There is something about Edwardians that makes me smile. It doesn’t help that their world is one that is far too easy to romanticise – a world filled with pageantry, fancy hats, brass bands in rotundas, pocket watches, amusing moustaches and in Christchurch they even had a giant water chute.
It was erected as part of the ‘Wonderland’ attraction at the 1906 International Exhibition which was held in Hagley Park. Fairs and exhibitions such as this one featured the latest in technological advancements, amusement rides, cultural experiences and impressive temporary structures. They were also an opportunity to seriously show off and not unlike the Olympics of today each host city would try to out-do previous efforts.
I first learned of the giant water chute when I happened across these postcards sent by a visitor to the exhibition over one hundred years ago:
As an ephemera and vintage postcard collector it is hard to not stumble upon souvineers from the big exhibitions. Special sets of postage stamps were often sold to commemorate the occasions, then there was the glassware, ceramics, certificates, medallions and even pianos. I don’t usually go out of my way to collect postcards from New Zealand’s Exhibitions (it is a slippery slope) but the thought of a giant water chute (an even more slippery slope) in Edwardian Christchurch intrigued me.
I was determined to find out more and quickly found an ally in the kind folks at Christchurch City Libraries who have given me permission to share this fantastic series of photos showing excited Edwardians enjoying the attraction:
That last image looks suspiciously like they are invading Omaha Beach. But they aren’t. They are in Christchurch. Also world wars hadn’t been invented yet.
Next I scoured Papers Past and found this hilarious account of a politician who was seen enjoying the ride:
The Christchurch Exhibition is a place where a dignified person may retain his dignity with ease. It is just a matter of strolling slowly from court to court with a condescending smile not unmixed with a certain hauteur, as if exhibitions existed in every town and you had only dropped into this inferior one “just to fill in time.” …. The other day the LANCE was watching a camel with the hump in “Wonderland,” when in strolled the Hon. Speaker of the House of Representatives, with the light of a devil-may-care in his eye. He walked to the edge of the lake, saw that the chute boats bouncing over the surface were good things and the next seen of him was a tall black hat among a lot of girls being hauled up in the carriage that takes the public up to the top of the chute. Down came the boat with a “wharr!” and there in the bow, with his silk hat pulled over his ears and a hard, point-of-order look in his eye, was the Hon. Speaker. The boat hit the water as someone said: “Point of order!” but the boat only hurled itself over the water with enormous velocity and the point was lost to the Lancer amidst the shrieks of the girls.
Free Lance, Volume VII, Issue 334, 24th November 1906, Page 3
The Hon. Speaker referred to was Sir Arthur Guinness. Imagining this respectable character hurtling down a giant water chute puts a smile on my face.
Another even more senior dignitary spotted on the water chute was none other than the Governor General, Lord Plunket. Allegedly he was also quite the ace on the nearby toboggans.
Unfortunately all good things have to come to an end and this was true of the great exhibition. It ran for five and a half months during which it saw nearly two million people go through its gates – which is particularly impressive considering that the entire population of New Zealand at the time was only one million.
Most of the exhibition structures were dismantled or destroyed but the water chute, along with several of the other ‘Wonderland’ attractions, was purchased by an enterprising businessman and relocated to Miramar, Wellington. This fantastic blog shares some postcards showing Miramar’s ‘Wonderland’ which operated from 1907 until 1911 when unfortunately it went into liquidation. Peter Jackson’s studios are near the site where the amusement park once was.
‘Wonderland’ complete with the water chute would have yet another life when it was purchased for inclusion in Auckland’s exhibition which opened just short of one hundred years ago – on 1st December 1913. The intercity rivalry and pressure to host an even better exhibition than those previous is summed up brilliantly in the words of Mr. Bris Doyle who was tasked with supplying amusement rides for the Auckland exhibition:
“We are going to excel Christchurch exhibition, for, as you see, we have secured, in one pop, Christchurch’s greatest attraction, and it is to be only part of our show”.
So the giant water chute thrilled crowds once again, this time at the Auckland Exhibition and then again the following summer at the same site on The Domain before being sold at auction in January 1915 for the grand sum of £134. I’m not sure exactly where it ended up after that but I imagine with sons, brothers, husbands and fathers all leaving for war there was little appetite for giant water chutes anymore.
Sadly, next to nothing remains of the 1906 International Exhibition in Christchurch, all the structures are long gone, however you can still visit the site of the giant water chute and the lake where the boats once went shooting across. This photo was taken looking towards the site where the water chute stood.
Victoria Lake was drained by the September 2010 earthquake but has since been restored to its former glory. One can’t help but wonder how many silver sixpences and shillings lie buried in that mud, lost from the fists of excited Edwardians as they careered across the lake.
There are a couple of upcoming opportunities to channel the thrills of the giant water chute; if you are in Wellington then head along to the Worser Bay School’s Fair which this year has adopted a ‘Wonderland’ theme as an homage to the attraction’s time in Wellington, and if you are in Canterbury then consider heading over to Tekapo Springs which is soon to be the first place outside the United States to host the world’s largest inflatable water slide. I dare any of my readers to go down it while dressed as an Edwardian. Go on, for old times’ sake!
© Lemuel Lyes