The day the Empress came to town

In late 1937, an exciting news announcement quickly spread across Wellington; the RMS Empress of Britain was going to visit the city the following year. Launched in 1930, she was one of the largest, fastest and most luxurious ocean liners of the period.

Only slightly smaller than the Titanic, her design incorporated lessons learnt from the tragic sinking of that ship and included double-steel plating to deal with the ice-infested waters which were common on her main Atlantic run between England and Canada.  As trans-Atlantic passenger numbers would fall dramatically each winter and the freezing of the St Lawrence River made Canadian port access difficult, towards the end of each year she would be seasonally converted into a luxury cruise liner and it was in this capacity that she visited New Zealand.

She first visited Sydney and Melbourne where hundreds of thousands of spectators turned out to see the ship. Then on 6th April 1938 she crossed the Tasman Sea, heading first for Milford Sound which had been promoted to passengers as the highlight of the cruise, before coming to Wellington. As the vessel approached NZ, much was made of her size and technology. Readers of newspapers were advised of how passengers could make a ship-to-shore phone call to London if they wished…at a cost of £3/12 for a three-minute conversation, the equivalent today of around NZ $400! Features included a regulation size tennis court, picture theatres and a ‘country fair’ with a coconut shy, hoopla stalls and a fortune teller. There were 390 staff employed in the catering department alone, while the ship’s three great white funnels could be used as a beacon in emergencies; when illuminated by powerful flood lamps they could be seen by other vessels 50km away. When she arrived in Wellington on the morning of Sunday 10th April 1938 (thankfully a calm sunny day) excitement was at a fever-pitch. A live radio commentary from Mt Victoria commenced on Radio 2YA as soon as she was spotted off the Wellington heads and thousands of people lined the shore and hillsides to catch a glimpse of what was then the largest passenger vessel ever to enter the harbour. That afternoon there was a radio broadcast of a live concert given by the ship’s orchestra, while what was said to be “the wealthiest and most distinguished aggregation of passengers ever to visit Wellington” toured the city. Car-owning locals picked up random passengers from Pipitea Wharf, inviting them to their homes and driving them all over the region to show them the sights. When she departed that evening just after 11pm, songs were sung, thousands of streamers were thrown from the deck by passengers and Oriental Bay was jammed with cars lined up nose-to-bumper with all of them sounding their horns to echo the horn blasts coming from the ship.

After being converted into a troop carrier for World War II, she made another brief visit to Wellington in May 1940 to transport New Zealand soldiers to the UK. Unlike her visit two years earlier, wartime restrictions meant that this time there was no public announcement, no media coverage and not even a simple listing in the Evening Post’s daily ‘shipping news’ column. With all of the secretive war-related shipping activity that was happening in the harbour at the time, many in the city may have been unaware that the great ship had returned.  However, five months later came some shocking news that was reported and which likely would have had some people in the city in tears; on 26th October 1940 the Empress of Britain was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland by a German U-Boat. She was the largest passenger vessel lost during the war and the largest vessel of any kind to be sunk by a U-Boat. 

The hand-tinted photo above captures the ship tied up at Pipitea Wharf on the evening of 10th April 1938 shortly before its departure to Auckland (by coincidence, this was 30 years to the day before the storm that resulted in the sinking of the TSS Wahine).  Pipitea wharf no longer exists after it was demolished for the construction of the container wharf in the late 1960s but it was located just north of the Wellington Railway Station. You can see the photo in full detail and read more about the port’s activities during this period in this Handbook of the Wellington Harbour Board which has been digitised on our Recollect site.

 

How Crofton Downs got its name

Crofton before restoration in 1978. Photo by Charles Fearnley

The Wellington suburb of Crofton Downs is known for its steep hills, shopping centre and how several of its streets are named after Winston Churchill (e.g. Winston Street, Churchill Drive, Spencer Street and Downing Street). However, the origin of the suburb’s name can be found in neighbouring Ngaio. Tucked away at the back of a section on the eastern side of Kenya Street lies a house (once part of a larger estate) called ‘Crofton’.  Seen today from the street, at a glance you could be forgiven for thinking that it is an example of a 1970s or 1980s faux-colonial cottage, the style of which was popular with house builders during that period. In fact Crofton is one of the oldest surviving houses in Wellington and its early history is connected with some of New Zealand’s most significant figures from the Victorian period.

The house was built in 1857 for William Fox, one of the most polarising NZ politicians of the 19th century. Born in 1812 in County Durham, he started his working life in the UK as a lawyer, moved into journalism, immigrated in 1842 to Wellington where he helped manage the New Zealand Company and finally drifted into politics. As an indication of how tumultuous the political scene was the time, Fox became Premier (i.e. Prime Minister) on four separate occasions between 1856 and 1873. His longest period as ‘PM’ was just over three years but his shortest was only two weeks! Crofton may have been used by Fox and his family as a weekend retreat when they were in Wellington (his parliamentary seat was actually Rangitikei and the town of Foxton is named after him).

Letter from Octavius Hadfield to his sister Octavia dated 1866 mentioning his son Henry attending Crofton School

In 1864 the house and land was sold to the first Bishop of Wellington, Charles Abraham. He established a ‘grammar’ boarding school on the site, essentially one of the first serious attempts of an institution providing formal secondary education to teenage boys in Wellington. One of its pupils was Henry Hadfield, the first-born son of the missionary Octavius Hadfield. We recently discovered several references to Henry’s education at Crofton in the letters Octavius wrote to his family back in England. These were later repatriated back to NZ, gifted to Wellington City Libraries by Henry’s sister in 1951 and have now been digitised on our Recollect site (click on the caption to see more). Little snippets include how Henry grew quickly and was physically strong for a boy of his age but took a while to find his feet academically and socially. Meanwhile, his father often wondered how he was going to pay his son’s school fees on a reverend’s salary. It is likely that Octavius would have made the journey to Crofton with his son many times via the tortuously steep Old Porirua Road, especially when his friend Rev. Henry Woodford St. Hill purchased the school and became its headmaster.  The school closed in 1875 after Wellington College opened on its current site with much better facilities and easier access. The original 14 acres of land which surrounded the house was gradually sub-divided and sold off and the house became a normal residential property.

Its location was originally called Upper Kaiwarra (a corruption of Kaiwharawhara) but in the 1870s the suburb took on the name of the house and the whole area became known as Crofton. Confusingly, around this time William Fox created another estate also called Crofton not far from Marton in Rangitikei which he hoped to develop into a ‘temperance’ (i.e. alcohol free) township. With mailed letters continually ending up in the wrong place, in 1908 the suburb changed its name to Ngaio after the species of tree which are abundant in the area and ‘Crofton’ fell into disuse. Then in the 1950s, a neighbouring semi-rural area was developed after the addition of a train stop to help make it attractive to commuters and the name re-emerged as the suburb of Crofton Downs. As to the source of the original name that William Fox gave his property, the most likely explanation is that it came from the small village of Crofton in Wiltshire where his wife Sarah Halcomb was possibly born or her family may have owned land. As village lacked a church, she was christened in the neighbouring town of Marlborough only a few kilometres away in 1816.

The Octavius Hadfield Collection

Wellington City Libraries is proud to launch an online, digitised collection of correspondence from one of New Zealand’s most significant missionaries and supporters of Māori rights, Octavius Hadfield.

Octavius Hadfield Papers on Recollect

These original letters and diary extracts were gifted to Wellington City Libraries by his daughter, Amelia Caroline Hadfield, in 1951 and are now easily available to read for the first time as part of our heritage database, Wellington City Recollect.

Hadfield arrived in New Zealand shortly before the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi and soon made his way to Kāpiti. There he befriended Te Rauparaha and was able to prevent the great warrior making a retalitory attack on Wellington following the Wairau ‘Affray’ of 1843. Te Rauparaha and his son Tāmihana later encouraged Hadfield to establish the Rangiātea church in Otaki. He worked closely with Māori communities, introducing them to farming to allow them to engage with the settler economy and became a fierce critic of the NZ Government because of their actions in causing the NZ Wars. Despite many Europeans turning against him and even accusing him of treason, in 1870 Hadfield became the second Bishop of Wellington and then in 1890 he was elected to head the Anglican Church as Primate of New Zealand.

These letters are amoung our most valuable taonga and offer a fascinating insight into the mind and thinking of one of the greatest New Zealanders of the colonial period. Each document includes a full transcription.

Discover these taonga and more on Recollect .

Khandallah Heritage Night this week

Come along to the Khandallah Library this Thursday evening (7th November) from 6pm where we will be celebrating the heritage of the greater Onslow area with the rededication  of a memorial scroll in honour of F.L (‘Fanny Louise’) Irvine-Smith.

Born in 1878, Irvine-Smith was a pioneering educationalist who lectured at the Wellington Teachers College and had a notable role in first introducing Māoritanga and NZ History to the primary school curriculum. She is best known for her work as a historian and her book The Streets of my CityFirst published in 1948, her book presented Wellington’s past through a tour of its streets and how they had been named. It was a radical departure from the dry, pedestrian works of local history which had been published to that time and it went on to be re-printed multiple times. However, we remember her for her extraordinary efforts over many years to establish the Khandallah Library. A strong believer in the importance of libraries to the social health of a community, she lobbied the council and walked the streets of the suburb to gather nearly 1300 signatures on a petition supporting the library’s establishment.

As well as unveiling the memorial scroll we are going to take the opportunity to launch a digitised collection of a historic local magazine, The Ngaio and Khandallah Review and its follow-up publication, The Social Review which were published in the early-mid 1930s. Drawn from the collection of the Onslow Historical Society, we worked collaboratively with the society to allow these  extremely rare copies to be made available to the general public for the first time on our digital heritage platform, Wellington City Recollect. They offer a fascinating insight into the local community 85 years ago and will become an invaluable source of local history and genealogical information. Once launched, the digitised magazines will be fully key-word searchable.

Come along to the Khandallah Library on Thursday evening from 6pm to share your memories of the library and the greater area. Light refreshments will be served. There is no need to R.S.V.P but space will be limited. 

The Levin House of Hobson Street

Completed  in 1904, the Levin House was one of the most extravagant houses ever constructed in Wellington to that time.

It was built at 72 Hobson Street in Thorndon for Robert Lionel Levin, the son of the wealthy businessman and  philanthropist William Hort Levin for whom the Horowhenua township of Levin is named. W.H. Levin was also regarded as the ‘founder’ of Wellington City Libraries through his large donation of funds which enabled the city’s first municipal library to be constructed in the early 1890s.

Following his father’s death in 1893, Robert Levin decided against taking a partnership in the family firm of Levin & Co (he went sheep farming in the Manawatu) but used a proportion of his considerable inheritance to construct this house which soon became the talk of the town.  It was designed by the notable architect John Sydney Swan who was also responsible for St Gerard’s Church and Monastery, the Backbencher Pub, The Erskine Chapel, the Iko Iko building in Cuba Mall and many others.

The house featured central heating, 100 volt DC electric lighting (230 volt AC mains power did not arrive in Wellington until the mid 1920s) and a “telephonette” intercom system which allowed servants to be summoned from any room.  Located on two acres of land, rather than facing the street which was the norm at the time, the architect orientated the house away from the road so that it received all-day sun and had views out over Wellington Harbour. It was built before the major reclamation that created the railyards and Aotea Quay had taken place so the shoreline would have been substantially closer to the house than it is today.

By the early 1970s the house had fallen into disrepair and ownership of the property had long since passed from the Levin family. It was purchased by the Australian Government and then demolished in 1975 to become the site of the Australian High Commission.

Click here to see the house on our Recollect page which also includes a link to a digitised copy of the vintage NZ architecture magazine Progress which published a glowing review of the house in 1906.

Wellington Heritage Week – 22nd to 28th October

Ever since Kupe first followed the wheke a Muturangi (a giant squid) to Te Moana-a-Raukawa (Cook Strait), the history of Wellington and the people who have lived here has been told, researched and retold. Wellington Heritage Week 22nd to 28th October is an opportunity to experience Wellington’s people, places and stories. Check out the Wellington Heritage week program here.

If you would like to do some of your own research into your Wellington people, places and stories then here at the library we have many resources to help you in your research.  A great starting point is our Heritage and Local History page, with tips and links to help you get started.

Local Māori History Resources

On the Te Whanganui-a-Tara resources page you’ll find digitised resources, including: Māori deeds of land purchases, a list of Māori tribes and chiefs circa 1878, and many more resources.  Check out these resources on the local Te Whanganui-a-tara Māori history available here.

We have the 4 volumes of Ngā Tūpuna o te Whanganui-a-Tara in our collection.  These 4 volumes were a collaboration between Wellington  City Council and Wellington Tenths Trust and our Māori subject specialist Ann Reweti was part of the writing and editing team.

Ngā tūpuna o Te Whanganui-a-Tara. Volume 4 / Clarke, Sandra

“Short biographies and some portraits of Māori associated with the sale of Port Nicolson land in the 1840s.” (Catalogue)

 

Wellington City Recollect Database

Have you visited the Wellington City Recollect website yet? You will find a database of heritage photos, books, maps and related ephemera reflecting the Capital’s past. The database is administered by Wellington City Libraries and our local historian specialist Gabor Toth recommends having a look at some of the great new additions to this database.  The latest project is the ongoing digitisation of Wellington school jubilee and centenary publications.  These school publications are a great source of Wellington heritage information and you can see the ones that have been digitised so far, click on the Publications tab  here.

Wellington City Recollect is a great place to spend some time during Wellington Heritage Week.  Wellington City Libraries are very proud of our role in Wellington local history and some of the great things you can find on Recollect are postcards like the one below of  Wellington Public Library  C.1925 or browse thru the souvenir opening guide produced for the 1940 opening to find out about the library building that now houses the City Gallery here.

This image has been downloaded from https://wellington.recollect.co.nz/ and may be subject to copyright restrictions. Please verify the copyright status before any reuse of this image.

Exploring Early Colonial Life in Wellington in books

The following three books are good examples of how you can gain an interesting  perspective of colonial life in Wellington from our collections.  As for most colonists this new life started with the journey by ship to Wellington. The first book  “No simple passage” tells of such a journey on board the “London” in 1842.  The life and sights of Wellington in 1859 are the topic of the second book  “An indescribable beauty” told with letters sent back home.  Finally in the third book Katherine Mansfield’s Wellington from 1888 -1903 is detailed in Wellington’s own Redmer Yska’s  “A strange beautiful excitement”.  (For some background information into the research of this third book, check out the story on Wellington City Recollect here

No simple passage : the journey of the “London” to New Zealand, 1842 : a ship of hope / Jones, Jenny Robin
“No Simple Passage tells the story of the passengers on board the London, 1842, undertaking a four-month journey from London to Port Nicholson at the end of which they will begin the process of becoming New Zealanders. The author imagines herself on board and records ship life using the journals of the ship’s surgeon and a cabin passenger.” (Catalogue)

 

An indescribable beauty : letters home to Germany from Wellington, New Zealand, 1859 & 1862 / Krull, Friedrich
“This unique book is a small but priceless addition to the historical record of early New Zealand, published to recognise New Zealand’s guest of honour status at Frankfurt Book Fair 2012.On January 27, 1859, an adventurous young German arrived in Wellington after a four-month voyage on a Swedish ship. With great alacrity we helped the sailors weigh anchor, and with what suspense did H and I stand on the foredeck to get the first view of the town which was to become our new home, Friedrich Krull writes. After we entered through the narrow straits a beautiful harbour lay before us, surrounded by high hills, and behind it more hills ascending to the snowline. In the east we saw Wellington itself, stretching along the coast for a mile. We were amazed: we had not expected the place to be so big.’So began the first of many letters Krull would write at the behest of the German naturalist and historian Ernst Boll – published in English translation in this outstanding book.” (Catalogue)

A strange beautiful excitement : Katherine Mansfield’s Wellington, 1888-1903 / Yska, Redmer
“How does a city make a writer? Described by Fiona Kidman as a ‘ravishing, immersing read’, A Strange Beautiful Excitement is a ‘wild ride’ through the Wellington of Katherine Mansfield’s childhood. From the grubby, wind-blasted streets of Thorndon to the hushed green valley of Karori, author Redmer Yska, himself raised in Karori, retraces Mansfield’s old ground: the sights, sounds and smells of the rickety colonial capital, as experienced by the budding writer” (Catalogue)

 

 

We think 175 years of public libraries in Wellington is a great reason to celebrate!

Pop in to your library this Saturday, 21 November, for this special anniversary. It all started with this advertisement in The NZ Gazette and Wellington Spectator, 27 November 1840:

Public Library and Reading Room: A meeting will be held at Barrett’s Hotel at 11 o’clock precisely, on Tuesday next December 1st 1840 to take steps for the formation of a Public Library and Reading room; when the attendance of those interested in the undertaking is requested.

A highlight on Saturday at 11:30am is this fascinating talk:

Libris 175 : From Serial Murders to a Public Library Service.

What could connect a series of horrific murders in early 19th Century Scotland with New Zealand’s first public library? Local History specialist Gábor Tóth will explain the origin of Wellington City Libraries and some of the fascinating characters who were involved in its history and development as we celebrate the anniversary of the founding of our predecessor institution in 1840. This free talk will also include a presentation of items selected from the library’s collection of rare books.

What else is happening?

Librarians are dressing for the occasion, with Central Library staff taking on the earliest era – Victorian; Newtown and Island Bay – Edwardian; Karori, Cummings Park and Khandallah – 1910–1930s; Johnsonville and Tawa – 1940–1950s; Kilbirnie and Miramar – 1960–1970s. Why not take a selfie with a librarian from years gone by and tweet it to @wcl_library, #selfie175 and #libris175 ?

There are will be competitions to enter and if you come along, there may just be a surprise for you!

If you’re not a member, join now and choose a special edition 175 anniversary library membership card. If you’re already a member, you can swap your current card for an anniversary card for $2. (Please note that your card number will change, so tell librarians if you use our eLibrary services).

Fabulous commemorative calendars are on sale now for $25 at all of our libraries, just in time for Christmas. A series of historic photographic banners will be making their way around branches after the 21st.

libris175

New Ohariu Valley Oral History: Seton Nossiter

Stretching for 15 kilometres from Makara in the south to Tawa in the north, Ohariu Valley is a rural district on Wellington’s urban doorstep. Feeling that the social history of the area deserved to be more widely known, Wellington City Libraries have captured some of the memories of current and former valley dwellers as part of the Ohariu Valley Oral History Project.

The most recent addition to this heritage project is a vintage analogue recording of Seton Nossiter being interviewed by Vivian Harris. Wellington City Libraries wish to thank and acknowledge Vivian Harris and Gill Pratley (the daughter of Seton Nossiter) for allowing us to digitise the recording and to make it available via this collection. Vivian and Gill have also contributed their own stories to our archive and these can be listened to by clicking the named links on the main page of the Ohariu Valley Oral History Project.

Who was Seton Nossiter?

Seton Nossiter was one of Ohariu Valley’s most notable personalities of the 20th Century. He came to live in the valley aged five in 1914 when his parents purchased what was to become one of the first dairy farms in the area. He began farming as soon as he left school and later inherited the family farm but became best known by the wider community for his involvement in local body politics. He won a seat on the Hutt County Council representing the Makara “Riding”, then became a City Councillor when Makara and Ohariu Valley were absorbed into Wellington City. He served in this role for many years under the mayoralties of Sir Francis Kitts, Sir Michael Fowler and Ian Lawrence. He also sat on the Wellington and the Hutt Valley Milk Boards and was elected to the Johnsonville Liquor Licensing Trust where he was instrumental in the establishment of the Burma Lodge and the Broderick Inn. Shortly after his death in 1989, Seton Nossiter Park in Paparangi was named in his honour.

You can listen to the recordings over on the project page for Seton Nossiter.