river mouth

Seaside Scenes: Postcards of Castlecliff Beach

Summer holidays. These two words evoke many happy memories for young and old alike. During January when the sun shines, hundreds of holiday-makers can been seen at beaches all around New Zealand, playing on the sand, frolicking in the waves or relaxing in the shade with a book, a picnic and a friend or two. Whanganui Regional Museum archives reveal that summer excursions to our local beaches have been a very popular summer pastime since the early 1900s. Photographs in the Museum collection show large crowds, with well-dressed men and women strolling along the sand, enjoying a paddle with long skirts lifted up and using umbrellas or parasols and large-brimmed hats to protect their faces from the sun.

A hundred years ago picture postcards were a popular way of keeping in touch with friends and relatives when telephones were expensive and not widely used. Illustrated postcards of people enjoying the beach were very popular. Thousands of different seaside postcard designs, many of them humorous, were produced in Britain, with millions of copies printed, sold and sent.

1. Castlecliff is a most (em)bracing place

Ref: 1802.7714

Two illustrated seaside postcards in the Whanganui Regional Museum collection provide a gently humorous picture of leisure at the local beach around 100 years ago. One captioned “Castlecliff is a most (em)bracing place” shows a man relaxing in the sand-dunes with his arms around two young ladies. The other, captioned “On the sands at Wanganui. It’s a lot better than being at school”, shows a smiling child wearing a frilly white apron and cloth hat with her dress tucked into her underclothes. These images may have been designed as general seaside souvenirs that could be printed with captions to suit a range of locations, rather than specifically depicting Castlecliff or Whanganui scenes.

2. On the sands

Ref: 1802.4634

Another postcard is made from a black and white photographic reproduction of a crowd of people paddling and sitting on the sand and enjoying a stroll at Castlecliff Beach. This early image of the river mouth is by well-known Whanganui photographer Frank Denton. The beach stretches around a natural curve at the river mouth and the sea-swell washes into the river. Ladies lift the hems of their long dresses over the wet sand while children play and paddle in the shallows at the edge of the river. In the far distance a line of surf marks the edge of the sea.

3. Castlecliff River Mouth

Ref: 1802.1016

This summer at Castlecliff Beach we are unlikely to see many fully suited gentlemen and ladies in high heeled shoes relaxing in the sand-dunes. The children playing on Whanganui beaches will be wearing swimming togs or shorts, rather than dresses with frilly aprons over the top, but their enjoyment of the beach will be just the same as it was 100 years ago.

Many of us will be taking holiday snapshots to remember happy times at the beach and these will most likely be shared with family and friends digitally through Snapchat, Instagram or Facebook, rather than as printed photographs or postcards. In 100 years from now I wonder if there will be any physical record of our fun at beach, or will all those digital memories have disappeared?

Margie Beautrais is the educator at Whanganui Regional Museum.


Whanganui River Mouth – Te Kai Hau ā Kupe

Where a river meets the sea is a place of great fascination to people all over the world. It’s usually a place of great abundance for fishing as well as gathering whatever interesting wrack gets washed down the river and cast up onto the shore. If the river is large enough it becomes an entrance for shipping or boating, with all the consequent dangers associated with channels, rips and sand-bars.

The Whanganui River entrance has been shaped and changed by major human intervention from its original form. When we at look at old photographs or paintings of the river-mouth, what we see is very different from what is there today.

The building of channel-protecting moles on either side of the river entrance completely transformed, not only the river mouth, but also the coastal area to the west. Interrupting the longshore current that flows from west to south east causes the suspended sand to gradually accumulate against the obstruction. This has created expansive sand-dunes at Castlecliff and has moved the shoreline steadily seawards.


1. Castlecliff photo

 Whanganui River Mouth, Castlecliff Beach; Frank Denton, 20th century.  Ref: 1802.1016

One early image of the river mouth is a photograph of Castlecliff Beach by well-known Whanganui photographer Frank Denton. You can see beach visitors enjoying a stroll on the sand. The beach stretches around a natural curve at the river mouth and the sea-swell washes into the river. Ladies lift the hems of their long dresses over the wet sand while children play and paddle in the shallows at the edge of the river. In the far distance a line of surf marks the edge of the sea.

A set of three small watercolour paintings by itinerant artist Christopher Aubrey show the river mouth prior to the construction of the moles. Although the paintings are faded and damaged by long exposure to light and damp, all the details are still visible. Each painting depicts the curve of the river towards the entrance at different times of day. Looking closely, we can see that in 1894 there was a significant sandbar, indicated by a thick line of surf across the across the river entrance. The line of surf across the river-mouth ends at a sand-spit that stretches out from a large cliff on the Castlecliff bank of the river.

Along the river margin stretched a beach with a gentle sloping edge, forming a useful pathway for riding horses or for herding a flock of sheep to the freezing works in the background. The Wanganui Freezing Works were established in 1891 to process the farm animals produced in the surrounding rural areas and freeze them for transport out of the region by ship. The paintings also show ships berthed in the river adjacent to the freezing works, a large ship anchored just offshore and a small vessel crossing the sandbar.

Despite the better shipping channel created by the construction of the moles, the difficulty of negotiating the sand-bar and surf have resulted in a number of shipwrecks over the years, including the Port Bowen which, in 1939, ran aground on a sand-bank, fully laden with a cargo of mutton and lamb from Whanganui destined for export to England.

With the proposed development of Whanganui Port it will be interesting to notice and record further changes to the landscape of the Whanganui River mouth and see how future sea-going vessels manage the difficulties of “crossing the bar”.


Margie Beautrais is the Educator at Whanganui Regional Museum