Local women were pioneering wartime auxiliaries

When the South African (Boer) War was declared in 1899 between Britain and the Boer-ruled republics, colonies from across the British Empire rushed to participate in a wave of excitement; it went without saying that New Zealand would be contributing soldiers. New Zealand differed from its allies in that it had its own semi-official female troops. With Government approval, well-connected girls and women put on uniforms, held military titles and were trained by soldiers.

These female troops indicated relatively high gender equality in comparison with other parts of the world, and patrolled, wielding real weapons, just like their male compatriots. They did not, however, serve at the front like other New Zealand women who taught and nursed. Instead, they served as a singing, fundraising public face of support for the upholding of Empire, and to demonstrate a newly emergent New Zealand identity.

2. Wanganui Ladies' Contingent

An article from December 1900 shows “the latest and loveliest thing in khaki: the Wanganui Ladies’ Contingent”
Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19001207-9-4

Different regions had their own groups, grabbing media attention due to their unusual attire. For a short time “khaki girls” could be found all over New Zealand, appearing in overseas newspapers and books. One of the largest groups was formed in Whanganui in around June 1900. The Wanganui Amazon Carbineers were initially created to perform as characters in a fundraising pageant titled The Birth of the Empire.

Following the trend set by Wellington’s Young Ladies Contingent, local women created their own group. For months they rehearsed every Thursday afternoon into the evening under the training of a male drill instructor, Sergeant-Major Anderson. He appointed “most popular lady in the corps” Captain Manson as commanding officer. Members bought uniforms from local retailer J Paul and Co for 17s 6d (around $163) each. The high cost ensured that members came from comfortable and socially aspiring backgrounds.

3. Wellington Amazons

 Sister group to the Amazon Carbineers were the Wellington Amazons, seen here at Government House
Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 31 Mar 1900, via trove.nla.gov.au

The Birth of the Empire was a great success, running for eight consecutive nights in September 1900, and as the Wanganui Chronicle reported, “the severe tax on the performers is beginning to tell its tale”. The Amazon Carbineers became the stars of the show, performing military manoeuvres and demonstrating their bayonet skills. Their advertised “weird war cry” was a “haka, which had to be twice repeated in response to vociferous encores”.

1. Wanganui Amazon Carbineers

 The Amazon Carbineers posing on Drews Ave for a group portrait c.1900
Whanganui Regional Museum Collection Ref: 2002.64.48

The Amazon Carbineers kept up their drills after the pageant ended and became a regular feature of the community. In the subsequent media frenzy there were only limited spaces for new applicants. Recruits were elected in a popularity contest by existing members. They became, however, too popular for their own good. After offering to hold a garden party for the 1901 New Zealand Band Contest they were ordered by the Contest committee not to appear in uniform at any of the associated events in fear that they would outshine the bandsmen. While frustrated and disappointed, members agreed to wear mufti instead.

By the end of the war in 1902, uniformed women had disappeared from New Zealand streets as the conflict had grown unpopular. Only one khaki uniform is known to have survived, in the Te Papa collection. The uniforms were probably recycled for other uses including later conflicts. The women’s groups of the South African War are now largely forgotten. Nevertheless, New Zealand’s ladies-at-arms were well ahead of their time and may have inspired future auxiliary women’s groups during the wars to come.


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.


Insects of Java

5. Antheraea larissa

There are many species of silk moths in Asia: this one, Antheraea larissa, doesn’t even have an English name. Its caterpillars only live on the endangered forest tree Shorea glauca.

I recently spent nearly three weeks in Indonesia, mostly looking for tropical insects. In New Zealand we’re proud of our beautiful forests and amazing birds, but even a short time in Java drove home to me just how impoverished our flora and fauna are in comparison to the tropics.

Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country. Two hundred and sixty million people live there, 141 million in Java alone, an island smaller than the South Island. Even in a densely populated and developed landscape, there were still national parks and botanic gardens housing enormous biodiversity.

4. Milionia fulgida

Not all moths come out at night. Some, like this beautiful iridescent Milionia fulgida, pollinate flowers during the day.

We stayed in the Botanic Gardens of the town of Cibodas in the mountains south of Jakarta. The Gardens had guest houses for tourists and they left the outside lights on all night, for security reasons. Every morning all we needed to do was to stroll around the building to see extraordinary numbers of colourful moths and beetles that had been attracted to the lights overnight.

Each day we photographed about 15 species we hadn’t seen before; each morning would bring a new harvest, showing almost no overlap with the diversity of the night before. After a week of spotting a dozen new species every day without even trying, we realised we were barely scratching the surface of the biological richness of the tropics.

1. Grey Pansy

The grey pansy (Junonia atlites) is found throughout Southeast Asia; it was common in the Bogor Botanical Gardens.

New Zealand has a well-supported conservation movement, and DOC does its best to preserve our forests and endangered wildlife. We learn the names of our native birds, and every bookshop has shelves of coffee table books about kiwi and kākāpō as well as field guides to birds, insects and trees.

In Indonesia conservation operates on a shoestring. The national parks are full of litter. Poaching of endangered bird species is rampant. The bookshops have no field guides, just racks of publications about agriculture and fish farming. Huge swaths of untouched rain forest are being cut down for palm oil plantations – the same forests our shining cuckoos migrate to each winter.

3. Atlas beetle

Named after Atlas, who supported the world on his back, males of the giant Chalcosoma atlas beetle fight with each other over potential mates, using their enormous horns.

Most visitors to Indonesia holiday in Bali, but a better choice might be supporting ecotourism in Sumatra or Sulawesi where your money goes directly to preserving rain forest. New Zealand has thousands of threatened insect species that most people neither know nor care about, but our species are in safer hands than Indonesia’s. It sounds like heresy, but donating money to conservation projects in the tropics may do far more good for the world’s biodiversity than spending it here.


2. Hawk moth

Sphinx moths or hawk moths can hover like hummingbirds, and have long coiled tongues for drinking from tubular flowers. There are hundreds of species in Asia, and just one in New Zealand.

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

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.

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: www.mch.govt.nz, 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.