Railway stations

Page 2 – A community hub

In the heyday of rail travel, the station was a vibrant hub of community life. It was a place of welcome and farewell, joy and sadness, hope and disappointment. The station was where people went to meet or send off wedding and funeral parties, family, friends and lovers, and touring circuses and theatrical companies. As well as passengers, trains offloaded well-stuffed sacks of letters, magazines and parcels, newspapers and movie reels for the local cinema. Many local business activities were timed to coincide with the arrival and departure of trains.

At North Island main trunk towns, such as Taumarunui and Taihape, crowds would regularly gather to meet passing express trains, even in the early hours of the morning. Important rail junctions, such as Frankton (Hamilton), Palmerston North and Marton, bustled with constant activity. In the 1930s the writer Robin Hyde quipped that Marton Junction contained, ‘at a rough guess, more newsboys, cups of tea and large ham sandwiches to the square inch than any place else in the world’.

Stations frequently hosted public welcomes for royal visitors, Governors-General and prime ministers. Celebrities often swept into town in their own special carriages or plush ‘birdcage’ balcony cars. The British royals who visited New Zealand in 1901, 1920, 1924, 1934-35 and 1953-54 all undertook at least part of their tours in luxury royal cars hauled by gleaming, specially decorated locomotives. At each stop, special trains delivered thousands of spectators and schoolchildren eager to catch a glimpse of royalty.

Large crowds gathered at stations to greet touring performers, such as the Australian soprano Dame Nellie Melba, or welcome conquering heroes, such as Wanganui’s world champion sculler Billy Webb. Thousands turned out to salute soldiers bound for, or returning from, the South African War and the First and Second World Wars. For many, the station platform was the last place they would see their loved ones alive.

How to cite this page

'A community hub', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/railway-stations/community-hub, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Dec-2012