History - The Custodian

The Custodian/Manager

The Custodian/Manager

The custodian's job was demanding, physically and mentally and appears to have taken up all hours of day and night, even though normal hours of work were 40 hours a week. A 1956 job description in Wanganui City Council records notes that preferred custodians had experience in stage work, and switchboard operation, and could maintain both motor and gas generator plants. It was their duty to maintain all parts of the building, furnishings, scenery and equipment in a clean and serviceable condition to the satisfaction of the council's officer appointed to oversee the work. They also had to clean the entrance, stairways, offices, auditorium, stage, annex, dressing rooms and all lavatories after each performance, ensure no hirer damages the theatre or properties, set up and dismantle scenery and anything else of the council's needed for any performance, read electricity and gas meters before and after each hiring, be in attendance at all performances, post bills (a separate contract), and be paid 12 pounds a week, a cost of living bonus of 13% (one pound eleven shillings and two pence maximum). The custodian would also be paid an extra one pound ten shillings (1/8 of the weekly income) as a compensation for additional hours worked, live rent-free in the flat - suitable only for a married couple without children - and also be granted œan extra week's annual leave, making three weeks in all, on full wages after each completed year of service. He had to join the appropriate union, was allowed to join the council's superannuation scheme, and could be employed by the council  on other duties when the theatre is not engaged. From the Council's Conditions of Employment - 1956


Opera House Custodians


Since it's opening, the Opera House has had ten manager/custodians, an average of one every 12 years, with the first female manager being appointed in 2017. 

Previous managers' wives, and sometimes their children, have been highly involved, assisting with front of house, ushering, cleaning and organising staff rosters. In the early years of the century available information is unclear as to the exact nature of the position, whether a custodian and a manager worked together to run the Opera House, or whether today's managerial role was, in those days, mostly custodial. It appears likely though, that the manager was not only involved in cleaning the building, but in front of house, back stage and lighting activities. When the Opera House was revamped to function also as a movie theatre, the manager/custodian sometimes took on the role of projectionist. All appear to have had a background or interest in theatre, some as actors, others as talented stage set painters and designers. When the Opera House was developed as a picture theatre, Lacey Smith was appointed to manage the picture theatre while Arthur Gaskin continued as Opera House custodian and managed any live performances. As closely as can be determined the custodian/managers were:

1899 - 1901 Mr Charles Voss
1901 - 1903  Mr Josiah Oswald Priestley  (dismissed for embezzlement of  Opera House funds)
1903 - 1914  Mr Thomas Watson Ferry
1914 - 1941 Mr Arthur Gaskin
1920 -1929  Mr Lacey W Smith (Municipal Picture Theatre manager)
1942  - 1956 Mr Frank Sayring
1956 - 1978 Mr George Hoskin
1978 - 1988 Mr Don Moreland
1988 - 2016 Mr John Richardson
2017 -        Ms Natasha Parker





 Charles Voss 1899-1901

"Mr Voss is not only a sterling actor of repute, combining with histrionic ability a thorough knowledge of stage business, but he also understands the practical part of the profession, which ensures success from before and behind the footlights. His stage experience in the colonies extends over 27 years and besides many flattering notices for the many parts played, he has also received high encomiums for the effective scenery painting, and for the working of what is known among the profession as the front of house - that is, the treasury." (Yeoman, 1/7/1898)

High praise indeed for the first manager and custodian of the Wanganui Opera House. He was one of eight local applicants for the position and was paid 26 pounds a year plus 5% of the gross takings. It is likely he took up the position in january, 1900, just before the opera was officially opened. He was a "proud man" at the opening where it is recorded that "Manager Voss fairly beamned upon anyone who came within range of his fatal smile." (WC 10/2/1900)

By May, the council agreed to pay him 10% of the gross takings. However, in November, Mr Voss was granted leave of absence for six months "on account of his and his wife's health". Eight months later, on 8 July, 1901 that leave was expended for three or so months until 29 October, 1901 when Mr Voss resigned.

 Josiah Priestley 1901-1903

Mr Josiah Oswald Priestley was appointed as temporary caretaker and cleaner on July, 1901 and became full time custodian in October. He too was paid 26 pounds a year, but started on 7.5% of the gross takings. His duties included caretaking, cleaning, sleeping on the premises and managing about 20 advertising billboards placed around the city outside pubs, hotels, railway stations, the racecourse, the brewery and other places where people gathred. On 27 may, 1902 his shgare of the takings was boosted to 10%. This needed to be a significant amount, given that the town clerk's salary was 275 pounds a year and his office boy, 14 year old H Robinson, received 26 pounds a year.

But in 1903, mr Priestly was accused of embezzlement of Opera House funds during the previous year. Newspapers of the day reported the shock of the town council when councillors learned of the embezzlement. The matter came to the council's attention when a local business, Tingeys, asked where their payment for allowing hoardings on their building was. The council inquired and the dreadful deed was made public when the newspaper reported an Opera House committee meeting where "the Town Clerk (James Purnell) reported several irregularities in connection with the accounts of the billboard reserves. Mr Priestly was in attendance and made "certain admissions" which were afterwards put in writing...... Your committee authorised the instant dismissal of Mr Priestley. The Town Clerk was directed to make temporary provision for a custodian for the Opera House, pending a permanent appointment.".

The Town Clerk was also directed to lay charges against Mr Priestley. Mr Priestley was later committed for trial on five counts of embezzlement. He had signed a document confessing to taking Opera House funds and billboard money. by Ocober that year more money was shown as missing. "Serious embesslement of Opera House monies, extending over a considerable period. During the last financial year (to 31/3/1902) over one third of the takings (221 pounds) were unaccounted for/ The Opera House showed a profit of 166 pounds but it should have showed a profit of 400 pounds.". Court records suggest that 260 pounds had been taken over 16 months.

Mr Priestley was found guilty and sentenced on 20 August, 1903 to 12 months imprisonment with hard labour, to be concurrent with previous sentences. That day his counsel, Mr Treadwell, "would not deny that some of the missing money had been spent gambling which had led to his undoing. He also urged in extenuation... that the prisoner had been underpaid by the Borough Council.... and asked for as lenient a sentence as posible.".

Criticising the watch that had been kept on the cusodian's management of funds, the Mayor growled that "a simple chack, such that any school boy would have applied, was available.". "The Mayor and Opera House committee are naturally astounded, as they had the town clerk's assurance that nothing was wrong and that he gave the Opera House finances his special and personal attention.".

Worse was to come, at least for the town clerk, James Purnell. He had provided "faithfull service for twenty-six and a half years" and resigned in may, was granted leave of absence and immediatley appointed as temporary town clerk, borough valuer and returning officer. His resignation was 'accepted with regret in July, 1903 (still with leave of absence applying). By August his leave of absence had been cancelled and he was dismissed, apparently due to his lack of supervision of the Opera House, this despite pleas that he had had difficulties in supervising the Opera House accounts, had been "ill, overworked, had requested asistance and received nothing until an ofice boy a few months ago.".

Tom Ferry 1903-1914

"For the best part of half a century Mr Ferry shared the ups and downs of the community and throughout played his part as a good and worthy citizen". (WC Obituary 31/7/1914)

Born at  Camberwell, England in 1855, 11 year old Thomas Wayson Ferry sailed for New York then Sydney with his family. He arrived in Wanganui in 1866. For 12 years "occupied the responsible position of foreman of the Chronicle printing and publishing department". He gave that up to become 'mine host' of the Occidental Hotel on the cnr of Drews Ave and Rytland St; ran a tobacconist shop and somewhere between 1903 and 1907 became custodian, probably live-in, of the Wanganui Municipal Opera House. Known as "a clever and enthusiastic amateur". Mr Ferry was "in close tpounch with the theatrical affairs of his day" and was familiar to Wanganui people both on stage and as "a promoter of popular entertainment".

His obituary notes that "in his later years, and until comparatively recently, mr Ferry found congenial occupation as custodian of the Muicipal Opera House, an appointment which kept him in touch with the modern developments of a profession for which he always entertained a kindly and sympathetic regard".


The Opera House Flat

Located on the fly floor at the rear of the theatre, the flat contained two bedrooms, a living room, and a scullery. Cold and rather dark, it opened onto the sandhill behind, was reached internally only by a narrow flight of stairs, or outside from a landing at the back.

In 1917 the council decided it was time to put a bath in the caretaker's quarters, and sought a quote for that and for putting the sanitary arrangements in order. Who knows, until then they may have had to use a tin bath for bathing, and a long drop out the back may have been the lavatory. Unlikely, though as other lavatory pans and cisterns have been in place a long time.

In 1943 the council's chief sanitary inspector reported that these quarters are situated on the top portion of the building at the back. Under these circumstances the place is not suitable as a residence for the present caretaker as there are six children and two adults, the youngest child, a baby two years old and the oldest a girl 17 years of age. The family consists of mother and father, three girls and three boys, the oldest boy being 15 years of age. The sanitary conveniences consist of a w.c., sink and a very unsatisfactory bathroom at the end of a passage way. The place could be made convenient for a married couple only. There is also the question of space and suitability for children. So the custodian lived elsewhere and was, possibly, paid a house allowance.

Exerpt taken from "A Grand Victorian Lady" by Penny Robinson