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The 1920s

Page 3 – 1920 - key events

The Prince of Wales tours NZ

King George V’s elder son, Edward, Prince of Wales, visited New Zealand partly to thank the Dominion for its contribution to the Empire’s war effort. Arriving in Auckland on 24 April, he spent four weeks travelling the country aboard a lavishly appointed Royal Train and by motor coach. The dashing young ‘playboy’ prince was mobbed by adoring crowds wherever he went. But he was less impressed, complaining in a letter to his mistress: ‘We managed to keep fairly cheery despite never 1 hr free from returned soldiers & schoolchildren! Christ their cheers & “God saves” and “God blesses” get on my nerves.’ He saved his worst insults for the ‘pricelessly pompous’ and ‘grossly fat’ Governor-General, Lord Liverpool: ‘It makes me so angry to have my job bitched by other people, darling, especially by hopeless ____s like “Liver”!!’

Our first Olympic team

New Zealand sent its first official national team to the Olympic Games held in Antwerp, Belgium. At the previous two Olympics (1908 and 1912) a handful of New Zealanders had competed as part of Australasian teams. Although in 1920 the four-strong team had to endure nine weeks of travel to get to Belgium, they performed well. Rower Darcy Hadfield won a bronze medal in the single sculls, while 15-year-old swimmer Violet Walrond – our first female Olympian – finished fifth in the 100-m freestyle. Harry Wilson finished fourth in the 110-m hurdles and George Davidson came fifth in the 200-m sprint.

Conan Doyle and the spirit world

See Conan Doyle article from NZ Truth

Best known as the author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle spent his later life fervently promoting Christian Spiritualism. His 1920 lecture tour of New Zealand coincided with, and helped foster, a surge in the popularity of spiritualism here. During and after the Great War, many grieving parents and widows were drawn to belief in the spirit world, hoping to contact their lost loved ones via mediums. But Doyle’s claims of scientific proof for psychic phenomena were ridiculed by sceptics like the NZ Truth newspaper, which sought to expose him and other ‘spurious spookists’ as charlatans.

Mayor shoots poet

D'Arcy Cresswell

On 15 May, Whanganui Mayor Charles Mackay shot the poet and returned soldier Walter D’Arcy Cresswell. The latter, who was only slightly injured, alleged that Mackay had made homosexual advances to him in the mayoral office, then panicked for fear of public exposure. But Cresswell, who was homosexual himself, may not have been entirely innocent. Some speculated that he had been enlisted by others to blackmail the mayor into resigning. Either way, the incident brought Mackay’s 11-year career as mayor to a shocking end. He was sentenced to 15 years’ hard labour and his achievements were virtually erased from the city’s history.

Other events in 1920:

  • The new League of Nations gave New Zealand a mandate to administer the former German colony in Samoa, which it had occupied in 1914. New Zealand would rule Western Samoa until 1962.
  • The Immigration Restriction Amendment Act 1920 required immigrants who were ‘not of British or Irish parentage’ to apply for a permanent residence permit before they arrived in this country, reinforcing what was effectively a ‘white New Zealand’ policy.
  • The Alexander Turnbull Library in Bowen St, Wellington, was opened on 28 June. It was based on a collection bequeathed to the nation in 1918 by merchant and book collector Alexander Horsburgh Turnbull.
  • The Railways Department established its own advertising studios, which promoted rail travel as well as producing work for dozens of government and private-sector clients. The Railways Studios would dominate New Zealand poster art and outdoor hoarding advertising for decades.
  • In the Auckland Supreme Court, Dennis Gunn was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. In what was possibly a world first for a capital crime, Gunn’s conviction was based almost entirely on fingerprint evidence.
  • Captain Euan Dickson of the Canterbury Aviation Company became the first pilot to cross Cook Strait when he flew from Christchurch to Trentham, Upper Hutt.
  • The School Dental Nurse service was established.
  • Jane Mander’s acclaimed novel The story of a New Zealand river was published in London.
  • At Christmas thousands of Māori flocked to Rātana pā, near Whanganui, to visit the home of spiritual leader Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana, who had first come to prominence in 1918–19.

How to cite this page

1920 - key events, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated