The following story is an excerpt from a script provided by Grant Stevenson. Mr Stevenson was the event organiser of the 2004 Wellington Town Hall centennial celebration. This script was written by Dave Armstrong and presented at the centennial event by Miranda Harcourt and Franky Stevens.
In 1914, the First World War broke out. As troops from around the country came to Wellington to depart for overseas, they were often farewelled at the Town Hall.
When the soldiers of the Second Māori Contingent made their appearance there was much noise and agitation. A group of haka and poi dancers preceded them, and their advent was the signal for a noisy demonstration by the wahine.
Money was needed to support the war effort, not to mention knitting to be done for the boys at the front. And what better way to stir up some patriotic fervour than having concerts for the boys.
“Help the heroes who are helping you at the Dardanelles. Kia ora katoa. Come to the Grand Vaudeville performance at the Wellington Town Hall by HMS Philomel assisted by some of New Zealand’s leading artists.”
The Town Hall hosted the Queen Carnival and the combined schools’ concert at the Wellington Town Hall—organised by the New Zealand Patriotic Society.
“The Town Hall custodian, who is an expert in the numeration of audiences, reckoned that fully 2,000 people with tickets were unable to gain admission.”
All children taking part wore across their breasts a Union Jack or a flag of the Allied nations.
Who knows what performers you’d see in the early concerts at the Town Hall. There was James Teddy, champion jumper of the world. Wong Toy Sun, magician. Fred Dyer the singing boxer and Carlton Max the ventriloquist. Frank Lank the juggler. Mr Les Warton the eminent ‘coon’ comedian, Little Verlie the contortionist and the Tossing Testros.
Bellora performed with his bird mimicry, and there were gymnasts, sharpshooters, a serpentine dancer and some trick cyclists. And the amazing Lynch Family glassophonists who played glasses with a wet finger.
And during wartime, the evening would always end with a rousing song to wish the boys fighting for King and Country all the very best.
In 1936, the Ngāti Pōneke group of entertainers, together with Maori from other areas, made their first of what would be several appearances in the Wellington Town Hall.
A year later they would take the name of Ngāti Pōneke Young Māori Club. During World War 2, Ngāti Pōneke would welcome and farewell troops, entertain foreign servicemen, and fundraise. In one vintage year during the war they would perform 265 times.
“Where England goes we go. Where she stands, we stand.”
So said Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage at the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939.
New Zealand was at war yet again, supporting King and Country, as well as Mom and apple pie. And during the war, everyone was doing their bit. Boys were fighting overseas, women were working in factories, and gardeners were encouraged to Dig for Victory.
“Patrons are cordially invited to come to the Town Hall to discuss their preserving problems.”
A highlight was a selection of vegetables grown by the Air Force including peas and beans cleverly arranged to represent an airscrew—which sounds like a World War 2 version of the mile-high club.
And when the Town Hall wasn’t exhibiting vegetables, it was the venue for university graduation ceremonies and for special balls to raise money for the war effort.
When the Second World War finally ended, the Wellington Town Hall was the venue for the victory speeches.
“We must see to it,” said Prime Minister Peter Fraser, “with a new world based upon social justice and human brotherhood that the dead have not died in vain, and I believe New Zealand will rise to any and every occasion.”
With war over, and a period of peace and prosperity ahead, life could finally get back to normal.
“Just as soon as this bally influenza epidemic is over.” The 1918 influenza epidemic killed more people worldwide than World War I.
Public Notice: “The first festival of the Wellington Competitions Society originally planned for November 1918 has had to be postponed due to the Influenza epidemic. Voluntary aid workers are currently working from the Wellington Town Hall. Medicines and tonics are being prepared and bottled there for volunteers to take to patients affected by influenza. And the council chambers are being used to collect clothes for the poor.”
The 1920s finally brought the peace and prosperity Wellingtonians longed for, and the Town Hall was the centre of the Wellington community. Musical events at the Town Hall played an important part in the town’s cultural life, and the whole of the city’s administration could work there under one roof.