Hawkes Bay

Greetings from Wellington

I started this post as an innocent attempt to share a beautiful vintage postcard of Wellington but somehow ended up giving myself a crash course on the introduction of electric street lighting to New Zealand cities.  It is a subject that proved to be rather illuminating…  First, here is the pretty postcard:

Lemuel Lyes Collection

I recently traveled up to Wellington and thought it would be cute if while there I sent a postcard to my readership, but in my haste to pack my bags I forgot to scan the image. So here it is now, like so many postcards arriving after the sender has returned.  It is the thought that counts though right?

It was sent in 1911 and is typical for the sort of card sent during what was the golden age of postcards.  The view of Basin Reserve includes what looks like some sort of band rotunda (which are awesome, if I had enough money then I’d seriously consider building my own rotunda).  The picture at the top is of Oriental Bay, which looks a little different in the 21st century.

I’d share the message on the back of the card but most of it is just trivial commentary about the weather and who sent who a letter when – hardly comparable to the content of the postcard I shared in my last post.  Think of those people on your Facebook or Twitter feed that bombard the universe with meaningless drivel on a daily basis, well those people also existed a hundred years ago, but fortunately for their fellow Edwardians their dribble was mostly contained to postcards like this one.

However there was one comment I found interesting…

I have just been doing some ironing, with Mothers new iron, one I bought her some time ago.  I only wish you had Electric Light in Hastings, for I would bye Mother one of irons away cause they save time.

That got me wondering about exactly when electricity became available to the different towns and cities of New Zealand.  Te Ara published this fantastic write-up on the subject.  They reveal that in 1889 Wellington became the first city in the southern-hemisphere to switch to electric street lighting.*  They also share this inspiring verse from a local poet of the time.

‘Tis done!
And where but yesterday night, the gas-lights flare
To strive for man against the murky air,
To night from lofty shapes in trappings gay,
The Empire City’s bathed in mellow day;
To night a thousand suns resplendent shine,
From Lambton’s curve to Newtown’s far confine.

The poet was William Skey.  The reviews of his works are so hilariously bad that I’m determined to track down a copy of his 1889 volume The pirate chief and the mummy’s complaint with various Zealandian poems.  If I manage to find it then I will share more of his lyrical genius with you.

Back to the electrification of New Zealand – we now know that Wellington was the first city not just in the country but the entire southern hemisphere to snuff out gas lamps in favour of electricity, but when did Hastings make the big switch?  This write up by Michael Fowler reveals the answer, it wasn’t until late 1912, over a year after the postcard was sent from Wellington.

But oh what a glorious occasion it must have been!

Poverty Bay Herald, Volume XXXIX, Issue 12898, 19 October 1912, Page 6
Sourced from Papers Past

So it seems that the postcard did indeed travel with news (albeit mundane) from the bright lights of Wellington to a recipient in a more electrically-challenged community.

After mulling the concept over I’ve decided that there is something that amuses me about the discrepancy between the electrification of different towns and cities.  I guess the closest modern-day equivalent would be the roll out of super fast broadband, but that is arguably less radical of a transformation than that of electric power.  There must have been at least a bit of jealousy between the have-watts and the have-nots.  I wonder if the recipient of this postcard might have quietly muttered to themselves “Damn those snobby Wellington sorts with their fancy electric lights”.

On a side note:  Two decades later Hastings and the rest of Hawkes Bay was rocked by New Zealand’s deadliest earthquake. I can’t help but wonder if the switch to electricity made any difference to the risk of post-earthquake fires.  A silly thing to ponder at 1am on a Wednesday morning but if anyone can answer it for me then please leave a note in the comments section below.  Now it is time to turn out the lights…

© Lemuel Lyes

*Remember that, I bet you it will be a pub quiz question one day.

7 replies »

  1. The fires in Napier ended up destroying the town because of a lack of electricity, ironically. There was always a myth that the fire spread because the water leaked away through shattered pipes. Actually the problem was that the main grid power went down, and the old gas generator system was damaged and couldn’t be started. Leaking pipes didn’t help, but the real problem was that once the reservoir on the hill had been emptied, power was not available to run the pumps to refill it – and so the brigade had to find other sources. Pictures taken of the fires in the early stages, with the brigade in attendance, show excellent water pressure. There was a formal investigation afterwards into how the fires started, and it was put down to bunsen burners in chemists’ shops.

    In Hastings, by contrast, the standby diesels from the old town power system were still operational after the quake, and the borough engineers had them running very quickly. That kept pressure up on the water main – and the brigade was able to stop the fires that broke out from spreading.

    I covered off the origins of the relevant power system in the official histories I wrote of Hastings and Havelock North. There was a good deal of civic rivalry between Hastings, Havelock and Napier, and the provision of power was to a large part was tied up on this ‘boosterism’. Havelock, with a population of just 1000, went ahead with its own hydro system.

    • Fascinating stuff! It is interesting how reliance on new technology can sometimes be an achilles heel for communities in times of crisis. New doesn’t always mean better.

      I also find the idea of regional rivalry during the ‘electrification’ period particularly interesting.

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