Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 38, September 1994
By Elizabeth Lee-Johnson
May I, through your columns, draw attention to the remarkable contribution over thirty years, six Waihi people have made to the continued success and widening reputation of the Waihi Arts Centre & Museum: Ted Grant, Owen and Rosemary Morgan, Hilary Timanus, Freda Butcher and Mary Smeaton.
Your readers may be interested in how the Waihi Arts Centre& Museum began and how all these people came to be involved for so long.
It all began in 1961. Rosemary and Owen Morgan, Campbell Smith (then head of the Arts Department at Waihi College and now retired from the Directorship of the Hamilton Art Gallery) and my husband, Eric Lee-Johnson and I conceived the idea of establishing an art gallery in Waihi. Eric and I were then new to the town and our growing interest in and questions about Waihi's history turned our thoughts towards the idea of including a museum - a museum would enable a door charge to be made which would offset expenses: most people are attracted to museums and they would then be drawn into the gallery discovering the delight of the arts when they might otherwise not do so.
In 1961 the old technical school building in Kenny Street had been standing empty for five years, a new technical school having been established at Waihi College. This building with its two distinct departments, hitherto homecraft on one side and woodwork on the other would, we thought, lend itself especially well to a combination Gallery and Museum for the town.
At this time Eric had his finger on the pulse of art in N.Z. having a few years before edited two of the Arts Year Books. He then knew everyone of note in the art world and had invaluable contacts. Before any of these grandiose ideas could be put into effect we had to see if we could acquire the use of the old Technical School building and we would need to establish an organising committee. We were to discover that we were to face monumental hurdles before the scheme could get off the ground.
Late in 1961 a meeting was held at the Lee-Johnson house on Riverbank Terrace to present the ideas of the group and see what support we might have. Present at that meeting were Rosemary Morgan, Ted Grant, then Director of Pye Radio & Television Research Centre, Hilary Timanus representing the Art Club, the late Nell Climie, who had a wide interest and knowledge of local history, Colin Hardie, who was then Principal of the Waihi East End Primary School, the late Reg Bell, who was the local librarian and a collector of fine arts. Bob Anderson, Eric and me.
It was agreed to form a group to be known as the Waihi Museum and Arts Centre Association. Ted Grant was elected first President; Eric Lee-Johnson, Arts Centre Organiser: ElizabethLee-Johnson, Hon. Secretary; Colin Hardie, Hon. Treasurer; Reg Bell, Museum Organiser. The organising committee was Rosemary Morgan. Nell Climie. Hilary Timanus, Colin Hardie and Bob Anderson. When Colin left to take up a principalship elsewhere, Freda Butcher agreed to become Hon. Treasurer.
It was Ted who made the inspired suggestion that Norm Morton should be co-opted on the Committee. Norman, with his vast knowledge of mining in Waihi, proved to be enthusiastic, a tireless worker, innovative and a great person to work with. He contributed much to the development of the museum until his death in 1976. David Haszard brought his expertise into the group too and contributed enormously to the project: among his many activities for the Centre were excellent lectures in metallurgy. Bill Hollis later joined us with his special interest in local history.
It was Ted too, who thought of approaching Lorri Boughton who became our Hon. Solicitor and eventually he and Eric between them drew up a Constitution which took effect from 1963. Owen Morgan agreed to act as WACMA representative on the Borough Council.
We had a group of enthusiasts, now we had to focus on the old technical school building standing there empty, and here Owen Morgan presented a proposal to the Council that the Department of Education be approached to allow the disused technical school building to become a Waihi Cultural Centre and Gallery. But then we learned that the Education Board had handed the building back to the Internal Affairs Department. Internal Affairs was about to sell the building but agreed to give the Waihi Borough Council first option at Government valuation which was £3,100. To our dismay, the Council recoiled from such a huge sum and declined further interestinthe building.
My family had had a long history of local body administration and I knew that sometimes local people contributed to buildings such as this. Could Waihi have contributed? Owen went sleuthing and discovered that indeed part of the cost of erecting the building was raised by Waihi public subscription. When this was pointed out to Internal Affairs they offered the building to the Borough Council at Government valuation less the percentage of the construction costs raised by the town. Instead of £3,100 the Council had now to find only something like £1,700- £500 down and the balance over twenty years. Loan repayments came to about £2 per week. The £500 expenditure was not of course, included in the current estimates, but the Council took a deep breath and decided to purchase. We were jubilant. But it was not all over yet.
We wrote to the Borough Council presenting our proposal for a gallery and museum and were astonished to receive a letter advising that the Council was happy about the establishment of a gallery but did not approve the idea of a museum. Instead they were considering moving the library to occupy one half of the building leaving the other to be used as a gallery. The Town Clerk, Mr Bargh, advised "that the museum idea should be dropped, as it was of very little interest and had dubious possibilities as an attraction for the town"!
What were we to do? We felt sure that a museum was important. Waihi's mining history, embracing as it did the birthplace of the Federation of Labour, was unique in New Zealand and it seemed to us a great pity not to gather what we could of its history even at this late 1961 stage. What about a petition? As Hon. Secretary, it fell to me to set out to collect the Town's response to establishing a museum in Waihi. I visited 103 shops and offices; all but two supported the establishment of a museum - an overwhelming response.
But I must digress here to share one experience I had. Coming back from the Town, on impulse I decided to call in to a couple of houses near my home. At one, the door was answered by a charmingly friendly woman who greeted me and smiled encouragingly as I explained my purpose. I handed her the petition and pen and without hesitation she signed it. Then as she opened the door for me to leave, she said: "I am sorry dear. I am totally deaf and didn't hear a word you said."
A deputation from the WACMA committee presented the petition to a meeting of the Borough Council and it was interesting for us to hear the discussion that took place. The then Mayor argued that we should have use of only half the building; he supported the idea that the library should be moved to take up the other half. One councillor thought that a library was more important than a museum and moving the library would provide a useful room for Council meetings. Listening, our hearts sank but praise be these opinions did not win a majority vote; the Association was granted a lease of the whole building for one year at £2 per week with the right of renewal for three years. We were away!
It was soon after this that Colin Hardie left Waihi for another school in another town. Freda Butcher, who until this time had been Hon Auditor, now became Hon Treasurer and over the next thirty years was an integral part of the WACMA's organisation. It is hard to imagine the Waihi Arts Centre and Museum Association without Freda Butcher, Hon. Treasurer.
At this point Professor Beadle of Auckland University Arts School, came to Waihi and visited the building in Kenny Street and listened carefully to our plans. Back in Auckland he wrote:
"I am firmly of the opinion that the building should be either museum or gallery but not both, as I am equally firm in my opinion that the town will not support you in establishing a gallery; it would have to be a museum. The fact that the town has never cared about preserving its history augers ill for any success now. It obviously doesn't matter to them and perhaps they are right".
This knockback was almost immediately followed by a tremendous boost. Ted Grant had obviously been enthusing about the Arts Centre and Museum scheme to the management of his company, Pye Radio & Television. The idea appealed to both George Wooller and Tom Spencer, directors of the company and they decided to make a grant to the Association of £250 for three years. This vote of confidence in what we were attempting and the much needed money made all the difference.
The Waihi Borough Council Jubilee was coming up in November 1962 and we wanted to take part in this - an excellent chance to make the Centre known. Thousands of people from all over New Zealand who had lived here during the mining years were expected to, and did, come back. Impossible to establish the Gallery in time for this but Eric thought of the idea of mounting a Waihi Today & Waihi Yesterday photographic exhibition which seemed appropriate to the Jubilee festivities.
And that meant refurbishing the insideof thebuilding in a great hurry, and putting a call out to the local people for relevant photographs.
Here the Jaycees came to the rescue and working bees ripped out the old kitchen appointments and painted the room which would be the Museum. We remember Bob Frewin particularly who worked like a beaver, giving generously of his personal time and energy. And Selwyn Baker and Viv Buckle also come to mind for their unstinting and unselfish giving of time, energy and resources. Mr Darley and Mrs Helen McCombie were right behind the project. They saw to it that excellent press coverage was given to the progress of the project and its achievements. Local enthusiasm and willing practical help was amazing and enormously encouraging. The general public rose to the occasion too and photographs poured in. Eric, himself a photographer, took his cameras to the locations shown in early photographs and photographed the same location as it was then. The Turnbull Library supplied us with photographs from their files, copying ours for their own records and giving us enlargements for the exhibition. Mr George Chappell came to light with dozens of fascinating and historically interesting glass negatives which Turnbull printed for us. The exhibition, with Old Waihi on one side and New Waihi on the other turned out to be the focal point of the Jubilee. Visitors used the Centre as a meeting place and it was marvellous to hear the cries of joy as old friends met and the howls of laughter and delight as they recognised place, people and events in the photographs. It was a most satisfying success for all the workers and firmly established the Waihi Arts Centre and Museum. Public imagination was caught: membership increased rapidly, enquiries for membership came from all over New Zealand and even a few overseas. Contributions to the Museum poured in, sometimes precipitating a good deal of memory-jogged humour. We were given a 'spider', a black metal candle holder which miners spiked into the wall of the mine to provide light. David Haszard told us that because too many candles 'melted away' among the staff, the management of the mine had all its candles coloured pink to discourage 'borrowing'. This intrigued us - could we, after all this time, possibly find a pink candle? So we put out a call for a pink candle - and received boxes and boxes of them. It seemed the whole town used nothing but pink candles.
One photograph sent in, showed a whisky still and with it was the bluey issued by the Police. David, Ted and Norman, old Waihithans, roared with laughter when they saw this. Eric and I, newcomers, were puzzled - what was funny? They had recognised that the still was made up of bits and pieces filched from the mine. Later we were given the receipt for the fine. We featured this small collection at the Jubilee exhibition and it brought the house down.
So, there it is. Thirty years on, the Waihi Arts Centre & Museum has developed into a gallery and museum known throughout the country. It houses the best gold mining museum in New Zealand and its gallery continuously shows new painting and crafts to a steady stream of visitors both local and from afar. I was followed as first Hon. Secretary by Fay Monroe, Nicki van der Miejden, Molly Martin and longest serving of all, Mary Smeaton who held this position for fourteen years.
Of course, since Eric and I left Waihi twenty years ago, there will be many whom we do not know who have been involved and have contributed a great deal to what is evident today. But a special salute must be given to those who have given their time and energy continuously for all or most of WACMA's thirty year's existence: Ted Grant, Rosemary and Owen Morgan, Hilary Timanus, Freda Butcher and Mary Smeaton. Waihi owes them a great deal.