This homemade quilt was made by Kathleen Lockett of Whanganui in the 1930s. The cover is made from empty salt bags, which have been sewn together, and the inner is sheep’s wool salvaged from the fences and bushes that these animals rubbed against. These items were free – you bought your salt and saved your bags, you foraged for wool. The quilt is emblematic of the hard times faced in Whanganui during the Depression years.
In 1926 Whanganui was the fifth largest city in New Zealand with a population of 26,388; more than ten times the population in 1874. The rapid growth of the previous decades, however, hid a social conundrum of the future. The hugely profitable and high-employment of the sawmilling industry was essential to pioneering work, the establishment of farms, roads and railways. But once they were functioning, they did not need nearly so many employees.
Much of Whanganui’s economy came from fertile farms, but the land was in trouble. The massive deforestation for agriculture left it exposed, with erosion becoming a major problem. Uncontrolled reforestation of cleared land was another. When the bottom fell out of the market and produce prices fell, many farms were no longer viable and farmers had to abandon them.
Unemployment rose and people left to find work elsewhere. From 1926 to 1945, Whanganui was the only region to have a consistently declining population. After World War II, an increased demand for previously limited commodities helped to rebuild the town, but trade did not attract more farm labour for the rural districts. The high country farms had low output and were difficult to access and maintain, and without the population and upkeep, isolated rural stores and schools began to close.
With aerial topdressing and improvements in stock and pasture management the farms began to stabilise. Rural areas still faced difficulty, and the closures of railway stations and the centralising of dairy processing took more work away from the regions.
Back in town, Wanganui Port was struggling because of the advent of roll-on-roll-off ferries in the 1960s that meant an increase of rail transport over coastal shipping. By 1966, the Whanganui population sat at 38,174, a reasonable growth, but significantly slower than other regions. The lack of higher education available in Whanganui also contributed to the list of reasons why people left town.
It is not all bad news! Since the 1970s, many initiatives have started to keep our town going. More forests were planted, Santoft in 1956 and Lismore in 1963. Wanganui Trawlers, later Wanganui Seafoods, was established in 1965 and would go on to become a multi-million dollar business until its sale to Auckland firm Sanford in 1995. A contract to process iron sands at Waipipi brought a lot of business from 1971 to 1988 and turned the sand dunes into pasture.
The Government helped a little by setting up the New Zealand Philatelic Bureau (now known as Collectables & Solutions) in town in 1974, and a year later, the Wanganui Computer Centre provided the national computerised system for law enforcement. Governmental operations restructures in the 1980s and 1990s saw a lot of downsizing and closures with the loss of 1,000 jobs over several industries.
In the meantime, the opening of the Tūroa ski field and the establishment of the Whanganui National Park boosted tourism to the region, increased further by the restoration of two riverboats. Further business ventures have helped to maintain a slow growth, and since the 1990s, an initiative to preserve and protect our heritage buildings has made Whanganui a vintage tourism destination.