1914: Fairfield Freezing Works Fancy Dress Ball

One hundred years ago today the Fairfield Freezing Works held a fancy dress ball in the Orange Hall in Ashburton. The men paid three shillings and sixpence each and the women provided the food. They were entertained by the tunes of Terris’s band, local favourites who played everything from waltzes and quadrilles to barn dances. It was an innocent scene and a fairly unremarkable one in a rural New Zealand town, but unknown to those on the dance floor their lives were soon to change forever. Two days earlier, on the other side of the world, an Archduke had been assassinated and the countdown to war had begun.

New Zealand dance cards and ball invitations are one of my much-loved ephemera collections. I started collecting them at stamp fairs and today find them in antique stores, second-hand bookshops and on Internet auction sites. What interests me is the story hiding behind each one.

30 June 1914 Fairfield Freezing Works Dance Card Lemuel Lyes Collection

30 June 1914 Fairfield Freezing Works Dance Card
Lemuel Lyes Collection

Dance cards will often have the details of the dance on the front, and in the centre will have a list of the dances to be held that evening with a space next to each where an attendee would write the names of suitors. There would often be a small pencil attached to the card by string – although the pencils are usually missing from surviving examples.  Presumably long since pinched for use on shopping lists.

Inside of dance card Lemuel Lyes Collection

Inside of dance card
Lemuel Lyes Collection

I have to confess that cards like this one make me a little bit sad. It is common to find cards that haven’t been filled at all, and one can presume that the invitee was too busy to attend or that the card was a spare that was leftover. However, this example has just one dance filled in – resembling what I presume a dance card would look like if yours truly ever ventured to such social occasions.

The Fairfield Freezing works opened in March 1899 and was an important addition to the local industry in Ashburton, a small town on the Canterbury plains. As a child I lived not too far north from there and I remember the shingle back roads and hot dry summers fondly. Like many rural settlements in New Zealand, Ashburton continues to support the local farmers and agricultural industry – fulfilling the same role that it did a century ago. There may be more tractors than horses now but this is still a land of A&P shows, sheep, cattle and still some of the stereotypical stoic ‘she’ll be right’ attitude.

Cooling Room, Fairfield Freezing Works The Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Canterbury Provincial District] 1902 The New Zealand Electronic Text Collection

Cooling Room, Fairfield Freezing Works
The Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Canterbury Provincial District] 1902
The New Zealand Electronic Text Collection

On 26 June 1914 an advertisement for the upcoming ball was placed in the local paper.  As with many such events the gentlemen were expected to pay an entrance fee and the women were expected to bring along something to eat.

Ashburton Guardian, Volume XXXIII, Issue 8874, 26 June 1914, Page 1

Ashburton Guardian, Volume XXXIII, Issue 8874, 26 June 1914, Page 1

The day before the much-awaited fancy dress ball was held some disturbing news arrived from the other side of the world.  Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg had been assassinated on 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo.

Ashburton Guardian, Volume XXXIII, Issue 8876, 29 June 1914, Page 5

Ashburton Guardian, Volume XXXIII, Issue 8876, 29 June 1914, Page 5

On the previous page in that paper you can see another reminder of the upcoming fancy dress ball.

Ashburton Guardian, Volume XXXIII, Issue 8876, 29 June 1914, Page 4

Ashburton Guardian, Volume XXXIII, Issue 8876, 29 June 1914, Page 4

I wonder how many of the locals read the news that morning before returning to work on their fancy dress costume, or if perhaps the assassination was discussed between dances that evening. However, it seems unlikely that anyone at the ball that night could have had any idea of just how large an impact that event on the other side of the world would have on their own community. The Ashburton Guardian reported on the ball the next day:

Ashburton Guardian , Issue 8878, 1 July 1914, Page 5

Ashburton Guardian , Issue 8878, 1 July 1914, Page 5

The detail of the ‘”flags of all nations” hanging from the ceiling seems especially poignant. In little over five weeks Britain, and by default, New Zealand would be at war and young men from around the country would rush to enlist and fight. The nations of the world would soon be divided into “us”, “them” and “undecided”.

Statistically it seems likely that many of those young men who had stumbled through the quadrilles and waltzes at the Orange Hall on 30 June 1914 would have fought and fallen in foreign fields. For many of the women who were there that night, the ball could well have been one of their last fond memories of life before the war changed everything and whisked loved ones away, some never to return.

The dance card remains as an innocent snapshot of a rural social scene one hundred years ago, of a community as it was just before it became caught up in a war on the other side of the world.

© Lemuel Lyes

25 replies »

  1. Fantastic post Lemuel. I love the way you have tied your collection, the place, local event and the world events into a great story. Now I want you to find someone who has photos of the ball. I’d love to see some of the costumes.

      • Anything is possible, but I’d suspect the odds aren’t great for an event that early – which is a shame as I’d really love to see what it looked like!

    • Glad you enjoyed it! The context of the time and place are, to me, what brings these sorts of items alive. Oh wow, wouldn’t it be incredible if there were indeed surviving photographs of that occasion. I agree, there must have been some fantastic costumes!!! Unfortunately I suspect the odds of any such photos existing are slim to say the least 😦

    • Thank you! Yes, that one waltz surely must have a story behind it. Perhaps a sad story, perhaps even a happy one, we’ll never know…

    • Glad you like it! Undecided… hmmm I was thinking primarily of those nations that didn’t declare their allegiance at the outset of hostilities.

    • Thank you kind Sir! It is indeed a sad story, all the more so considering that those who attended the dance had no idea what was just around the corner.

  2. What a wonderful piece, thank you so much for sharing this with us. I found it poignant that the innocence of the ball attendees was to be shattered in such a short time, but life can be like that, can’t it.

    • Thanks for the feedback! You are very right, I find it incredible to think that the situation in Europe deteriorated so quickly that in little over five weeks a farming community on the other side of the world would find themselves at war.

      • Very true. One story I came across while digging around for this post was that of Hugo Friedlander, a former mayor of Ashburton who despite his service to the community was persecuted during the war by some locals due to his heritage and eventually moved to Auckland to get away from the public eye. Another sad story 😦

    • Of course! With the upcoming centenary of the First World War approaching I’ll be sharing some more stories relating to the experiences of New Zealanders. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Wonderful snapshot of history – and of course, highlighting the normality of 1914, right up to the moment when the world plunged over the abyss. Nobody could have guessed, when it happened, that the Archduke’s assassination might light the powder keg. Even after the war had begun, the sentiment that it would be ‘over by Christmas’ was genuinely held. Nobody thought it might last four and a half years – and with reason; after all, they were all equipped with what – at the time – were wonder weapons. Rail moved armies and their logistic support into battle at blinding speed. Rifles shot further and faster than ever before. Of course the war would be over in a flash by comparison with the days of musket, horse and mud-filled roads. Even those who knew – from the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese war, mainly – what the infantry casualty rates would be, thought brevity was likely. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but in 1914 nobody guessed the struggle might last four and a half years.

    It would be interesting to know how many of the young men who went to the Fairfield dance went to that war – and how many were alive after it ended. The raw stats indicate about half of them would have served, on average; and of that half, 58 percent would have become casualties, 16 percent of them killed. A sobering thought. We were, at least, saved the appalling tragedy of the ‘Pals’ battalions – our guys were deliberately mixed-and-matched, in the hope of averting multiple losses for families.

    • What gets me is how quickly the situation deteriorated to war. The clouds of war had of course been looming for a while but it didn’t take long for things to really heat up after the assassination.

      I’d love to find out more about who attended the ball, and what happened to them. I did begin to look into it and found a few former employees of the Fairfield Freezing Works on casualty lists, including at least one during the Gallipoli campaign. It would be an interesting exercise to see if a list of employees in 1914 survives. I’d also be curious to see how many served in the Mounted Rifles compared to infantry, how many enlisted at the outbreak of war and how many followed later. I might have a look around and see what I can find.

      • Sounds extremely interesting – let me know how you go.

        I’ve got a blog post coming up on the way WWI exploded into life – definitely something unexpected even a fortnight earlier, though the Austro-Hungarian-Serbian crisis was in full swing.

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