Collection

St Mary’s Church in Ūpokongaro

St Mary’s Anglican Church in Ūpokongaro makes an impression on most people passing through that small settlement, 12 km north of Whanganui. Its distinctive steeple seems a bit wonky. But it’s not – apparently it’s due to the effect of a three sided spire set on top of a four-sided tower.

The church was designed by Whanganui architect Edward Morgan and built in 1877 by local builder John Randal. The building and the section cost £344, local residents raising their share of the money through subscriptions and a successful concert at John Kennedy’s store. The Bishop of Wellington, Octavius Hadfield, consecrated St Mary’s on 20 July 1879.

2. St Mary's Church 1958

 St Mary’s Church, Ūpokongaro, 1958. Ref: 1800.755

Four stained glass panels link to the Montgomerie Family, stalwart St Mary’s parishioners. Depicting the evangelists, they were designed by Francis Philip Barraud and manufactured by Barraud, Lavers and Westlake of London in 1892. Two were installed to commemorate Captain Alexander Montgomerie, a founding member of St Mary’s and a lay reader during its early years, who died in 1890. The other two commemorate his brother Archibald W Montgomerie, who died at Mākirikiri in 1877. The Montgomerie Family is commemorated in other memorials in St Mary’s.

Young Archibald Montgomery also died in 1877. Aged only 23 and on his way home to Whanganui from a trip abroad, he was drowned in the Avalanche disaster off Portland Bill in the English Channel. The Avalanche collided with the Forest, a Nova Scotian clipper, and sank immediately. Of the 94 people who lost their lives, 21 were Whanganui residents.

Henry and Frances Montgomery, young Archibald’s parents, commissioned stained glass windows from an unidentified English firm in 1879 as a memorial to their son. The centre panel depicts the Ascension and the left panel features the storm on the Sea of Galilee with Christ walking to the rescue over the waves. The right panel illustrates St Peter trying, unsuccessfully, to walk on the waves.

The church was extended in 1892 when the chancel and the vestry were built. The bell, cast in London in 1896, still rings out today. The church has been re-roofed several times and the steeple repaired in 1953, requiring another major fundraising effort by local residents and a successful Wanganui Savage Club concert. Otherwise the building today is much the same as it was in 1901 when the interior was first lined.

The Owen family also made an important contribution to St Mary’s during its 25 years. Hayward Arthur Owen was appointed churchwarden in 1876 and kept his accounts in this book, including those for the building of the church in 1877 and the chancel extension in 1892. The book shows, in the 1881/1882 year, when Thomas Stephens was paid for the temporary vestry and Robert Hughes for painting the church and the fence.  A contribution was made to the purchase of the first parish register and the church benefitted from the proceeds of two entertainments, one in the new “Court House Theatre” in Ūpokongaro.  The overdraft, however, was still more than £92.

Philip Macdonald, St Mary’s treasurer from 1950 to 1969, was a local farmer with a love of architecture. His design for the church lychgate was later used by Whanganui architect Don Wilson to prepare plans for a memorial to Annie Eliza Cowper, formerly of Kukuta. Her son, Charles Robert Cowper, left a generous bequest to St Mary’s that enabled the lychgate to be built in 1958.

St Mary’s Sunday School was held in a room behind the church from 1904 to the early 1970s.  1938 was an important year in the history of St Mary’s. A local committee was formed in September to “inspire greater interest in church matters throughout the district”. Jessie Woon was appointed honorary secretary. Her report for that year noted that the committee had encouraged 20 local families to subscribe, had a successful shop day at McGruer’s in town and a dance in the Ūpokongaro Hall. The Church and schoolroom were both re-piled. Jessie, however, was worried about the birds having access to the church roof. The original leadlight windows in the nave were replaced in 1968.

St Mary’s is registered with the New Zealand Historic Places Trust as a Category 1 historic place. In Whanganui, it is the oldest church still on its original site.

1. St Mary's Church in matchsticks

 Model of St Mary’s Church, Ūpokongaro, made of matchsticks. Ref: 1968.60

In its collection, the Museum has a remarkable matchstick model of St Mary’s made by Jack Higgins, who lived in Ūpokongaro for over 70 years. As a hobby in his later life, he made matchstick models of local buildings in the area. His model of St Mary’s is very accurate, down to the precise alignment of the spire.

 

Fiona Hall was Acting Curator at Whanganui Regional Museum from 2002 to 2003. She curated an exhibition titled The Church by the River, and this article is based on her text.

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A glimpse into the Palaeolithic

Museums worldwide preserve and record the remains of technology used by our predecessors. Use of particular materials has led to a way of categorising whole groups of people in specific places and times. We refer to people of the Palaeolithic Age, the Neolithic Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age and more recently, the Industrial Age.

Stored safely in small drawers in a Whanganui Regional Museum collection storeroom is a whole series of Palaeolithic stone tools produced by our human and pre-human predecessors. This amazing collection of stone tools was collected by H W Seton-Karr in North Africa during the late 19th century and donated to our Museum in 1935.

Looking at these tools leads to a sense of wonder about the people who made them, who they might have been and what their lives were like.

1. Oldowan stone tool

 Oldawan stone tool

One drawer holds extremely ancient, rounded chipped stones called Oldawan tools which were created by pre-human hominids over 1.5 million years ago. These very clever hominids called Homo habilis (known as the Handymen) walked on two feet, lived in Africa and used stones gathered from around them as their technological solution to practical tasks. Perhaps they were skinning animals, cutting meat, or processing plant materials. The tools are rounded stones, small enough to fit into a modern human hand and flaked at one end, probably to create sharp stone fragments to use like a knife.

2. Acheulian hand axe

 Acheulean stone hand axe

Yet another iteration of humankind, living in the period from  1.8 million to 300,000 years ago, developed much greater skill in working stone, creating teardrop shaped tools called Acheulean hand-axes, named after the valley in Europe where these tools were first discovered. These tools are shaped, working hand-axes made from stone by an upright-walking hominid species called Homo erectus (or Upright man), who used fire, created pigments and transported different kinds of stones across great distances. The remains of Homo erectus have been found associated with Acheulean tools. Acheulean tool technology lasted more than a million years and several hundred thousand of them have been discovered in numerous localities across Africa, Europe and Asia. A significant collection is held in Whanganui Regional Museum. Acheulean hand-axes are also associated with the hominid species, Homo heidelbergensis.

Stone tool manufacture was further developed by two later human species, Homo sapiens neanderthalus (Neanderthals) and Homo sapiens sapiens (us). This period of greater technological advancement is referred to as the Upper Palaeolithic. The tools are more intricately worked, with evidence of many more flakes of stone being removed, greater care in the overall shaping of the tools and a wider variety of tools created, including arrow-heads and spear-points.

3. Neolithic stone axe-head

 Neolithic stone axe head

Over thousands of years the technological skills of Homo sapiens sapiens became increasingly more complex and stone tools were created that are instantly recognisable to us today. One Neolithic stone axe-head in the Museum collection resembles a modern axe-head. It is a beautifully made tool, smooth, carefully shaped and fit for purpose. The person who made it was probably not all that different to us.

At some time in the far distant future, as with all the ages of humans who have gone before us, our discarded technology could provide a picture of who we are and how we lived.

 

Margie Beautrais is the Educator at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Pat Hanna and The Diggers

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

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

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

2. Pat Hanna, WWI

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

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

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

1. Pat Hanna recording

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

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

 

Frank Stark is Director of the Whanganui Regional Museum.

Reunited with the bones of their ancestors

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

Check out the last repatriation here:

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

 

Stick Insects

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

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

1. prickly stick insect

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

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

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

2. stick insect cage

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

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

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

3. stick insect eggs

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

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

 

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

Whanganui – forgotten capital of the Arts and Crafts Movement

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

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

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

3. Art class at Wanganui Technical School

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

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

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

1. Dorothy Collier clock

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

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

2. Liberty Shop

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

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

4. Liberty Advertisement

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

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

 

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

 

Hidden in the Seams

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

1. Silk dress

 Silk taffeta dress from around 1860. Ref: 1968.13.1

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

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

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

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

2. Inner of silk dress

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

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

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

 

Rachael Garland is the Events Coordinator at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Celebrating Boys in Japan

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

1. Lacquered box

The lacquered box. Ref: 2015.32.51g

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

2. Samurai doll

The Gogatsu Ningyo, Samurai doll. Ref: 2015.32.51a

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

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

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

 

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

Totarapuka dolls’ house

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

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

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

Totarapuka dolls' house

Totarapuka dolls’ house. Ref: 1959.180.35

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

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

Totarapuka painting

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

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

 

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

Trench Watches

In 1914, soldiers marching off to war were issued with a kitbag holding essential clothing and equipment such as wire cutters, waterproof map holders, field glasses and a fob watch, amongst many other things.

A watch was an indispensible part of military kit because, before modern radio systems came into play during war, operations across vast battlefields were synchronised by time. “The attack will begin at 0600 hours”. Fob watches issued by the Army proved to be impractical in the trenches; to see the face, a soldier would have to put down his gun and use both hands to retrieve it, leaving him unarmed. Fob watches were not waterproof and had glass faces that shattered easily, sometimes causing injury. They could not be seen in the dark, and soldiers would have to strike a match to see the time, dangerous because of the ever present risk of a sniper’s bullet. (This gave rise to the habit among cigarette smoking infantry of never lighting three cigarettes from one match because it gave time for a sniper to focus on the light and pick off the third man.)

3. Advert

This 1916 advertisement is from Thresher and Glenny, British gentlemen’s outfitters specialising in officers’ uniforms and military accessories. It shows an officer of the 1914-1918 period, showing off a wristwatch.

 

For these reasons, soldiers often purchased their own wrist watches which provided the much needed resilience, legibility, luminosity and accuracy, and came to be known as trench watches.

By 1914 wrist watches specifically made for soldiers had a sub-dial for greater accuracy, a plastic lens and large luminous numbers. The paint used on the dials and numerals of the luminous watches was powered by radium salts so that it glowed strongly all the time and didn’t rely on being exposed to sunlight to charge it up. Watch manufacturers also began producing shrapnel guards, metal grills partially covering the watch face and providing further protection.

2. Shrapnel guards

Shrapnel guards used to protect trench watches. Information/Image from VintageWatchstraps.com ©David Boettcher

The Whanganui Regional Museum has two trench watches in its collection. One was made by Rolex from sterling silver, the hallmarks inside the case dating it to 1915. The strap is a silver expandable triple rail band, which, although impervious to water and wear, was considered effeminate and proved unpopular with soldiers.

1. Trench watches

W M Millar’s trench watch (ref: TH.3044) and a Rolex trench watch (ref: 1978.71.11)

The other is stamped inside the case with three bears, the hallmark for Swiss silver from 1893-1934, but it has no maker’s mark. The back of the case has been inscribed with the following ‘’W. M. MILLAR / FROM HIS MOTHER / SISTERS AND BROTHE R / 6.10.16 / MIZPAH”. Mizpah is Hebrew for “Lord Watch over me” and biblically, it marks an agreement between two people, with God as their witness. The Museum has no record of the donor of this watch. We do not know if W M Millar survived the Great War and returned to his loving family, or if the watch was returned to them among his personal effects after the conflict was over. This man might have been Sergeant William Merrilees Millar of the Wellington Infantry Battalion B Company, whose next of kin, his mother, was Mrs Agnes Millar of 3 William Street, Hataitai, Wellington. This information was gleaned from Cenotaph, the Auckland War Memorial Museum on-line compilation of records of New Zealanders who served in wars. Our W M Millar, however, may also have been any one of a number of William Millars who served in the New Zealand Army during World War I.

 

Kathy Greensides is a collection assistant at the Whanganui Regional Museum.