Local women were pioneering wartime auxiliaries

When the South African (Boer) War was declared in 1899 between Britain and the Boer-ruled republics, colonies from across the British Empire rushed to participate in a wave of excitement; it went without saying that New Zealand would be contributing soldiers. New Zealand differed from its allies in that it had its own semi-official female troops. With Government approval, well-connected girls and women put on uniforms, held military titles and were trained by soldiers.

These female troops indicated relatively high gender equality in comparison with other parts of the world, and patrolled, wielding real weapons, just like their male compatriots. They did not, however, serve at the front like other New Zealand women who taught and nursed. Instead, they served as a singing, fundraising public face of support for the upholding of Empire, and to demonstrate a newly emergent New Zealand identity.

2. Wanganui Ladies' Contingent

An article from December 1900 shows “the latest and loveliest thing in khaki: the Wanganui Ladies’ Contingent”
Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19001207-9-4

Different regions had their own groups, grabbing media attention due to their unusual attire. For a short time “khaki girls” could be found all over New Zealand, appearing in overseas newspapers and books. One of the largest groups was formed in Whanganui in around June 1900. The Wanganui Amazon Carbineers were initially created to perform as characters in a fundraising pageant titled The Birth of the Empire.

Following the trend set by Wellington’s Young Ladies Contingent, local women created their own group. For months they rehearsed every Thursday afternoon into the evening under the training of a male drill instructor, Sergeant-Major Anderson. He appointed “most popular lady in the corps” Captain Manson as commanding officer. Members bought uniforms from local retailer J Paul and Co for 17s 6d (around $163) each. The high cost ensured that members came from comfortable and socially aspiring backgrounds.

3. Wellington Amazons

 Sister group to the Amazon Carbineers were the Wellington Amazons, seen here at Government House
Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 31 Mar 1900, via trove.nla.gov.au

The Birth of the Empire was a great success, running for eight consecutive nights in September 1900, and as the Wanganui Chronicle reported, “the severe tax on the performers is beginning to tell its tale”. The Amazon Carbineers became the stars of the show, performing military manoeuvres and demonstrating their bayonet skills. Their advertised “weird war cry” was a “haka, which had to be twice repeated in response to vociferous encores”.

1. Wanganui Amazon Carbineers

 The Amazon Carbineers posing on Drews Ave for a group portrait c.1900
Whanganui Regional Museum Collection Ref: 2002.64.48

The Amazon Carbineers kept up their drills after the pageant ended and became a regular feature of the community. In the subsequent media frenzy there were only limited spaces for new applicants. Recruits were elected in a popularity contest by existing members. They became, however, too popular for their own good. After offering to hold a garden party for the 1901 New Zealand Band Contest they were ordered by the Contest committee not to appear in uniform at any of the associated events in fear that they would outshine the bandsmen. While frustrated and disappointed, members agreed to wear mufti instead.

By the end of the war in 1902, uniformed women had disappeared from New Zealand streets as the conflict had grown unpopular. Only one khaki uniform is known to have survived, in the Te Papa collection. The uniforms were probably recycled for other uses including later conflicts. The women’s groups of the South African War are now largely forgotten. Nevertheless, New Zealand’s ladies-at-arms were well ahead of their time and may have inspired future auxiliary women’s groups during the wars to come.


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.

Wanganui Woollen Mills

Aerial shot of Wanganui Woollen Mills circa 1990

Aerial shot of Wanganui Woollen Mills circa 1990

By Trish Nugent-Lyne, Collection Manager

The Wanganui Woollen Mills was a major feature in the Whanganui and New Zealand business landscape, being at one stage the second largest woollen mill in New Zealand.  Located in Kelvin Street, Aramoho it is now known as SaveMart, a clothing recycling company.

Spinning frame in operation circa 1960s -70s.

Spinning frame in operation circa 1960s -70s.

The Wanganui Woollen Mills started its life in the early 1920s when Whanganui was on the crest of an economic wave and many inhabitants had the drive to create new industries. Mr R D McDonald of Hawick, Scotland, was invited to Wanganui to advise on the feasibility of operating a mill here. Wanganui was thought to be an ideal location for a mill because it was central to a large wool growing area, was a growing distribution centre, and had a potential workforce.


A public company was formed at a meeting of business and commercial men, farmers, and investors in March 1920 with a nominal capital of £200,000 in shares raised.  Land was purchased in Aramoho in 1922 and Mr T. H. Battle was commissioned as architect. Eight tenders were received to build the woollen mill, and the award was given to Mr A.G. Bignell in June 1923 for his tender of £25,825. Bignell later became one of the directors of the company.

There was a delay between the forming of the company and the onset of construction which caused some anxiety among shareholders, and some called for the company to go into liquidation before it had even started.  However, by the time machinery was actually purchased from the United Kingdom the costs had subsided and a substantial saving was made. The directors naturally took the credit for delaying the purchase until the market showed such favourable signs.

Official opening of the Wanganui Woollen Mills 12 September 1924

Official opening of the Wanganui Woollen Mills 12 September 1924

The first manager to be appointed, Mr J B Porteous, was from Scotland, as was much of the machinery and several employees. Wanganui Woollen Mills was officially opened by the Governor-General Lord Jellico, Mayor Mr Hope Gibbons, and Chairman of Directors Mr W. J. Polson on 12 September 1924, with a large crowd of locals and other dignitaries gathered to mark the occasion.  It was the twelfth woollen mill to be built in New Zealand  but as it was the first to be driven by electricity it was certainly the most advanced.

Display of Wanganui Woollen Mills products in the D.I.C. windows for the Wanganui Industries Week, 25 February to 2 March 1946.

Display of Wanganui Woollen Mills products in the D.I.C. windows for the Wanganui Industries Week, 25 February to 2 March 1946.

Herbert Holroyd came to manage Wanganui Woollen Mills in the mid-1920s, from his previous position as manager of the Napier Woollen Mills. During the hardship of the early depression years the Mills almost went out of business but in 1931 it was purchased by National Woollen Mills, of which Holroyd was a major shareholder, and became a private company. The Holroyd family was to have a leading role in the Mills with three generations of the Holroyd family managing it.

As well as the familiar blankets, the Mills also produced fabrics for men’s and women’s fashion clothing, including Scottish tweeds with very distinct Whanganui names such as Aramoho, Putiki, and Virginia.  In the mid-1930s the Mills bought out Haydens, a Wellington based clothing company, and moved its operation to the Wanganui plant, adding sports coats, work trousers, skirts and school wear to the production range.

Advertising photographs of the Mills line of Sportswear, samples of which were taken to the U.S.A. in September 1979 by the Managing Director David Holroyd.

Advertising photographs of the Mills line of Sportswear, samples of which were taken to the U.S.A. in September 1979 by the Managing Director David Holroyd.

The Mills continued to expand their range and popularity.  During World War II the Mills went into 24 hour operation producing fabric for uniforms, blankets and other essentials for the war effort.  By the end of the 1950s the Mills started moving away from fashion wear and began to focus more on work garments and sportswear. In the 1980s upholstery fabrics were added to the repertoire and became its leading export product. By 1984 Wanganui Woollen Mills was producing 1,000,000 square metres of cloth making it the second largest woollen mill in New Zealand.

However that economic high was not to last and the effect of aged plant, skyrocketing wool prices, the opening up of the domestic market to cheap foreign goods, as well as the competition provided by the improvement of synthetic fabrics all led to its demise in 1995 when it went into liquidation and was sold with the loss of 110 jobs.

Memories of Clifton House School

Clifton House School was one of the smallest schools in Whanganui. Located near the corner of Victoria Avenue and Dublin Street, it opened during World War I and remained operational for less than 20 years. The following is the edited transcript of a speech made by Nancy Hales at the 1992 reunion of Clifton House School pupils:

… I want to set the scene of my own early years when in 1918 [when] I started school in Miss Ashcroft’s little two rooms in Upper Avenue. My memory pictures a pretty blue carpet and Mrs Ashcroft playing Shall we Gather at the River for us to sing.

Suddenly all was changed. School closed and the word EPIDEMIC meant that Stewart-Karitane home opposite became an Emergency Hospital. Carts sprayed disinfectant in the streets and killed our hedge. The Bank Manager urged his staff and family to cut raw onions to good effect as more of them fell ill with this plague.

Unfortunately Miss Ashcroft, with many others, became a victim. When all possible chance of a germ reaching me had ended, I was sent to Clifton House School – no blue carpet but my old friend Shall we Gather at the River and I met at morning assembly.

We talk of Clifton House as a small school but it was not so little. In 1919 there were 60 pupils, and in 1920 there were 80 children.

Clifton House School, undated; the uniform now includes blazers

Clifton House School, undated; the uniform now includes blazers

Miss Currie had opened her school during World War I in a house owned by her family who all gave her help and support. It was known as Miss Currie’s but as it grew and prospered she felt it should have a proper name so she asked her pupils for suggestions. At that time they were learning to recite a poem about Clifton College, a public school in England, and they thought Clifton would be a good name.  So Clifton House it was known. Black & white check frocks for uniform, green headbands with a silver CHS badge. The checks gradually changed to grey.

Staff and Students of Clifton House School, 1925; girls wear a mix of grey and checked uniforms

Staff and Students of Clifton House School, 1925; girls wear a mix of grey and checked uniforms

As the school grew, the music mistress Miss Russell and her aunt Miss Holman lived across the road in a two-storey house complete with a turret. They arranged to board country girls from Monday to Friday. The turret became Miss Currie’s domain. So Clifton Lodge was founded and used until Miss Russell was married to Judy, Alison and Lesley Burnett’s uncle. What excitement!!  The Misses Stanford then had the girls in their own home.

Again I bring a personal piece. I was no scholar – my report tells me “I was a quiet and good little pupil”. I was just so thrilled when Miss Lance announced she was taking six girls for a picnic to Castlecliff – not the tops of the form but the best behaved! Off by tram, down to the sand hills until suddenly the heavens opened and we sought refuge in a large concrete culvert lying near, where we played “I spy” and ate the goodies Miss Lance had provided. It was the nicest picnic I’ve ever been to and it comes to mind as a warm glow when people speak of the highlights of their lives.

Tram terminus at Castlecliff

Tram terminus at Castlecliff

Once we practised marching in patterns for hours and singing God Bless the Prince of Wales making ourselves into the rays of a rising sun – I was expecting full Royal regalia but this pleasant smiling man just waved a straw hat – (I wonder how he could have waved a crown?) and after he passed I sat down in a patch of wet tar in my new raincoat! That was one of the low points.

Civic Reception at Cook's Gardens for the visit of the Duke and Duchess of York, 1927

Civic Reception at Cook’s Gardens for the visit of the Duke and Duchess of York, 1927

Back to school. For sport, in season, there was hopscotch, skipping and a basketball ring in the gravel playground until Miss Currie had a volley board erected to improve our tennis. For most of us this meant five or six hits before the ball sailed over the fence into Miss Spillane’s garden, from where it could not be retrieved until a senior rescued the lot after school. Soon it was arranged for the school to use part of the Technical College grounds twice a week, for tennis, rounders and netball, the highlight, of course, being the netball [and] School v Fathers with the A team resplendent with green shoulder sashes over the uniform. The Fathers always lost as they forgot the rules but made amends for their sins with a huge feast afterwards.

Daily visits to Victoria Avenue School Baths provided a flurry of water wings and poles with slings on to lure the beginners into the art of swimming. The older girls progressed well with lifesaving while other swam lengths for their certificates.  remember swimming the 72 lengths (a mile) for the drink of hot cocoa at the finish.

The Scarlet Pimpernel was read aloud by pupils in the queue waiting for help with their sewing from Miss Craig who had a “mean thumb” to slide down a seam to find any weaknesses. I even produce my year’s sewing (show apron). I can’t imagine how I managed to escape with it unfinished. You will all remember the panic at end of year for garments to be completed. I feel that even a few days’ work could finish this apron – just 70 years late.

The weekly gramophone sessions were held to help our Musical Appreciation but I have memories of girls asking to leave the room and returning with a mouth full of water to see how long they could keep it there. We were allowed to bring special records from home for all to enjoy. Betty Montgomerie bought Yes, we have no Bananas.  Miss Currie said not a word as the record played but gradually became right[eous] with eyes aglow while we sucked in our breath in horror. Miss Currie had piercing eyes and needed nothing else for discipline – she would open the door to a noisy classroom, gaze at each child in turn, then depart leaving us all quiet mice for the session.

We all had Barnado boxes and Margaret and two friends thought up a bazaar which they ran themselves and divided the spoils into three lots to put in their own boxes.  What a sensation at the box-opening party, but this success meant that the School ran a school bazaar each year afterwards for a charity.

A group of Girl Guides in uniform in the 1920s

A group of Girl Guides in uniform in the 1920s

In 1926 Lady Marjorie Dalrymple, headmistress of Woodford House, introduced Girl Guiding to a packed His Majesty’s Theatre and 25 of us became an active Clifton House Girl Guide Company, among the many formed at that time. Miss Merewether & Betty Hutton were our leaders – a good company with fun and service in a movement that still holds my interest. Our first Public Outing was to be part of the Guard of Honour to the Duke and Duchess of York while the rest of the school joined in others making the White Rose of York in the centre of Cook’s Gardens.

Formal proceedings of the visit of Duke and Duchess of York, with children in formation at Cook's Gardens, 1927

Formal proceedings of the visit of Duke and Duchess of York, with children in formation at Cook’s Gardens, 1927

Also in 1926 we felt we should produce our own School Magazine so Bugg Justin organised a council to raise the £60 to print it. Alas, alack! A burglar stole the money so a new programme and performance was necessary before we could manage this effort (show magazine).

The school prospered and older girls stayed or passed Proficiency, Intermediate & Public Service, indeed a few to Matriculation. I was 16 before I left for boarding school for two final years and was happy to find that I could fit so easily into the subjects and standards there.

The Depression years came with lower numbers and suddenly in 1935 Miss Currie felt it was time for a change and left for England to help Archdeacon Creed-Meredith with parish work among the less fortunate.

So ends the story of Clifton House School. I remember with gratitude my years there. The fact that so many of you have come here nearly 60 years after, to honour Miss Amy Currie and her school, is indeed a wonderful tribute.


Grace for Clifton House School Reunion 1992, from Judy Burnett (Davies)

Loving heavenly Father, we give you thanks for Miss Currie’s School, for friendships made and for happy childhood memories.

We thank you Lord for the teaching we received there, for the principles of love and service and the opening of our minds to the interest and wonder of your world.

We pray for those unable to come, especially the sick, and we remember with sadness those who have died.

We ask you to bless this day and we give thanks for this they creature of food before us now.

In Jesus’ name. Amen.