Music, lectures and merriment: Early entertainment in the District

Entertainment was highly valued in the early days of the Ashburton District. At a time when commitments to work, farm and family were much more demanding than they often are today, relief from stress and the daily grind were appreciated greatly.

Staveley Hall about 1900, during its heyday as a social and entertainment hub for the area.

Reading about options for entertainment in the latter decades of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th, you can’t help but feel that sense of appreciation jump out at you from between the lines. Entertainment was something that whole communities enjoyed together. Popular forms of amusement included music, dances, plays, elocution, puppetry and more.

Topics of the day

Public lectures and demonstrations about various topics were once very popular, much more popular than they are today. Talks were given by travelling experts, local individuals, or on behalf of societies about every topic you could imagine.

Some talk subjects from the early 1900s, as seen from newspaper adverts, include:

  • The British Navy
  • The prospects of finding petroleum in Canterbury
  • Education reform
  • The imminent third coming of Jesus Christ
  • Egypt and the pyramids
  • Foreheads and noses
  • Poultry and eggs

Clearly people were spoilt for choice… and there were some interesting topics indeed!

One recurring theme was the sciences, or in many cases, pseudoscience. Quite often there were demonstrations at lectures involving volunteers drawn from the crowd.

From our modern perspective, the methods and hypotheses that were involved were dubious at best. In a previous post, we discussed the “science” of phrenology (analysing the shape of someone’s head to determine their personality) and talked about one particular travelling phrenologist who visited Ashburton often in the early 1880s.

This fellow called himself Professor Lio Medo, but there was more to him than meets the eye. A damning Evening Post column from January 1881 describes how he was “recently arrested at Dunedin for false pretences” and that he was “well known in Wellington, being none other than Mr. Benjamin Strachan, who formerly carried on the practice of hair-cutting on Lambton Quay.”

Despite this shocking exposé, his popularity came out unscathed; he continued touring the South Island, including frequent stops in Ashburton throughout the early-to-mid 1880s. Clearly he was charismatic, since there is no way he could have kept raking in the admissions and appointment fees without having a silver tongue and a good poker face.

Colourful characters

William Vance’s book Bush, Bullocks & Boulders explores the history and development of the Upper Ashburton area, being comprised mainly of Alford Forest, Staveley, Mount Somers and surrounds. There is an interesting chapter on early entertainment in the district, with some amusing anecdotes.

Example of a mid-1800s accordion from the Ashburton Museum’s object collection. Unfortunately, it lost some buttons along the way before ending up in the care of the Museum.

One of the early entertainers in the area was Deafy Jack Hyde, a beloved accordion player who “played at all the dances around.” According to Vance, the author, he was “the push bike swagger. He was not what you would call a real swagger but he was next door to one. He was a real wanderer and would turn up unexpectedly always on his bicycle, probably wearing a row of medals he had won at the Dunedin Exhibition for accordion playing. He was fond of his scotch and the boys at Spreadeagle gave him a hard time. On one occasion after a really hard night Old Jack woke up with his head in a bag bailed up in a cow bail somewhere at Spreadeagle. Some party!”

One of the most famous performers from the area was Tommy Green, the son of the hotelkeeper at the Alford Forest Hotel.

Tommy Green (front middle) at Hakatere Station.

For almost fifty years, Tom performed for free at countless socials, balls, wedding dances and farewells for some of the boys going overseas. Tom played piano, and “there was Bill Campbell from Spreadeagle on the accordion and George Randall from Alford who played the violin.”

Those that saw him play most likely “would have vivid memories of Tommy Green with his beaming smile and blue eyes aglow with fun, a glass of whiskey on the piano and the music which played on till daylight if necessary. He did it all free although recognised in later years for his great services when the people of Methven gave him a silver tea service and tray.”

The County Band takes a plunge

According to Bush, Bullocks & Boulders it was common for Ashburton artists, when their pockets were empty, to “tour the provinces” and perform around the district. When the Ashburton County Band were short on funds in 1900, they started a fundraising tour of the Alford Forest district, which took quite an unfortunate turn.

On the night of 21 November 1900, the band took a horse and dray over the Ashburton River in heavy rain, which persisted until they arrived at the Staveley Hall. Once they got there, the trouble began. The audience of 18 had paid 1 shilling each admission fee, but on top of the hall rent of 12s 6d, the caretaker demanded an additional 7s 6d before he would let them get started.

After a swift collection, an enjoyable evening of fun was had before the band packed up and headed back to Ashburton with their horse and dray. When they reached the river, there was a problem… the ford had disappeared. Before they had time to plan their next move, all and sundry plunged over a four-foot bank and into the river. This was all too much for the cart. The king pin broke, and the horses careered away. After the bandsmen managed to cross the river, fix the cart and catch the horses, they eventually made it to Ashburton.

As Vance describes, a bandsman said “a suspicious policeman eyed me as I made for my lodgings with my wet garments flopping around me.”

A Halma Studio portrait of the Gay Galateers, who were a local entertainment group who performed all around the County to raise funds for the Ashburton Labour Day Gala in the mid-1920s.

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, 23 October 2021.


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