History - Introduction


In a properly designed theatre the auditorium is one-third as large as the stage and the wings should each be as large as the stage to allow for complete set changes. Ray Hope, New Zealand Players (WC 6/2/1960)

Back in the days when journeys were made using horse and cart, on horseback or on foot, when there was no public broadcasting system, when photography was still young and magic lantern shows entertained small groups, when there was no radio nor television, the community enjoyed a wide variety of  public and private entertainments.

Public entertainments were only possible when venues were available so establishing an Opera House in Wanganui became a priority to the settlers of European descent once the city was established and peace and reasonable prosperity arrived in the district. Although citizens were accustomed to entertainments in various halls including the Oddfellows Hall and the Drill Shed, and in their clubs and private homes, they wanted more, as many held the view, noted by Braithwaite in a 1980 photographic history of New Zealand that culture was not only an adjunct to civilisation, but its essence.

Theatres in New Zealand were usually built either by hotel owners who benefited from an adjacent theatre, or, increasingly, by limited liability companies. Funds in Wanganui had been provided from neither source. A group of four men offered to put up half the share capital needed to build a theatre in about 1883 but failed to gain further support. In the early nineties the council offered land at a peppercorn rental (its own expression), and a private citizen was even prepared to give away a quarter acre town site. (John Thomson) There was a proposal to float another company in 1894, but it was now a time of depression and the money was not forthcoming. In 1897, a councillor, Mr F M Spurdle,  proposed that Queen Victoria's record reign should be commemorated by setting aside land on which the Council itself would build. The Mayor, Alexander Hatrick, supported the idea, a committee was established to investigate and the council agreed to go ahead.

The newspaper of the day, the Yeoman,  records the process. First moves were made in 1897 when in March that year the prospectus of the Wanganui Opera House company (Limited) was published in the Yeoman, with a capital of 5000 pounds. Of the 5000 one pound shares, 4000 were being offered to the public. Plans were to erect the Opera House on the site of the present Oddfellows Hall in Ridgway St. The existing leasee, Mr Tasker, was willing to transfer the lease which had five years to run. The move was noted around the country with the Lyttleton Times commending  Wanganui, this progressive borough, for its decision to build an Opera House and noting that the London County Council was debating a similar proposal on a larger scale.

It is quite true that many of the poorer people make no use whatever of the museums of art and industry but nonetheless, these institutions are of high educational value and it would be wrong of the state to deprive willing students of opportunities of acquiring knowledge or skills.The steps taken by the Wanganui municipality is therefore a wise and proper one, and well worthy of imitation.

(The Yeoman,  20/8/1898)

A little earlier the Borough Council was thought to have acted wisely on Tuesday evening in adopting the suggestion of the Opera House Committee and offering a site at a peppercorn rental for 20 years to an individual or public company that will erect an up-to-date theatre in Wanganui.

(The Yeoman, 5/2/1898)

By a substantial majority the ratepayers of Wanganui testified their  sympathy with the Mayor and Borough Councillors in their earnest desire to provide a townhall and Opera House in keeping with the importance and growing requirements of the town and our district. As the Mayor predicted, the money necessary for the construction of a building can be obtained without difficulty. (The Yeoman 20/8/1898)



 However, the process was not entirely straightforward even though the manager of the Bank of New South Wales, Mr Stedman, indicated that the bank was willing to provide the whole of  a loan necessary for building such a structure at a rate of 4 per cent. But a site still had to be chosen and that provoked some controversy. 

The Mayor and most councillors favoured St Hill St adjoining the present council chambers (Ibid) their rationale being that in event of a fire the proximity of the fire brigade would greatly minimise the chances of extensive damage by the devouring element. However, there was some conflict of opinion as to the most desirable site, other councillors urging the meeting to consider sites in Ridgway St, (even though that site would need excavating before a building could be erected), another between Wilson and St Hill Sts as it would be near to the shipping (needed for transporting cast and scenery) or the Cook's Reserve, opposite the Bowling Green.

Ratepayers became involved in the debate through letters to the Editor, with one suggesting that there be a ballot to choose the site. This would take the responsibility off the shoulders of the Mayor and Council, and the voting would indicate which site suited the convenience of the ratepayers.  Another, under the nom-de-plume, Civis,  trusted that the council would not overlook the fact that at least three fourths of the population of the town are resident in the upper portion of the town, and have a right to be considered, for those who live at a distance don't get home from business until late and it is quite a difficult matter to get home, have a meal, and tramp, say a mile and a half, (and find that you are just in time to get standing room ) to the present theatre. Civis suggested a more central site, perhaps on the corner of Victoria Ave and Ingestre St.

However, the council opted  for the St Hill St site. It was regarded by some as being too far from the shopping area, where shops could benefit from proximity to a theatre, but usefully close to railway yards and wharves for transporting of the companies, their scenery and luggage. Advantages were that a stand-alone building was safer from fire safety aspects ( fire doors could be included on the sides). Distance from a hotel was solved by placing an electric bell in the bar of the new Criterion (half a block away) so that during intervals the Stage Manager could give three minutes warning of the rise of the curtain.

The council had had Mr A. Atkins draw up plans for a competition for designs for the opera house. Terms, announced in September, 1898, noted that the successful architect would be rewarded with supervision of the job, and a commission of 5% on the total cost, with a second prize of 40 pounds and third prize of 20 pounds. The winner, Wellington architect, George Stevenson, was announced in January, 1899, one of seven, possibly nine entries. Second and third places were also being awarded to Wellington architects, W. Crichton (2nd) and J. Charlesworth (3rd).

The council wanted the price of construction kept below 3,800 pounds. If tenders were above this, they reserved the right to disqualify their winner. The 10 tenders received by March  for the Stevenson design ranged from over 4500 pounds to over 5700 pounds. While some people felt Stevenson should be disqualified, the Mayor, wished to continue, and discussed the situation with Crichton and Charlesworth, who agreed to let matters rest.

Stevenson, who was to supervise the contract, became ill in 1899. In Wellington Hospital at the time tenders were being discussed, Mr Stevenson agreed to accept a lump sum of 55 guineas for the plans and specifications but to forego his commission of some 200 pounds. The council decided to pay him another 20 guineas to act as umpire or arbitrator in any disputes that might arise between the contractor and the clerk of works. Mr Stevenson died that same July, before 13th July, the day on which the foundation stone was laid. A retired Wanganui builder, James Tawse, took over supervision free of charge. The tender of 4597 pounds was awarded to a former employee of his, Swiss-born Nicholas Meuli, who ran his own building company in Wanganui. Other tenders were: Battle, 4749 pounds; Olliver, 4757 pounds; Russell & Bignell, 4897 pounds; Johns 4995 pounds; Taylor, 5122 pounds; Hirst & Fair, 5200 pounds; W T James, 5313 pounds; Nicholson, 5535 pounds; Ritchie, 5748 pounds. The latter four were Wellington contractors.

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

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