NZ & South Seas Exhibition, 1889-90

As soon as I read about the marvellous New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition, I knew it was perfect place for a scene in Murder in the Devil’s Half Acre.

"Eiffel Tower", New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition (Source: Hocken Library)

Grand exhibitions were all the rage in the 1800s, showing off the extraordinary innovation and prosperity of the Victorian period. The Dunedin event was hard on the heels of the 1889 World Fair in Paris, for which the iconic Eiffel Tower was built. Not to be outdone by the French, Dunedin constructed a replica Eiffel Tower, albeit scaled-down to 40 metres and made of wood. Featuring a steam-powered lift, which carried 16 people up to a height of 30 metres, and electrically-powered lights on the viewing platforms, it was a smash hit.

New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition (Source: Hocken Library)

The NZSS Exhibition also had a switchback railway (the humble precursor to roller-coasters – a bit of it can be seen in the photo above), a merry-go-round, musical entertainment, gardens and exhibits of everything imaginable from around New Zealand and the world.

The event was so popular that more visitors were said to have gone through its gates than the entire population of New Zealand at the time.

Entrance, New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition (Source: Hocken Library)

One can only imagine the wonder and excitement on their faces as they approached the Moorish-domed entrance!

A huge thank you to The Lothians blog for detailed information about a fascinating, but little-known, piece of history: https://the-lothians.blogspot.com/2016/06/the-new-zealand-and-south-seas.html.

A Win for the Workers

The next time you’re burning the midnight oil at work, spare a thought for how it used to be, when the ‘midnight oil’ was a feeble lamp lighting the piecework taken home by women after a long day on the factory floor. And give thanks to the campaigners for workers’ rights, who fought hard for better conditions (and who still do so).

My new book, Murder in the Devil’s Half Acre, was inspired by the events of 1890, in New Zealand’s biggest and wealthiest city (at the time), Dunedin. Many workers slaved for long hours in appalling conditions, although arguably with better conditions than they had faced in Britain, from whence most of the population had immigrated since 1840. Some workers even managed to get an eight-hour day, as first celebrated fifty years later, in October 1890, by our first Labour Day. (The cartoon lampooning the Employers’ Union Labour Day float is from the Alexander Turnbull Library.)

After the depression years of the 1880s, any job was better than none, even if the pay scarcely covered a subsistence living. Families often fended off starvation by sending their women and children to work.

Enter the Reverend Rutherford Waddell and his widely publicised sermons on the ‘Sin of Cheapness’. Waddell was the minister of the St Andrew’s parish, in an area so notorious for drinking and debauchery that it became known as the Devil’s Half Acre. It was so bad that Walker Street, which is the epicentre of events in the story, was later renamed Carroll Street in an attempt to blot out the taint. (Waddell photo courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library.)

Waddell’s powerful advocacy helped to establish the first union for working women, the Dunedin Tailoresses’ Union. The first vice-president of the union was Harriet Morison, one of New Zealand’s (and the world’s) pioneering feminists, who later played an important role in the campaign for women’s suffrage and the temperance movement. (Harriet Morrison photo courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library.)

The government responded by setting up the Sweating Commission, which first convened in Dunedin on the tenth of February 1890, with Waddell as one of the commissioners.

Here’s a sample of one inspection by the Sweating Commission: ‘Factory crowded to excess. Badly lighted, and not ventilated. The building has three flats. In the upper one the sewing girls and clickers are in one room, and some of the employees are juvenile in appearance. The ground-floor is crowded with machinery and men, and the cellar is utilised as workroom for considerable number of men. The cellar from floor to ceiling is not more than 6ft. high, and two boys there are practically working in the dark.’

The photos below, of women working a clothing factory and looms at a woollen mill, are from the early 1900s, when conditions had improved significantly (Source: Alexander Turnbull Library).

The commission concluded that sweating did not exist, in the sense of the accepted definition, albeit with three dissenting commissioners, including Waddell. However, the evidence of long hours, poor conditions and inadequate pay was undeniable. The Liberal government subsequently made significant changes to labour laws, including the Factories Acts of 1891 and 1894.

For anyone interested, I’d highly recommend Ian Dougherty’s fascinating biography of Waddell – Pulpit Radical: The Story of New Zealand Social Campaigner, Rutherford Waddell (2018, Saddle Hill Press, Dunedin, New Zealand).

Women in Medicine, NZ

Chlorodyne advert (Source: Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand)

Medicine has always fascinated me – the life-and-death drama, the clever use of forensics to uncover the truth, and especially the weird (and frankly terrifying) drugs and equipment used in the past.

Like Chlorodyne, which promised to cure a startling array of complaints, from cholera to coughs to insomnia, but contained a mix of chloroform, morphine, hemp and goodness knows what else. (Image source: Alexander Turnbull Library)

In my new series, Penrose & Pyke Mysteries, Grace Penrose is determined to become the first female medical student in the country.

Emily Seideberg (Source: Hocken Library)

In real life, that honour went to Emily Seideberg, way back in 1891 (Image source: Hocken Library). Her success was just one of the firsts for women during a time of extraordinary social change in New Zealand. (Universal women’s suffrage was passed two years later.) Emily quietly defied societal norms and went about the vocation of becoming a doctor, although not without copping significant disapproval from the medical fraternity and ribbing from other medical students.

According to the recollections of Mr “Wullie” Goodlet, a former lab assistant: “Miss Siedeberg was the first lady to take the medical course, and I must say she deserved great credit for the way she stuck to her work in the dissecting room. She had a very unpleasant time among the male students. They did not want lady doctors  … The young men would throw the flesh at her every chance they got.

Professor John Scott (Source: Hocken Library)

Emily does not appear in the story (other than in spirit), but Professor John Scott, the visionary Dean of the Otago Medical School from 1877 to 1914, has a small part (Image source: Hocken Library). Emily Seideberg graduated five years later and gave exceptional service over her lifetime, for which she received a CBE. The second female student, Margaret Cruickshank, was also outstanding and so revered by her local community in Waimate that a statue was erected in her honour.

Emily Seideberg has a plaque on the historic walk in the beautiful old town of Clyde, one of the main towns of the 1860s Gold Rush in Central Otago. By one of those amazing twists of fate, the plaque is located right outside the old schist cottage I was staying in (where my family lived in the 1930s) and I was thinking about plot ideas when I literally stumbled upon her. And so, Grace Penrose was born.

Website Built with WordPress.com.

Up ↑