The 1920s

Page 11 – 1928 - key events

Tom Heeney boxes for world title

Tom Heeney

On 26 July, New Zealander Tom Heeney took on American Gene Tunney for the world heavyweight title in front of 46,000 spectators at New York’s Yankee Stadium. In the midst of boxing’s golden age, the bout attracted massive interest both here and in America. Gisborne-born Heeney, the ‘Hard Rock from Down Under’, entered the ring wearing a Māori cloak that had been sent to him by Heni Materoa, Sir James Carroll’s widow. He was guaranteed US$100,000 for the bout, equivalent to nearly US$1.5 million in 2018. Heeney fought bravely but was outclassed by the talented Tunney. The bout was stopped in the 11th round to save the Kiwi from further punishment.

Kinsgford Smith conquers the Tasman

Kingsford Smith's plane

At 9.22 a.m. on 11 September, Australian pilot Charles Kingsford Smith landed at Wigram Aerodrome, Christchurch, in his three-engine Fokker plane, the Southern Cross, to complete the first successful trans-Tasman crossing. Leaving Sydney the previous evening, Kingsford Smith and his crew (two Australians and New Zealand radio operator T.H. McWilliams) had covered 2670 km in 14 hours 25 minutes. Some 30,000 people flocked to Wigram to greet them, and many thousands of others listened to a live radio commentary of the event.

Dale Austen goes to Hollywood

See clip from A Daughter from Dunedin on Film Archive site

As part of her prize for winning the 1927 Miss New Zealand contest, Dale Austen won a first-class return trip to Los Angeles and a ‘studio engagement’ with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Thousands of people crowded Dunedin Railway Station to farewell the local girl on her journey to ‘stardom’. After minor roles in several films she played the second female lead in the Tim McCoy feature The bushranger, which was filmed in California but set in Australia. She was offered a longer contract, but decided to return home, later recalling that: ‘The Hollywood swinging scene was parties, drinking, sex … I didn’t drink. I was unprepared for the fast life’. Back in New Zealand, Austen appeared in Rudall Hayward’s 1928 features A daughter of Dunedin and The bush Cinderella.

The resurrection of Joe Ward

Amid mounting economic uncertainty, the governing Reform Party faced a new opponent in November’s general election. The United Party had been formed by disaffected Reformists and the remnants of the old Liberal Party. United was led by the veteran former Liberal Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward, who made the startling promise to borrow £70 million (equivalent to nearly $7 billion today) in one year to fund an ambitious public works programme. Ward had misread his speech notes (he meant to say £70 million over 10 years), but voters embraced the proposal as a bold developmental vision. As Labour MP John A. Lee recalled, United rode the ‘musical chink of the seventy million’ into power against all the odds. Ward died shortly after resigning as Prime Minister in 1930.

Other events in 1928:

  • In a big year for New Zealand boxing, welterweight Ted Morgan won gold at the Amsterdam Olympics. He is officially credited as this country’s first Olympic gold medallist (New Zealander Malcolm Champion had won gold in the pool in 1912 as part of an Australasian relay team).
  • In January, eight months before Charles Kingsford Smith conquered the Tasman air route, New Zealanders George Hood and John Moncrieff and their aeroplane Aotearoa vanished while attempting the first air crossing.
  • Massey Agricultural College in Palmerston North was formally opened on 20 March. It would become a university in 1964.
  • Postal voting was used for the first time in a New Zealand general election, with 7977 votes cast in this way.
  • The Bay of Plenty railway linking Auckland with Tauranga and Tāneatua was opened.
  • The discovery on 5 October of the body of 16-year-old Elsie Walker in a disused quarry in Tāmaki, Auckland, sparked intense public interest. The cause of her death was never determined and no one was ever charged with any offence in relation to it.
  • The All Blacks toured South Africa for the first time, drawing the test series 2–2. No Māori players were selected for the team.
  • The prohibitionist vote fell to its lowest level since the first national licensing referendum was held in 1911, polling 40.1% in November.
  • American polar explorer and aviator Richard E. Byrd’s first Antarctic expedition set sail from Dunedin on 2 December. Byrd would use New Zealand as a base for Antarctic exploration for the next 27 years.
  • In December Frederick Bennett of Ngāti Whakaue was consecrated Bishop of Aotearoa, the first Māori bishop in New Zealand’s history.
  • The Ngai Tahu Trust Board was set up in a belated response to the recommendations of the 1920−21 commission into South Island land claims.
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'1928 - key events', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 1-May-2018

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