When you can’t think of what to get your Mum for Christmas…in 1905

Decades before sending wall calendars to friends and relatives as Christmas presents became popular, local newspapers across New Zealand did a roaring trade in special ‘annual’ and ‘Christmas’ editions which would be published shortly before the festive season.

Photographers would be sent out to capture the local region in all its glory and the resulting pictorial publications would be sent across the country or overseas to those back ‘home’ as gifts. Though it would be another 20 years before printing technology reached the point where photographs were appearing in newspapers, they could be reproduced on semi-gloss paper and published as magazines where longer lead-in times allowed lithographers to create excellent quality images not yet possible in a daily newsprint publication.

Wellington’s main local newspaper, The Evening Post, regularly published these special editions from around the turn of last century and they proved to be popular gift items. Helping sales in this regard was the sheer novelty of seeing images of local features reproduced in this manner; until then photographs were regarded as  expensive, hand-made items which were printed in studios in limited numbers to be framed and hung on walls.  Now digitised on Wellington City Recollect is the Evening Post’s annual from 1905 (you can also click on the images on this page to enlarge them to full size). Available in the weeks leading up to Christmas, it was originally sold through bookshops, newsagents or directly from the Evening Post at a cost of 1 shilling (about $9 in 2020 terms).

The Evening Post, 18 October 1905, page 2

Lavishly illustrated, the ‘Post’ was proud of the fact that it contained nearly 150 photographs whereas similar Christmas editions produced by other newspapers might contain as few as 12. Much was made of our ‘new’ buildings such as the Town Hall and the Newtown Library (the first branch library in NZ) which were included to show how progressive the city was at the time.  There’s also a startling number of photographs of water-supply lakes & dams, including the Karori Reservoir (today the site of Zealandia), images of which seem almost obligatory in pictorial Wellington publications from this period. Their appearance was likely to be as much about promoting the city’s safe drinking water supply as it was their (dubious) scenic qualities. This was a time when the city was doing all it could to shake off its reputation from 15 years earlier when it was called the “worst drained city in the colony” and typhoid outbreaks were common. 

What is probably the most interesting page appears towards the end of the publication as part of an advertising feature. Inserted by the Government’s Department for Tourism and Health Resorts, this one-page advertisement targets those overseas who may have been sent a copy of the annual by friends or relatives in New Zealand.  It extols the scenic virtues of New Zealand with much made of the hunting & fishing opportunities and similar recreational pursuits which were often restricted to the upper classes back in the UK. It  promotes the country not only to tourists but also to potential migrants and highlights the world-leading progressive policies of the Liberal Government which was at its height at the time. This publication and similar magazines can now be read on Wellington City Recollect where you can also download individual pages at full resolution.

You can’t beat Wellington on a good day…in 1924

A remarkable photograph captures our city basking in the sun on a calm summer’s day nearly a century ago.

Click on the photo twice to enlarge it to full size or see this link to view it at full resolution.

This photo appeared in 1928 in one of the first significant local history books to be published, Early Wellington by Louis Ward. Photographed from the slopes of Te Ahumairangi (Tinakori Hill) the image was credited to the Government Publicity Office, an early marketing department that operated as a branch of Internal Affairs to promote New Zealand to tourists and potential migrants. Ward included it as one of the last illustrations in his hefty 500+ page volume to show what the city looked like ‘today’ for his then-readers and the extent of reclamation that had occurred to that point. Much of his original research material was deposited with the Central Library after he completed his work so it’s possible that this is the actual photo which was reproduced in the book.  However, photo-lithographic techniques were still quite basic in the 1920s and printers weren’t yet able to reproduce the fine details of photographs and illustrations on a commercial scale so it appears as a somewhat unremarkable picture at the end of the book. On the other hand, the original print is crisp, clear and incredibly detailed indicating that it could be a contact print taken from a glass-plate negative. The large size of plate negatives coupled with their very slow film speed and the fine grain of vintage photographic paper meant that incredible detail can be captured. However, it is often only when images like this are digitally scanned that one can truly appreciate the level of historic visual information they contain.

What makes the photo so striking is just how developed Wellington appears to be in a photograph taken some 96 years ago. The 1920s were a period of tremendous economic growth as the country shrugged off the privations of World War I and moved into the ‘Jazz Age’. Wellington’s population grew rapidly as migrants from the UK continued to arrive in increasing numbers while rural labourers shifted to the city seeking new work opportunities. Technology made huge advances over this period; regular radio broadcasts began and radio and gramophone shops were soon dotted across the inner-city.  Horses & carts which were commonplace on the city’s streets in 1920 were starting to become a rarity by 1925.  The electricity network was revolutionised when Wellington abandoned the old 110 volt system it had been using since the late 1880s and adopted its current 230 volt AC system. Previously used mostly only for lighting, electric power was now a serious alternative to steam driven machinery in factories and a viable replacement for coal to heat homes, offices and for providing hot water.

The Braemar apartments under construction at 32 The Terrace

Though the photograph is dated 1928 in Ward’s book, it was almost certainly taken four years earlier with visual clues present in the form of two construction sites. The first is Braemar, a distinctive building next to St Andrew’s on The Terrace which appears in the photo surrounded with scaffolding as it nears completion. Begun in 1924 as a property development on former Presbyterian church land, it opened in early 1925 as one of the first examples of an inner-city apartment building in Wellington.

Druids’ Chambers under construction in Woodward Street

The second is the Druids’ Chambers where the steel girders which make up the internal  frame of the building can be seen  being assembled on the corner of Woodward Street and Lambton Quay. Work on this began in 1924 and it opened as an office building for the financial and benevolent services branch of the masonic Order of Druids in June 1925.  Remarkably, both of these buildings survive to this day.  Another pair of buildings shown in the image which are still standing are the Old Government Buildings (the birthplace of the ‘modern’ civil service in NZ and once the largest wooden building in the world) and Shed 21 which appears above it. The exterior appearance of these is largely unchanged but between them lies Waterloo Quay where railyards can be seen extending further south than they do today while the blurred shapes of motor vehicles can be seen moving on the road. However, the lack of traffic or pedestrians on other roads indicates that the photo was probably taken in the mid-late afternoon during a weekend or possibly during the summer holiday period.

In the centre-right foreground south of the Bolton Street Cemetery, a new residential subdivision is being formed. This is the Easdale St / Kinross St area which was developed from land once owned by the infamous former Chief Justice James Prendergast who had died in 1921.  After basic roads had been installed, sections were sold off to members of a new generation of middle-class professionals who employed some of the country’s best architects to design their dream homes. Meanwhile in the lower-left corner, Bowen Street ends abruptly just past the Congregational Church on the corner of The Terrace which is today the site of the Reserve Bank.

One central building that really stands out in the photo because of its deep-set verandas is the Hotel Arcadia.  Located on the corner of Lambton Quay and Stout Street opposite the Public Trust Building, it opened in late 1905 having been constructed to an ornate design that wouldn’t have looked out of place in central Paris. It promoted itself as being Wellington’s finest hotel and featured plush dining and function rooms which were regularly used for balls, formal dinners and receptions for visiting dignitaries. Despite its grandeur, the hotel barely lasted 30 years after it was purchased by the Department of Internal Affairs in late 1938 and demolished the following year to clear the site for the construction of the State Fire Insurance Building, one of the first early-modernist buildings to be constructed in Wellington. This photo and many more like it can be seen on our Recollect site here.

 

When Post Office Square was the centre of town

He roamed from Post Office Square to the wharves, where black mysterious little waves suck under sea-rotted, weed-twined piles, from the wharves back again to various haunts of publicans and sinners.

Passport to Hell, by Robin Hyde (1936)

Many an overseas tourist has headed to Post Office Square on Customhouse Quay hoping (as the name might suggest) to buy a stamp to send a postcard back home…only to find themselves walking around in circles in a state of confusion. It’s been well over a decade since the last actual post office near the ‘square’ ceased operating, a small Postshop which was located in a retail tenancy on the corner of Grey Street. However, for generations of Wellingtonians, Post Office Square and the General Post Office next to it (or the GPO as it was commonly called) was regarded as the centre of town.  It was a place for protest meetings, receptions for visiting royals and where crowds of people would gather on New Year’s Eve to hear the bells in the GPO clock tower chime midnight.

Indicated with an arrow is the first Post Office building on the site in Grey Street. The buildings in the foreground are fronting onto Lambton Quay.

Though a post office had operated in various buildings across Wellington since 1840 (often connected with the functions of the Magistrate’s Court), the first near the square that would take its name was a small building erected in the late 1850s in Grey Street. It operated for only three years before being replaced with a larger building fronting Customhouse Quay which was to become Wellington’s first true GPO. Its location was selected by the Provincial Government because of its proximity to Queens Wharf which was then under construction. The area soon became the city’s principal transport and communications hub in an era before rail links had been established and shipping was the way people and goods moved across the country.

The first GPO with its time ball, c. 1870 as seen from Queens Wharf

The  distinguishing feature of this GPO was the time ball located on its roof. This was raised up a sliding pole just before midday (excluding Sundays) and then dropped at 12-noon precisely. Its main purpose was to allow ships in the harbour to synchronise their marine chronometers (extremely accurate on-board clocks) which were vital to calculate longitude when navigating the oceans. The signal to drop the ball came over telegraph wires which ran up to an observatory located at the top of the Bolton Street Cemetery. Celestial observations were carried out regularly on clear evenings and these were used to set NZ’s official standard time which was kept on a series of precision pendulum clocks.

A rapidly growing population and the advent of a telegram service saw the Post and Telegraph  (‘P&T’) Department outgrow this building and it was replaced after 20 years with what was then one of the largest buildings in Wellington. Opening in 1884, it was barely three years old before it was almost completely destroyed by fire in late April 1887. Its rapidly constructed replacement which opened at the end of the following year appears at a glance to be an identical twin to the earlier building but featured many structural and layout improvements.

Post Office Square in the 1920s with the 1888 GPO on the right. The pedestrian-only section of the square was reduced in size in 1911 in an effort to improve traffic flows.
The 1912 GPO with its main entrance fronting on to Featherston Street

Further technological developments (namely the widespread introduction of the telephone) and the P&T Department being given the responsibility for the administration and distribution of the old age pension, saw the construction of yet another building, a ‘new’ GPO which fronted on to Featherston Street. This massive building adjoined the 1888 structure so that the P&T Department now covered the entire block. Opening in 1912, this imposing granite-clad building featured the latest in earthquake-resistant engineering, a large internal public office naturally lit with a huge stained-glass skylight, a pneumatic tube  ‘Lamson’ system for transporting documents & cash throughout the building, over 1500 private ‘P.O’ boxes and dozens of phone and telegraph operators. By the 1960s, the former 1888 GPO was still standing but was a shadow of its former self with many of its distinguishing features such as the clock tower having been removed.

In the early 1970s, the Post Office decided that it once again needed a new GPO better suited to the modern age.  Sadly,  despite not being particularly earthquake prone, the 1912 GPO and its older sister from 1888 were both demolished in 1974, reflecting an era when anything ‘modern’ was seen as exciting and little regard was given to the heritage value of such buildings. The site was excavated and foundations were poured for the new GPO. However, the project stuttered for many years, in part because of the NZ Post Office’s poor financial situation as they lost money on their mail service and were slow to adopt many of the efficient new communication technologies which were commonplace overseas. After a large building was constructed for the Post Office further down Customhouse Quay next to the Waterloo Hotel, the project to construct a replacement GPO next to Post Office Square was abandoned. The site was left as an empty pit for over a decade, often filling with a couple of feet of stagnant water during the winter months.

In 1988, work finally re-started on the site with a major new building being constructed on the foundations which had been poured over ten years earlier.  The resulting IBM building and the Park Royal Hotel (since renamed the ANZ and the Hotel Intercontinental) added a splash of mirrored-glass glamour to the inner-city when they opened in 1990. Only the name of the neighbouring square gives an indication of the institution which dominated the site for over a century and which employed thousands of people over that time.

You can read more about the history of Wellington’s Post Office in this souvenir booklet published to mark the opening of the fourth GPO building in 1912 which is now digitised on Wellington City Recollect  

The 1912 GPO on the left as photographed in 1950 from the Featherston St / Panama St intersection and the same view in 2020 below

Heritage Talk: The History of the Wellington Urban Motorway

The main motorway trench being excavated through the former Bolton Street Cemetery, photographed in the late-afternoon during the summer of 1972. Image from Recollect

The relationship between a city and its motorways can be a complex one — and Wellington is no exception!

The same was true in 1965, when the imminent construction of the Wellington Urban Motorway was the defining issue of the local election. And for good reason: the motorway was — and still is — one of the largest and most complex works of infrastructure development in Wellington’s history, with hundreds of houses demolished and over 3600 graves disinterred from the Bolton Street Cemetery to make way for it.

The northern portal of the Terrace Tunnel under construction, 1975. Image from Recollect

Decades later, transport through Wellington is still a vitally important issue. But what can be learnt from this earlier attempt to ease congestion?

Join Wellington City Libraries’ Local and New Zealand History Specialist Gábor Tóth at 12pm on Thursday 29 October at Te Awe Library for a special talk on the history of the Wellington Urban Motorway project — including a powerful set of images taken at the time.

Heritage Talk on Facebook  

We look forward to seeing you there!

The Cuba Street Memories Project is moving!

After more than a decade, our Cuba Street Memories Project is moving to a new platform. Launched in 2009, this was the first interactive online heritage platform created by Wellington City Libraries.

For the first time it allowed us easily display heritage items from our collection online as well as enabling people to share their memories of Wellington’s most vibrant and best loved inner-city streets. 
Based on a platform called ‘Kete’, the system was developed by local Wellington firm Katipo Communications working in collaboration with the Horowhenua Library Trust and was highly innovative in its use of cloud-based storage long before the practice had become commonplace. However, with a limited number of features by today’s standards, we have decided to shift the Cuba Street Memories Project over to our main heritage platform, Wellington City Recollect. In coming weeks all the material will be transferred over to a new ‘collection’ page on Recollect. This will enable items to be displayed in a much more intuitive manner, articles will now be fully searchable by keyword but users will still be able to comment and contribute their memories using the ‘Recollections’ function of Recollect. We’ll let you know when the transfer is completed and the new collection page has gone ‘live’.

Edit: The data has now been transferred and the collection can now be viewed at its new home here.

From the Rare Book Collection : Terentius Comico Carmine

Selected from our Rare Book Collection is this beautiful 1503 illustrated edition of Terentius Comico Carmine, a collection of comedies by the Roman playwright Publius Terentius Afer


Publius Terentius Afer (better known simply as ‘Terence’) was born into slavery in North Africa around 185 BC and was sold as a child to a Roman senator who took him back to Italy. His owner educated him and became so impressed with his wit and intelligence that he granted him his freedom.  Terence went on to write six plays based on the Greek Attic style of comedy, all of which survive to the present day. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, his plays survived as hand-written manuscripts which were preserved in monasteries for hundreds of years through the Dark Ages and into Medieval period. Following Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the movable-type printing press in the mid 15th century, Terence’s works were among the first plays to be printed in Europe. This copy was published by Johann Grüninger in Strasbourg at the very start of the 16th Century. Though today part of France, at the time the city was principally German speaking and was the centre of the early European printing industry.  

The protestant religious reformer Martin Luther became a great admirer of Terence and frequently mentioned his insights into human nature in his own writing. One famous Terence quote which has inspired many is Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto, or,  “I am human, so nothing human is alien to me”. Luther also suggested that his plays could be useful for teaching morals and ethics to youth. What makes this somewhat surprising is that Luther was known for his socially conservative views but Terence’s work is often bawdy with no shortage of risqué content.  His work Hecyra (aka The Mother in Law) of which three pages are shown here, is a good example of this. The play follows a young man who falls in love with a prostitute and includes drunken debauchery,  sex, domestic violence, and a farcical case of mistaken identity which wouldn’t be out of place in a Christmas pantomime…. but everything works out happily in the end.

Amusingly, the first two attempted performances of the play during the Classical period both ended somewhat disastrously. The first was in 165 BC when shortly before it was supposed to begin, a rumor spread that a tightrope-walker and boxers were about to perform and the theatre was suddenly swamped by people expecting to see circus acts. The second in 160 BC was cancelled after the theater was again overrun, this time by drunk gladiator supporters. It was finally performed successfully on its third attempt later the same year. Another curiosity is that it was long thought that a musical phrase which accompanies a single line of the text in Hecyra was the only remaining written description of the entire body of ancient Roman music. However, its authenticity is now disputed and it may have had 10th Century origins. 

Terence’s newfound popularity during the Renaissance followed the spread of the reformation to England and his work had a notable influence on Shakespeare nearly a century after the publication of this edition. One intriguing thought is the possibility that another copy of this edition could have ended up in Shakespeare’s own library. This now-500+ year old volume came into our collection after being  gifted to the institution shortly after the municipal library was founded in 1893. At some point the volume was rebound in vellum, a hard-wearing cream-colored covering made from calf skin which (unlike leather), does not go through a tanning process but is stretched and dried without significant chemical treatment. With the Central Library currently closed, the book is being carefully stored in a custom-made acid-free enclosure in a temperature and humidity controlled room at the Wellington City Archives.

Dining out in Wellington during the era of shrimp cocktails and deep-fried camembert

Today Wellingtonians are spoilt  for choice when it comes to dining out in the city with a huge range of different cuisines to try and restaurants which cover every  budget. But what was the restaurant scene like nearly 40 years ago? This booklet now on Wellington City Recollect gives you some idea as to what going out for dinner in Wellington was like in the early-mid 1980s.

Menu for ‘Camelot’

Called The Menu Guide,  it was published in late 1982 by Henry Newrick and his firm Newrick Associates Ltd. Its cover price of $4.95 was relatively high for the time (approximately $18 in 2020 terms) but the booklet also included a set of discount coupons for diners to use at a selection of restaurants, one of the first times that a hospitality discount coupon scheme had been used in Wellington. A full and complete listing of almost every restaurant operating at the time was included in the introduction but establishments could pay to have a larger advertisement placed in the main body of the booklet in the form of a menu and it is these which offer a fascinating insight into our dining-out past.

Menu for ‘Bacchus’

This was at a time when traditional ‘family’ and ‘fine dining’ establishments started to be joined by new ‘ethnic’ restaurants as Wellingtonians’ culinary tastes expanded. Most of the fine dining restaurants were of course, French, while family restaurants all shared the common dominant theme of steak and chips.

Although the prices listed appear ridiculously low by today’s standards, how do they compare when inflation adjusted? The menu for Camelot, a popular family restaurant in Brandon Street which sported a ‘Ye Olde King Arthur’ theme, indicates that average prices were probably a bit higher than today; their $9.70 T-bone steak served with a mushroom sauce would be hitting $34 in 2020. Meanwhile, Des Britten’s legendary The Coachman offered grilled prawns at the eye-watering equivalent of $63. The Bacchus restaurant seemed to take the approach that if you needed to know their prices, you probably couldn’t afford to eat there (suffice to say that deep pockets were needed).

Though new ethnic cuisine restaurants were starting to appear, choice was still limited. Chinese restaurants serving a ‘Kiwi-fied’ version of Chinese food had been part of the city’s dining scene for generations, but these were now joined by Greek and Indian restaurants reflecting the long-standing presence of these ethnic communities in Wellington. South-east Asian eateries were virtually non-existent (the long-standing Indonesian restaurant Toko Baru being one of the few exceptions), middle-eastern restaurants were yet to be seen and it would be another decade before the doner kebab made its first appearance.

Menu for the ‘Mexican Cantina’

However, one new ethnic restaurant is included which really shook up the local scene; the Mexican Cantina in Edward Street. This gave many Wellingtonians their first taste of guacamole and nachos at a time when it wasn’t yet possible to buy corn chips or taco shells at the supermarket.  The ‘Mex’ took the approach of keeping their prices low, the food simple (though exotic to most taste-buds) and packing customers in. Popular with students, waiting crowds would often be spilling out the door while chugging on their B.Y.O supplies (alcohol licences were difficult and expensive to obtain for most restaurants). With no reservation system in place, groups would have to write their details on a blackboard and wait until their listing got to the top at which point their name would be yelled out over the noise of diners indicating their table was ready.

Possibly influenced by the success of the ‘Mex’, Manuel’s  — which operated out of the Broderick Inn in Johnsonville — also adopted a Mexican theme, but amusingly kept their menu as ‘family’ orientated as possible with not a pinch of cumin, dollop of sour cream or a kidney bean to be seen…

Menu for ‘Manuel’s Family Restaurant’

When ‘Herbert Gardens’ was actually the Herberts’ garden

Many Wellingtonians will be familiar with Herbert Gardens, a striking mid-century modernist apartment building located at 186 The Terrace, next to the top end of Boulcott Street leading to the motorway on-ramp.  It was designed by the architectural firm of Biggs, Power and Clark in the early 1960s and built between 1963 and 1965.

Herbert Gardens (c. 1980), photo by Charles Fearnley

One can only imagine the impact the building had when it opened; at the time of construction the Terrace was still dotted from end to end with wooden colonial villas and only two modern office buildings (Shell House and Massey House) had been completed.   This was also an era when the inner-city population was in rapid decline as people moved out to the suburbs, shops were closed on weekends, ‘six o’clock closing’ was still in force and Wellington’s first and only so-called ‘supermarket’ was little more than a medium-sized grocery store on Willis Street.  With that in mind, the development firm of Winchester Developments Ltd took on a degree of risk in believing that there would be enough people interested in European-style apartment living at a time when inner-city culture and atmosphere was anything but ‘vibrant’. The name the developers decided to give to their venture commemorated the former owners of the large house which once existed on the site and (as the name suggests) their well-known and much-loved garden. 

Bowen Hospital, c. 1970. Photo by Charles Fearnley

Dr William E Herbert was born in central Otago in 1872. He studied at both Otago University and the famous medical school at Edinburgh University before settling in Wellington where he established a small private practice as well as working at Wellington Hospital. After a visit to the United States where he was impressed with what he saw as a much more efficient way of delivering health care, he formed a business partnership with Dr Henry Hardwick-Smith and in 1912 they established what was then Wellington’s first ‘modern’ private hospital in Bowen Street. Though the hospital buildings were demolished in the early 1970s for the construction of the Treasury headquarters, the original name of the institution continues to live on after Bowen Hospital became a charitable trust and relocated to Crofton Downs.  It was during the 1920s that William and his wife Florence moved into the large mansion at 186 The Terrace which had been owned by her parents, her father being the wealthy businessman and hotelier, Hamilton Gilmer. Likely built in the 1880s, it was located at the front of a one-acre section with the back of the land parcel dropping down into a natural valley where the Kumutoto river flowed and which later became known as Herbert Gully.  They set about landscaping and planting the section behind the house and transforming it into what was regarded as one of the finest private gardens in inner-Wellington. The Herberts had long been involved with charity and philanthropic causes, raising large sums of money to build Wellington’s children’s hospital and to purchase some of NZ’s first radiotherapy machines used for treating cancer, so it followed that they would use and showcase their garden for charitable purposes. 

In early 1934, The Social Review reported such an event; a garden party raising funds for Wellington Free Kindergarten.  Highlights included a fashion show featuring new work by the local clothing designer Mary Garden, a performance by a dance group and a display of “relaxation exercises  demonstrated in a reclining position”.  Though her husband died unexpectedly in 1933, ‘Florrie’ Herbert remained living in the house, outliving her husband by almost 30 years until her death in 1961. Soon after the mansion was demolished and planning and construction of the apartment building began.

The northern portal of the Terrace Tunnel under construction, 1975, just a few meters south of where the gardens were once located.

Photos from this period in the late 1960s  show the original gardens still existing and though they were in a state of disrepair, they would have provided a quiet outdoor area for the apartment building’s early residents. However, it was to be a short-lived peace; almost exactly the same time as the building was completed, the final route of the Wellington Urban Motorway was confirmed. Most of what remained of the gardens were compulsorily acquired by the National Roads Board and in the mid 1970s they were dug out to create the section of the motorway which leads to the northern portal of the Terrace Tunnel. However, now clad in regenerating native bush, a small section of the original garden remains for residents of the apartments to enjoy to this day.

2ZB and the ‘Golden Age’ of Radio

This souvenir publication, now on Wellington City Recollect, offers a nostalgic look at the ‘Golden Age’ of radio in Wellington. It was printed to celebrate the 10th anniversary of 2ZB which began in April 1937. Broadcasting from their studios in the Hope Gibbons building on the corner of Dixon and Taranaki streets, 2ZB took advantage of the new transmission facility at Titahi Bay which had opened just months before the radio station began. Its superior location over the former principal transmission site on top of Mt Victoria meant that the entire region could pick up the 2ZB signal during the day and this range extended at night to include most of the bottom half of the North Island and the top half of the South Island. Remarkably, its second massive valve-powered AM transmitter installed in the 1940s was still in use and broadcasting on 1035 kHz from Titahi Bay  into the 2000s when it was finally replaced with a modern solid-state unit. 2ZB was the first ‘commercial’ radio station in Wellington but rather than being privately owned,  it operated as a branch of the National Broadcasting Service (later to become the NZ Broadcasting Corporation and then Radio New Zealand).

The ‘First Lady of Radio’, Aunt Daisy

It proved to be extremely popular and many of its announcers (the most famous being Maud Basham, aka ‘Aunt Daisy’ aka the ‘First Lady of Radio’) were feted as major celebrities by the public. Companies flocked to advertise on the radio station and it became very profitable for the NBS. Before the advent of reliable recording technology, advertisements were often performed live in separate studios and many Wellington actors began or supplemented their careers voicing advertisements in the form of short skits. Though they were expensive items, a radio became the appliance that every family wanted to own and in many cases they would have been regarded as the most valuable item in the household. In the mid-late 1930s, a basic five-valve shelf or ‘mantle’ radio would have cost about £10 (about $1000 today) but a ‘luxury’ floor-standing model with seven or more valves, shortwave reception, hand-crafted woodwork and superior sound quality could easily cost £20 or even £30 for an imported English model.  Radio manufacturing became a significant local industry with a number of factories based around the Courtenay Place area and specialist radio retailers and repair shops became ubiquitous throughout the city and suburbs. 

A long-line radio aerial above a house in Luxford Street, Berhampore, 1929.

Self-installed long-wire aerials were a common sight on Wellington houses and in their backyards. These greatly improved the reception of local stations but were essential for listening to shortwave broadcasts at a time when stations like the BBC and Radio Australia were some of the few reliable sources of international news available during a period when overseas news coverage in daily newspapers was limited.  

2ZB continued to be the most popular radio station in Wellington for decades but it was an end of an era in 1993 when the original call sign was dropped as the station’s name and was replaced with ‘Newstalk ZB’. In 1996 the NZ Government sold off Radio New Zealand’s commercial stations and Newstalk ZB came under the ownership of the Australian-owned conglomerate, The Radio Network which in turn became New Zealand Media and Entertainment Ltd in 2014 (better known today as ‘NZME’).  Though it can now also be heard on FM and online, the station continues to provide an AM transmission on 1035 kHz frequency, slightly offset in the 1970s from 1120 kHz  that it began broadcasting on over 80 years ago.    

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.