Ashburton District history: Stories of summer

When looking back at history, we often tend to focus on the big events and build our view of the past around those. However, sources such as newspaper articles from the summer of 1921-1922 can give us an interesting glimpse at everyday life in days gone by. During that hot and sunny season, there were plenty of sporting events to keep people entertained and the weather was also great for swimming. So, let’s celebrate summer by taking a look at what the people of Ashburton were up to a hundred years ago.

Sporting spectacles

Two major events that piqued many residents’ interest in January 1922 were the friendly cricket matches played on the Domain Oval, and the arrival of visiting athletes from South Africa.

A visiting team of university students faced off against Ashburton on 2 January, which proved to be quite a challenge for the locals. Ashburton lost the match, a defeat which was put down to two players in particular. The Guardian reported that: “The bowling of Dunning and Thomas proved the downfall of the local men, who were all out for 121. The visitors replied with 161 for four wickets, chiefly compiled by Wirin and Thomas, who were still at the wickets when the innings was declared.”

Near the end of January the public witnessed the “best athletic carnival held in Ashburton for many years,” which was jointly conducted by a troupe of South African athletes as well as locals. A series of impressive races between the Ashburtonians and South African runners “had the crowd agog.” The Canterbury one mile championship was held during this carnival, which included the appearance of Australasian champion half-miler C H Taylor. Taylor managed to hold his own against one of South Africa’s best distance runners, D A Leathern, with Ashburton’s own J G Sounness coming in third.

Summer supplies

Everyone can agree that there’s nothing like a cool drink on a hot day. Businesses such as John Orr and Co knew this to be true, as shown by their advertisements for ‘summer drinks’ in the Ashburton Guardian. This East Street grocery store sold all sorts of refreshing juices and cordials, including Brook’s Lemon Squash, Thompson’s Ginger Wine and Cordials, and Marshall’s Concentrated Summer Drinks. While these brands don’t seem to have been produced in Ashburton, there was a cordial factory in town owned by Alford Bray at this time.

Alfred Bray’s cordial factory, Cameron Street, 1900. Bray’s moved to Wills Street in 1906, where the factory remained until the 1950s. (Archive reference 05.2010.0502)

Today, no summer excursion is complete without a good playlist to fit the mood. It appears that even in the twenties music was on holidaymakers’ minds, judging by some of the newspaper advertisements of the time. One such ad from the Guardian promotes the Columbia Grafonola, a portable gramophone that was marketed as being the perfect music player to bring on your summer holidays. I wonder how these players held up against sand and sea water.

Advertisement for the Columbia Grafonola. Ashburton Guardian, January 1922.

Borough Council vs skinny dipping

Before 1890, there were no dedicated swimming baths or pools in the Ashburton District. A proposal was made by the council’s Works Committee in 1881 regarding the construction of bathing facilities in the Domain, but these plans were soon side-lined and scrapped. Therefore, if you wanted to swim your options were limited to the river, the inland lakes or the Domain pond. However, the use of the latter was technically illegal and controversy soon arose over its popularity among a group of carefree young men.

Anyone caught bathing in the Domain was liable for a fine, but this did not stop some people from taking advantage of the refreshing waters at their disposal. Public opinion was divided over these illicit swimmers; some saw their lawbreaking as good reason to allow bathing in the Domain, and others thought that they should be brought to justice. Judging from newspaper reports at the time, the council weren’t prepared to expend their energies on constructing a proper pool until they had a very urgent reason. That reason arose when it was reported that young men had taken to swimming in the Domain without bathing suits; in other words, the swimmers were going commando and the council was having none of it.

Eager swimmers get ready to plunge into the Domain pool, 18 February 1922. (Archive reference 03.1985.0787)

In 1890, the first proper swimming pool was opened in the Ashburton Domain. The war of words over whether there should have been a pool or not was over, thanks to the illegal swimmers’ secret weapon: nudity. Probably not the best way to settle a dispute, but in their particular case you can’t argue with the results! By the summer of 1922, keen swimmers were accustomed to patronising the Domain pool when the weather was hot. However, I’m sure that those who remembered the swimming debacle of the 1880s did not take the facilities for granted!

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, 8 January 2022.


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