Friday, 12 January 2018

Grahamstown Gazette: Less Independent Tea Drinkers

For generations, January’s long hot days have provided the perfect excuse for the people of Thames to escape up the coast. Picnic baskets in hand, locals and tourists alike would set up camp for the day as they played, relaxed and enjoyed the coastline’s scenic splendour.

‘Picnic parties dotted the shore of our beautiful coast yesterday, and many were the complimentary expressions passed by visitors to the place on its unexcelled beauties’ reported the Thames Star in 1912. ‘The pohutukawas lining the road side presented an attractive sight, and afforded comfortable shelter for those seeking a cool spot away from the sun's rays.’

To celebrate the start of the New Year in 1906, the local Young Men’s Independent No-License Club organised a town picnic up the coast at Waiomu. Departing from Mary Street at 9am sharp, ten horse-drawn carriages full of happy holidaymakers spend an hour and a half winding their way up the coast road to the Waiomu Flat. ‘Soon fires were lit and the indispensible ‘billies’ were everywhere,’ reported the Thames Star, as the holidaymakers settled in for cups of tea. ‘A large copper kindly lent by Mr J. Dobson, of the coast, supplied the necessary hot water for the less independent tea drinkers.’

After lunch, the Young Men’s Club had organised an afternoon of lively activities to keep the group occupied, including cricket and rounders. Races were run to occupy the children, and ‘the little ones were rewarded handsome toys for their athletic feats.’ 

By 6:30pm, the happy group had packed up and was starting to make its way back to Thames. ‘Great praise is due to the young men for the splendid arrangements made for the comfort and convenience of the people,’ continued the Thames Star. ‘Although nearly 300 were carried to Waiomo [sic], not the slightest hitch occurred during the day.’ The Star particularly singled out for praise Mr Ferguson, the club secretary, as well as the carriage drivers.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Grahamstown Gazette: a Magnificent Display of Goods

Christmas advertising can be a cut-throat affair, even for local, family-owned stores with loyal customers. ‘A New and Interesting Advt for R.S. THORBURN Will appear in a few days’ reads an 1894 advertisement for R.S. Thorburn’s Drapery. The single sentence steals an entire full page-long column of the Thames Star from any competitors who may not have otherwise missed the printing deadline. 

Robert Spiers Thorburn (my first cousin four times removed, according to, for those of you playing along at home), owned one of several draperies on Pollen St at the turn of last century. Vying for customers alongside the likes of Hetherington’s, Thorburn’s Drapery regularly advertised their most fashionable new stock and outlandishly cheap prices to the Thames Star and Ohinemuri Gazette’s readers. ‘Thorburn’s Goods are Good Goods,’ read one ad, ‘and well known to be Cheap and Up-to-Date.’
Draperies were a vital business in the flourishing township. Selling everything from suits and hats to umbrellas and corsets, the likes of Thorburn’s and Heatherington’s ensured the citizens of Thames were outfitted with the very best and most fashionable clothing and accessories the British Empire could provide. Thorburn’s Drapery and its competitors helped to keep the people of the Thames smart and stylish well into the twentieth century. 

Promotions over the Christmas period were particularly heated. In December 1903, Thorburn’s countered Hetherington’s offer of a ‘Handsome Gift’ with every purchase over 10 shillings, with the offer of a ‘straight-out cash gift’ of one shilling on similarly-priced purchases. On the same page, the Wanted Known column of classified advertisements features eight separate classified ads for Thorburn’s, each targeting a different audience. ‘WANTED,’ asked one: ‘100 smart young ladies to wear Thorburn’s 4-dome French kid gloves... at 11d per pair.’ Another classified wanted it known: ‘that the Wise woman, be she maid, wife or widow, buys large parcels of drapery at Thorburn’s.’

In the Ohinemuri Gazette’s 1902 review of the Christmas season in Paeroa and Thames, it was noted that Thorburn’s ‘was looking capital’ on Christmas Eve, as the streets heaved with last-minute shoppers taking in the town’s many Christmas window displays. ‘He had a fine show, and if we mistake not he did a fine trade.’ All of the Thames drapers, ‘as is their annual custom showed a magnificent display of goods, which was the main feature of attraction.’

In the New Year, Thorburn’s topped this with an ad for a ‘Grand Local and Interdistrict Business Concert,’ publishing a full programme of ‘music’ based around the shop’s merchandise. Featuring such ‘songs’ as ‘Summer Fashions,’ ‘Corset Solo – Bones Throughout,’ and ‘Our Stock Must Go,’  the daily ‘concert’ featured a '10 minute interval to allow the audience to go home for more money,’ and was given by ‘Thorburn’s Unparalleled and Unlimited Company of High Class Artist under the Conductorship of – A GENIUS.’


Friday, 10 November 2017

Grahamstown Gazette: a Successful Funambulist

Woodyear’s Electric Circus and Great London Equesquiriculem paid a visit to Thames in April 1884. After an arduous journey through the Thames Valley, the circus set up shop on the reclaimed land near Curtis’ Hotel on Albert Street. Boasting wonders as unique as The Only Lady Contortionist in the World, educated dogs and monkeys, the Most Complete Troupe of Highly Thoroughbred Horses, and The Marvellous Japanese, Woodyear’s Circus was one of many which regularly made the journey to the Thames gold fields.

Woodyear’s also claimed among their many attractions a performer they called the ‘Australian Blondin,’ a tightrope walker who performed for donations each evening outside the main venue. This popular performer took his stage name from the internationally-famous tightrope walker Charles Blondin, who was no stranger to Thames himself; he had crossed Pollen Street, between Captain Butt’s Shortland Hotel and the Warwick Arms Hotel, on a tightrope in 1876. Charles Blondin’s most famous feat had been his multiple crossings of the Niagara Falls in 1859, which he completed in successive trips while on stilts, while blindfolded, while in a sack, while carrying his manager, while standing on a chair with only one chair leg touching the wire, and finally while stopping halfway across the Falls to cook an omelette. 

Blondin was so synonymous with wire-walking that by the 1880s Sydney was awash with Australian tightrope walkers referring to themselves as the ‘Australian Blondin.’ The most famous Australian Blondin was Henri L’Estrange, a successful funambulist and an accident-prone aeronautical balloonist, who to this day is the only tightrope performer ever to have walked across part of Sydney Harbour. L’Estrange’s brief stint as a balloonist also saw him become the first person to make an emergency parachute descent in Australia, but after a separate incident involving a massive fireball he quickly made a return to his original career in tightrope-walking. 

Also on the Australasian circuit were James Alexander, another Australian Blondin; Charles Jackson, a third Australian Blondin; Signor Vertelli, the Great Australian Blondin; Collins, the Original Australian Blondin; Alfred Row the Young Blondin; Azella the Female Australian Blondin; Young Morris the New Zealand Blondin; and the Blondin Brothers, as well as many more in between. 

With so many Blondins to choose from, it’s hard to know which one entertained the crowds in Grahamstown outside Woodyear’s Electric Circus. A February 1884 review of the circus from its visit to Nelson refers to Woodyear’s Blondin as Mr Alexander.  However, the New Zealand Herald report the week before the circus reached Thames calls The Australian Blondin’s Auckland show his final New Zealand performance, before ‘he leaves for America by the outgoing mail.’ Whether he decided the lure of Thames was greater than chance for American stardom, or Woodyear’s simply replaced him with yet another Blondin, is anyone’s guess.

Whoever he was, the Thames locals were impressed with his performance. The Thames Star reported the crowd ‘gave vent to their approval of his clever rope walking feats by repeated applause, and the collection boxes also seemed to be fairly patronised. Shortly before 8 o’clock his performance was brought to a close by his carrying a boy along the line on his back, and the people then began to flock into the circus tent.’ Woodyear’s Circus performed to a crowd of over a thousand that night.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Grahamstown Gazette: turning over a new leaf?

The bustling and vibrant Thames gold fields offered plenty of new opportunities to the people who arrived here from dreary little Auckland. For the thousands willing to try their hand in the hunt for gold or set up the shops and hotels the town desperately needed, the Thames was a fantastic opportunity for a fresh start. Not everyone, however, chose to turn over a new leaf. For the people who found themselves in trouble with the law, the frontier town of the Thames could be a difficult place to be.

With so many bars and hotels in town, it’s hardly surprising how often charges of public drunkenness came before the local court. Matthew Luscomb was charged with being ‘drunk and incapable’ in Brown Street in 1874, and had to choose as a punishment between a fine of ten shillings and spending 24 hours in prison. Ellis Jones was before the court in the same month on a similar charge, but was fined twenty shillings or four hours’ imprisonment. Christina Wilson, meanwhile, again before the courts in the same month on a similar charge, was called by the Thames Star ‘one of the most industrious drunks on record, who never lost an opportunity of paying her devoirs at the Court of Bacchus.’ Christina was on her third conviction for drunkenness in three months, and was on the verge of being sentenced to twelve months in prison on charges of ‘being a rogue and a vagabond.’ Less than a month later, she was back before the court for being drunk and disorderly on Abraham Street. She was fined ten shillings, and sentenced to three months’ imprisonment with hard labour.

James McIntyre hadn’t been publically drunk, but he had caused a scene: he was before the courts on a charge of using ‘insulting and provoking language… for the purpose of annoyance and provocation’ during an argument with James Porter. A witness to the row said McIntyre had called Porter a ‘liar and a thimble man,’ and had threatened to punch him on a Sunday. The case was dismissed.

Following months of complaints, noise, singing and rioting on Richmond Street, Catherine Norton was charged with ‘keeping disorderly house:’ she had ‘no visible lawful means of support,’ and a previous conviction for being ‘an idle and disorderly person.’ She did not make it to her appearance in court. On the same day, Edward Scott was charged with ‘being in a disorderly house,’ as he had been found in the company of people with no visible lawful means of support, and he had not been able to come up with an acceptable lawful reason for being there. He also didn’t turn up for his court appearance. Mary Orr was not so lucky; she was sentenced to three month’s hard labour for vagrancy and prostitution, after leaving her husband to stay in Catherine Norton’s disorderly house. 

Friday, 11 August 2017

Grahamstown Gazette: Thames gold field anniversary edition

‘A Momentous Year:’ Thames’ Golden Jubilee, Part 2

The story so far: in 1917, plans to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Thames gold fields had taken off with a hiss and a roar. Despite facing  the ‘flood of the century’ and the everyday struggles of living in a nation at war, Thames’ jubilee had the potential to be the biggest event of its kind in New Zealand’s short colonial history; public holidays, carnivals, regattas, and international tug-of-war competitions were all on the cards. But mere weeks before August 1st, the official kick-off date, something wasn’t quite right on Thames’ streets. The biggest event being planned seemed to be the Thames Old Boys’ Association’s reunion up in Auckland; nervous Thames Star correspondents wondered if Thames itself would manage to do anything at all to celebrate its own jubilee.

With the originally-planned carnivals and races safely postponed to sunny (and, so it was hoped, post-war) February 1918, the Jubilee Committee’s main aim was to get something suitably grand in place to mark August 1st. The big day, they decided, would start with a parade.

Lining up promptly outside the Shortland Hotel (the site of Fresho fruit and vegetable shop today) the town’s residents, and the hundreds who had travelled to Thames for the occasion, proceeded down Pollen St to the King’s Theatre (the modern Embassy Cinema). A civic reception hosted by Thames’ mayor inside the theatre marked the formal launch of the jubilee, and was followed by a luncheon for special guests and early settlers. The luncheon was held across the road in St. James’ Hall, a room draped in white and yellow and decorated with travelling cages to represent the aerial tramways which had once transported ore to the batteries. Giant fake gold nuggets adorned the stage.

Meanwhile, at the Queen’s Theatre in central Pollen St, students from Thames High, North, Central, South and the Convent Schools were entertained with a ‘specially selected series of pictures’ to mark the occasion. The day was rounded off with a concert back at the King’s Theatre, featuring both local talent and old favourites from Thames’ pioneering past.

The jubilee was a time not just for celebration, but for reflection on both the past and the future of Thames. ‘Now though the glories of the [gold] field are suffering a temporary eclipse,’ reported the Thames Star, ‘there is a substantial town firmly established, containing over 5000 inhabitants, and blessed with all the advantages of civilisation… The spirit of enterprise manifested by the early settlers still influences those who have followed them.’ The Star was confident the town had what it would take to blossom over the coming decades. ‘[We] will in the next half century convert this town into a large and enterprising city, with industries giving employment to thousands.’

Friday, 14 July 2017

Grahamstown Gazette: Fashion is actually hideous

‘Fashions are quite often popular because they are actually hideous,’ declared the Thames Star one morning in 1882. The popular fashion trend in question had recently been spotted in a newspaper report from Philadelphia, and was for women to have large mouths. ‘Who invented this fashion of big mouths it is impossible to state officially,’ the Star continues, ‘but it probably has its advantages, if anybody could tell what they are.’ With the constant changes of fashion, the Thames Star lamented how difficult it must be these days for a man to find a fashionable wife: ‘if he cares anything about the styles – and every man cares more for such things than he is willing to have thought – he is likely at any moment to discover that his wife is all together out of fashion… Getting married will be more popular when the fashions are less rigid.’

Thirty years later, the Thames Star was repoting quite a different problem with modern fashion trends. ‘SLIT SKIRT DOOM – KILLED BY UNCOMELY LIMBS’ screamed a headline from 1914. Parisian fashion houses had apparently banned the slit skirt, on the grounds that ‘for one comely limb revealed there were nine that had been better hidden.’ The fashion houses blamed the American market for creating demand for ‘indecent dresses.’

Meanwhile, the women of the international suffragette and dress reform movements were revolting against these ever-changing fashions. ‘Kick yourselves free from the swaddling of draperies,’ said American suffragette Carrie Catt, sensationally encouraging women to adopt trousers for everyday wear instead. Trousers for women were generally not expected to catch on as a trend, reported the Thames Star, going as far as to call the trouser-skirt ‘doomed’ and report that trousers for ladies would ‘rank merely as an eccentric curiosity’ of the season’s fashion.

How quickly they were proven wrong: the Thames Star reported in 1917 that thanks to the war, ‘bifurcated garments’ and overalls had become ‘the remarkable new fashion’ not just among working women, but among housewives and society women too. ‘Why not?’ the Star asked. ‘The question has been raised, amongst those who have not better means of employing their time, as to whether women war workers should wear trousers. Why not?... If women are required to do the country’s work they must not be handicapped.’ The Thames Star mused that the ‘handicaps’ in question were ‘probably petticoats,’ which were unsuitable wear for farming or munition factory work. ‘War fixes a new fashion,’ the newspaper concluded.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Grahamstown Gazette: the Gazette 3rd Brithday Party edition

An unexpected birthday party took place one spring evening in 1898. Mr. J. Pratt was a relatively new arrival in town, making his way to the growing gold town from Australia just over a year previously, but he made a big impression on the town’s inhabitants in only a few short months. It was the Tuesday night before his twenty-first birthday, and he was making his way through Grahamstown to a party at the Thames Miners’ Union Hall – one of many social occasions he’d been invited to since his arrival from Newcastle. He had no idea that he was to be the party’s guest of honour.

Ever since his arrival in Thames, Mr. Pratt had thrown himself wholeheartedly into the daily life of his new community. He was well-known for his ‘elocutionary talents’ at other parties around town, where he’d been known to give several memorable recitations. He was a mason by trade, later setting up his own business on Willoughby Street. He was well-respected as a member of the local Cricket Association, where he’d played for Thames at a regional level, and went on to captain St. Alban’s senior cricket team in Shortland. Mr. Pratt was also heavily involved with the Baptist Church and Young Men’s Society, providing entertainment to help with fundraising for the local widows’ and orphans’ fund.

A very surprised Mr. Pratt was greeted at the door that night by the party’s MC, Mr. Henderson, who immediately introduced him to an eager, waiting crowd of a hundred and forty people. Mr. Henderson gave a short welcoming address, acknowledging Mr. Pratt’s immense popularity in Thames, and congratulated him on his coming of age.

The time for speeches was short; the real fun of the evening was the dancing. Seventy couples took to the Miners’ Hall floor as Messrs Fisher Bros. provided the entertainment for the night. The Fisher brothers were a regular act at parties and gatherings around the district, getting the party jumping with singing and violins. Songs and recitations were performed, including a few by popular demand by Mr. Pratt himself, well into the night. The Thames Star reported a few days later that the party continued well into the early hours of the following morning.