Collection

The School on the Hill

Queens Park School was known as the school on the hill because of its situation on Pukenamu, or Queens Park. Its proud motto was, Esse Quam Videri (To be is better than to seem to be).

1. Queens Park School Banner

Queen’s Park School banner, 1921. WRM ref: 1802.1719

The first school on Queens Park seems to have started in 1875. Then Girls High School was built on the site in 1879, opening in 1880. The term “High School” was used at the time to differentiate “Infant” schools from schools that taught older children, possibly from Standard 3 (Year 5) upward. In 1901 Girls High became a District High School for girls, combining some classes with classes from the Boys School. The early records of the school were destroyed by fire in 1905 which means there are not many details of those formative years.

The local Education Board started looking at the possibility of building a primary school in 1904. The fire of 1905 that burnt two classrooms in the Wanganui District Girls High School seems to have been the impetus for change. The Girls and Boys District High Schools were merged into the Wanganui District High School. Later in 1905, the old school was renamed Queens Park School and taught pupils up to Standard 6 (Year 8), both boys and girls. New single-seat desks were introduced that year too – Queens Park was the first school in New Zealand to have them! The School was noted for its strong Cadet group that started in 1906 and the talented Band, formed in 1916.

By the end of World War I, many Queens Park School boys had served and been wounded. A Queens Park School Roll of Honour lists 24 names of Old Boys who were killed while on active war service.

3. Queens Park School 1939

Queens Park School with Memorial Gates. Photo by FH Bethwaite, 1939. WRM ref 2005.56.32

A fire in 1917 destroyed many of the wooden school buildings. In 1920 a new brick building opened, and the pupils marched from their temporary home in the Methodist Church Hall, up the hill to the new school.

In 1926 Queens Park School pupils raised funds to build the Memorial Gates, in honour of past pupils who gave their lives in the War of 1914 – 1918. These gates still stand on their original site, the only visible reminder of the school on the hill.

From 1933 only pupils from Primer 1 to Standard 4 attended the school. Standards 5 and 6 pupils were sent to the newly established Wanganui Intermediate School, only the third intermediate school in New Zealand at the time. Queens Park School closed in 1972 and was demolished in 1977. A centenary was held in 1979, and surplus funds from the event were donated to repair and restore the Memorial Gates.

2. Queens Park School 75th Jubilee Plaque

Queens Park School 75th Jubilee Plaque. WRM ref 1984.8.3

 

Libby Sharpe is Senior Curator at Whanganui Regional Museum.

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Sun Smart

Summer may be over and Winter approaching here in New Zealand, and many people will be lamenting the impending loss of their tan.  But it wasn’t so long ago that being in the sunshine was something to be avoided.

Before the 1900s a tan was a stigma – the working classes had tans from their long hours of labour in the sunshine, so being pale was thought to indicate wealth, refinement and beauty. The fashions depicted in artworks and advertisements show full length trousers, skirts and sleeves, and even swimwear and sportswear covered most of the skin.

1. Outing

 Preparing for a summer outing in 1907, complete with hats, parasols, and very little skin exposed to the sun. WRM ref: 2015.93.6

On top of this, women dared not leave the house without a wide-brimmed hat and parasol to shield the sun’s rays. Rudimentary sun screens were available, consisting of petroleum jelly mixed with magnesium, zinc oxide or bismuth, which coated the skin and prevented sun burn and freckles. If colour did start to show they could purchase one of the many bleaching creams or powders designed to whiten skin.

During the 1890s medical studies discovered that sunlight killed the Tubercle bacillus (TB) and prevented microorganisms from growing, and a lack of sunlight caused Rickets Disease. The sun became a provider of health. UV radiation, otherwise known as sunbathing, became a treatment for many conditions including lupus, anaemia, Hodgkin’s disease, renal failure, syphilis and septic wounds.

2. Parasol

 A black and purple brocade parasol, made 1890s. WRM ref: 1975.43.27

In 1910 medical journal The Lancet published the statement, “the face browned by the sun is regarded as an index of health”. Having a tan was no longer a social stigma, and by 1930 was publicly regarded as healthy. Mothers were told to put their children in the sunshine every day to keep their bones and teeth strong. UV radiation lamps were used in hospitals to decrease blood pressure, increase appetite, and promote wellbeing. Models for the home soon followed.

Alongside this, society changed. Work hours were reduced and people had more time to experience the outdoor leisure centres that were being built. Fashions were shortening and more skin was being exposed to the sun, particularly in leisurewear.  Hats and parasols became unwanted trappings of the past.

The Industrial Revolution led to changes in many work environments, from outdoor to indoor. The working classes grew pale, while having a tan indicated having money and leisure to travel. The desire to tan was increased with fashionistas like Coco Chanel declaring “a golden tan is the index of chic”.

But it wasn’t all fun in the sun. As early as 1894, dermatologists noticed that those who worked outside were more likely to develop skin cancers, especially on areas that saw the sun frequently such as hands, faces and necks.

3 Hat

 A black afternoon hat, with brim and lace covering, made around 1880. WRM ref: 1980.47.2

The term “sun cancer” was first coined in 1933 but the initial causal links were largely ignored by the wider medical community and the public. In the 1940s a link between tanning, sunburn and skin cancer was confirmed and the name “melanoma” became commonplace. Knowing UV radiation was dangerous helped to improve sunscreens, but the desire to be tanned and beautiful was stronger. Between 1930 and 1970 the rates of melanoma over the world increased 300-400%.

In New Zealand around 4,000 people are diagnosed with melanoma every year, and around 300 will die from it. We have the highest incidence of melanoma in the world.

So enjoy the sun, but be safe and remember your hats, sunscreens and parasols.

 

Sandi Black is the Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Plugged in

With the predominance of mobile phones and portable telecommunication devices powered by numerous mobile networks in our lives today, it becomes increasingly hard to think back to, or in some cases, even imagine the time when any telephone conversation had was performed in a stationary location on a somewhat clunky contraption, which was firmly plugged into the wall.

1. Wall phone

 Ericsson Wall Mounted Telephone, 1880s. WRM Ref: 1993.23.2

The history of the telephone and its connected landline began in New Zealand in around 1877 when the news of telephony – the electrical transmission of sound – first reached our shores. In 1878 the Government set up wires between Dunedin and Milton to test the new invention, and thus the New Zealand telephone network began. In the very early days the Government demanded at least 30 subscribers for a telephone exchange to be viable, and by 1881, the first exchanges were introduced.

The new telephone system had wide appeal as a social tool, more so than the preceding telegraph operation, as it provided immediate voice contact and had no code to decipher.  Overhead cables began appearing across the nation connecting businesses and communities and the first telephone exchange system finally arrived in Whanganui in 1886.  Exchange operators were employed to sit and connect calls by inserting plugs into various sockets to connect calls.

At the time, telecommunications proved an important part of a newly emerging social fabric.  By the early 1900s the technology had advanced rapidly and the arrival of an automatic exchange increased the capacity of calls that could be made at one time. By 1919 New Zealanders had access to their first coin operated public telephones.

2. Pedestal phone

Upright pedestal or candlestick telephone, 1910s. WRM Ref: 1993.23.12

Most original phones were wall-mounted and furnished with timber and brass. By 1915 the upright pedestal or candlestick telephone was introduced. By the 1930s the square black Bakelite was a standard phone in most households

Also by the 1930s, all main centres in New Zealand were part of the national telephone network. Callers could contact the operator and pay a toll to connect between cities, and just about every home had subscribed to the network. By 1931 an international tolls service was extended for calls to Britain.

Interestingly, in 1939, New Zealand had more phones per head of population than any country except the USA, so the telephone was more or less a standard in every household, along with the specifically designated telephone table and chair.

3. Bakelite phone

Bakelite telephone, 1930s. WRM Ref: 1993.23.78

Despite growing rapidly in size, the telecommunications system remained more-or-less the same until the mid-1970s when the national network underwent a substantial upgrade to the STD (subscriber trunk or toll dialling) system. This meant a shift from the old party line, operator-based model to a more autonomous system.

The telephone models available still remained limited, but over time and by the late 1980s, the design and style of the humble telephone became more varied and increasingly more “modern” with push buttons instead of the circular rotary dial mechanisms. Likewise, telephones became design statements for any avid interior decorator, as the selection widened and they could be matched with décor.

Of course the arrival of mobile or portable phones in the mid-1980s was the early beginning of a massive wave of mobile device usage that we are all accustomed to today. Spare a minute to remember it wasn’t all that long ago when it was impossible to wander around the house while talking to someone on the telephone.

 

Rachael Garland is the Events Coordinator at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Fossil Giant Crab

In 1990, a local Whanganui resident captured a giant crab in the Ahu Ahu Valley, inland from Whanganui. That’s a curious creature to find so many kilometres from the coast. It was, however, not a potential family feast. It was a large fossil embedded in a spherical boulder, known in geological terms as a concretion. A concretion is a hard rock that forms around an object such as a fossil, protecting it from damage. Concretions can often be found weathering out of soft mudstone. If a concretion is cut open very carefully, it may reveal an interesting fossil, well preserved within the boulder. Because mudstone is very soft, it can be generally be cleaned off the fossil using water and a stiff brush.

2003.42.1

Tumidocarcinus giganteus, giant fossil crab. WRM ref: 2003.42.1

This particular fossil crab was alive approximately 15 million years ago, during the middle of the Miocene period, when the Ahu Ahu Valley, along with the rest of the Whanganui region, was under the sea. It is an example of the extinct species Tumidocarcinus giganteus, a deep-water crab that lived along the seabed in warmer waters than we enjoy today, on the Whanganui coast. During the middle of the Miocene period, which lasted from 24 million years ago to 5 million years ago, temperatures are estimated to have been four to five degrees warmer over most of the planet than they are today, and the sea level was correspondingly much higher.

Large numbers of Tumidocarcinus giganteus fossils have been recovered from the soft papa rock that is characteristic of the hills between Taranaki and Whanganui. Papa is formed from thick muddy sediments accumulating in the ocean around the western coast of the North Island. The numbers of these crabs found indicates that they were a reasonably common species in New Zealand seas during the Miocene. An interesting feature of the Tumidocarcinus giganteus is that the right pincer is usually much larger than the left. On males, the right claw could grow up to twice the size of the left claw. It was probably used for fighting and perhaps for attracting female crabs, as well as feeding.

By discovering fossils, such as this giant crab a very long way from the ocean, we can get a much clearer picture of what the land-masses we now inhabit might be like if the earth’s climate became similar to the middle Miocene again. It is challenging for us to imagine what the planet might be like if temperatures throughout the world continue to rise at the current rate. It is clear, however, that seas will be significantly higher, and much of the New Zealand land mass, especially coastal regions, will probably be under water.

The Whanganui region probably won’t be so great for humans, but giant crabs and other enormous sea creatures might be plentiful again.

Margie Beautrais is the Educator at Whanganui Regional Museum

Souvenirs of War

November 2018 marked 100 years since the end of World War I. We spent the previous four years remembering the course of that war, marking the many battles that were fought and honouring those who were lost. Then we were able to remember the end of the war on Armistice Day, and the enduring hope that sprang up with the silencing of the guns at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month.

Getting back to regular life after spending so much time overseas in drastically different conditions was not an easy transition to make. What we now refer to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and treat with therapy and medication, was then medically termed “shell shock”, a recognised disease of sustained or intense stress, which was treated in ways that ranged from ground-breaking psychiatric care, to quackery, to absolute neglect. Within the military, especially from 1917 onward when so many servicemen were presenting with stress-related behaviours, shell shock was treated as a symptom of personal cowardice. The military response to traumatized men was shame, pain, torture, and sometimes execution.

Despite the horrors on and off the battlefields, by the end of 1918, optimism abounded and people were determined to commemorate the war, hoping that such a scale of destruction would never be witnessed again. A myriad of Armistice mementos became available, including postcards, handkerchiefs, and memorial crockery. Many soldiers scavenged their own souvenirs and returned home with the enemy weapons, flags and pieces of shrapnel.

Others, however, had more artistic leanings and created their own unique pieces to remember what they had seen and been a part of. The Whanganui Regional Museum holds a number of these souvenirs of war that were incorporated into everyday life to keep the memory of war alive, although the names of the soldiers who made them are unknown.

1. hand grenade ink well

Souvenir ink stand from World War I, incorporating components from England and France. WRM ref: 1967.166.1

One such piece is an ink well made from remnants of battles, with the pieces collected in France and England. The base is made from teak wood that came from a torpedoed ship in Southampton, and four bullets that came from France. The hand grenade in the centre also came from France and was carefully hollowed out and the top removed to create a reservoir for ink. The aluminium band around the base was sourced from the first Zeppelin that was brought down in Essex, a feat managed by pilot V Robinson of the Air Squadron near the New Zealand Convalescent Depot at Hornchurch, in Sussex, UK.

A matching pair of decorative ashtrays were made from the cases of German shells.  The ends of the shells were cut down to resemble military service caps, and each was decorated with a regimental badge. One, made in May 1915, bears the regimental shield of the Essex Regiment. The other made, made in 1917, bears the regimental shield of The Buffs, the Royal East Kent Regiment.

ashtrays

Two ashtrays made from German shells and decorated with British regimental badges – The Buffs and Essex on the right.  WRM Ref: 1969.106.6-7

These unique souvenirs were kept by the soldiers and their families until they were donated to the Museum in the 1960s, and now we use them to help tell the stories of World War I and keep the memory alive. Lest We Forget.

Sandi Black is the archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Golden Lotus Shoes

For centuries the definition of beauty in women has been defined by different cultural norms. Wearing neck rings to elongate the neck, stretching earlobes, inserting plates into lips, piercing and tattoos are just some of the ways that women have altered their bodies to become what is culturally defined as beautiful.

In tenth century China, the practice of binding female feet was considered the height of beauty and lasted until the mid-twentieth century.

There are many stories as to how the practice started. One tells of an empress with a club foot, who insisted all women in court bind their feet so that hers became a model of beauty. Another is about an emperor wanting a concubine to bind her feet to resemble a crescent moon, thus enabling her to dance on a decorated golden lotus he had made. She was so graceful that upper class women imitated her, making the practice popular throughout China. A third is that the sheath shape of the bound foot resembled a lotus bud. The term “golden lotus” came to be given to bound feet. The swaying gait caused by the tiny steps taken by women with bound feet was considered erotic and labelled the “lotus gait”.

2. bound feet

 A Chinese woman’s feet that were deformed by binding when she was a young girl. Image sourced through Public Domain.

The binding was carried out on girls between the ages of four to seven, usually in winter as no anaesthetic was used and the foot would be numbed by the cold. First the foot was soaked in a mixture of herbs and animal blood to soften it. The foot was then drawn down straight with the leg and the arch would be broken to accommodate the toes. The toenails would be cut back and the toes broken and forced under the foot before being tightly bound with a bandage soaked in the same animal blood and herbs. Over the course of the next three years or so, the foot would regularly be unbound, cleaned, beaten to soften it, the toenails recut and the bones often rebroken and rebound tighter each time to achieve the smaller size.

The perfect foot size or golden lotus was 10 cm, a silver lotus was 13 cm and an iron lotus was 16 cm. The smaller the foot, the more desirable and eligible for marriage a woman became.

To accommodate the feet, many types of “lotus shoes” were made. A woman would have a selection of shoes for different occasions. She might have a pair for daytime, for her wedding, higher ones for bad weather and even funeral shoes.

1. museum collection

 Golden lotus shoes from the Museum collection. Manchu flower bowl shoes are at upper left.

There are five pairs in the Museum collection, each highly decorated with exquisite embroidery in silk and metal threads. One pair has attached wooden heels. Separate heels were sold which could be attached to shoes when the wearer wanted to walk in wet or muddy streets. A larger pair resembling normal shoes is known as a Manchu “flower bowl”, made to accommodate a larger unbound foot. These shoes were like ordinary slippers and would be attached to a high sole, which made their wearers walk like women with bound feet. Traditionally, Manchu women did not have their feet bound.

In the nineteenth century an anti-foot binding society initiated campaigns against the practice of foot binding, fines being imposed upon those who continued it. While in some very remote areas the practice continued until the 1950s, by this time foot binding had virtually disappeared. Today only a few elderly women with bound feet survive.

 

Kathy Greensides is collection assistant at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Upstairs, Downstairs

The Watt St buildings of the Whanganui Regional Museum have been largely closed to the public for two years now and the building site hoardings came down in January. While the temporary site on Ridgway St has been busy throughout, there is mounting interest and speculation about the reopening of the principal exhibition spaces to the public. How can it take so long to get the place open again?

Opening day is scheduled for 2019, but behind the closed doors there has been a lot going on and there’s still plenty to do.

1. Museum 1928

 The Wanganui Public Museum shortly after opening in 1928. Photograph by Tesla Studios.  Reef: MM-009

The process started in 2016 with the removal of all exhibits and furniture from the main buildings (with a few honourable exceptions on the grounds of sheer size) in preparation for the major earthquake engineering. That work, financed by the Whanganui District Council, involved installing steel supports and new walls around the whole interior of the 1928 building and similar, smaller scale alterations to the 1968 extension. Along with a new roof and a major overhaul of lighting and electrical systems, the first part of the project was finished in January this year and has created a completely revamped vessel for the Museum’s programmes and exhibitions.

Meanwhile, with the support of funding from the Lottery Grants Board, Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage, Te Puni Kokiri and a number of philanthropic trusts, the vital collection storage areas beneath the public buildings have undergone a transformation. New vaults, shelves and storage cabinets, along with specialised climate control systems, have dramatically improved conditions for over 300,000 collection items. Dedicated store rooms have been built for photographic negatives, taonga Māori and the huge collection of natural history specimens. A building initially designed and built as an underground carpark is now a store house suitable for a collection of national significance.

Upstairs, the Museum has taken advantage of the clear-out and refurbishment to rethink all of its exhibits. With over 3,000 square metres of public space to refurbish and reinstall, Museum staff and contractors have been fully engaged since 2017 on exhibition development, conservation and preparation of thousands of objects and artefacts for display.

2. Under construction

 Galleries closed for installation, with a hint of what’s to come. Photograph by Frank Stark.

Ninety years of additions and alterations have been stripped out to reveal and highlight the contrasting architectural styles of the 1928 and 1968 buildings. A lot of the Museum’s heritage display furniture has been refurbished or supplemented with new joinery. New facilities including an air-conditioned gallery, an audio-visual lounge and a bigger, better souvenir and book shop have been built. The result is a completely refreshed and rethought museum, combining long-standing Whanganui icons with many items from the collections never shown before.

Regular questions about the reopening have included the fate of the sunfish, the Street, the collection of Lindauer portraits and the waka. The Museum staff are not revealing details about the exhibition contents until closer to the opening date, but promise plenty of surprises when we open.

 

Frank Stark is the Director at Whanganui Regional Museum.

A Wedding in 1861

The earliest dated wedding dress in the Whanganui Regional Museum collection was donated in 1968. As with many past donations to the Museum, the information provided at the time was very limited. Apart from the donor’s name and address, the only other information provided on the receipt was a very rudimentary description of the dress: “One wedding frock (blue checked) worn in 1861”. No information was given as to where the dress had come from, who had made or worn it, or what journey it had gone through to make it into the Museum’s collection.

Although little of the dress’s history or provenance was communicated, there is no doubt that it was a treasured and well cared for item of clothing. The dress is in very good condition, considering it is over 150 years old and would have gone through several generations. It shows very little wear and only a little fading.

1968.13.1

The 1861 wedding dress. Ref: 1968.13.1

From looking at the style of the dress the date given on the receipt seemed very plausible. The high neckline, dropped shoulders, narrow boned waist, very full bell-shaped skirt, under which numerous petticoats or a crinoline would have been worn, and the pagoda sleeves all fit the style of the early 1860s. The construction, a mix of machine and hand-sewing, fit in with the technology that was available. The fabric, a silk taffeta lined with a brown Holland cloth, also supported the theory that the date given could well be correct.

So who was the woman that had worn this dress to her wedding in 1861? Finding the answer to this question involved many hours of trekking through ancestry sites, reviewing birth, death and marriage certificates, looking through electoral rolls and passenger lists to find the one branch of the donor’s family that had a wedding in 1861.

Where did the dress start its journey? The answer was in Gibraltar where, in 1861, 26 year old Olivia Costa married a 30 year old Scottish-born, British soldier named William Wallace. Olivia was born in Gibraltar, the daughter of Thomas Costa, a Master Mariner, and a woman whose name is unfortunately not recorded. As a Master Mariner Costa could easily have purchased the fabric for the dress at any of the trading ports through Europe.

William and Olivia had two children, William Thomas in 1862 and Annie Theresa in 1864. By the time their daughter was born (Annie is the grandmother of the donor of the dress) they are recorded as living in Canada West, America. At an unknown time they must have shifted to Tyrone in Northern Ireland because when they migrated to New Zealand in 1876, their nationality is recorded as Tyrone. They left for New Zealand on 26 June 1876 from the port of Glasgow and arrived in New Zealand on 23 September 1876 at the port of Otago. The family lived at Blueskin Bay, Waitati, north of Dunedin, where they settled into a life of farming. A relative of the Wallace’s who was a contemporary of Olivia, recorded in their family history that she was a “dark fascinating woman who was a good cook”. Olivia, William and William Thomas are all buried in the Waitati Cemetery.

Annie married James Sutherland, a farmer from Canterbury and they had two sons. The elder, Robert Alexander Wallace Sutherland, married Dorothy Agnes Ashwell of Whanganui whose family was associated with the setting up of Virginia Lake. Robert and Dorothy had a daughter who, while living in Whanganui in 1968, came into the Museum and donated the wedding dress of which we now know so much more.

 

Trish Nugent-Lyne is the Collection Manager at Whanganui Regional Museum

Quilts

A quilt is a bed covering, typically made of padding enclosed between layers of fabric stitched into place. It is usually decorative, but its primary purpose is for warmth. Not all quilts, however, are created equal. At the Whanganui Regional Museum there are several quilts in the textile collection, from the utilitarian to the richly embellished, and some in-between. A quilt reflects its creator: her financial circumstances, design and needlework talents and the availability of resources.

1. Salt bag quilt

 Salt bag and wool wisp quilt of the 1930s. WRM ref: 2007.73.1

One of the simplest in the collection, showing the maker’s thrifty use of what she had on-hand, is a modest, rustic, single quilt made from cotton salt bags filled with wisps of sheep fleece, materials readily available at no cost. The names of the salt companies are still readable on some of the bags. This was made around the 1930s, during the Depression era. Although it is simple, it would have been very warm.

2. Woven wool pieces quilt

 Woven woollen fabrics patchwork quilt. WRM ref: TH.568

A patchwork quilt is made of small pieces of cloth in different designs, colours and textures, sewn together. One example in the collection is a double quilt comprising rectangles of woven woollen fabrics sewn in a random pattern. The squares are whip-stitched by hand, and each seam is then embroidered in feather stitch in wools of various colours. This quilt has no backing, obviously intentional, as all edges have been finished; binding is usually the last step in completing a quilt.

A third quilt is made entirely of plain and flowered cotton scraps pieced in a traditional “Grandmother’s Flower Garden” hexagonal pattern, backed with cotton printed with small blue flowers. It was made by Ann Jackson of Market Harborough, Leicester, England. This quilt was later lined and brought to New Zealand by Ann Jackson’s great granddaughter. “Grandmother’s Flower Garden” was one of the most popular patterns of the 1830s-1840s, as it not only displayed design talent, but also because the large number of pieces demonstrated the skill of the needle worker. This quilt has over 300 individual pieces, all whip-stitched together by hand and would have taken months to create.

3. English method quilt

 Patchwork quilt made using the English paper method. WRM ref: 1970.3

A more opulent 19th century quilt used pieces of silk, velvet, taffeta and corduroy in an elongated hexagon pattern called the “Cathedral Window”. It was made using the English paper method, where fabrics are tacked onto paper shapes to stabilise them, before being sewn together. Once the piece has been finished the paper is removed.

This quilt is unfinished and has no backing, which enables us to see the piecing method and how it was assembled. The tacking and backing papers are still in place. Examination of the papers reveals that the sewer used old handwritten letters, a leaflet from a piano and organ tuner and a paper label from a shop in Liverpool, England, called Bon Marché. Founded in 1878, Bon Marché was modelled on its famous namesake in Paris and featured French fashions, perfumes and accessories, so it is possible this quilt had its beginnings in Liverpool.

One of the outcomes from researching the quilts in this article is that there is little or no specific information about their owners, when they were made or who they were made for. In the museums of today, when items are assessed for inclusion in the collection, staff collect as much information about them as possible, and keep this data on permanent record. Imagine the stories these quilts could tell if they could only speak!

 

Kathy Greensides is Collection Assistant at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Solid as a Rock

Recently there has been considerable interest and debate over the future of the substantial brick and masonry building at 1 Victoria Avenue in central Whanganui. The decision to prevent its demolition has been hailed by heritage campaigners as an important step in the preservation of the remaining elements of Whanganui’s Victorian and Edwardian streetscapes.

Aside from its widely discussed architectural merits, the Avenue building has important links to the commercial history of the city courtesy of its builder and original owner James Thain.  He started his trading days a few blocks away in a building which is just as well known, although with a different role these days.

2 Paperweight

 A rectangular glass paperweight, manufactured for James Thain & Co., Wanganui. Ref: 2010.51.204.

In 1888 Thain and his business partner William Clapham bought a small-scale hardware operation in St Hill St which they rapidly developed into a highly successful enterprise with customers all around the region. The company sold a wide range of ironmongery and hardware, including building supplies, household goods, firearms and domestic grocery items. They were agents for famous brands such as Cooper’s Sheep Dipping Powder and Shacklock Ranges – household names in their day and for years afterwards.

As they expanded to service an area from Foxton to New Plymouth and up the main trunk line, it was important for the store to be sited very near the wharf and bulk storage depots and within easy haulage distance of the railway station. The original Thain’s Warehouse was designed by Alfred Atkins and built by local contractor Nicholas Meuli on reclaimed river bank land on Taupō Quay, near the foot of Victoria Avenue.

The Wanganui Chronicle of 12 December 1895 hailed the opening of one of “the most imposing mercantile buildings in Wanganui… of an exceptionally striking appearance”.  The article contained a remarkably detailed description of the building’s design, construction and contents. The reporter describes the shell-patterned pediment, panelled pilasters, cornices, parapet with pedestals and gold lettering. Another paragraph or two is devoted to the wooden floor, “solid as a rock” to bear the weight of “a large stock of cement, horse shoes, fencing wires, oils, felt, ridging and bulk packages of hardware”. At the rear there was a long storeroom for “an immense quantity of bar, sheet, corrugated and plate iron, steel in bars and sheets, gas and water pipes etc.” alongside an iron-clad kerosene store.

1 James Thain & Co

A view from across the river showing the James Thain and Co. building where the i-Site is now located. Ref: WR-TR-098.

As business continued to boom, Thain needed more space. His modest retail premises on the prime corner site at the bottom of Victoria Avenue provided the answer. In 1908, he commissioned his favourite builder, Nicholas Meuli, to erect a new, three-storey emporium to a design by local architect T H James. The shop quickly became a Whanganui landmark universally known as Thain’s Corner.

These days the Taupō Quay site is occupied by the Whanganui Visitor Information Centre, rebuilt by the District Council in 2009, incorporating many components of the original structure, including columns, beams and floors.

Images and objects from Thain’s shop will feature in the opening exhibition at the Whanganui Regional Museum.

 

Frank Start is the Director at Whanganui Regional Museum.