and publisher A D Willis began his second term as the Member to the House of Representatives for Wanganui; he held the seat until 1905. He had previously been elected for a term in 1893 following the death of his friend, the previous MHR John Ballance, but was defeated in 1896. Bullock was Chairwoman of the Ladies Committee that helped return Willis to Parliament, ironically, as her brother Gilbert Carson lost in his attempt to enter Parliament.

2. Election memento 1899

 Memento of the Wanganui Election 1899. Ref: 1932.6.4

She was prominent in the National Council of Women executive, appointed to the Standing Orders Committee in 1897 and elected vice-president in 1900. She was appointed an official visitor to the female department of Wanganui Prison in 1896. Margaret also worked on behalf of the elderly residents of the Jubilee Home in Whanganui, publicising their poor living conditions.

Margaret Bullock had a strong political and social justice impetus. But she also had many other talents. She wrote short stories for British and New Zealand magazines, often signing herself as “Madge”. She wrote her only novel Utu: a story of love, hate, and revenge under the name Tua-o-rangi. She wrote stories for children, which were printed and published by the firm of A D Willis, her old political friend. She was also an accomplished artist and exhibited her paintings at the Auckland Art Society under the name Maggie Bullock, often using Māori sitters as subjects.

3. Book of Wanganui River

 The Wanganui River – Sketch and Story by Margaret Bullock, late 19th century.  Ref: 1953.108.2

Margaret Bullock was plagued with continual ill-health after she settled in Whanganui. She was diagnosed with cancer and died on 17 June 1903 soon after an operation.

 

Libby Sharpe is Senior Curator at Whanganui Regional Museum

Spectacular Longhorns

If people are asked to think of “an animal”, they almost always name a mammal, sometimes a bird or a fish, maybe a reptile. But all of these animals are vertebrates, with backbones, and most animals, by far, are not vertebrates. There are nearly 400,000 species of beetles alone, five times as many as all the vertebrates put together.

Part of the Museum’s redeveloped exhibitions will be a display of beetles of the Whanganui area, and one of the families of beetle we will be showcasing is the longhorns.

1. Variegated longhorn

One of New Zealand’s largest and most colourful longhorn beetles, the variegated longhorn (Coptomma variegatum) larva burrows into native trees like kōwhai and tawa. It is also known as the tawa beetle. Photo: Whanganui Regional Museum.

There are almost 200 species of longhorn beetles in New Zealand, many of them large and distinctive. They are generally unmistakable, having antennae that are almost as long as their narrow bodies. The larvae of longhorns feed on wood, dead or alive, which they can digest with the help of fungus that lives in their digestive system. Longhorn larvae live for years inside branches or logs before finally emerging as an adult beetle. The adult longhorn is usually short-lived. Its only job is to mate and lay eggs.

New Zealand’s largest beetle is a longhorn, the huhu (Prionoplus reticularis). At this time of year, these large clumsy beetles often fly inside, attracted or confused by artificial lights. Huhu can give a painful nip if handled, but surprisingly they don’t eat as adults, and only live for a couple of weeks, spending all their time looking for a mate.

2.Huhu grubs

Our largest beetle is the huhu (Prionoplus reticularis). Its finger-sized grubs live for years in rotting logs, and were a valuable food, raw or cooked, for Māori. Photo: Charlotte Simmonds CC-BY.

Some species of native longhorn beetles have become pests. The lemon tree borer attacks not just native trees but fruit trees, grapes, and ornamental deciduous trees. Its larva can ringbark and kill entire branches while burrowing. The two-toothed longhorn usually tunnels into fallen logs, but is happy to inhabit firewood or stacked drying timber. It can cause real structural damage, making tunnels much larger than the tiny holes associated with furniture borer (which is in an entirely different beetle family).

3. Blosyropus spinosus

The spiny longhorn (Blosyropus spinosus) is only slightly smaller than the huhu, but is much less common. This one was found at Bushy Park. You can see the paired spines on head and thorax from which this rare flightless beetle takes its name. Photo: Tom Miles / Zoomology.

Most of our native longhorns, however, are not pests; they concentrate on breaking down and recycling rotten wood in the bush. Many are large attractive beetles, and some can even hiss or squeak when disturbed. While on a Museum moth survey at Bushy Park, we came across the rare spiny longhorn (Blosyropus spinosus), New Zealand’s second largest longhorn species. A docile flightless beetle with paired spikes on its back, it is widespread but rarely seen. The National Arthropod Collection in Auckland, with 6.5 million specimens, contained only 22 spiny longhorns from the entire country, dating back to 1915. To know this species is surviving in Bushy Park is a testimony to the intensive rat and mouse control that’s been happening there. Conservation is about more than just vertebrates.

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

 

Totarapuka dolls’ house

Collecting miniature objects, and dolls’ houses to put them in, has long been a favourite hobby of young and old alike. They have not, however, always been seen as just a humble toy.

Appearing in 17th century Europe, the earliest dolls’ houses were important showcases of wealth and status. Later, they were used to teach daughters how to run and manage a home and, of course, servants. Queen Mary’s dolls’ house at Windsor Castle is one of the most luxurious examples of a miniature home, featuring functional examples of everything a modern house of 1924 might have, including a tiny working gramophone and even a flushing lavatory!

Although dolls’ houses did eventually become toys, they remained expensive until the 20th century when mass-production allowed many families to buy one. Because their contents were so small and fragile, houses and furniture were easily broken by the children playing with them. This means that the old dolls’ houses that can still be found today are rarely in good condition.

Totarapuka dolls' house

Totarapuka dolls’ house. Ref: 1959.180.35

One of the Whanganui Regional Museum’s best loved objects – by staff and public alike – is the Totarapuka dolls’ house. A few scuffs and scrapes show that it was well used for many decades. It belonged to a prominent local family, the Duncans. Built for their children in the late 19th century, the dolls’ house was modelled on part of their 24 room homestead and given the same name, Totarapuka. Part of the real Totarapuka still stands today on Anzac Parade; a fire destroyed one wing in 1925. Before the dolls’ house entered the Museum collection in 1959, it had already been enjoyed by generations of Duncan children, including those of Isabel Duncan who married Mayor Charles MacKay.

Very large in size and inset with stained glass, it is a high quality hand-built toy. Breaking dolls’ house conventions, the house does not open at the back and the windows, which open on hinges, are deliberately large enough for human hands to go through. It has four rooms, two verandahs, and is wallpapered inside. At some point it was wired for electricity.

Totarapuka painting

The real Totarapuka homestead on Anzac Parade from the Whanganui River by artist “S R” in 1917. Ref: 2008.60.348

When the Museum reopens in Watt Street later in 2018 after many months of earthquake strengthening and building repairs and improvements, the dolls’ house will again be visible to the public. This time the interior will be more prominent, and we hope to see it decorated with household objects and furniture appropriate for a late nineteenth-century home. The Museum is searching for dolls’ house furniture to display in the Totarapuka dolls’ house as part of the exhibition because there is next to none in the collection that is congruent with the scale of the Totarapuka doll’s house, which has large high rooms.

 

Scott Flutey is a student of Museum and Heritage Studies at Victoria University of Wellington. He is working as a summer intern at Whanganui Regional Museum.