2021 Historical Anniversaries

Giant eagles, fried chicken, space weather, radio broadcasts and Victorian kitty cats. At the start of each year I like to have a look at what historical anniversaries are coming up. It’s a way for me to put our annual whirl around the sun in context – remembering who and what has gone before, of where we have come from and ways we can learn from the past as we hurtle forward into the unknown. I’m a little late this year due to other commitments, but better late than never! As usual, I’ve included a list of local New Zealand anniversaries as well as international ones, with a mix of some important and notable ones as well as others from slightly left field which might have otherwise gone unnoticed.


10 Years Ago – The Covid-19 pandemic has been an extremely challenging crisis, causing grief and economic hardship for many and major disruption and uncertainty for nearly everyone else. In March 2020, for only the second time in New Zealand’s history, a state of national emergency was declared, the first time was in response to the devastating earthquake that struck Christchurch at 12:51 pm on 22 February 2011.

The ruins of ChristChurch Cathedral in 2013, two years after the quake. © Lemuel Lyes

The tenth anniversary of the earthquake will be commemorated with a civic memorial service at the Oi Manawa Canterbury National Earthquake Memorial, and with a free concert ‘Ōtautahi Together’ featuring Bic Runga. Prominent buildings will be lit up white in remembrance. It will be a time to pay our respects to those who were lost and those who were left behind, to the city that was changed forever, the heritage that crumbled into dust and we particularly think of those in the community who might be struggling at the moment. It’s been a stressful decade for many, especially for those who lost their livelihoods during the earthquake and are now facing uncertainty or economic hardship again. Look out for each other.

50 Years Ago – Hundreds of years after the extinction of the succulent moa, another finger-lickin’ feed arrives. An American invasion was underway with Colonel Sanders in command of the first wave, armed with his secret blend of eleven herbs and spices. That’s right, this year we celebrate fifty years since New Zealand’s first Kentucky Fried Chicken store opened at Royal Oak, Auckland.

The big day came on Friday 20 August 1971, with free balloons, a performance by the Southern Bend Blue Grass Band, and fancy candy-striped ‘carry away’ packaging. This was a particularly notable moment in our history as Kentucky Fried Chicken was the first of the big three American fast food companies to arrive on New Zealand’s shores; Pizza Hut followed in 1974 and McDonalds in 1976. All three rode the wave of post-war consumerism and capitalized on the novelty that the American cuisine and its fanfare brought to Kiwi minds and mouths. Within a few years they expanded rapidly across the country – by 1980 there were 37 Kentucky Fried Chicken stores, 10 Pizza Hut restaurants and 8 McDonald’s stores. The invasion was successful, although the local ‘fush n chups’ takeaway stores managed to survive the onslaught.

Seated man wearing glasses and KFC uniform shirt and bow tie. A gold badge in the shape of the head of Colonel Sanders is pinned to his tie, indicating his role as a store manager. New Plymouth, New Zealand, 8 December 1977. Swainson/Woods Collection, Puke Ariki

While searching for the most appropriate image to mark this special occasion I stumbled across this absolute gem of a portrait in the Puke Ariki collection – thanks to them for granting me permission to share it. It was taken in New Plymouth just six years after the opening of the Royal Oak store. I can’t think of any other photo that better illustrates the 1970s Kiwi-Kentucky mashup. The identity of the gentleman is unknown, and I’m not completely convinced that he isn’t a character from a Taika Waititi film. If you know who this is, please get in touch. In fact, I’d love to hear from anyone who worked at any Kentucky Fried Chicken store in New Zealand during the 1970s.

Surprisingly, this important historical anniversary isn’t on the official Ministry for Culture and Heritage list of national commemorations, even though they made room for the 25th anniversary of the first MMP election…yawn. Despite the lack of any state-sanctioned commemorations I’m willing to bet that the marketing team at KFC will be working on some promotions for their birthday bash – I’ll try to stay abreast of any updates. In case you were wondering, the Royal Oak site of the New Zealand’s first Kentucky Fried Chicken store is now a Chinese restaurant.

100 Years Ago – On 17 November 1921, a physics professor at Otago University conducts an experiment that will forever change the way that New Zealanders share their music, news and stories. Professor Robert Jack was responsible for the nation’s first broadcast of a radio programme – including the popular song ‘Hello My Dearie’. “Come over, I’m all alone, that’s why I call’d you by ‘phone”. Radio amateurs Frank and Brenda Bell tune in 40 kilometers up the coast at Shag Point and use their local doctor’s telephone to give Professor Jack the exciting news that his broadcast had worked – they had tuned into the ‘long-distance concert’, although they weren’t impressed with the choice of music, “None of us were exactly pop fans”. This was the birth of New Zealand broadcasting – the big bang that led to Hauraki pirates, the Goodnight Kiwi, Thingee, Billy T. James, Shortland Street, “Lomu! Oh! Oh!”, ghost chips and the Dr. Ashley Bloomfield show.

‘Hello My Dearie’, Library of Congress

One hundred years later and Dunedin continues to be a broadcasting hub – Radio Dunedin traces their history directly back to Professor Jack, they are the fifth oldest radio station in the world and the oldest outside of the United States (beating the BBC by five weeks), and the city is also home to a television production scene that I’m fortunate to be part of – so thanks, Jack! This brilliant radio documentary was produced in 1971 to mark the 50th anniversary – including a reconstruction of the famous broadcast and interviews with some of the people who tuned in. The original transmitter that Professor Jack used for the broadcast survives at the Toitū Otago Settlers Museum. Perhaps it could be fired up again to mark the centenary? Or maybe Otago University has plans to mark the occasion? It would be great to commemorate somehow, I’ll ask around.

125 Years Ago – On 26 March 1896, sixty-five lives are lost in the Brunner mine disaster. It remains New Zealand’s worst mining tragedy. The disaster is due to be officially commemorated, but I haven’t seen any announcements yet – so watch this space. If you are planning a South Island road trip then consider visiting the site, where you’ll find a memorial to the disaster, mining relics and a historic suspension bridge, nestled among native bush. A beautiful place despite its tragic past.

150 Years Ago – The world’s largest known species of eagle was first described in scientific literature. Haast’s Eagle had a wingspan of up to three metres and formidable talons the size of tiger claws; it was the terror of the skies and the forests, destroyer of the giant moa, the ruler of the roost; well at least until man showed up, burned swathes of its South Island habitat and hunted the moa to extinction. The giant eagle vanished soon after, flying only in Māori legends that spoke of a man-eating bird, the pouākai. In 1871, remains of a specimen were excavated by Canterbury Museum from a swamp in Glenmark, North Canterbury, and were examined and described by the museum director, Julius von Haast. He named it Harpagornis moorei. The eagle had been discovered centuries earlier, but now science had caught up and given it a fancy Latin name – harpax means grappling hook and ornis means bird.

Harpagornis moorei about to crush my face, Te Papa Museum, Wellington. © Lemuel Lyes

How to best commemorate this 150th anniversary? A few suggestions – hike up into the Southern Alps or the primeval forests of Kahurangi National Park and imagine how challenging the Department of Conservation’s job would be if they had to contend with regular eagle attacks on tourists – “Kia ora koutou katoa, we have one new eagle attack to report today”, visit Canterbury Museum (one of my favourites!), or check out the excellent Haast’s eagle and giant moa display at Te Papa’s revamped Te Taiao Nature exhibit. Most importantly, decide to make 2021 your personal year of the pouākai and find something juicy to get your talons into.

175 Years Ago – I’ve missed this one as the commemorations were held a few weeks ago, but I’m going to include a shout out anyway as it’s a place that every New Zealander should visit if you have the chance to do so – Ruapekapeka was the scene of the last battle to be fought in the Northern War. It’s arguably the best preserved battlefield in New Zealand – with striking remnants of the trenches and other defensive earthworks. It isn’t far off State Highway 1, so if you are traveling up that way then take the time to visit (late summer is a great time to visit Northland) and let the land share its stories. Also check out RNZ’s ‘NZ Wars: The Stories of Ruapekapeka‘ if you haven’t already.

Battle damaged carronade overlooking Ruapekapeka © Lemuel Lyes


20 Years Ago – It’s exhausting to think about remembering and commemorating one horrific ordeal while living through another, so I know the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks will be difficult for many of my American friends especially. Ten years ago I worked on a television documentary for an American broadcaster about the experiences of those who had survived the attacks – my job involved working with news archives and tracking down individuals who had recorded video during that awful day. Their stories didn’t end when the cameras switched off, some had to move away from New York City, unable to live near tall buildings again, some found religion, some lost religion, some were still being hounded by conspiracy theorists, but what struck me was their resilience and the way they had each found a different way forward. That’s what I’ll remember this September.

50 Years Ago – The only unsolved case of air piracy in commercial aviation history. On 24 November 1971, an unidentified man using the alias Dan Cooper, later mistakenly reported as D. B. Cooper by the media, boards Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305, a 30-minute flight on a Boeing 727 from Portland to Seattle. Once in the air he claims to have a bomb, hijacks the aircraft and demands that when they land in Seattle there should be $200 000 and four parachutes waiting for him and a fuel truck on standby.

Have you seen this man? Composite drawing of Dan Cooper. Federal Bureau of Investigation

His demands are met and the aircraft refuels and takes off for Reno, Nevada. While mid-flight, the crew in the cockpit notice a shift in air pressure and a warning light indicating that the aft airstair had been opened. When they land at Reno there is no sign of ‘Dan Cooper’. He had vanished somewhere over the State of Washington, along with the money and a parachute. In 1980, an eight-year-old boy found three packets of the ransom money buried alongside the Columbia River. None of the other bills have ever been found – despite their serial numbers being published and a reward offered to anyone who produced a bill with a matching number. In 2016, the FBI suspended their investigation and as we approach the fiftieth anniversary the case remains unsolved.

100 Years Ago – In July 1921, thirteen representatives attend the Chinese Communist Party’s inaugural national conference in Shanghai’s French Concession – among them is a young history teacher named Mao Zedong. Don’t expect that this will be the last you hear about this anniversary – to mark their centenary over one hundred works have been commissioned by the People’s Republic of China – including movies, animations, documentaries, operas and ballet performances, and presumably there will be a really big shindig with fireworks and lots of red flags.

100 Years Ago – This one falls into the ‘don’t give 2021 ideas’ category… the centenary of what is widely-considered to be the most powerful series of Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs), explosive bursts of solar wind plasma and magnetic field from the Sun, to strike Earth in at least the last century – the Great Geomagnetic Storm of 1921. Between 13 and 16 May, the intense CMEs caused havoc all over the world – frying switchboards and telegraph cables, taking out railway signalling systems and even starting fires. There were also stunning auroral displays, the southern and northern lights dancing brightly over skies where they are rarely seen.

Aurora Australis/The Southern Lights © Brad Phipps

We’ve recently been blindsided by a predictable crisis – pandemics aren’t a new or unusual thing – and I hate to say that we are at risk of ignoring this warning from history too. The Great Geomagnetic Storm of 1921 wasn’t an anomaly, there was another notable one in 1859, known as the Carrington Event and what is thought to have been an even bigger one in 1770. Throughout history these events have occurred regularly, but until our reliance on electricity and telecommunications they had little impact on our lives other than an unexpected light show. If a sizeable event happened today then it could take out electricity grids, telecommunication systems, GPS, satellites, and hopefully TikTok. Remember the supermarket queues when the pandemic first struck? Now imagine them without lighting, refrigeration, cell phones or credit cards.

How to commemorate this centenary – my recommendation is to support and share scientific research into understanding and mitigating the effects of space weather, or/and you could always start stocking up on toilet paper and practice baking sourdough over a campfire. If you live in New Zealand and don’t want to wait to see the Aurora Australis up close then check out this scenic ‘flight to the lights’ tour. It’s pretty hard to travel anywhere in the world at the moment so this could be the once in a lifetime experience you are looking for (or twice in a lifetime if we do get zapped).

150 Years Ago – On 13 July 1871, the world’s first ever competitive cat show took place at the Crystal Palace in London. At a time when cats were seen as little more than pernicious vermin killers, the idea of holding a grand cat show was quite the novelty! However, despite the haters, the Crystal Palace Cat Show attracted more than 20 thousand spectators, 150 ‘specimens’ (seated on crimson cushions, naturally), and even included a prize for the fattest cat – won by a 20lb (9kg) kitty owned by a Mr Nash.

Judging in the Ring at the Crystal Palace

The cat show was an instant hit with the now kitty-crazed Victorian public, who just couldn’t get enough of them. Four more cat shows were held later that same year, igniting a new love and appreciation for our feline overlords which has never waned. We have those trailblazing Victorians to thank for pspsps-ing their way towards the age of the internet cat meme. To celebrate, give your cat an extra treat or two this July! Or a few bags of treats if you want to give Mr Nash a run for his money.

200 Years Ago – On 5 May 1821, Napoleon Bonaparte passed away while in exile on Saint Helena. He was 51 years old. His remains were returned to his beloved France in 1840 and transferred to his final resting place at Les Invalides in 1861. Check out the ‘Napoleon 200 Campaign’ for ways to be involved in commemorating the bicentenary of his death, including online events and a virtual tour of heritage sites on Saint Helena. If you are in Paris then you can pay your respects in person.

The final resting place of Napoleon Bonaparte, at Les Invalides, Paris. © Lemuel Lyes

500 Years Ago – After a long siege, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan falls to the Spanish conquistadors and their allies. Between 100 000 to 240 000 Aztecs were killed during the bloody campaign. Afterwards the victors massacred civilians, looted the city and tortured prisoners to force them to give up their gold. Countless more lives were lost to a smallpox epidemic that followed soon after the fall of the city. Five hundred years later and Spain still refuses to give an official apology for their crimes; the Catholic Church is yet to respond to recent calls to apologize for their involvement and subsequent suppression of Aztec beliefs and culture, and refuses to return or even loan the Borgia Codex for the anniversary this year; and the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna has also refused calls to return or loan Moctezuma’s headdress.

What other anniversaries are important to you this year? Let me know in the comments below. I wish you all the very best for 2021, no matter what it brings. Due to personal circumstances I haven’t had as much time and energy for this site as I’d like – however I’m safe and well here in New Zealand, and considering myself fortunate to live in a country that has so far been spared the worst of the pandemic. I do have some exciting posts in the works though, and in the meantime I’m more active over on the History Geek Facebook page where I’m regularly sharing historical images from my personal collection. If that sounds like your sort of thing then I’d love to see you there.

© Lemuel Lyes

7 replies »

  1. I was working for Prairie Gold in Petone in 1973 when we started supplying the new KFC stores in Porirua and Naenae. I got to meet Colonel Sanders when he visited NZ and we had a lunch at the James Cook hotel in Wellington.

  2. My great grandmother’s first husband John Teward was killed in the Brunner Disaster and is interred at Silverwater in the mass grave. It was the 3 seconds that completely changed our family’s life forever. For she later remarried, and had more children with her next husband including my grandmother, Think of it like this. If he hadn’t died, I never would have been born, and you’d have nobody to make endless memes of you and Chonky.

    • A big anniversary for your family, I had forgotten you had a connection there. Hard to imagine what a cruel Chonky-meme deprived world we might otherwise be living in,

  3. As always, I look forward to seeing one of your posts being published. It is hard to find someone who loves history more than you. Thank you for these summaries and reminders, Lemuel.

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