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.

 

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)

 

 

Listen to the Ruth Gotlieb oral history

Ruth Gotlieb with Jane Hill and John Stears You can now listen to interviews with Ruth Gotlieb on our website, detailing her fascinating life; growing up in Ireland and emigrating to Australia then New Zealand. The oral histories include an in-depth discussion of her 27 year career serving as a councillor and board member, with the Wellington City Council, the Wellington Regional Council, the Wellington Harbour Board and the Capital & Coast District Health Board.

Ruth Gotlieb’s honours include having the library in Kilbirnie renamed Ruth Gotlieb Library, being awarded a Queen’s Service Order in 1995, and named Wellingtonian of the year in 2010. Ruth has contributed many hours volunteering with numerous organisations and as Justice of the Peace, and continues to do so to this day.

Check out the oral histories here – Ruth Gotlieb oral history page.

(Pictured: Ruth Gotlieb with Jane Hill (Manager, Community Networks) and John Stears (Libraries & Community Spaces Manager) at the page launch)

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Short historical films available on our website!

Check out our new Heritage Films page for a selection of films from Wellington City Archives we have digitised.

The films were made to document council activities and at the time were only shown to a small audience. These short videos are an insight into some of Wellington’s history and include scenes from the opening of Khandallah Library in 1953, the Queen’s visit in 1954, the “Festival Of Wellington” in 1959 and a five minute film from 1947 about Wellington’s milk supply.

Alongside the videos on the Heritage films page you’ll find information on the Festival Of Wellington, publicity materials and photos.  We’ve also added the films to our WCL YouTube channel – check it out for storytimes and other videos we have created. We’d love your feedback!

Ohariu Valley Oral History Project now available

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 in this oral history project.

The community and the library present these pages to you. Have a look, and a listen.

Ohariu Valley