The 1950s

Page 5 – 1952 - key events

Yvette Williams leaps for gold

Yvette Williams

On 23 July Yvette Williams became New Zealand’s first female Olympic medallist when she won gold in the long jump at the Helsinki Olympic Games. Her winning leap of 6.24 m (20 feet 5¾ inches) set an Olympic record and was just 1 cm short of the world record. Thanks to amateur radio operators who were monitoring shortwave broadcasts and preparing commentaries of the events, New Zealanders were able to stay up through the night and listen to Williams compete.

Williams was presented with her gold medal by Sir Arthur Porritt, the New Zealand member of the International Olympic Committee and a 1924 bronze medallist. The New Zealand flag was raised as the Finnish military band played ‘God Save the Queen’ and then ‘God Defend New Zealand’.

Remutaka tunnel rock fall

Inside the collapsed tunnel

In 1951 construction began on the 8.8-km Remutaka rail tunnel. When completed in 1955 the tunnel – at that time the longest in New Zealand – cut the travel time between Upper Hutt and Featherston from three hours to 45 minutes.

The tunnel was the first in New Zealand to use the ‘full-face’ method, being driven to its full size from the start rather than dug out in halves. Good progress was made until an explosion on 9 September 1952 triggered a cave-in. Of the 27 men initially trapped, all but one, 20-year-old Greek migrant Athanasassios Athanassiaddes, were rescued within nine hours. It took more than 30 hours to get Athanassiaddes out and he died in hospital later that evening.

Death of Te Puea Hērangi

Te Puea Herangi

Te Puea Hērangi, the influential Tainui leader, had spent four decades establishing the national status of the Kīngitanga (King Movement). She first rose to prominence when leading opposition to the conscription of Māori for war service during the First World War. After the war she helped establish a new home for the Kīngitanga at Ngāruawāhia, based on a new marae called Tūrangawaewae. Te Puea also worked with Apirana Ngata to revive Tainui’s economic base, persuading her people to join in Ngata’s Māori land development schemes. She worked hard for many years to achieve her goal of economic and community revival.

Her tangi at Tūrangawaewae was attended by 10,000 mourners.

Breaking barriers

John O’Shea and Roger Mirams’ black and white feature film Broken barrier premiered on 10 July. The story of ‘a white boy [and] a Maori girl facing the challenge of prejudice!’, it was the first New Zealand-made feature since the 1930s. The film starred Kay Ngarimu and Terence Bayler in the lead roles and also featured Mira Hape, Bill Merito and George Ormond.

Made on a shoestring budget, Broken barrier helped to re-establish the New Zealand film industry. It was also important for its subject matter. Made at a time of increasing Māori urbanisation, the film portrayed a romance between a Pākehā man and a Māori woman. It addressed issues such as mistrust and prejudice between Pākehā and Māori and challenged established perceptions of race relations in this country.

Other events in 1952:

  • New Zealand had a new head of state: Queen Elizabeth II succeeded her father, George VI, who died in February.
  • Lieutenant-General Lord Freyberg finished his term as Governor-General and was succeeded by Lord Norrie.
  • Lionel Terry died at Seacliff Mental Hospital. A white supremacist, Terry had been convicted of a race killing in Wellington in 1905.
  • The ANZUS treaty signed in 1951 officially came into force in April.
How to cite this page

'1952 - key events', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 24-May-2024

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