The Prince in Petone

In April 1920 Edward, Prince of Wales – who would later become Edward VIII, arrived in New Zealand for a month-long tour. This event caused much excitement, coming not long after the end of World War One, and towns and cities vied for a place on the royal itinerary.

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This cartoon caricatures the frenzy generated by the tour. Petone is represented by the Mayor JW McEwan (NZ Truth, 6 March 1920)

The Petone Borough Council proposed a historical pageant commemorating the arrival of the first New Zealand Company settler ship, the Aurora, in January 1840. The government accepted and allocated funding for the event. The historical theme appealed to the Minister for Internal Affairs, Sir Francis Bell, who was related to the Wakefields.

The Wellington Early Settlers Association took responsibility for organizing the pageant, seeing it as an opportunity to educate the public about Wellington’s past and to raise funds for a pioneer memorial on Petone Beach.

The highlight of the pageant was to be a re-enactment of the arrival of the Aurora, however the Association decided to broaden the programme to include other aspects of the nation’s history not directly connected with Wellington, such as the coming “The Coming of the Maori” and Captain Cook raising the Union Jack.

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NZ Times, 5 May 1920

The pageant was held on 7 May on the Petone foreshore, opposite the end of Buick Street; the Association having decided this is where the settlers came ashore. A temporary arena was erected there.

The arena was open to invited guests such as early colonists as well as paying customers. A local contractor, Mr R Tremain, paid £50 to the Petone Borough Council for the exclusive right to accommodate spectators at the site. Seats were sold for between three shillings and ten shillings. Reports about the capacity of the stadium varied from 6,000 to 10,000 people.

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Members of the Orange Lodge seated in the stadium. Ref 636, HCL

A 100-foot jetty was run out from the beach and a replica pa was built in the centre of the arena which consisted of “a group of raupo huts within a palisade”. Each hut was decorated with carvings borrowed from the Dominion Museum.

The Prince arrived at Petone on the government steamer Janie Seddon to be met by a flotilla of yachts and motor-boats drawn up in two lines. Further out in the harbour, were the training ship HMNZS Amokura, posing as the Aurora, and a Maori war canoe borrowed from the Museum.

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Ref. 642, HCL

The Prince was welcomed by Sir Francis Bell and Mr JE Jenkinson, president of the Early Settlers Association. The Prime Minister and members of Cabinet as well as the mayors of Petone and Lower Hutt were also in attendance. Buick Street and Jackson Street were strung with bunting, and Buick Street was spanned by two arches. Gear Meat Company repurposed a third arch near its shop in Jackson Street. This had been built for the peace celebrations in 1919. It was modified to read “Welcome” instead of “Peace”.

The pageant wasn’t a success. The organisers were criticized for charging admission to the stadium and the programme lacked coherence. The audience, including the Prince, was confused and people in other parts of the country were offended to see Petone appropriating historical episodes from outside the area. An Auckland newspaper ridiculed the whole occasion, describing it as resembling “Mrs Jarley’s Wax-works” and asking: “is it possible that the Early Settlers are serious?” (Observer 25 April).

Many of the estimated 15,000 spectators present struggled to see the pageant. Those without tickets pushed their way in to the venue occupying seating reserved for invited guests. Other spectators crammed in to the centre of the arena and on to the beach. As a result the actors were swallowed up by the crowd as they came off the jetty, making it impossible to perform. And Captain Cook had to be replaced at the last minute because he was drunk.

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NZ Times, 8 May 1920

The congestion meant that the Prince lost sight of the old colonists on the opposite side of the stadium. One observer pointed out that the pioneers had ironically been “squeezed out of the picture”.

We can assume the Prince didn’t enjoy the spectacle. Letters that he wrote to his mistress Freda Dudley Ward while on tour indicate he loathed his time in New Zealand. He was unimpressed with New Zealand’s “ham-faced”, ungraceful women, bad food and he struggled with the unrelenting tedium of his official duties. The day after the debacle at Petone he wrote to his paramour:

“It is a rotten way of seeing a fine country… Returned soldiers & shrieking crowds & school children are all I shall remember from my visit my beloved though I might add drunkinos as half the men are overflowing with scotch at most of the places I’ve been to.”

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