Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 19, June 1975


When I go back to Waihi, as I frequently do, I often pass buildings which send my memory winding back and I recall associations they had with the entertainment and the making of music for the people of the town.

Waihi grew rapidly with the discovery of gold and this brought in its train all sorts and conditions of men. But among these, especially when the town became firmly established were Welsh and Cornish miners and their families, people with a love of music bred in them for many generations. There came too, men from parts of England where the influence of the brass band was strong, so that it is really no surprise to learn that in its hey-day (about the turn of the Century) Waihi was noted for its choral singing and for its band music though by then the instruments had changed from bass [brass? – E] to silver.

The zenith of this era had passed before I have any clear memory of musical events but my father who came from Tauranga to Waihi in 1896 and my mother, who has lived there for nearly eighty-nine years have been my source of information about these early years.

Today when almost everybody has a radio blaring out the latest pop tune or sports result, it is hard to remember that the commonest sounds to be heard in early Waihi were the clang of hoofs and the creak of wheels on stony roads, punctuated by blasts from the whistles of the mines indicating the change of shifts. Men and boys would often whistle the latest tune as they went their way but the only actual music people had, they had to make for themselves and welcome indeed were those who had an accordian [accordion – E], concertina, mouth organ or even a tin whistle. Sometimes there were fiddlers and players of other orchestral instruments, with music boxes, harmoniums and pianos gracing the homes of the more fortunate. But the most popular instrument for home entertainment and one which needed no more skill than a strong arm was undoubtedly the phonograph. This was the hey-day of the eye-catching horn and cylindrical records.

Most of the people who provided early entertainment were itinerant and not all of them were musicians. Among them were conjurers, wax works exhibitions, men who performed feats of strength, men with performing animals and magic lantern shows.

Before the advent of motor transport all goods and people came to Waihi by train or by coach. Some were commercial travellers with their samples of shoes, clothing, fancy goods, toys, tinware and other lines which could be displayed to view and then ordered by the local shopkeepers. This necessitated the travellers staying overnight, hence the hotels of the day had sample rooms attached to their establishments, the first one in Waihi being the Commercial, on the corner of Seddon and Devon Streets, managed by Mr. Sam Tanner. This rather elegant and well-known wooden edifice was destroyed by fire in the early thirties but it was in the Commercial sample rooms that much of Waihi's early entertainment was held.

The Church was ever to the fore and a Mission Hall, to cater for the needs of many miners and their families who had staunch religious backgrounds was built in Moresby Avenue. This was not built by any particular organization but privately owned and hired by those who needed it. Here entertainment of a more serious nature was offered --lantern lectures, and the biorama [biograph ? – E] (slides depicting religious stories or pointing a moral). This hall was later purchased by the Presbyterians and became the Sunday School after the present St. James Church was built. It is still the main portion of the Sunday School though parts of it, including the kitchen have been renovated.

The next buildings to be erected were the Foresters Hall in Haszard Street opened on September 9th 1895 (now a shoe factory) and the Primitive Methodist Church, nextto Roberts' Bakery in Kenny Street.

The Foresters was a friendly society and though such societies are now almost a thing of the past, at that time they were of great value because as well as affording social opportunities for members and their families they were benevolent societies, affording free hospital treatment, convalescence, and medicine for members and their dependants. Mining being a hazardous occupation there were often accidents which meant men were off work for long periods. This hall was also used by all the other friendly societies in Waihi. It boasted a good dance floor and was in great demand for socials. As there was no stage it was not used much for concerts, but being right in the town was a popular place for Wedding breakfasts, (as receptions were always called at that time), Kitchen Evenings and Twenty-first birthday parties.

Many of the dances were held to welcome visiting sports teams while the Socials were often Benefit Evenings - the proceeds going to families in distress, through fire or some other catastrophe. A Social was a dance intersped with items for the entertainment of non-dancers. Later on when the Kings Theatre was built directly opposite, the Foresters Hall became an ideal supper room for the local Balls and other large gatherings.

The kitchens of these halls were small, dark, ill-equipped and inconvenient, smelling of gas and tobacco. Looking back one wonders how the women coping with these difficult conditions managed to serve such wonderful suppers. All the water had to be boiled in an outside copper and carried into the kitchen. Somebody had to prepare wood and stoke the fire all evening, watching to see that no sparks ignited the grass or building, or that rain did not put the fire out.

The first person who comes to my mind when I think of the Forester's Hall is Mrs. H.B. Dale who played for many of the dances. She also accompanied many singers and other musicians. Her husband could play but was more of an organist and a chorister. The Primitive Methodist Hall was used solely for religious activities and was the home of the Band of Hope. Prayer meetings, Sunday Services and Soirées were held there by the Methodists. Later after the two branches of the Church had united it became the Weslyan [Wesleyan – E] Sunday School and I remember some very good Sunday School concerts run by Mr. Billy Hicks where members of the Saunders, Rowe, Sutherland, Burt and Thomas families performed. Others were Thelma Pemberthy, Ada Pascoe and Lucy Stokes (violin) This building was moved to its present position next to the Church in Haszard Street, some time in the twenties - quite an event in the town.

The Drill Hall was erected in 1906 and was first used for a Memorial Service to the Hon. R.J. Seddon. As well as being used for military training it was the venue for Band Contests and Recitals and other forms of entertainment. My father remembers attending a musical show there entitled "Under The Palms" put on mainly by the Presbyterian choir under the baton of Mr. J. Reid. He later put on the "Merry Men of Sherwood" and borrowed all the Foresters' Regalia for the cast's costumes. They were accompanied by an orchestra, one of the violinists being Mr. A (Joker) Clarke.

Early in the 1890s a Mr. Tracy Knight had a very good string orchestra, and of no mean repute was the Waihi Leidertafel conducted by Mr. McKinnon.

During my music lessons with Miss Morgan I used to gaze at an enlarged photograph of the Leidertafel which had been presented to her, along with 3 moracco-bound copies of Chopin's Waltzes, Nocturnes and Mazurkas for her services as accompanist. I remember the faces of Messrs Evan Morgan, Arthur Ellis (of the East End) Jimmy Horn and George (Sailer) Armour but there were forty or more men in the group. One of their assisting artists was Miss Ella Farrell of Te Aroha who later married Mr. J. Gilmour and came to live in Waihi.

The first Miner's Hall came into being about the same time as the Drill Hall. It was erected next to Spearing's present shop and was also used as a Meeting place by the first Waihi Borough Council formed in 1902. As well as the miners' meetings there were frequent lectures and debates, the latter providing good groundwork for the aspiring local politicians. A new and larger Miners' Hall with a gallery, dressing-rooms and kitchen was later erected where the Memorial Hall now stands. It also contained a Miners' Reading Room which could be used as a supper room if necessary. It had a good dance floor and was in great demand for dances, School Concerts, Talent Quests etc. It was sometimes used by visiting artists or for Boxing and Wrestling, and also for a time as a picture theatre.

Before my parents were married it was used for the local Balls as well as for theatricals but by the time I was old enough to be concerned with the cinema, it had become the picture theatre though it was still often used by local and visiting entertainers. It had a large stage with several back drops, flies, wings, good stage lighting, two large dressing rooms and several special ones. It had a large gallery with a wrought iron facing, tip-up seats, a pit, footlights and a system of coloured lights. The front curtain never failed to fascinate me. It was comprised entirely of advertisements on heavy linen or canvas. It was lowered by a rope and its roller was as thick as a ship's mast.

In the centre was a baker boy sitting on a sack of Champion flour. There was also a huge bull's head advertising Bovril. One advertisement was for the wares of Mr. Banks the pork butcher and another for the firm of Tonson Garlick in Auckland. There were many others, mainly local, all very bright and colourful.

For dozens of children the joy of the week was the Saturday afternoon picture matinée. Here for the price of threepence, with a penny to spend if we were lucky, we made the acquaintance of Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Norman, the Keystone Cops, Our Gang, Charlie Chaplain and all the other comedians now being seen in Golden Movies on T.V. With fast-beating hearts and wide eyes we watched the chase of the "Baddies" by the "Goodies", and sighed with relief when the villain got his deserts and the hero won the beautiful maiden. It was here too we met Tom Mix and his horse Tony, Buck Jones with Silver King, Mary Pickford, Lilian Gish, Gloria Swanson, the Talmadge sisters, the Barrymores, John Gilbert, Douglas Fairbanks, Harold Loyd and all the other stars of the period following the great war. There was often a Mutt and Jeff cartoon and a news reel as well as the main feature.

The spending of that penny was a weighty decision too. Should it be acid drops, anniseed balls, changing balls, two liquorice straps, two liquorice pipes, two raspberry bars, two caramel bars or just a penn'orth of boiled lollies? Often such purchases didn't even merit a bag, but were put in a twist of newsprint, (alas for our hygiene). Later, chocolate lines became cheaper and sauté bars, chocolate fish, honeycomb and such like were available. I nearly forgot to mention surprise packets, conversation lollies, and Ice cream made locally.

The music for the films was provided by a pianist who had to be very adept in changing suddenly from music to suit galloping horses, to that of a villain creeping stealthily towards an innocent victim, or something to tear the heartstrings as the heroine wept over her pitiful lot. The first pianist I remember was Miss Frances Hinchey. Others were Miss Shrewsbury, Miss Ruth Hinchey and Miss Dunn. Pianists who played for films in other theatres as well as the Academy were: Mrs. McWilliams, Stan Collier, Nat Mounsey, Nellie Saunders, Roy Henderson and myself on occasion. The Academy housed such entertainers as the Haywards and troupes of bellringers, acrobats, weight lifters, trick cyclists, stockwhip experts and vaudeville shows from Fullers in Auckland including John Fuller himself. I have seen the handbills of many early shows pasted in the walls of the dressing-rooms of the old Academy. There were also Maori entertainers such as Maggie –

Among the visiting shows I remember in the Academy were "The Diggers" composed of returned soldiers. One of these was a two-handed lightning sketch artist whom I was to meet as a fellow teacher later on. I remember the "leading lady" singing "Oh Johnny" and "Wild Thyme", as she danced around the stage, and being quite non-plussed when she took her wig off as the curtain came down. I had never seen a female impersonation before. Other entertainments which impressed me were the Commercial Travellers Concerts, the Westminster Glee Singers, the Humphrey Bishop Company and Kai's Hawaians [Hawaiians – E]. There were also very good Maori Concert Parties brought by the Rev. Seamer of the Methodist Church. My father remembers Mr. Felix Tanner stretching a tight rope from the Academy to the Post Office and walking across it. The original Academy was destroyed by fire.

Sometime during the first decade of the present century the Kings Theatre was built by James and Coyle as a Skating Rink. It had a floor with mitred corners which later made it famous as one of the best and fastest dancing floors in the district. It had a fairly good stage as although the dressing rooms were rather poky it was reasonably adequate for theatrical shows and concerts. Its electrical wiring system would certainly not have passed an inspector and while there I once inadvertently gave myself such a severe shock that it's a wonder I'm alive to tell the tale.

I never pass the King's Theatre (now the original part of the P.Y.E. factory) without thinking of Miss Milgrew, that gracious lady who for many years ran a children's dancing-class, with a charm all of her own. We went along with our threepences and were instructed in the mysteries of the Tango Glide, the Waltz, the Valeta, the Brooklyn Schottiche [Schottische – E] and the two-step. There was a fancy-dress ball at the end of the season with a Grand March led by the King (George Roberts) and the Queen (Patsy Furey). There was always a special item too, (floor show, it would be called to-day). Among these I remember a very colourful cachugha danced by a group of senior girls, a duo by Isabel Walsh and Irene Ryan, and a gavotte by Molly and Reg Bell. The Children's part of the evening concluded with a sit-down supper in the Forester's Hall, the tinies going first with their mothers, followed by the intermediates, then the teenagers and adults. After supper there was an adult dance. The smaller ones usually went home, while others stayed to dance with Dad or Mum. To me Miss Milgrew seemed the epitome of elegance on these occasions with her long softly-draped frock, her feather boa, long gloves and fan. I have often wondered how she managed all this, as she had the sole care of 3 small great-nieces and a great-nephew during these years.

Another place where I spent many happy hours was the Orange Hall, Rosement [Rosemont – E] Rd. Here, the grand voices of Evan Morgan, William Rowe and my Uncle George (sailor) Armour were often heard. Also: Miss Vera Rowe, Miss Gladys Rowe, Mr. Claude Olphert, Gladys, Lily and Mona Hollis, Mrs. Aitken, Mr. and Mrs. Sam Brown and their daughters Miss Violet Collier, Mrs. Dalbeth, Mrs. Heath, Mrs. Dawber, Eric and Noni Dunstan, while one of my very early memories is of Mr. & Mrs. Glass singing comic songs - "Yiddle in the Middle of your fiddle play some Ragtime", was one I found particularly amusing.

It was here too that many little fingers essayed their first piano solos.

Two I remember were: Nat Mounsey and my Cousin, Thelma Armour. I had a rather disastrous experience myself. In July (when the damp affects most pianos), I was trying to play "Silver Sleigh Bells" but two or three keys constantly kept sticking until Mr. H.B. Dale came to the rescue and as I pressed the key down, he would lift it up again. It was not an entire success but at least it enabled me to get to the end.

Instrumentalists included:- Violinist Mr. Harry Turner, Mr. Addy with his 'Cello, Mr. Bert Carlyon, Mr. George Henry, and Master Jimmy Hall and various members of the Dunstan family on band instruments There were also recitations from my father and others I'm sure no one who ever heard her, will forget Miss Minnie Lockyer with "Dad's Bath" and "When Father carves the Duck".

... To Be Continued [see Journal 20: Early Entertainment in a Mining Town - E]