Wellington Centennial Memorial Building

Wellington Centennial Memorial Building

Wellington Provincial Centennial Memorial Building (1940)

Celebrating the pioneering ethic

From the mid-1930s, the Labour government presided over elaborate plans to celebrate the centennial of the European settlement of New Zealand. The Centennial Exhibition at Rongotai, Wellington, was to be the national event, but the government also subsidised many provincial memorials and events. Wellington had many suggestions for its provincial memorial – including a full-scale concrete sailing ship atop Mount Victoria. Based on the clipper Taranaki, the Pioneer, as it was poignantly christened, would have been 67 m long with masts, rigging and yards. On its gunwales bronze plaques were to record the names of the pioneers and Wellington’s movers and shakers. It would be set in a courtyard garden, with the name of one of the first ships on each of the steps leading up to it. The Pioneer’s lower deck would house a community hall, its walls lined with friezes showing the progress of Te Aro and Wellington since 1840; the upper deck would have a tea room, shop, cloak room and ‘pioneer cabaret’.

The Pioneer sank under howls of derision. Nevertheless, the sailing ship metaphor resurfaced in this building, Wellington’s provincial memorial but in many ways the New Zealand monument to pioneer endeavour. Located on the Petone foreshore where Wakefield’s duped settlers waded ashore in 1840 to ‘Britannia’, their flood-prone raupō and canvas shantytown, Aucklander Horace Massey’s stark white memorial set in concrete is an enduring celebration of pioneering.

The bow of the first migrant ship, the Aurora, thrusts triumphantly from a massive window. Sandblasted into glass are the figures of a Māori chief welcoming a pioneer family. The European male steps forward confidently, his mate standing behind him carrying a baby, symbolising the motherhood of New Zealand. Overhead is a cloud symbolising the traditional name of New Zealand, and in the offing is the ship from which the pioneers have landed. Beneath the Aurora’s bow the foundation stone acknowledges the achievement of the pioneers. On 22 January 1940, 5000 people braved atrocious weather to hear Governor-General Lord Galway and Deputy Prime Minister Peter Fraser open the building and praise the pioneers.

The wings flanking the central portion were bathing cubicles. But the blood and guts pumped out by the nearby Gear freezing works made dipping an ordeal in ordure and over time they fell into disrepair. In 1977 the western portion became the Petone Settlers’ Museum. Two years later the eastern portion was refurbished and since then the museum has gone from strength to strength. The building was completely refurbished and reopened in 2010.

Further information

This site is item number 96 on the History of New Zealand in 100 Places list.


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