Words of WW100

Introduction

To mark the end of the Great War commemorative period, we’ve put together a compilation of articles written by Turnbull Library staff who’ve been part of a group coordinating the Library’s ‘War Effort’. These were originally written for 1840, the Department of Internal Affairs’ internal staff website. The Library, together with other parts of DIA, has been involved with projects to support the commemorations.

These include the production of research guides for the First World War and Conscientious Objectors, exhibitions; the digitisation of oral histories from war veterans, and additions to the popular Papers Past site of editions from the war years, including the New Zealand Herald. One of the more unusual projects involves the digitisation of First World War-era sheet music held in the Turnbull Library’s published music collection. This includes music composed by New Zealanders as well as music written by other composers but published in New Zealand.

The articles collated here touch on these projects, and feature personal responses from staff to their work with the collections cared for by the Library. We’re very pleased that the selection starts with a contribution by our greatly missed and respected colleague, David Colquhoun, who died on 18 March 2018.


  1. Agnes Bennett Goes to War – David Colquhoun
  2. Mascot Mania – Amy Watling
  3. John Edward Constance (1894-1915) – Peter Ireland
  4. ‘…they think of nothing else but us at huis’ – Paul Diamond
  5. Chunuk Bair – Gillian Headifen
  6. The diary of James Cox – Jay Buzenberg
  7. News from home – Graeme Shaw
  8. My Great-Uncle Norman George Bennett – John Sullivan
  9. Flying School – Natalie Marshall
  10. War Craft – Ish Doney
  11. Connections – Joan McCracken
  12. Foxton School and the German piano controversy – Dylan Owen

Agnes Bennett Goes to War – 25 July 2013
David Colquhoun, former Manuscripts Curator, Alexander Turnbull Library


Agnes Bennett at the main hospital camp of the 7th Medical Unit of the Scottish Women's Hospitals for Foreign Service, at Ostrovo, Macedonia, Serbia, during World War I. Ref: PAColl-6972-12-23Agnes Bennett at the main hospital camp of the 7th Medical Unit of the Scottish Women's Hospitals for Foreign Service, at Ostrovo, Macedonia, Serbia, during World War I. Ref: PAColl-6972-12-23. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Next Monday our new Turnbull Gallery exhibition opens, Logs to Blogs: Diaries from the Turnbull Library. There are twelve featured diarists, spanning almost 250 years. Some fascinating stories are told.

One of those diarists is Dr Agnes Bennett. Her diary recounts her time establishing and managing an all-women-run hospital on the Balkan front in World War I. The above is a photograph of her on a driving expedition with some of her friends. She is the one on the right.

Bennett was already well known as a pioneering woman doctor. Throughout her early career, though, she had always had to battle for recognition in a very male-dominated profession.

In 1914 Bennett was keen to help the war effort, but the New Zealand Government had nothing to offer. Instead she accepted a position with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service. It was an organisation that had grown out of the women’s suffrage movement, committed to providing wartime hospital services entirely run by women.

Bennett’s task was to set up a hospital to support the Serbian allies. Eventually the front moved too far away for the hospital to be fully effective, and Bennett herself had to resign because of severe malaria. For a time, though, it was very successful, and her diary gives a frank account of her work.

Here is an excerpt from her diary, in September 1916, after a bloody battle between the Serbian and Bulgarian armies:

.... We took about 24 cases all terribly bad wounds – abdominal, chest head & compound fractures – it was terrible to see the poor fellows up at the dressing station – 5 died before or just on arrival at hospital. It was really a terrible day. The last of the cars did not come in till v. late – I felt rather anxious about them.

Today has not been so bad all cases bad but not so far beyond recovery. The operation tent & the reception tent have been as busy as possible all day – everyone is working well .....

Monday 25 IX. 16

We now have 160 cases all bad & it is terribly hard work. 10 of the staff are hors de combat and we can only just keep going but we can’t refuse these poor mangled things....

(Diary entries for 20–25 September 1916, MS-Papers-1346-073, Agnes Bennett papers, Alexander Turnbull Library)


Mascot Mania – 1 August 2013
Amy Watling, Team Leader Online Research Services, Alexander Turnbull Library


The goat mascot of the New Zealand Engineers, France. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013133-GThe goat mascot of the New Zealand Engineers, France. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association: New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013133-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Being a soldier in World War 1 was a serious business. However, when I'm working with the images of the men that served together for New Zealand during that conflict, it is the less serious tableaux which always catch my eye.

Soldiers are pictured trying to have fun; using well-earned leave, or beguiling the long hours of waiting between skirmishes. Whether it is playing a game of rugby, having a tea party, celebrating Christmas, or enjoying some uplifting music, soldiers seem to be experts in that ancient art of "making their own fun".

The other thing I found out about soldiers is that they liked mascots. Dogs, cats, donkeys and even goats were pressed into service as official military companions during the First World War, and the photographic collections of the Turnbull Library hold delightful proof of this.

Next year will be the beginning of the 100 year commemoration of World War One. The Alexander Turnbull Library is one of the institutions in New Zealand where you can find out more about soldiers and other people who had a war experience.

Coming soon on our website will be a general guide for the historians, scholars, descendants and other researchers who may be looking for more information about the men and women who served New Zealand.


John Edward Constance (1894-1915) – 8 August 2013
Peter Ireland, Gallery and Exhibitions Specialist, Alexander Turnbull Library


Constance, John Edward, 1894-1915. Constance, John Edward, 1894-1915: Photograph of John Edward Constance taken by H Utugian & Co (Cairo, Egypt). Ref: PAColl-10094. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.Constance, John Edward, 1894-1915. Constance, John Edward, 1894-1915: Photograph of John Edward Constance taken by H Utugian & Co (Cairo, Egypt). Ref: PAColl-10094. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

I recently deposited this photograph of my father’s uncle, John Edward Constance, with the Alexander Turnbull Library where it joins John’s soldier’s diary in the collections.

His diary, this portrait – which bears a strong resemblance to my father as a young man – a medal, tunic buttons and hat badge of the 1st Canterbury Company, are items I came to look after, having passed from my grandmother to my father.

I became aware of John’s presence in the family during my Ashburton childhood in the 1950’s, which featured regular Sunday afternoon teas with my grandmother. These occasions are impressed on my memory due to their exquisite tedium, and the endless supply of stale seed cake I was obliged to eat, but also because the sitting room had been created as a shrine to John Edward Constance. His medals were mounted on the fire screen, this photograph, memorial scroll and brass plaque adorned the mantelpiece.

John Constance enlisted with the 1st Canterbury Company in 1914. The diary – a digital copy of which is now available in ATL - begins with his arrival in Addington Military Camp, and records the typical progress and lengthy journey to the beach head of Gallipoli of many young New Zealanders at that time. A year on from training and a few days after his 21st birthday, there is a final diary entry for August 15th:

‘A party of twenty men and one officer from our company went out to take a fort in front of our position but the fire was that hot that they had to retire.’

The word ‘retire’ is repeated again twice on the same page, and then the diary falls silent.

The photograph of John was mounted on a card which identifies the photographer as the American Photographic Studio in Cairo. It is addressed to Miss D. Constance c/o of the Christchurch Post Office, and carries the brief message:

Private J Constance
Ist Canterbury Infantry Company
Died of wounds, 2 September 1915


‘…they think of nothing else but us at huis.’ – 15 August 2013
Paul Diamond, Curator, Māori, Alexander Turnbull Library


Thomas MacKenzie, High Commissoner for New Zealand, while visiting New Zealand troops in France during World War I. Peter Henry Buck is on the right. Ramsden, Eric :Photographs relating to Ramsden and his family and Maori subjects. Ref: 1/2-037933-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.Thomas MacKenzie, High Commissoner for New Zealand, while visiting New Zealand troops in France during World War I. Peter Henry Buck is on the right. Ramsden, Eric :Photographs relating to Ramsden and his family and Maori subjects. Ref: 1/2-037933-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Letters and diaries written by Māori soldiers during the Great War give rich insights into daily life on and off the battlefield. The Turnbull Library’s WW100 digitisation project is making these documents more accessible. It’s now possible to view online several of the diaries kept by Sir Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa), who served as an officer with the Māori Pioneer Battalion in France and Belgium.

Buck attended Te Aute College, together with other Māori who became well-known as leaders and politicians. Sir James Carroll, a Māori MP from an earlier generation, dubbed the group ‘The Young Māori Party’. In July 1916 Carroll visited the Battalion in France. You can read reports of Carroll’s visit on Papers Past, and James Cowan’s book about Māori and the Great War, but I found it interesting to read about the events in Buck’s own words:

Sir James arrived last night. Brought round at 10.15 by General Russell. Had two Maori Companies drawn up on both sides of large billet inside. Haka party drawn up at other end. Sir James challenged on entering yard. General salute, then haka. I made speech of welcome etc. Sir James replied gave us greetings from people in N.Z. Said they think of nothing else but us at huis. Recruiting now good.’

Letters in Māori and English written by another Pioneer Battalion officer, Horopapera Karauti to his wife have also been digitised and can be viewed in the Library Reading Rooms. These include a touching love poem written on an ivy leaf – one of the more unusual materials cared for in the Turnbull Library’s manuscript collections.


Chunuk Bair – 28 August 2013
Gillian Headifen, Research Librarian Oral History, Alexander Turnbull Library


World War I Oral History Archive - Interview with Victor Nicholson, Reference number OHInt-0006/63, Recording Date 20 July 1988

The 8th of August 2013 was the 98th anniversary of the battle for Chunuk Bair on the Gallipoli peninsular. My grandfather was there as a soldier with the Wellington Mounted Rifles.

One way to hear the voices of veterans of the First World War is to listen to interviews held in the Turnbull Library’s oral history collection.

During 1988 and 1989 Nicholas Boyack and Jane Tolerton interviewed eighty two veterans and two women for the purpose of research into World War One.

Their project is called The World War One Oral History Archive project.

I searched this archive in the hope that I could find someone who experienced the battle of Chunuk Bair.

I was lucky. Victor Nicholson, who was with the Wellington Infantry Battalion, went up with the advance onto Chunuk Bair ridge 8 August 1915, and described what it was like fighting with a bayonet.

We started to get close enough for the bayonet and somebody had forgotten to tell us along the line somewhere that you fired so many round out of your rifle twenty or thirty rounds in rapid fire and then you’d stick the bayonet on it. You couldn’t hold the rifle to use the bayonet because it was red hot.

He goes onto describe the heroism of the wounded loading rifles for those who were firing.

They were the bravest ever. They were the ones who it didn’t matter how badly they were knocked, they still loaded for us. ... the chap that was down below and had both, oh both legs badly one leg nearly shot off and the other one was just a mangled up mess and he was loading for me.

For anyone who is not located in Wellington, information from the interviews has been used in the following publications.

Further reading:

  • An awfully big adventure: New Zealand World War One veterans tell their stories, selected and edited by Jane Tolerton from interviews for the World War One Oral History Archive. Auckland, Penguin Books, 2013.
  • In the shadow of war: New Zealand soldiers talk about World War One and their lives, [edited by] Nicholas Boyack and Jane Tolerton Auckland Penguin, 1990.

The Diary of James Cox – 13 September 2013
Jay Buzenberg, Online Content Coordinator, Alexander Turnbull Library


L: Pages of the Cox diary. Photo: Mark Beatty R: James Cox portrait: The only known photograph of Cox, aged 75, photographed at Carterton in 1921. Photographer unknown. Ref: 1/2-164539-F, Alexander Turnbull Library. L: Pages of the Cox diary. Photo: Mark Beatty R: James Cox portrait: The only known photograph of Cox, aged 75, photographed at Carterton in 1921. Photographer unknown. Ref: 1/2-164539-F, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

On the 1st of June James Cox wrote, "I took a short stroll in town this morning and did not go out since. I did some sewing after dinner." It could have been written yesterday, but was penned in his diary a hundred years ago in 1913. It was also the first passage to appear on the @Cox_diary Twitter account, part of the Life 100 Years Ago project that tells the stories of New Zealanders, in ‘real-time’, one hundred years later.

Other quotes or tweets from Cox reveal their era more plainly, “Sir Joseph Ward arrives in Wellington by the mail train today after several months spent in England” (4/8/13), or “Got my repaired boots from Davies & Co before tea and paid 5/6, new tongues as well as half soled and heeled” (9/9/13).

His frequent weather observations, often matching our own changeable conditions, and important to someone who worked outdoors in all weathers, give us a real sense of his condition “So much light rain this week has made the streets and road very muddy” (16/8/13).

By some criteria James Cox was very ordinary and undistinguished. His own biographer described him as being distinctive precisely because he lacked distinction. His was a story like so many others, who made a living by doing unskilled manual labour and odd jobs. But very few unskilled labourers like him have left diaries. It is a very unique document and is why he makes such a good ambassador from the past, helping us to understand what life was like for New Zealanders during the First World War.

You can read the digitised pages of the Cox diaries on our website, learn more about the tweeting swagman on our blog, and follow his travails on Twitter, one day at a time. To see the other voices in the Life 100 Years Ago project you can visit the WW100 website.


News from home – 26 September 2013
Graeme Shaw, Assistant Curator Newspaper and Serials, National Library


News from home in the front line trenches, World War I. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/4-009459-G. Alexander Turnbull Library.News from home in the front line trenches, World War I. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association: New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/4-009459-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

During World War I newspapers provided an important connection for soldiers to events back home in New Zealand. They were usually sent by relatives, were often dispatched wrapped around food parcels, and were generally weekly newspapers such as the Auckland Weekly News in the above image.

However, while news of home was welcomed, many soldiers found the jingoistic tone of most newspapers and their misleadingly positive accounts of the war to be less palatable.

George Bollinger commented in his diary, “Back in the trenches amongst the flies. The stench from our own dead lying out in front is terrific. It is hard to think that each of these men is some mother’s son. We see such scenes as this and still some newspapers have the audacity to suggest we like this life.” (George Bollinger. Diary entry for 15 June 1915, MS-Papers-2350-1, Alexander Turnbull Library).

Papers Past, the National Library’s newspaper website, provides a fascinating window into contemporary attitudes towards the war.

At one end of the spectrum the Bay of Plenty Times called for the death penalty to be given to those who refused to sign up for service, thundering “woe to us who fail to give a hand with the job ... If the man at the front shirks his job or strikes, the penalty is death, and so it should be for every shirker at home”. In stark contrast papers such as the Maoriland Worker, voice of the trade union movement, and the NZ Truth expressed strong anti-war sentiments.

As part of the Library’s contribution to the 100 year commemoration of World War I, many more newspapers from the war years are being added to Papers Past.

Recent additions have included major newspapers such as the New Zealand Herald and the Otago Daily Times, along with a range of newspapers from provincial areas – just added this month are the King Country Chronicle, the Mount Ida Chronicle, the Oamaru Mail and the Timaru Herald.

Check out Papers Past and perhaps discover a personal connection to the war years by finding information about a family member or your home town.


My Great-Uncle Norman George Bennett – 10 October 2013
John Sullivan, Curatorial Services Leader, Alexander Turnbull Library


Dressing contest at Walton-on-Thames Hospital, England. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013841-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.Dressing contest at Walton-on-Thames Hospital, England. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013841-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

On 13 April 1918, my Great-Uncle Norman George Bennett was admitted to the No 2 New Zealand General Hospital - Walton-on-Thames, in Surrey. On the 5 April he had received a gunshot wound in the shoulder, somewhere in France. He may well have been there when this photograph was taken. I hope that the nature of his injuries spared him from taking part in activities such as this.

This was the second time he had been wounded. On 6 October 1917 he received a minor gunshot wound to the lower jaw. He was back in action again on 10 November.

Norman was one of three brothers from Otaki serving with the New Zealand Division in the Ypres Salient during the terrible month of October 1917. I never met him. He died in Wellington on 17 November 1933, at the age of 43. I never met his younger brother, Joseph, either. Second Lieutenant Joseph Llewellyn Bennett, 2nd Bn 3rd NZ Rifle Brigade, died at Passchendaele on 12 October 1917.

I did, however, meet his elder brother, Francis Hebden Bennett. On 9 December 1917, probably in the Polygon Wood sector, Private F H Bennett received gunshot wounds to the nose, mouth, legs and right hand. The hand wound was classified as severe, and his left kneecap was fractured. Family tradition has it that his nasal cavities were split open by the concussion of a shell blast.

Hebden never went back to the front. After a lengthy stay at Brockenhurst Hospital, he left for New Zealand in April 1918 on the hospital ship Marama. On arrival he went straight to a convalescent home in Rotorua. He was finally discharged as unfit for service in 1919. After briefly in an office in Wellington, he returned in the early 1920s to Otaki to live with his mother. He died in June 1978, at the age of 89, a much loved uncle and great-uncle.

These men have been part of my life since childhood. They left no children, and the two who survived played little active part in the life of the 20th Century, but they are remembered with affection by those who know them. The digitisation of service records, dairies and photographs in the collections of Archives New Zealand and the Alexander Turnbull Library are giving me a fresh insight into their experience 96 years ago.


Flying School – 25 October 2013
Natalie Marshall, Curator, Photographs, Alexander Turnbull Library


Student pilot, Anton Berntsen, standing on the float of a B&W Boeing seaplane “F” with one hand on the propeller, 1917 or 1918, Reference: ¼-123940-F, Anton Berntsen Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.Student pilot, Anton Berntsen, standing on the float of a B&W Boeing seaplane “F” with one hand on the propeller, 1917 or 1918, Reference: 1/4-123940-F, Anton Berntsen Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

One of my responsibilities as Curator, Photographs, at the Alexander Turnbull Library is to develop the Library’s photograph collection through donation and purchase. We receive donation offers most working days and lately there seems to be an increase in the amount of World War I photographs being deposited. Or perhaps my attention is drawn to these collections because of the Library’s WW100 initiatives.

The Library has rich holdings on World War I but sometimes we are offered a photograph collection that provides a different view of the war. One such collection is that of Anton Berntsen (1898-1973) who attended the New Zealand Flying School at Kohimarama, Auckland, in 1917-1918. The School, which was established in 1915 by pioneer New Zealand aviators, Vivian and Leo Walsh, trained New Zealanders to become pilots so they could join the Royal Flying Corps in England.

Berntsen did not fly during the war, instead he returned home to run the family farm at Waipatiki in Southern Hawke’s Bay. His negatives though, are a record of training and leisure at the Flying School, as well as life on the family farm during World War I. The collection was donated by Berntsen’s son, Paul, late last year.

The Library has digitised all of the 74 negatives in this collection and the rest of Berntsen’s images can be seen at natlib.govt.nz.

We will continue to prioritise the digitisation of World War I photograph albums and negative collections to make them more accessible.


War Craft – 8 November 2013
Ish Doney, Imaging Technician, Alexander Turnbull Library


January 20-26 1918, Arthur Newsome’s Diary, MS-Papers-8397-03. Alexander Turnbull Library. My first and second attempts at cutting a bottle with string. After a third attempt I consulted youtube, which suggested I purchase a glass cutter. Photos by Ish Doney.January 20-26 1918, Arthur Newsome’s Diary, MS-Papers-8397-03. Alexander Turnbull Library. My first and second attempts at cutting a bottle with string. After a third attempt I consulted youtube, which suggested I purchase a glass cutter. Photos by Ish Doney.

I have spent the better part of this year photographing page-for-page some of the diaries from ATL’s extensive WWI collection. When Dr Kate Hunter spoke about these diaries as part of the Turnbull’s Logs to Blogs exhibition she mentioned how interesting it is to see what the publishers who produced the diaries thought soldiers might need to know. Arthur Newsome’s Soldiers’ Own Diary published by Charles Letts & Co. is a fine example.

The 1918 diary is full of useful information on such topics as the penetration of a rifle bullet (‘Brickwork, lime mortar|14 inches ... | 9-inch brick wall at 200yards’ pp.12); navigating by the sun and stars pp.30-31; first aid ‘hints’ intended only ‘as a reminder to assist you when in doubt’ pp.32; and an introduction to soldier’s slang (‘Bun Wallah. – A soldier who drinks nothing stronger than tea, and is in consequence supposed to eat voraciously of buns.’ pp.38).

The highlight of the publisher’s contribution for me is the weekly craft projects and other hints taken from various scouting manuals. Some of these seem rather ingenious, like turning one’s bell tent into a sun dial, or at least helpful: ‘Instant relief should be obtained’ by placing a burnt finger on the soft lower end of the earlobe. However, the entry explaining how the horse chestnut tree got its name seems rather less relevant.

Arthur Newsome was part of a military band in Great Britain during the war and it seems unlikely that he would have had occasion to try out any of the Soldiers’ Own Diary’s tips and tricks. His entries outline band practice, route marches, air raids, funerals, and trips to the pictures. His feelings about this way of life are summed up on Monday, April 22, 1918 when he writes ‘same as usual getting sick of it’. This, two other diaries, and a soldiers’ pay book also belonging to Newsome have been digitised and are available online through the NDHA. They are part of the library’s WW100 initiative to digitise 28,000 pages by February next year.


Connections – 12 December 2013
Joan McCracken, Outreach Services Leader, Alexander Turnbull Library


Politicians and a crowd, outside Parliament Buildings, upon the declaration of war with Germany. Ref: 1/2-045239-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.Politicians and a crowd, outside Parliament Buildings, upon the declaration of war with Germany. Ref: 1/2-045239-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

For many years I worked closely with the Turnbull pictorial collections and got to know them quite well. There are some images that are requested over and over again – and one of the most frequently used, and one we are likely to see many more times in the next year – is a photo taken in August 1914 by Sydney Charles Smith of the Prime Minister declaring that New Zealand was going to war with Germany.

I had occasion to look at this picture again recently when I was looking for portraits of William Ferguson Massey, one of the protagonists in the story of the 1913 waterfront strike.

During October and November, the Turnbull Library collaborated with the Labour History Project and Museum of Wellington City and Sea to host the Peoples’ History 1913 series of talks and events.

The theme was the history of work and workers in New Zealand with a focus on the 1913 waterfront strike. Speakers addressed the social setting in which this significant event took place, and showed how the industrial turmoil in New Zealand was reflected throughout the western world. When war was declared in 1914 this was not the peaceful country it is sometimes presumed to have been.

Massey had become New Zealand’s Prime Minister in July 1912 and was immediately faced with industrial strife at the Waihi mine. In November of that year Massey sent a large contingent of police, led by Police Commissioner John Cullen, who had been given “an absolutely free hand to do everything possible to maintain law and order". In the violent clashes between police and strikers one man was killed – stationery engine driver Fred Evans, the first person to be killed in the course of an industrial dispute in New Zealand.

The strike was defeated.

L: Morning of November 12 during the Waihi miners' strike of 1912. Ref: Ref: 1/2-044240-F R: Portrait of Frederick George Evans. Ref: PAColl-3736L: Morning of November 12 during the Waihi miners' strike of 1912. Ref: Ref: 1/2-044240-F R: Portrait of Frederick George Evans. Ref: PAColl-3736. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

The following year there was more industrial strife, including on the waterfront in Wellington. Massey again called on Cullen to act. Volunteer special constables were recruited. Encounters between “Massey’s Cossacks” and the strike supporters culminated in the “Battle of Featherston Street” on 5 November 1913, and by the end of the month the strike was effectively over.

L: Massey's Special Constables on horseback during the 1913 Waterfront Strike, Hanson Street, Newtown, Wellington. Ref: 1/2-048777-G R: The Battle of Featherston Street, during the 1913 New Zealand Waterfront Strike. Ref: 1/2-160127-FL: Massey's Special Constables on horseback during the 1913 Waterfront Strike, Hanson Street, Newtown, Wellington. Ref: 1/2-048777-G R: The Battle of Featherston Street, during the 1913 New Zealand Waterfront Strike. Ref: 1/2-160127-F Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

For me working in a library is all about making connections – helping people find material that will interest them, collaborating with colleagues (internal and external), being curious and discovering the connections between people and events and the collection items that relate to them.


Foxton School and the German Piano Controversy – 18 December 2013
Dylan Owen, Development Specialist Creating Readers and Collections, National Library


Image caption: Music shop, with man tuning a piano, and sound recordings. Hinge, Leslie, 1868-1942 :Collection of photographic prints and negatives. Ref: 1/2-034840-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.Music shop, with man tuning a piano, and sound recordings. Hinge, Leslie, 1868-1942 :Collection of photographic prints and negatives. Ref: 1/2-034840-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

This First World War story (about the most unlikely of objects) dramatically reveals the extent of anti-German feeling shortly after the war.

It's about a piano.

Travelling through Manawatu in early 1920 Ben Keys, a Native Land agent noted in his diary that Foxton was a township of “dilapidated wooden buildings and newer structures of much ugliness.” However he did comment favourably on Foxton’s new state school which was, “constructed on modern hygienic fresh-air principles.”

In September 1918 the previous school building had been burnt to the ground by an arsonist. It was rebuilt (in brick) by the Education Department, but the Foxton State School Committee was expected to pay for a new school piano. A piano was duly offered for 40 pounds but there was a problem. It was made in Germany.

Some committee members believed having a German school piano would exert a malign influence on the pupils. Others declared it appropriate that a German piano should be used to play "God Save the King.’

And while a decision was made to buy the piano acrimonious discussions, resignations, letters to editor, public meetings and a petition followed.

There was also a deputation to the Whanganui Education Board and to the Minister of Education as Foxton found itself divided - should the German piano be purchased for the school or not?

However it was the Chairman of the Wanganui Education Board who really stoked the flames by declaring he would be “glad to see the whole German nation wiped out” and “sooner see fifty thousand indecent pictures in the school than a German piano.” Not to be outdone the Ohakune representative patriotically declared, “I hope the piano will be burned, and that it will kindle such a beacon that it will illuminate not only the playground, but will throw a light all over New Zealand.”

All of which was duly reported in detail by newspapers across the country.

Finally in February 1920 another piano was offered, the school committee noting, “That the offer of Mrs Jenks for a BRITISH Raymond piano for the sum of 90 pounds be accepted.” The motion was carried and the piano purchased.

Subsequently a Palmerston North piano tuner was called to the school but on opening up the piano he discovered the inscription, J. Koehler, Berlin.

It was a ‘British’ piano with German parts!

Shortly after this discovery three Committee men burst into Miss M. Ray’s classroom where the piano was kept (and where she was teaching). They then proceeded to pull the instrument apart searching for its German bits. Unfortunately they couldn’t put the piano back together again. Miss Ray’s singing lesson was completely ruined.

In 1946 a Japanese piano was purchased for the school. There was no controversy.

By Paul Diamond

Paul is the Curator, Māori, at the Alexander Turnbull Library. In his spare time he’s working on a book about Charles Mackay, who was killed in the 1929 May Day riots in Berlin.

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