The nation’s centennial provided an inspiration and model for provincial centenary celebrations, especially in Otago and Canterbury.
The first provincial centennial was in Taranaki, where the landing of the first settlers at New Plymouth was re-enacted on Moturoa beach on 31 March 1941. There were religious services and Prime Minister Peter Fraser unveiled a monument to Charles Creed, the first minister, while Fraser’s wife Janet opened a monument to the pioneer women of Taranaki. Two days later 2,000 children formed a living picture of Mt Taranaki (Mt Egmont) and the words ‘Taranaki centennial 1841–1941’.
The programme for the commemorative pageant in Taranaki on 31 March 1941 noted: ‘Today Taranaki … does honour to the heroism, fortitude and labours of the pioneers, and offers thanksgiving for the favoured conditions our generation enjoys in this, “the Garden of God’s Own Country”.’1
Nelson’s celebrations were severely affected by the Second World War, which was not going well for the Allies. On 9 October 1941 a memorial fountain was unveiled at Kaiteriteri beach, where colonist Arthur Wakefield first drew water. On 1 November a memorial stone was unveiled on Wakefield Quay in Nelson, where Wakefield landed, and on 1 February 1942 a memorial to early settlers was opened on Church Steps. But plans for a re-enactment of pioneers landing, a children’s day, a centennial ball, sports gatherings and a historical exhibition were cancelled.
Otago and Canterbury
After the war, the South Island’s two largest provinces held spectacular and varied centennial celebrations – Otago’s focused on February and March 1948; Canterbury’s over the summer of 1950–51. The programmes were shaped by the precedent of New Zealand’s centennial. Like that commemoration, each included:
- an amusement park
- a centennial industrial fair
- historical re-enactments – Otago had settlers from the John Wickliffe landing at Port Chalmers on 23 March 1948; Canterbury had Canterbury pilgrims landing from the first four ships at Lyttelton on 16 December 1950
- memorials – both provinces added centennial wings to their museums, and in Otago there was funding for the Early Settlers Association
- cultural events – each province hosted musical performances and exhibitions, and Canterbury had its own centennial film
- historical processions – as in many communities in 1940, both provinces had processions of historical floats; Otago’s 64 floats were a ‘cavalcade of progress’, while Canterbury’s 69 floats celebrated ‘100 years of progress’
- stamps and medals – the New Zealand Post Office issued commemorative stamps, and the provinces minted centennial medals
- historical publications – Otago embarked on an ambitious production of 18 books, including a general history, a tribute to pioneer women and 16 local histories; Canterbury kicked off with a pictorial survey, but only in 1971 was its three-volume provincial history finally completed.
Scoring a century
The sportspeople of Otago responded to the centennial spirit. In 1948 the province’s rugby team held onto the Ranfurly Shield through seven challenges, the cricket team won the Plunket Shield for the first time in 16 years, and both the athletics and swimming teams won the most points at their national championships.
There were also interesting differences from the 1940 celebrations. Both provinces held a floral procession as well as the historical one, and both had centennial flower shows. In Dunedin more than 30,000 visited the flower show in the town hall.
Both provinces also put more emphasis on sporting events. Otago hosted no fewer than 34 New Zealand sporting championships (not including brass and pipe band competitions, and sheep dog trials). Canterbury held the Canterbury centennial games, featuring athletics, swimming, cycling, rowing and boxing, from 26 December 1950 to 3 January 1951. They attracted star athletes, including up-and-coming English runner Roger Bannister and Australians Shirley Strickland and Marjorie Jackson, both of whom had won multiple events at the Empire Games in Auckland. Both provinces held centennial racing and trotting meetings.
Not so celebratory
In 1940 there had been a yacht race from Lyttelton to Wellington to celebrate Wellington’s centennial. For their centennial, Canterbury organised a corresponding race in the reverse direction. Twenty yachts set off on 23 January 1951. The next day a severe southerly storm hit the fleet. Most of the boats withdrew, but two sank with the loss of 10 lives.
Another difference from the 1940 commemorations was the focus on air transport – Otago had an aero pageant and Christchurch celebrated the opening of Harewood as an international airport.
While many places had held bonfires in 1940, Dunedin and Christchurch put on spectacular fireworks displays. Dunedin, but not Christchurch, revived 19th-century traditions by illuminating buildings and putting up street decorations.
A distinctive event in Canterbury was the Centennial Thanksgiving Service held in Cathedral Square with 10,000 worshippers, a choir of 1,300 and a sermon by the Archbishop of Canterbury (the head of the Anglican Church worldwide). Otago too had its international visitors – notably Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh acting in a performance of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play The school for scandal.
A travelling centennial
Southland devised several unusual ways to mark their celebrations in 1956, all involving travel. A centennial torch was carried by relay from Waitangi to Invercargill. There was a centennial air race from Ōmaka (near Blenheim) to Invercargill, and a centennial car reliability trial. Cabinet ministers travelled to Invercargill to hold a cabinet meeting in the city.
Later in the 1950s Southland (in 1956), Hawke’s Bay (1958) and Marlborough (1959) celebrated centennials with stamp issues, industry fairs and, for the first two, the opening of centennial halls. Many smaller communities and towns held various events to mark their hundred years of existence.
As in 1940, the consistent theme of these centenaries was a worship of the heroic pioneers and a tribute to the material progress that had transformed a wilderness into a prosperous community. But such views, which had fuelled anniversary celebrations for over half a century, would not survive much longer.