2017 Historical Anniversaries

Well somehow another year has passed so, as usual, here is a list of upcoming anniversaries to look out for.  Some international ones and some local New Zealand dates as well, some notable ones and some others that will likely pass with little commemoration.


50 Years ago – On 10 July 1967 we ditched pennies, shillings and pounds and switched to cents and dollars.  Because a decimal system made more sense.  Some of my readers might remember the day that our change changed, but others like myself may just recall finding the occasional rogue sixpence, shilling or florin in circulation up until 2006 when those penny pinchers at the Reserve Bank killed the fun by changing the coin sizes.

50 Years ago – 19 January will mark fifty years since the Strongman Mine explosion, which killed 19 miners.

75 Years ago – Japanese Warrant Officer Nobuo Fujita of the Imperial Navy flew reconnaissance missions over Wellington and Auckland.

75 Years ago – On 24 June 1942 a 7.2 earthquake near Masterton caused considerable damage throughout Wairarapa and also in Wellington, where one person was killed and facades from some older buildings collapsed onto the pavement.  Had the quake struck earlier in the day then there likely would’ve been many more casualties.  Another 6.8 earthquake struck five weeks later.  Check out Matthew Wright’s ‘Living on Shaky Ground’ for more about the science and history of New Zealand’s earthquakes.

100 Years ago – 12 October will mark one hundred years since New Zealand’s ‘darkest day’, when 845 men lost their lives at Passchendaele on the Western Front.  Other notable First World War anniversaries New Zealanders should watch out for this year include the centenary of the Battle of Messines (June) and the Battle of Beersheba (October).

A lesser-known anniversary on 3 December is the centenary of the assault by New Zealanders on the ruins of Polderhoek Chateau.  I’ve previously shared the story behind a postcard sent by one of the soldiers that was wounded during this action.

Polderhoek Chateau

Pre-war view of Polderhoek Chateau, the ruins of which were assaulted by New Zealanders on 3 December 1917.  Lemuel Lyes Collection

Finally, one other First World War centenary with a New Zealand link that I’d like to draw attention to is the daring action by the German commerce raider SMS Wolf, which captured and sank vessels near the Kermadec Islands and deployed minefields off the New Zealand coast which sank the Port Kembla off Cape Farewell and the Wimmera off Cape Maria van Diemen.

Make sure to check out WW100 for more information about First World War commemorations throughout New Zealand this year.

200 Years ago – The ‘Sealer’s War’ in Otago continued to escalate.  Sealer, convict and human-head trafficker William Tucker was one of a party of Europeans that were killed and eaten by aggrieved Māori.  In retaliation, some of the survivors, led by James Kelly, killed a number of Māori and burned down a large village.  This bloody episode in Otago history is often overlooked.

300 Years ago – In 1717 the Alpine Fault ruptured with an estimated magnitude of around 8.0.  This was well before European settlement so there were no tall buildings to collapse, but Māori throughout New Zealand will have felt it strongly and those in the South Island may have faced significant threats from rockfalls and landslides.  On average, the Alpine Fault ruptures every 330 years, although sometimes the interval between quakes can be as small as 140 years or as long as 510 years.  GNS predicts that there is a 30% chance that the Alpine Fault will rupture again in the next half-century.  Very scary.


View from the top of the Southern Alps, looking across the West Coast. Here lies the infamous Alpine Fault, which last ruptured 300 years ago. © Lemuel Lyes


375 Years agoAbel Tasman and his crew became the first Europeans to arrive in New Zealand waters.  Their short visit resulted in bloodshed.  There are commemorations planned in Golden Bay this December to mark the 375th anniversary, including a visit by a delegation from the Netherlands and an upgrade to the Abel Tasman National Monument.  The Takaka museum has a beautiful diorama of Tasman’s visit – I had the chance to view it myself last week and highly recommend it to anyone who is visiting Golden Bay.

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D-Day: Pointe du Hoc

The prominent heights of Pointe du Hoc on the Normandy coast were the scene of a desperate battle during the D-Day landings on 6 June 1944.  The strategic promontory overlooks Utah Beach to the west and Omaha Beach to the east, making it an obvious choice for a coastal battery.  To mark the anniversary of D-Day I thought I’d share some photos I took during a visit to the site.

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Bomb craters and the remains of fortifications at Pointe du Hoc, Normandy

The battery at Pointe du Hoc was constructed in 1942 and added to throughout 1943, as part of the Atlantic Wall, a series of German fortifications designed to defend against any Allied invasion, and was built to house six First World War 155mm French guns that the Germans had captured.  From the heights of Pointe du Hoc, guns such as these would wreak absolute havoc on the landing beaches – so to prevent huge losses at Omaha and Utah the Allied forces had to knock this battery out.

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Pre-invasion bombing of Pointe du Hoc. Source: Wikipedia

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This view from Pointe du Hoc is looking west in the direction of Utah Beach.

Pointe du Hoc was plastered with heavy aerial bombardment, but this wasn’t enough to do the job.  Naval guns could suppress the defenders, but again, this wouldn’t be enough to silence the battery during the invasion.  It was decided that the best solution was to send in a specially trained force of U.S. Army Rangers.  That way not only would the battery be captured, but the Germans would also be denied the use of the high ground for observation purposes. Continue reading

2016 Historical Anniversaries

To start the new year on History Geek I’ve put together a list of some local and international historical anniversaries to watch out for over the next twelve months.  Some are well-known, but I’ve included a few lesser known events as well.


50 Years ago – In 1966 Radio Hauraki challenged the NZBC’s control of the airwaves by broadcasting from a boat outside New Zealand’s territorial waters.  That same year the NZBC commissioned a new television show – Country Calendar, which is now the longest-running television series in New Zealand.  The Waikato Museum is hosting an exhibition commemorating 50 years of Country Calendar and TVNZ have commissioned both a 50th season of the show as well as a special documentary celebrating the milestone.

100 Years ago – The New Zealand Expeditionary Force became the New Zealand Division and left Egypt for France, arriving in April and first entering the trenches of the Western Front in May.  In September and October they suffered about 8000 casualties during the Battle of the Somme.  Also in 1916, the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade saw active service in Sinai.

The WW100 official theme for 2016 commemorations of New Zealand’s experience during the First World War is ‘Transition – A National War Effort’, which will look at the impact that the war had on society at home while also continuing to mark the key actions that New Zealanders were involved in overseas.

100 Years ago – As New Zealand troops arrived in France, another conflict occured back at home when armed policemen mounted an expedition into the remote Urewera Ranges to arrest Māori prophet Rua Kēnana.  A shot was fired, by whom exactly is still debated, and the resulting gunfight lasted for half an hour.  Two Māori men were killed and another two were wounded, as were four of the constables.  Kēnana was accused of sedition, but was only found guilty of resisting arrest.  The message from the government was clear – independence was not to be tolerated.

Police approaching Maungapohatu, to arrest Rua Kenana. Ref: 1/2-028071-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22835478

Police approaching Maungapohatu, to arrest Rua Kenana. Ref: 1/2-028071-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22835478

150 Years ago – Five men were robbed and killed by highwaymen along the Maungatapu track between the Wakamarina goldfields and Nelson.  The villains responsible were apprehended – Burgess, Sullivan, Kelly and Levy.  Sullivan gave evidence against the others in exchange for a pardon but the other three were found guilty of the murders and on 5 October 1866 were hanged at the Nelson Gaol.  It remains one of the most notorious crimes in New Zealand history.

150 Years ago – On 14 May 1866 the General Grant was wrecked at the bottom of a cliff on the largest of the Auckland Islands in the Sub-Antarctic.  The stricken vessel was swept into a large cave.  Her cargo included over two and a half thousand ounces of gold from the Victoria goldfields.  Ten survivors were rescued after eighteen months of living as castaways.  Despite many attempts to find the wreck and her valuable cargo it has never been located.  The General Grant is New Zealand’s most well-known yet elusive treasure wreck.

Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, NZG-19111122-28-2

Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, NZG-19111122-28-2

175 Years ago – 1841 Was a busy year for one of the British Empire’s most recent additions.  Auckland replaced Russell as New Zealand’s capital, new settlements were established at Nelson and New Plymouth and George Augustus Selwyn became the first Anglican Bishop of New Zealand.

Richmond, George, 1809-1896. [Richmond, George], 1809-1896 :[George Augustus Selwyn. ca 1841]. Ref: C-162-003. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23215577

Richmond, George, 1809-1896. [Richmond, George], 1809-1896 :[George Augustus Selwyn. ca 1841]. Ref: C-162-003. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23215577

This absolutely stunning portrait of Selwyn was painted that same year, by English artist and cricket enthusiast George Richmond.  The Archbishop of Canterbury consecrated Selwyn as the first bishop of New Zealand at Lambeth Palace Chapel on 17 October 1841, and in December he embarked on the long voyage to his new home on the far side of the world.

The 1841 portrait of Selwyn was sold in 2010 by one of his descendants through an auction house in the U.K. and was purchased by the Alexander Turnbull Library.  Another portrait of Selwyn was painted by Richmond in 1855, and can be seen at Selwyn Coilege at the University of Cambridge.  George Augustus had studied at Cambridge and even competed in the inaugural Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race at Henley on Thames.

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Xmas 2015

At risk of being compared to one of those UK TV shows that produces only a handful of episodes throughout the year, yet comes back to life with a one-off festive special, History Geek wishes you all a very merry Christmas and a happy new year.

As you may have guessed by my absence it has a been an extremely busy year for me.  I’ve worked on a very large number of television projects (my day job), far too many to list, but one of the most fun to work on was a second series of “L.A. Frock Stars“, which looks at vintage fashion through the eyes of Doris Raymond, owner of The Way We Wore which is frequented by Hollywood stars, stylists and costume designers.

When Doris visited our New Zealand office earlier this year she was kind enough to bring me some gifts that she had found during her travels; a bag of vintage buttonhooks and this beautiful 1919 Christmas Card from ‘The Regiment of Midshipmen’.

The ‘Regiment of Midshipmen’ was the name given to the students of the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.  Some of the students in 1919 may have felt disappointed that they didn’t have the opportunity to see active service immediately – as some in the preceding years had – but many would rise through the ranks and play key roles during the Second World War.

Doris has an incredible talent for finding beautiful vintage treasures and connecting them with the right person, and this card is no exception – it is absolutely stunning and a great addition to my collection – so thank you again!  I was floored at how thoughtful this gift was.

A big thank you also to my followers, especially to those that have remained loyal despite the small number of posts this year, I do have some good news on that front – I’ve got several research projects in the works and have a full week set aside for them this summer, which is a real treat, but in the meantime let me share the sentiments of the 1919 ‘Regiment of Midshipmen’ by sending you all Christmas Greetings and Sincere Good Wishes for the Coming Year.

Gallipoli: Tom’s Story

This post is dedicated to the memory of my great great uncle Thomas Alexander Gillanders, who was killed in action one hundred years ago today, and to those who fought alongside him at Gallipoli.

Tom was a native of Inverness and the eldest of eleven children. He was a much-loved brother of my great-grandmother who fondly recalled the time he took her on a trip to Edinburgh when she was thirteen years old. He had recently spent some time working on a farm owned by cousins in Winnipeg but had returned announcing that he did not want to face another Canadian winter and had decided to try New Zealand. His father decided that the whole family would emigrate, as the other sons would likely follow Tom eventually anyway.

Thomas Alexander Gillanders (8 April 1881 - 25 April 1915)

Thomas Alexander Gillanders (8 April 1881 – 25 April 1915)

The family left for New Zealand in 1908 and in 1910 they bought land near Te Kuiti, in the Waikato, where they lived in tents while building a house and clearing land for a farm.

My great-grandmother was training to be a schoolteacher near Auckland when war was declared in August 1914 and soon after she heard that Tom had enlisted with the 16th Waikato Company, Auckland Battalion. The story passed down through my family is that at the age of 33 he had joined up to look out for the younger boys from the district. A number of others from Te Kuiti would serve alongside him at Gallipoli.

My great-grandmother enjoyed catching up with Tom while he was stationed in Auckland and later wrote down details of this precious time she spent with him.

“Tom came to Auckland with the 16th Waikato regiment stationed at what is now Epsom show grounds, before Greenlane Hospital was thought of. Tom would send telegram to me, “Meet me post office tonight”. We would go to tea in tea rooms, have a trip across ferry to Devonport and talk together.

One Saturday I went out to the camp and saw his tent and had cup of tea in it, then came the parade in Domain before embarkation. The day before I had my last telegram to meet him. We had tea together, then he swung himself on to back of tram after saying “Goodbye Kath, see you when I come back again”. Mrs. Hardy came with me to big parade, we stood near fence as soldiers marched past and Tom was looking sternly ahead, then suddenly turned his head and saw me and smiled, such a smile!”

Tom wrote a letter to his mother while the troop ship was anchored in the stream, waiting for the long voyage to begin. Carpenters and plumbers were frantically at work installing ventilators and electric fans, as well as framework for a giant awning over the exercise deck to shield the men from the worst of the heat in the tropics. The previous day Tom had been stabbed in the left side of his stomach with a needle to inoculate him against typhoid fever, the doctor breaking the needle in the process.

“The pilot has come aboard and we are getting ready to start – I have come below to finish this note. All the effects of the inoculation have worked off but I guess some of us will have had another kind of sickness before this time tomorrow but Mother I will now conclude with last love to everyone and remember me to the Waiteti neighbours. Au revoir and God bless you.”

The men were expecting to head for Europe but instead disembarked at Alexandria, Egypt. Tom wrote to his mother on 18 December 1914 from Heliopolis:

“Owing to the Turkish trouble we were landed at Alexandria instead of going home and our camp is about eight miles north of Cairo with which we are connected by rail and also tramcar about a mile from the camp.”

He also described his journey through the Suez Canal.

“We did not see much of the Suez Canal coming through as we came through at night but as it is all sand on both sides we did not miss much. The only thing of interest was in passing the camps of Indian troops who are stationed all along the canal to protect it from raids from the Turks and Arabs and there has been some slight skirmishing around about there. All the ships had search lights fitted on their bows going through the canal and that lit up the camps as we passed. All the troops turned out as we passed. At one camp a Pipe band turned out belonging to an Indian Batt. and they could play the Pipes as well as any Scotsman.”

Once in Egypt the New Zealanders set up camp and continued their training, this time in the desert. Tom wrote about how cold it was sometimes at night when sleeping rough during exercises and how his boots were struggling to hold together after so much training in the sand. He must’ve made a good impression on his superiors as while in Egypt he was promoted to Lance Corporal. Continue reading

A Short History of Whale Strandings in New Zealand

At the top of the South Island a sandspit stretches out with the wild Tasman Sea on one side and kilometres of mud flats on the other.  This is Farewell Spit, New Zealand’s most notorious “whale trap”.  It acts as a formidable obstacle for pilot whales, which frequently strand there in large numbers.  On Friday a pod of up to two hundred stranded there – volunteers worked tirelessly to save as many as possible but tragically over half of them died.

A while ago I decided to spend some time looking into the history of whale strandings and how New Zealanders have responded to them.  While researching the topic I stumbled upon the unexpected and remarkable story of an albino whale that washed ashore a century ago.

Farewell Spit © Lemuel Lyes

Farewell Spit
© Lemuel Lyes

Farewell Spit is a special place for me.  Over the years I’ve enjoyed many vacations near the base of the spit in my family’s much loved holiday home at the nearby former-coal mining town of Puponga.  My family have been regular visitors to the area for over fifteen years yet have never witnessed a mass stranding, in fact we sometimes joke that perhaps our presence acts as a good luck charm and that the Department of Conservation should pay for us to stay there permanently.  My parents recently enjoyed a holiday up there and continued the tradition by leaving a matter of hours before the most recent stranding.

The unfortunate reality is that whales have always stranded at Farewell Spit and likely always will, however, one thing that has changed is how people respond to them.

Inside of Farewell Spit, where pilot whales frequently strand © Lemuel Lyes 2014

Inside of Farewell Spit, taken only a few days before this stranding
© Lemuel Lyes 2014

The sand spit we see today started forming at the end of the last ice age, and is the most recent of a series of spits that stretched towards, and on at least one occasion even reached, the North Island.  Fossil bones in nearby cliffs suggest that whales may have come to grief in this area even earlier, perhaps before there was even a spit, and perhaps before they were even considered to be whales.  Last year scientists from Otago University announced the identification of a fossil found in the Farewell Spit area as a previously unknown dolphin, a possible relative of the ancestors of modern dolphins and whales.  This is a place that seems to have had a long, fascinating and sometimes unfortunate connection with marine mammals.

Thousands of years ago when pods of whales stranded on Farewell Spit there were no people to help or hinder them.  Some of the whales likely refloated at high tide on their own but many became a banquet for gulls.  The spit is still a Mecca for many different species of seabirds.

The first human settlers arrived in the area around 700 years ago and plenty of evidence of their occupation is still visible.  Middens stretch for kilometres along the coastline, the remains of a fortified Pa overlooks the spit from Abel Head and blackened oven stones can be seen right next to where whales still strand today.  Early Māori likely considered such whale strandings to be a gift from Tangaroa, the god of the sea.  Every part of the whales would have been used; the meat eaten; the bones and teeth worked into tools, weapons and adornments; and the oil harvested – perhaps to be used in the manufacturing of paints or cosmetics.

It is hard to imagine what a monumental occasion these strandings must have been for those early communities, and it seems likely that each tribe would have developed customs, protocol and traditions around the arrival of these gifts from the sea.

[Taylor, Richard], 1805-1873 :A dead whale (humpback fish) at Tohora nui with Tareha - about 100 natives assembled to eat it. Length 33 ft. July 5th 1841. Rorqualis antarctica. Cuvier.. Taylor, Richard, 1805-1873 :Sketchbook. 1835-1860.. Ref: E-296-q-025-1. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22867961

[Taylor, Richard], 1805-1873 :A dead whale (humpback fish) at Tohora nui with Tareha – about 100 natives assembled to eat it. Length 33 ft. July 5th 1841. Rorqualis antarctica. Cuvier.. Taylor, Richard, 1805-1873 :Sketchbook. 1835-1860.. Ref: E-296-q-025-1. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22867961

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2015 Historical Anniversaries

A belated Happy New Year!  As some of you may have noticed, unfortunately all has been quiet on the ‘History Geek’ front for a while now, partly due to the demands of having a glamorous job in television and partly because much of my research time has been hijacked by a rather unique shipwreck.  More on that another time.  The important thing is that I’m back and have an exciting series of posts planned for the very near future.

This year is a big one for historical anniversaries – so big in fact that there are far too many to list – but here are some of the ones I’ll be keeping an eye out for.  Some are domestic and some are international.  Some are well-known and will be marked with large commemorations, while others are likely to pass with little recognition.


100 Years ago – ANZAC troops took part in the Allied invasion of Gallipoli.  The centenary of this bloody campaign will be at the core of the continued commemorations of New Zealand’s role in the First World War.  Check out the Ministry of Culture and Heritage’s WW100 site for details on commemorative events you can attend or take part in.

Card sent by New Zealand engineer in Samoa wishing the recipient a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.  1915 Would be a tragic year for many New Zealanders. Lemuel Lyes Collection

Card sent by a New Zealand railway engineer in Samoa wishing the recipient a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. 1915 Would be a tragic year for many New Zealand families.
Lemuel Lyes Collection

150 Years ago – The Second Taranaki War continued and conflict also erupted on the East Coast after the murder of missionary Karl Völkner.  I’ve previously voiced my disappointment at the lack of national media attention given to key anniversaries of this important chapter in New Zealand’s history and don’t have high hopes that this year will be any different.

Williams, Edward Arthur (Colonel), 1824-1898. Williams, Edward Arthur 1824-1898 :Picket at Nukamuru 30 Jan[uar]y [18]65. Ref: A-210-019. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23092286

Williams, Edward Arthur (Colonel), 1824-1898. Williams, Edward Arthur 1824-1898 :Picket at Nukamuru 30 Jan[uar]y [18]65. Ref: A-210-019. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23092286

150 Years ago – The paddle-steamer City of Dunedin disappeared during a voyage from Wellington to Nelson.  It was on the way to Hokitika (where increasing quantities of gold were being discovered).

In another maritime tragedy off the New Zealand coast, the Fiery Star went up in flames and was abandoned by the Captain and most of the passengers.  As there wasn’t enough room for everyone in the ship’s boats a handful of selfless crew volunteered to stay behind.  Miraculously, they were rescued shortly before the Fiery Star sank, however, none of those who took to the boats were ever seen again.

175 Years ago – On 6 February 1840 the Treaty of Waitangi was signed.  European settlement of the country also began in earnest in several regions.  Auckland recently celebrated its 175th anniversary and if you can make it to Akaroa in October you can join in their commemorations as well.

King, Marcus, 1891-1983. King, Marcus, 1891-1983 :[The signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, February 6th, 1840]. 1938.. Ref: G-821-2. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22308135

King, Marcus, 1891-1983. King, Marcus, 1891-1983 :[The signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, February 6th, 1840]. 1938.. Ref: G-821-2. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22308135

200 Years ago – Thomas Holloway King became the first European child to be born in New Zealand.  His christening gown survives to this day and is on display at Te Waitmate Mission. Continue reading