Proper Papers, Pretty Pictures

The Ashburton Museum is home to countless documents, diaries, pamphlets and books – we seem to have examples of just about every kind of archival material relating to Ashburton District and its history.

There are many things in our archives that are alike, and many that are unique.

Art for example is almost always unique, as are letters and correspondence, while formal or legal documents are usually filled-out templates for the sake of practicality.

However boring documents may seem on first glance, the more you look at them the more you realise that such documents can be admired in a similar way to art, if not for aesthetics then definitely for their purpose.

A license to listen

Our lives seem to revolve around paperwork – things like licenses, warrant of fitness, bills, contracts… and the list goes on!

An example of an interesting license document from the Ashburton Museum archive shown on this page outlines the legal terms of setting up an amateur radio station for receiving signals in the Wakanui area.

This radio license comes from 1923, an important year in New Zealand broadcasting history, as by the end of the year stations were broadcasting from all major cities across the country.

Throughout the following decades radio became a primary source of entertainment and information for New Zealanders, and this popularity is easy to measure – you just need to look at the books.

A relatively recent donation which made its way into our permanent archive collection were a ledger and a cash book from Buchanan’s Radio Sales/Service.

In these finance books it is plain to see that radios were bought and serviced often at the shop, and Buchanan’s was just one radio shop in town.

The fast few

It is hard to imagine just how many driver’s licenses are issued daily across the country.

New drivers are taking to the roads all the time, but this was not the case ninety-odd years ago.

A snippet from the Guardian local news in February 1928 reports that there were 666 licenses granted during the previous licensing year, and that two driver’s licenses had been issued by the Borough Council in the past two weeks.

Another piece from a November 1930 Guardian reports a figure five times this – ten motor driver’s licenses were issued in the past two weeks!

How they kept up with such ravenous demand, we will never know.

Before automobiles, there was horse-drawn transport of course, which also needed to be officially licensed.

A full excerpt from the Ashburton Herald, 28 July 1880 on this page is a response by R. Bird to a wild accusation regarding the registration, ownership, and purpose a specific cab.

If you were looking to be thoroughly confused by something today, this is the one to read.

Dandy doodles

If art and the types of documents previously discussed sat on a spectrum, then I imagine that art and documentation sit as far apart as possible.

Looking at the more visually creative side of things, I believe it is high time to give credit not just to prolific artists but to the casual doodler also.

While searching for ration booklets from the Second World War, I stumbled across a box full of New Zealand rough diaries in our archive.

Flicking through a 1918 farm diary I came across a sad looking doodle of a man with some bits missing, wearing a hat.

He is missing one foot and an arm, and his visible arm looks like it is wrapped up in a bandage.

After a bit of discussion with Glenn Vallender, President of the Ashburton Museum and Historical Society, we came to the conclusion that the doodle may be depicting a returned servicemen with war injuries.

Considering that the doodle was done around March 1918, it is entirely possible that the drawing was of one of the diary owner’s friends who had come home, or somebody they saw around the district.

Moving away from minimalism, we come to the drawings of Bobbie Barwell (nee Hickman), a well-known early Ashburton photographer.

Barwell, who also took a photograph of Lake Pukaki that became the basis of the New Zealand 5 Pound note, was also a keen artist as shown by the collection of drawings featured on this page.

My personal favourite is the bottom-left drawing, captioned as “The Major” – everything from the monocle to the dirty moustache is perfectly fitting on such a man.

These drawings, like the farmer’s doodle, were also an unexpected find for myself, serving as an important reminder that while things are knowingly catalogued and archived, they can still surprise new staff and researchers years on.

By Connor Lysaght

This post was modified for publication on this blog and originally appeared in the Ashburton Guardian, 17th of March 2020.


1) A license to erect and operate an amateur radio station for reception only, issued to Mr. Clifford Crawford, January 1923.

2) Excerpt from the Ashburton Herald, 28 July 1880, detailing Richard Bird’s awkward cab confusion.

3) Sketch of an unknown man from a 1918 New Zealand rough farmer’s diary.

4) Some of Bobbie Barwell’s delightful sketches and colour works from the 1920s.

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