The Wanganui Swankers’ Club was formed during World War I to raise funds for patriotic purposes, supporting in particular the Red Cross and Red Cross Nurses; hence, the red cross is part of the Wanganui Swankers’ Club badge. The Club ran from 1915 to 1929, in its later years raising funds for a wider range of charities. Concerts, Mardi Gras and other functions were held where all members appeared in top hat and tails. Among its well-known members in Whanganui were Bert Fry, A Trelord and F Donaldson Senior. One member used to ride a horse to its functions but he still wore the official uniform of top hat and tails.
Swankers, as members were called, had a light-hearted approach to a serious purpose.The word swanker means a dashing, smartly-dressed or stylish man. Swankers wore a distinctive garb of top hat and tails, usually teamed with formal striped trousers and spats.
And anything for a laugh! For example, a Swankers’ Club membership certificate in the Museum collection has a comic drawing of a man in top hat and tails standing beneath the Swankers’ Club logo. Made out to George Goldsack, the certificate reads “This is to Certify that Mr G Goldsack has been duly accepted and admitted a member of the Swankers’ Club, he being a fully qualified, inveterate and accomplished Swanker”. It is signed by “Ikan Kiddem, Swanker scribe”.
The Dominion newspaper edition of 15 November 1916 provides a brief, and facetious, history of the Swankers. Originating in London, the Swankers’ Club “found its way to Wanganui, where it was taken up by a number of good sports, who are really only waiting for avenues of usefulness outside the Avenue that divides the city into two halves.” It goes on to describe members as those who are too old or infirm to fight but who wish sincerely to support the war effort. They have no ties or obligations to the London Swankers; the allegiance they hold is to “… the Empire, and they mean to hang together until smiling peace glorifies the world once more”.
At this stage, in 1916, there were about 200 Wanganui members who had already raised over £1,000 for the Red Cross.
After the war, the Swankers were very active during the Influenza Epidemic of 1918-19. Members continued to raise money for the Red Cross and to establish and maintain the Wanganui-Waitotara Patriotic Society and support other charities. Swankers did themselves proud while raising funds as is evident in a menu designed to feed the dancers at a Charity Ball in 1922. Laid out in seven courses, the menu had several luxury dishes in each, including whitebait, oyster patties, sardine eclairs and Charlotte Russe. Soup was served as the guests departed.
The Swankers’ fund raising events were very successful. In 1923, for example, their “Help the Blind” appeal raised £1,217, a considerable sum at that time. And in 1925 they assisted the annual YMCA street appeal, raising £121 2s 6d, which was equally divided between the Swankers’ Club and the YMCA. The Wanganui Swankers Club closed in 1929.
Libby Sharpe is Senior Curator at the Whanganui Regional Museum.