On the Great War Memorial

The highly respected Robert Galbraith was Ashburton mayor from 1915-1931. It was his misfortune to be the sitting mayor during and after The Great War.

His story is linked to how the War Memorial in Baring Square came about. It is a classic story of debate, intrigue, politics, delay and money.

Letters to the Editor, published in the Ashburton Guardian on April 22, 1922 and May 22, 1920, indicate the depth of feeling about the need to do something to honour soldiers who served, and also show the views of the returned soldiers themselves.

1. Returned soldiers view of War Memorial.png

The decisions

The War Memorial we have today was the final decision following a much earlier agreement for Ashburton people to contribute to a Memorial Road from Auckland to Bluff.

In June 1919, the idea of building a Memorial hall in Ashburton (which the returned soldiers and many others were not in favour of) was, by the end of September 1919, roundly defeated. This, despite an offer of £1000 by Max Friedlander to get the project started.

Deputy Mayor and philanthropist FZD Ferriman put up £300 for a statuary in opposition to the Memorial hall.

In a public meeting at the Borough Council chambers the vote for a statuary memorial was 24 and that for a Memorial hall was 14. A symbolic reminder of perceived permanency thus won over utilitarianism.

2. A citizens view of the need for a War Memorial.png


On February 25, 1919, the Ashburton Guardian reported that Mayor Galbraith had suggested a town hall, “might be erected to contain a museum to house soldiers’ exhibits etc”. He later rescinded his idea due to the cost and because the Ashburton County people were unwilling to join the Borough. A clear conflict between town and country.

Much was written about the pros and cons of a memorial hall versus a statuary. The statuary proposal was upheld at a meeting on October 10, 1919. Parallels with decision making processes for many of today’s local and national projects are very clear.

Building a memorial was, and is, a major social issue as well as financial and utilitarian ones. Especially at a time when families were decimated by war and disease.

It wasn’t until June 4, 1928 (King George V’s birthday) that the present memorial was unveiled. After 10 years of discussion and debate, Robert Galbraith was still the Mayor!

Interestingly, the invitation to attend the opening ceremony found its way into the Borough Council Minutes the day after the ceremony, the same day a full description of the unveiling was published in The Press.

3. Junction between the Hawkesbury sandstone and the Timaru basalt..jpg

The materials

Once a decision was finally made for a statuary-style memorial, design and materials had to be decided.

In 1927, a design competition resulted in the selection of a 15 metre high square obelisk on a 6 metre square base.

It was made with a reinforced concrete inner core, and faced with slabs of Hawkesbury sandstone. The lower platform and base use slabs of 2.5 million year old Timaru basalt (bluestone).

The quartz rich Hawkesbury sandstone was imported from Australia, possibly from one of the several Saunders quarries at Pyrmont, Sydney. The sandstone is a Triassic, about 225 million year old, braided river deposited quartz sediment from the erosion of the mountains of Antarctica.

The reddish colour seen today is weathering of iron compounds in the sand.

Across the Square, the older Grigg statue is also sculpted from Hawkesbury sandstone but set on a plinth of Port Chalmers, Dunedin basalt.

It could equally have been made of local Charteris Bay sandstone or Halswell Quarry basalt – perhaps the similarly aged greywacke sandstones of our own high country were not colourful enough to use? Or was the ANZAC connection more important?

4. The marble honour ornament facing West Street..jpg

The design

The choice of style and design is also one of intrigue. From 28 designs from all over the country, the square obelisk was won by competition.

It was designed by Messrs. Turnbull and Rule of Timaru, and cost about £4500 or $395,000 in today’s dollars.

James S Turnbull and Percy Watts Rule were well-known architects in Timaru.

Rule become the chief architect so most likely designed the obelisk. He also designed the Timaru Boys High School Memorial Library, built in 1924.

Ornamentation near the tops of each side of the obelisk display laurel wreaths. Other ornaments include oak leaves, torches and fern leaves.

5. The War Memorial looking East..jpg

The symbolism

An obelisk is an Egyptian symbol for the Sun god Ra who held the power to recreate so represents eternal life, health, and procreation.

Laurel wreaths symbolise lives lost with victory and honour. Torches are Greek symbols of life and truth. An inverted torch represents loss of life.

An oak symbolises stability, strength, honour, eternity and endurance, and the fern represents New Zealand.

There are also other decorations, such as tessellations, probably just for effect rather than symbolism.

The only other rock type seen on the obelisk is marble, probably from Carrera in Italy. It is used for the Roll of Honour facing West Street. This also has the older coat of arms for mid Canterbury, along with fern fronds sculpted into the edges of Hawkesbury sandstone. The decisions, indecisions, materials, design and symbolism all contribute to the memorial we are familiar with today. Hopefully, your next look at the War Memorial will never be quite the same.


By Glenn Vallender



  1. A returned soldiers view of the need for a War Memorial.
  2. A citizens view of the need for a War Memorial.
  3. Junction between the Hawkesbury sandstone and the Timaru basalt..
  4. The marble honour ornament facing West Street.
  5. The War Memorial looking East.







Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: