Collection

Warm comfort in hard times

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.

1. Depression-era quilt

The quilt made of wool stuffed into salt bags, by Kathleen Lockett. WRM Ref: 2007.73.1

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.

2. Farm in Waitotara

The Waitōtara Valley in the 1930s, showing the difficult terrain and affects of deforestation and reforestation. WRM Ref: NZ/NI/WAI/78

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.

The Red Coat

1. Webb's Red Coat

 The first Red Coat presented in New Zealand, awarded to Billy Webb on 19 February 1903 when he won the National Championship Single Sculls in Whanganui. WRM Ref: 1995.10.1

Red Coats are awarded to the winners of premiere men’s rowing titles, and this specific coat was presented to Billy Webb when he won the National Champion Single Sculls at Whanganui on 19 February 1903. It was the first Red Coat to be presented in New Zealand.

William Charles Webb, known as Billy, was born and educated at Lyttelton in Christchurch where he showed early promise as a runner and cyclist before focusing on rowing. He relocated to Whanganui and had success as an amateur rower, winning Single Sculls and Double Sculls titles. He was so successful that he decided to turn professional.

Webb went on to international renown when he became the first New Zealander to win the World Championship title for Professional Single Sculls. The race was held on the Parramatta River in Sydney on 2 August 1907, and Webb beat the champion Charles Towns by five lengths. The win was not without controversy as Towns protested an alleged foul by Webb that was ignored, and not all the commentators agreed with the umpire. The award, however, was given and Webb became a local hero.

Australian Richard Tresidder challenged Webb’s title. The race was held on the Whanganui River on 25 February 1908, the first ever World Championship race held New Zealand. Webb won by three lengths and confirmed his status as World Champion, pleasing the residents of Whanganui so much that there were suggestions that the name be changed to Webbanui.

2. Webb in single scull

A tinted postcard of Billy Webb in a single scull on the Whanganui River. WRM Ref: 1962.196.19

He was challenged again by Richard Arnst and they raced on the Whanganui River on 15 December 1908, where Arnst won by eight-ten lengths. A rematch was held on 22 June 1909 on the same course, and Arnst again won by two-three lengths.

Webb continued to race, including on the Whanganui River, but never regained the World Champion title. World War I halted the professional races and Webb retired as Undefeated Professional New Zealand Single Sculls Champion when the war ended.  He continued to row for fun and sometimes performed exhibition rows, and was always ready to help young rowers hone their skills. Webb died on 2 October 1960. He was inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in September 1997.

The Whanganui River had been a feature of the tourist industry for some time with riverboats carrying eager travelers to see the hidden treasures and stay at the famed Pīpīriki House. Many Whanganui photographers such as Partington, Denton and Harding, helped to boost this trade by taking spectacular images of the river and the people on it. Printer A D Willis introduced chromolithographic printing in 1883, extending the range and attractiveness of postcards and pictorial books that further promoted this region.

It was, however, Webb’s racing that confirmed the Whanganui River as an outstanding venue for professional rowing. The 1908 race between Webb and Arnst was honoured in December 2008 with a race between Olympic Champion Olaf Tufte, three-time World Champion Mahe Drysdale and wild card Hamish Bond. Since then the race has been held annually under the name of “The Billy Webb Challenge”, and continues to bring athletes, sports enthusiasts and visitors to the town.

The Wanganui Town Bridge Cog

This is one of the larger items in the Museum’s collection – a large cog which was attached to the first Wanganui Town Bridge. Measuring 110 cm across the base and 180 cm high, it is part of the turning mechanism that allowed a section of the bridge to swing open and let ships through.

1. Wanganui Town Bridge cog

The cast iron cog – part of the turning mechanism for the Whanganui Town Bridge. WRM Ref: TH.1252.

A swing span was a common feature of early bridges in New Zealand when shipping was still the best form of transportation of goods and people. Once the span opened, the ships would sail up to the sheltered basin near Shakespeare Bluff to discharge cargo.

Although not built until 1871, the structure had been in development since 1857 when a petition requesting a bridge was submitted to the Provincial Superintendent.  The first pile was driven into the riverbed in 1859, but the project met continuous halts due to failed contracts and arguments over the location.

The turbulence of the 1860s also halted work on the bridge, with fraught land purchases and the resulting wars causing tension and bringing threats to the area.  Despite not having a permanent bridge, Whanganui was a prime transport location and became a major military site during this time.

As the region began to calm and peace was resuming, the bridge project was raised again. A plan by Mr Henry McNeil was accepted at a cost of £30,000 (around four million dollars in 2019). The bridge was formally opened by Governor Sir George Ferguson Bowen on 28 November 1871.

Tolls were introduced to help pay for the bridge: A penny for pedestrians, sixpence for horseback riders, nine pence for two-wheeled carriages with springs and a shilling for those without, and two shillings for four-wheeled carriages. Stock were charged by the head. The first toll was paid by pedestrian Mr George Ross. Mr Tom Jones was the first to cross on horseback, riding backwards for the occasion.

Prior to construction, all people, stock and goods were transferred across the river by small boats or by pulley bridges, but a permanent bridge made access much easier. After it opened, the bridge became the main link between the coast and the hinterland, and the port boomed with the increased ease of access to trade routes.

2. Bridge with open span

Whanganui Town Bridge with the swing span opened to allow a ship through. WRM Ref: 1967.8

Coaches had already made their way north but the bridge helped to open up transport routes to Whangaehu, Turakina, Marton, Bulls and Palmerston North.  These routes from town to town spurred the development of rural roads, and more farms became established. A significant proportion of the Whanganui economy came from this fertile farming hinterland.

Whanganui became New Zealand’s second most important town and port. The European population advanced at a great rate and by 1886 was around 15,000. At the same time, the Māori population was 1,770, having halved within 15 years.

As technology developed, gas and water pipes and telephone lines were fitted to the bridge but these proved to be cumbersome as they had to be disconnected every time the span opened, resulting in a half hour delay for those waiting to cross. The span last opened in 1902 when the SS Huia passed through carrying materials to fix the Aramoho Rail Bridge which had opened in 1877. In 1914 the span on the Town Bridge was closed up permanently, meaning it was no longer a swinging structure. It was finally demolished in 1969.

Reverend Richard Taylor

In June 1840, not long after the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in Whanganui, a Mission Station was built next to Pūtiki marae and many of the leaders converted to Christianity. After Reverend John Mason drowned in the Turakina River, Reverend Taylor and his family were called to take over the position, arriving at Pūtiki on 1 May 1843.

P-Q-006

A photograph of Reverend Richard Taylor in his later years. WRM Ref: P-Q-006.

Taylor came from Yorkshire, England. He earned his BA at Queen’s College in Cambridge before being ordained as a Minister on 8 November 1829. He was then appointed as a missionary to New Zealand by the Church Missionary Society after gaining his MA in 1835. After a three year stint working in New South Wales, he worked in the Bay of Islands before being stationed in Whanganui. Taylor’s role was as evangelist, travelling the area from Taupō to Rangitīkei. He was also a peace keeper, defusing tensions within and between European and Māori.

At one point Taylor was baptising more converts than any other missionary in the country. He regularly travelled his parish to make sure he kept in contact and maintained an influence, leaving his wife and family at home to run the Mission Station and cater for visitors. He and Bishop Selwyn oversaw the building of several churches. He was also responsible for some of the place names along the Whanganui River, including Ātene/Athens, Koroniti/Corinth, Hiruhārama/Jerusalem, and Rānana/London.

He was greatly respected among local Māori. In the early 1840s he was presented with an intricately carved chair by the Māori of Pūtiki in recognition of the work he did with them and as a token of their respect for him. Whereas many Māori were appreciative of Taylor’s efforts, European Settlers were ambivalent towards his pastoral work, preferring to attend the horse races on Christmas Day rather than the church services that Taylor offered.

From the 1850s Taylor’s religious influence began to wane as his role in civil matters increased. He continued negotiating the peace but was not always successful. He attempted to prevent war in Taranaki in the 1860s and was torn when Te Keepa Te Rangihiwinui and Pūtiki Māori fought on the Government side, unable to condemn them but upset by the devastating effects of war.

Taylor often represented Whanganui in government matters. He was a close friend and confidant of Governor Grey and helped make the decision to call a military presence to the town in 1845. He was involved with land negotiations and the final Whanganui land settlement agreement, and helped to establish several schools and the local hospital.

 

2001.57

View From the Cave in Hill overlooking Putiki-waranui [sic]-a-tamatea-pokai-whenua. A pen and wash painting by Cranleigh Barton after a work by his great-grandfather Rev. Richard Taylor. WRM Ref: 2001.57.

Alongside this Taylor also maintained a serious interest in the natural world. He discovered a new species of plant, Dactylanthus taylori, or the wood rose. He also sent moa bones to Richard Owen, who ultimately recognised and named the species of bird new to science. He sent samples of New Zealand native plants to Joseph Hooker, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew at the time. And he found the time to write and illustrate several books on natural, social and religious themes.

Reverend Taylor passed on his mission work to his son Basil, who joined him in his pastoral work in 1860 but continued his civil work. Taylor died on 10 October 1873, but is still fondly remembered and respected today.

Leg Shackles

This set of leg shackles illustrate a fraught time in Whanganui. They consist of two ankle clasps joined by four links to a central ring, which has a further set of links to which a weight or bolt could be attached. These shackles come from the Rutland Stockade and are known to have been used on prisoners of the Pai Mārire Movement.

1. Shackles

The leg shackles from the Rutland Stockade, known to be used on Māori prisoners. WRM Ref: 1800.262

The 1840s was a fraught time for Whanganui with tensions high over land sales and concerns for Māori rights as kaitiaki of the river. In 1846, fighting broke out in the Hutt Valley and Whanganui Europeans feared similar resistance and unrest. This was heightened when upriver leader Tōpine Te Mamaku and 200 toa (warriors) joined the resistance in the Hutt Valley, leading an attack on Boulcott’s Farm and calling on other Whanganui River Māori to follow him. Te Mamaku returned to Whanganui and assured the European settlers that he would protect the town, as long it remained free of soldiers.

By mid-December 1846, however, the 58th Rutlandshire Regiment had garrisoned the town. The 58th completed building the Rutland Stockade by April 1847. It cost £3,500 and was thought to be the largest stockade in the country at the time, measuring 55 x 30 metres. As well as being a home base for the soldiers, the stockade was also a military prison, housing detainees from battles in the region.

2. Rutland Stockade

The Rutland Stockade, overlooking Atkinson’s Hotel on the left and the Court House on the right. WRM Ref: B-ST-01D

In 1847, an incident occurred in which a young Māori man was shot in the face by a midshipman from the HMS Calliope, although sources differ on whether the incident was deliberate or accidental. The man was treated by a military surgeon and later recovered, but the injury drew utu (retaliation) when the Gilfillan family of Matarawa was attacked by a group of young Māori men and four family members were killed. Five of the six attackers were captured and court-martialled, with four of the men being hung and one being banished due to his age – he was only 14.

After this, many of the European settlers in the rural areas fled to the town and the stockade and a number of women and children were evacuated. Te Mamaku and 300 of his men attacked and blocked the town for two and a half months, with many rural settler homes being burned and stock plundered.

The 65th Regiment arrived in May 1847 to help reinforce the town, resulting in nearly 800 soldiers being stationed to protect fewer than 200 settlers. More skirmishes and minor battles followed and a second stockade, the York, was built by July of that year.

The tensions came to a head on 19 July 1847 with the battle of St Johns Wood. Even though this had an indecisive outcome, Te Mamaku and his men returned to their upriver home a few days later and a tentative peace was restored. The military presence would remain for nearly two decades.

In May 1848, eight years after the initial negotiations began, the Government repurchased the block of land at Whanganui, paying £1,000 for 34,911 hectares, of which 2,200 hectares were reserved for Māori.

Go-Ashore

 

This distinctive vessel is known as a “go-ashore” pot. The round shape and handles made it the ideal pot for cooking over an open fire, and were handy for sailors when going ashore for supplies.  These pots were often traded in exchange for timber or provisions and were offered as part of larger purchases. This particular pot is believed to have been part of the initial purchase of Whanganui.

1. Go-Ashore Pot

The “go-ashore” pot included with the payment for The New Zealand Company’s purchase of land to settle the town of Petre, later Whanganui. WRM Ref: TH.3527

The New Zealand Company was formed in London in 1825 with the express purpose of systematically colonizing New Zealand. Edward Gibbon Wakefield joined the project and envisioned a new-model English Society in the Southern Hemisphere. He planned to purchase land from indigenous populations at a low cost and sell it on to speculators and gentlemen settlers at higher rates. The buyers would in turn hire immigrant paupers and labourers who would break the land in and cater to their needs while saving up enough money to purchase their own piece of paradise after several years’ work.

After the turbulent settlement of Wellington in 1840, the New Zealand Company searched for more land to house the prospective settlers who had already purchased farms and homes. In November 1840, Edward Wakefield (son of Edward Gibbon Wakefield) began negotiations for the sale of 40,000 acres of land on the lower reaches of the Whanganui River from 27 local Māori chiefs. He named the site after Lord Petre (pronounced Peter), one of the directors of the New Zealand Company.

The purchase of the land was disorganised, unethical, and haphazard. Māori were paid in goods, including muskets, umbrellas, Jew’s harps and cooking pots, possibly including the one shown here. These goods, the purchase price of the land for Petre, reached a value of £700, the equivalent of less than $100,000 today.

2. Petre plan

A plan of the town of Petre, late Whanganui; commissioned by The New Zealand Company in 1842. WRM Ref: 1971.70.1

European settlers began to move in from February 1841, before the sale was completed in May. Many Māori were angered by the inundation of strangers and their demand for more land. Some Māori saw the settlement as “their town” while others were concerned that European settlement on the river might challenge those who held mana (traditional authority) over it. Others did not acknowledge any agreement had been made.

An enquiry was held to look into the purchase, and in 1844, Land Commissioner William Spain ruled against the New Zealand Company. He found the settlers had purchased land through the Company in good faith, but the Company’s dealings with Māori were far from satisfactory.

Rather than return the land, he ordered the New Zealand Company to pay monetary compensation to the Māori, but allowed the Company to establish the value themselves. Some chiefs refused to sell their portion of land regardless of what compensation was offered, but when Spain’s offers were refused, he stated that would not prevent the land from going to the settlers.

The Meg

Often an object has a much wider story to tell than what can be seen at face value, as interesting as that can initially appear.  Part of the fun in researching it is uncovering the wider back story which helps to build up a bigger picture of where we stand at the present.

So with that in mind, how did a tooth from a megalodon end up in the riverbed near Whanganui?

2. Megalodon size

The Megalodon at the top, compared to a Great White Shark and a Human. Image sourced through Creative Commons.

The largest known shark, the Carcharodon megalodon lived from 16-2.5 million years ago. The megalodon was related to the Great White Shark of today but was huge. Fossil remains show the megalodon was an average size of 10.5 metres long but could grow up to 18 metres. An adult human could easily sand up in its jaws which measured over two metres wide.

The particular tooth in the Museum collection measures 13.5 centimetres high and 11.5 centimetres wide. It was found near Pīpīriki in a bank of sandstone estimated to be four to five million years old. Because of its marine past, Whanganui is a great place to find marine fossils, in particular fossilised shark teeth.

1. Megalodon tooth

The Megalodon tooth found near Pipiriki. WRM Ref: 1800.175

About 540 million years ago, New Zealand was being formed on the eastern edge of the supercontinent Gondwana. This continent included what we know today as Australia, Antarctica, India, Africa and South America.

Around 100 million years ago, hot rock began to accumulate underneath Gondwana and move towards the edges of the land, pulling it apart. This slowly made a giant rift which allowed the sea to flood in, and separated it from the mainland, thus creating the continent of Zealandia. After breaking away from Australia around 85 million years ago, Zealandia largely sank beneath the Pacific Ocean. What remains visible today is essentially the highlands of the continent, and the rift is now the Tasman Sea.

Zealandia sits across the edge of the Australian and Pacific tectonic plates and is slowly being broken up as they continue to move. The last 1.8 million years have shaped the land with tectonic movements, glaciers and volcanoes, altering the landscape. Whanganui, being on the coast of New Zealand and consisting of lifted sea beds, is more likely to reveal marine fossils.

The hinterland areas are fertile with volcanic ash at the core. The mountains in the north and west help to shelter the township and have created a wonderful climate, much warmer and drier compared to other coastal towns.

Before human settlement, this land was covered with forest: tōtara, matai, rimu, tawa and beech trees covered the landscape. The soft rock near the coast was easily worn down by water, and helped to create the Whanganui River, the longest navigable waterway in New Zealand, measuring 290 kilometres from its source at Mount Tongariro.

All this adds up to a beautiful place with fertile lands, fresh water, ocean access and a temperate climate, which made it perfect for settlement when Māori arrived.

 

Sandi Black is the archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Portable Desks

When we travel these days, we pack a myriad of electronic devices to enable us to always be in touch with friends and family, store photos of places we have been and short videos of our travels. Phones, laptops and tablets are the way we communicate and share now.

For Victorians travelling abroad, things were not quite that easy. Writing letters, sending postcards and drawings by post were the only ways to share their travelling experiences. To facilitate this, they would travel with wooden writing boxes, generally known as portable desks, but also called lap desks or writing slopes. These boxes held all the accoutrements needed for writing.

3. Campaign box

Campaign Box with a secret drawer. WRM Ref: 1948.20

While there are records of writing boxes being used by travelling monks, the most well-known were used by officers in the British Army in the eighteenth century. These were known as campaign boxes. They had to be sturdy to withstand travelling over rough roads for long distances. They were banded with brass corners for extra protection and had steel screws to strengthen the joints. The boxes would open to reveal a leather or baize-covered double section on which to lay out all that was needed to write. Smaller compartments would hold quill pens, ink bottles, sand (for drying ink), sealing wax and a larger section for a pen rest.

Some also featured a secret drawer hidden in the bottom of the box. This was opened by removing a small discrete rod sunk into the side panel, which normally held the drawer closed. Other more elaborate hidden drawers were accessed by removing certain sections and releasing a hidden spring. These drawers were used for private or illicit correspondence, eyeglasses, snuff boxes, medicines or valuables.

1. Porcupine desk

A portable desk covered with porcupine quills. WRM Ref: 1962.178.4

As the British ventured to Europe on their Grand Tour journeys, the writing box became more widely used. Wealthy travellers would commission bespoke designs, inlaid with marquetry or ivory, and personalised with initials or monograms. Less commonly, dual purpose boxes were made, incorporating the writing function with perhaps a sewing box or a gentleman’s shaving tools.

The Whanganui Regional Museum has a collection of portable desks made from different species of wood. One of the more unusual has porcupine quills covering its outer surface and edges of inlaid ivory dots. Inside the lid is a hexagonal motif with twelve triangular sections of different wood species and an ivory circle with an elephant motif. The rest of the inside is elaborately decorated with swirls and flowers of inlaid ivory dots.

2. Interior porcupine desk

The interior of the porcupine quill portable desk. WRM Ref: 1962.178.4

There is also a heavy wooden campaign box which has interior compartments and a pull-out drawer at one end held shut by a brass rod sunk into a side panel. One side has a hinge which, when raised, holds the lid open at different angles. This was once the property of Mr E Hardcastle, Resident Magistrate in Whanganui, 1879.

One thing that hasn’t changed over the centuries is that we still wish to keep in touch and share our experiences with friends and family. Although we can now communicate in the blink of an eye, the beauty and the practicality of portable desks make us think about a return to the gentle art of sending letters and postcards. Are we missing the tactile satisfaction of opening and reading a letter, of selecting just the right postcard to send to a friend, of using our imagination to describe our experiences when we travel; or will pen and paper eventually become a thing of the past?

 

Kathy Greensides is collection assistant at Whanganui Regional Museum

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.

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.