The spectacular cinemas of Wellington

The Plaza Cinema, Manners Street, ATL Ref: 1/2-100179-G

For much of the 20th century, entertainment in Wellington was dominated by movies and movie theatres. Many of our early cinemas grew or were adapted from live theatres following the first screening of ‘motion pictures’ in the capital city in 1896.

Early films were often screened as part a programme of entertainment provided by vaudeville shows.

For the next decade, short films of around two to four minutes in length often became a part of local vaudeville shows where they would appear on a programme of entertainment along with live song and dance routines, magicians, jugglers and trained animal acts.  Interest in the new medium increased with the onset of the Boer War, with people clamouring to see footage of “our boys” in South Africa which followed the filming of troop departures from Wellington in 1900 (the oldest surviving film footage to be shot in New Zealand). Films also began to be shown in the Wellington Town Hall, as well as various community and church halls, but a new era began in 1910 when the Kings Theatre opened in Dixon Street as New Zealand’s first purpose-built cinema. Four years later it became the venue for the Wellington screenings of Hinemoa, New Zealand’s first (silent) feature film, with a musical accompaniment provided by the cinema’s own in-house orchestra. Though movies remained popular during the First World War, the conflict saw a resurgence in more community-focussed entertainment such as rallies, dances and mass-singing events. Restrictions on the supply of building materials during the war saw a halt to most cinema construction (the only significant theatre to open during this time was the Paramount in Courtenay Place in 1917), but the inter-war period which followed was to become the ‘Golden Age’ of movie theatres.

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New online resource: the Wellington Provincial Council Gazette, 1854-1876

Digitised for the first time is the complete collection of the weekly gazette of the Wellington Provincial Council, which offers a fascinating insight into the city and region’s early colonial history.

From 1853 through to 1876, New Zealand operated a quasi-federal system of provincial government where each province had its own mini-parliament to manage local affairs. Initially six provinces were established. The Wellington Province extended above Whanganui in the west and to Wairoa in east (though Hawke’s Bay would later split off to form its own province in 1858) but for much of the council’s existence, its focus was often concentrated in and around Port Nicholson.

Sheep graze outside the Wellington Provincial Council chambers once located on the site of the current parliamentary library. ATL Ref: B-079-008

Operating from a building constructed on what was later to become the parliamentary grounds, members were chosen in regular elections which were open to men aged 21 years or older who owned freehold property worth at least £50. Voters also got to elect a ‘superintendent’ who was not a Council member but acted as a quasi-chief executive for the province. For most of its 23-year existence, the dominant superintendent was Isaac Featherston after whom both the central Wellington street and the south Wairarapa township were named. From September 1854 the Wellington Provincial Council published a near-weekly ‘gazette’, an official magazine that reported on a huge variety of different administrative concerns. For its first decade it was printed on blue paper stock by The New Zealand Spectator, a weekly newspaper based in Manners Street which had been contracted by the Council to produce the magazine. The colour chosen directly referenced that used by the British House of Commons which had all its sessional publications (known as the ‘Blue Books’) printed in this manner.

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The Rise of Vernacular Architecture in Wellington

The 1960s and 1970s saw the rise of a unique style of New Zealand architecture. Two of the best known exponents of this new form were the Wellington based architects, Roger Walker and Ian Athfield.

The Wellington Club, 88 The Terrace. Designed by Roger Walker c. 1971, demolished 1986.

The ‘Enfants Terribles’ of Wellington architecture, Roger Walker and Ian Athfield shook up the scene like few had done before them and  in the 1970s were among the first New Zealand architects to become household names. Though they each had their individual distinctive style, they both created work that reacted against then-dominant modernist architecture in the 1960s and 1970s and created a new form that was unique to this country. By the time they began their professional careers in Wellington, there were few flat sections left within the urban boundary so housing developments increasingly began to spread up steeply sloping hill suburbs around the city’s perimeter. Each architect produced bold designs that integrated with the natural form of the land rather than trying to fight against it. Rooms were often positioned for maximum light and views and experimented with bold colours, unusual shapes and both new & recycled materials. In many respects their designs were forerunners to the rise of postmodernism which was embraced in New Zealand in the second half of the 1980s (exemplified in Ian Athfield’s design of the Wellington Central Public Library, Te Matapihi)

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The flowering of The Tulip

In the late 1950s, a pioneering restaurant helped introduce Wellingtonians to ‘fine dining’ but faced the absurdity of New Zealand’s antiquated liquor laws

The menu for The Tulip

In 1951 Boyd Klap arrived in New Zealand as a Dutch migrant in his early 20s with his wife and brother. They were among the first of a wave of immigrants from the Netherlands who moved to New Zealand during the 1950s and 1960s. He soon realised that his specialised skills in tropical agriculture which had been honed during his term of military service in the Dutch East Indies were to be of little use in New Zealand and he began what was to become a life-long career in the insurance industry.  Many European migrant groups formed societies and associations during this period and one of the largest of these was the Wellington Dutch Club and Boyd was soon involved with its administration. The club was not only a social gathering point but also went a small way to try and replicate elements of  the hospitality scene of Europe that were lacking in New Zealand. Wellington at the time had few such options: restaurants served basic grills & roasts and serving alcohol was prohibited. Coffee and wine were virtually unobtainable (tea and beer were the dominant drinks) while pubs closed at 6pm after which the city emptied out.

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Wellington’s Historic Chinese Community

Chinese Language Week 2023

From vegetable shops to supermarkets, from import merchants to restaurants, and from miners to associations, Wellington’s Chinese history provides a unique perspective of the capital’s past.

Chinese Green Grocers

The Chinese Greengrocery of Wong Gar Sui, 1922. ATL Ref: 1/2-037502-G

The first Chinese arrived in New Zealand during the 1860s to work on the gold fields. From late 1800s these migrants moved to other occupations such as market gardeners, labourers, launderers and shopkeepers.  They became renowned as horticulturists because of their gardening skills which they combined with an expert knowledge of the lunar calendar. The first Chinese market garden was established in 1866 with vegetables being auctioned off to retailers or sold through roadside stalls.

NZ Chinese Growers, 1959.  Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections

By 1940, Chinese growers produced over 70% percent of the country’s commercially grown vegetables and were major suppliers of fresh produce to troops during the Second World War. Ongoing success led to the Dominion Federation of New Zealand Chinese Commercial Growers being established in Wellington in 1941 and soon after Dan Chan established The NZ Chinese Growers journal for the Federation. Originally a hand-calligraphed newsletter, in 1949 he switched to using a fully-fledged hand-set lead type set of over 7500 characters. The now-heritage Chinese typeface collection was later gifted by his family to the Wai-te-ata Press based at Victoria University who also established a Chinese Scholars Studio to house the type and created a residency in his name. 


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New online genealogical resource: The Scholefield Papers

A remarkable 80 year old collection of letters and family trees detailing the genealogy of thousands of individuals descending from early European settlers of the Wellington Province has now been digitised and is available to view on Wellington City Recollect.

Guy Hardy Scholefield

The 1930s saw both local and central government give increasing thought to how New Zealand might celebrate the 1940 centenary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.  The idea that there would be a grand centennial exhibition in the capital had been decided as far back as 1930 following an agreement between the Wellington City Council and the ‘United’ government of Prime Minister Joseph Ward. However, provincial centres across the country also wanted to mark the occasion so funds were raised for projects such as the planting of stands of native trees and the construction of community facilities such as centennial libraries, halls and Plunket rooms. In 1937 the Wellington Historical Committee was formed to come up with a different kind of  project to mark the occasion and Dr Guy Scholefield was appointed as its chairman. He had begun his professional life as a journalist, had written several books about New Zealand’s history and had a particular interest in biography, being the founder and editor of the Who’s Who series of publications from 1908.

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