Monarch and Military: Ashburton and the British Empire

As an entity the British Empire is hard to discuss.

Having once laid claim to a quarter of the Earth, it brought prosperity and advancement to some, while many more suffered from oppression and exploitation. For better or for worse, the British Empire was a very powerful global force for a long time and many people felt strongly obliged to serve the monarch and the Empire to which they saw themselves as humble contributors.

Close-up view of the Indian Contingent of Imperial Troops in Baring Square East, during their visit to Ashburton on 5 March 1901.

In 1947 New Zealand gained autonomy over its own affairs through the passing of the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act and in 1986 Parliament passed the Constitution Act which officially severed our constitutional link with Britain. Now, rather than seeing ourselves as a cog in the Imperial machine, we are a highly independent nation although we retain the British monarch as our Head of State.

Like many other places in New Zealand, lots of people in Ashburton once saw themselves as a proud part of the British Empire and they had no qualms about showing their support.

Long live the King

Prideful banners bearing praise for the monarch with big, fancy letters have appeared during several occasions in Ashburton. The coronation of King Edward VII in August, 1902 was an especially exciting affair.

After the initial celebrations were cancelled due to the King suffering a flare-up of illness, the procession and programme of events that took place in Ashburton ended up being nothing short of spectacular. A united religious service was held outside the Borough Council chambers, before the groups forming the grand procession was mustered up on South Street.

The procession included, in order: The Mounted Rifles, Returned Troopers, the Ashburton County Brass Band, the Ashburton Rifles, Ashburton Guards, the Mayor and County Chairman, councillors for the County and Borough, the Tinwald Town Board, Salvation Army Band, veterans, schoolchildren, friendly societies (Templars, Oddfellows, Foresters and Druids) and last but not least, the Volunteer Fire Brigade.

Looking down Burnett Street, which was decorated for the coronation of King Edward VII, August 1902.

It would have been quite a sight to have seen such a mass of people proceed through town to the tune of two bands playing their best.

The procession arrived at the Domain, whereupon the King Edward and Queen Alexandra coronation oaks were planted by the Mayoress and Mrs Harper. To the Domain Oval they went, where the military fired a feu de joie and the National Anthem was played to the crowd. There were speeches and presentations held before a crowd of over five thousand attendees who endured the biting cold August wind, all in the name of King Edward VII.

The news of the King’s coronation and the demonstration in Ashburton, took up the entirety of the second page of the Guardian on 11 August 1902.

Loyal soldiers

You may have noticed that, in the list of participants for the 1902 coronation procession, there were three volunteer military groups: the Mounted Rifles, Ashburton Rifles and the Ashburton Guards.

Ashburton had a respectable number of volunteer troops who stood at the ready to fight for Ashburton, the Dominion and the Empire, against whatever or whomever was deemed a threat by the Government.

Just over two decades prior in November 1881, the Ashburton Rifles and Volunteers came out in force to welcome some of their fellow soldiers home “from the front.” These men were returning from the invasion of Parihaka. The Ashburton participants did not leave the train however and continued on to attend a lavish homecoming ceremony in Timaru where they were praised for their actions in Taranaki.

Ashburton Rifle Volunteers camp at the drill hall, no date.

It can be hard to come to terms with the fact that our forebears would have supported or even took part in such actions, but we must remember that social and political ideas regarding land, power and race were much different over a century ago. This is a saddening fact of colonial New Zealand that we must confront.

It is also worth mentioning that one early Tinwald settler and owner of Winterslow Station, Ivan Rankin Cornelius Cunninghame Graham (Alphabet Graham for short) served as Deputy Assistant commissary General during the New Zealand Wars.

Graham’s original officer’s uniform and sword can be seen on display at the Ashburton Museum, as well as his official warrant which bears the signature of Queen Victoria. These items are on permanent exhibition to serve as a reminder of the times.

Mixed feelings?

People’s experiences of living under the British Empire were extremely varied. To put it plainly, it all depended on who you were, where you came from and what you believed. The Empire brought security to some and hardship to others.

We live with colonial legacies good and bad; all we can do now is take lessons from our past, see how they formed our present and use that information to influence a better future for everyone.

By Connor Lysaght

Unless otherwise stated, photographs and research materials on this page are owned by the Ashburton Museum & Historical Society Inc. This post was modified for this blog and was originally published in the Ashburton Guardian, 10 July 2021.

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