By Ruth Wackrow

When proud Hamiltonian and champion of the Waikato region George Parr died on 26 February 1929, one of Kirikiriroa Hamilton’s best loved parks was born. In his will, Mr. Parr generously bequeathed his home and the three acres of land it sat on to the people of Hamilton with the intention of it becoming a convalescent home and playground for children and families to enjoy.[1] Although it was ultimately decided that the house would not be appropriate for a convalescent home, Parana Park was developed into a popular family destination that people are still enjoying almost 100 years later.

Parana Park Hamilton, 1936. © 2005 University of Waikato Library. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. https://onehera.waikato.ac.nz/nodes/view/2349

Parr was born in St. Helens, Lancashire, and moved to Hamilton with his parents as a young boy. The family initially settled in Cambridge, but subsequently moved to Hamilton, where his father – Mr. John Parr – later became mayor. After leaving school, George and his brother Robert acquired a grocery business in Hood Street, which they ran until George retired. He was said to have taken an active part in “the public life of the town”, and was the president of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce for several years. However, Parr never married, and left no children. [2]

The task of creating the Parana Park recreational area was given to the Hamilton Beautifying Society, who immediately began formulating plans. The Society’s 1931 annual report shows that much of the initial work was undertaken by returned soldiers, such as cutting down the old orchard, clearing away hedges, ploughing the entirety of the park and seeding it with grass, building a substantial aviary with ponga, making preparations for a children’s paddling pool, creating paths down to the river and grading the approach to the proposed bridge between Parana Park and adjoining Memorial Park. [3]

By the beginning of 1932 the children’s paddling pool was completed, chairs had been placed, gas and water lines provided, and beautiful gardens formed. Shelters with small tables, coin operated gas rings, and the shade from large trees all made for an excellent picnicking destination. [4]

The park’s “rolling lawns and magnificent flower beds, which form a colourful setting for the profusion of stately trees”, was considered one of the most beautiful areas in the burgeoning town. One visitor reported that the “Rhododendrons and various other shrubs make a fine showing”. [5]

A ponga house had also been built to grow a large variety of begonias in beds and hanging baskets, the health and beauty of which were admired. Although begonias were previously thought to be delicate hothouse plants that were best grown in individual pots in New Zealand, frilled, crested, double, single, crisper and crispata begonias were all flourishing in beds and the pendula variety was in pots hanging from the roof. This way of growing begonias in New Zealand had “opened up a new field in the cultivation of these plants” and was “a sight worth going many miles to see”. However, it seems that in early 1932 many residents of Hamilton were still totally unaware that such a beautiful site was available to them, and visitor numbers were low. It was said that “When the public of Hamilton fully realise the attractions of Parana Park there will doubtless be more use made of it”. [6] This prediction was soon proven to be correct, as in February 1933 it was reported that the park was “rapidly becoming a popular resort”. [7]

Improvements to the land were nearing completion in April 1933 and a foot bridge over the small stream that divides Parana Park and Memorial Park, made from Te Kuiti limestone, was finished. Two marble memorial tablets were laid in the bridge, which commemorated the late George Parr and the late Annie McPherson. [8] Ms. McPherson generously bequeathed almost £3000 to the Hamilton Beautifying Society to be used on work at Parana Park. It was felt that an ornamental bridge would be an ideal way to spend the money as it would greatly improve public access to the park. [9] 

The bridge that connects Parana Park and Memorial Park in 2022. Photo Ruth Wackrow

In August 1933 around 25 boys from the Kahukura Boys Club marched down Victoria Street to Parana Park where they planted liquidambar trees. A ceremony was held with some citizens of Hamilton and the mayor Mr. J R Fow spoke about the history of the park and commented on the beauty and utility of the trees. [10]

Parana Park had become a “haven from the busy rush of main-street traffic, where the children can play in safety while their parents rest under the shady trees”, [11] a vision Mr. Parr would have surely loved.

Nevertheless, the beauty and good health of the plants was tempting to some in other ways. In December 1935, two boys aged 11 and 12 were charged with the removal of plants from the park, which they sold to residents around Hamilton. The court commented that the residents should be aware and take more care as they could themselves be charged with receiving stolen goods. [12]

It appears that the theft of plants continues to be a threat to this day, as there is at the time of writing a sign between the stone bridge and the children’s playground which reads: “Please don’t steal our plants”.

In 1937 one seedling of oak and one of a tanekaha tree were planted to celebrate the coronation of King George VI by St. Peters Guide Company. The trees were donated by the Hamilton Beautifying Society to celebrate its 13th birthday. Eighty visitors attended. [13]

In addition to the various birds in the park’s several aviaries, there were also pens of white rabbits and guinea pigs, which added to the parks popularity. [14] There are still aviaries in the park and the birds remain popular with children. In 1937 a wallaby, which was one of Parana Park’s most loved attractions, escaped through a hole in the wire netting and a lively chase ensued.  After an exhausting effort by the two park-keepers and several residents who lived near-by, the animal was eventually caught and put back in its pen. It was noted that the wallaby was very fast and elusive. [15]

Aviary at Parana Park Hamilton in 2022. Photo Ruth Wackrow.

The children’s paddling pool proved to be extremely popular on hot days and in 1937 its design was altered for safety reasons after several complaints were laid. [16] One parent called the pool a “trap for children” after her son had been caught by surprise by the steep sides and depth of the water and had become a “duckling up to the neck, above which appeared a shocked and whitened face”. [17]

Terraced stairs were created around the entire pool replacing the steep sloping sides, and more trees were planted around it. [18]

Once reopened the pool was once again crowded on the weekends, and a fine display of wood hyacinths, spring growth on trees and grass in good condition was observed, making the area a fine place for children to play. [19] The paddling pool is still extremely popular during the warmer months, with “hot weather, high use and “unhygenic [sic] activity”” seemingly comprising its greatest contemporary danger. [20,21]

The Paddling Pool at Parana Park, Hamilton, 2022. Photo Ruth Wackrow.

In 1937 a pergola was completed, the begonia house was rethatched and the creek was cleaned out. The year started with a very wet summer, resulting in a lot of heavy vegetation growth that the staff needed to work hard to control. An astonishing 30,000 plants were propagated in the early months of the year for use in the beds. [22]

An additional 100 pongas were planted in 1939 to add to those already in the area, adding to the abundance of native plants. [23]

During the 1930s and 1940s many groups delighted in using the park for various garden parties, school fetes and church fundraising events for organisations such as the League of Mothers, [24] St Paul’s Methodist Church, [25] St Aidan’s Church, [26] the Salvation Army, [27] Girl Guides and Brownies, [28] and the P and T Ladies association. [29] There were reports of heavy-laden stalls which sold cakes, sweets, and ice-creams, and games and competitions were put on. The South Auckland Pipe Band played several times over the years to which school children performed folk dancing for entertainment. On one occasion Norman Tate, a man “better known to thousands of school children in Australia and New Zealand as the Fun Doctor” [30], arrived expecting to relax at a garden party, but was recognized by the excited children and was compelled to perform his popular juggling act. [31]

Whitiora, Frankton and Hamilton West Schools often held and attended events at the park. Hamilton West School held its garden fete at the park in November 1933 to help raise money for the school. The South Auckland Caledonian Pipe Band played while the children performed folk dancing, and as well as the usual stalls and competitions there was a conjuring act, comedy pieces and a “King of the Ugly Men” competition, which was won the schools headmaster, Mr. Hall. [32]

A similar event was held by Hamilton West School in 1934 where “the weather was delightful, and the park presented a gay and animated scene”. [33] There was a large attendance of parents and hundreds of children in bright clothing had a wonderful time. However, this event was deemed to have an unsatisfactory outcome by the Hamilton Beautifying Society.

Mr. Wallis, then foreman of Parana Park, told the Society that it was the first time a school had organised a picnic at the park and that they were continually climbing trees, running up and down banks and that damage was inevitable; more control should have been exercised over the children. [34]

However, the Headmaster of Hamilton West School and the Chairman of the school committee refuted the claim that the children had damaged the park; “special precautions were taken to ensure that the beautiful park was treated with the care it deserves”, strictest supervision throughout the entirety of the grounds by staff, the Parents Association and members of the School Committee was maintained and “the children themselves, who on all occasions take a particular pride in their conduct, behaved in every way, in keeping with the tradition of Hamilton West School”. [35]  Saying that they were insufficiently controlled and caused damage to the park was a misrepresentation of facts. One boy did climb a tree, but under supervision to retrieve a model airplane, and no damage was done to the tree. Mr. Wallis was asked to assess the damage after the fete and found none and admitted that the park was left in good order.  

Despite this admission, it was decided at the Beautifying Society’s meeting to not “sanction the use of Parana Park in future for organized school picnics”, saying that it was an inappropriate venue for 300 or 400 children, but good for the use of individual families. [36]

Memorial tablet commemorating George Parr on the bridge at Parana Park, Hamilton, 2022. Photo Ruth Wackrow.

In 1942 a proposal by W. H. Paul, chairman of the Hamilton Beautifying Society, was made for the creation of an open-air theatre, similar to one in London’s Regent Park. [37] After some discussion it was agreed upon, and in 1943 the theatre was completed, the first of its kind in New Zealand. The theatre was made up of a grassed raised stage, wings of lawsonia hedges, and a backdrop of poplar. It could hold over 1000 spectators and took three years to construct. [38]

Mr T. Horton, Supervisor for Parks New Plymouth, visited in 1945 and gave his praise to the beauty of the gardens at Parana Park – and especially the open-air theatre – saying it was giving a lead to the whole country by creating an open-air theatre that was as beautiful as it was useful to the cultural life of the town. [39]  The open-air theatre was used for the first time by the Hamilton High School girl’s drama club when they gave a reading of J. M. Barrie’s ‘Quality Street’. [40] However, the theatre was not officially opened until March 1947. Performances by the schools of Hamilton included four picturesque ballets, music, dances and verse speaking. Over 700 people attended, and the proceeds went to Hamilton Plunket Society. [41] The theatre was well used during the 1940s and ‘50s, but sadly has since been removed.

At present there is a large variety of native and exotic plants at Parana Park and a kōwhai themed children’s playground. However, there is little to acknowledge the precolonial Māori ownership of the land, or that it was taken in 1863 during the invasion of the Waikato by colonial forces in the ‘New Zealand Wars’. It is situated opposite Rangiora hill, now the site of the Anglican St. Peters Cathedral, and upstream of Miropiko Pā. Both are important sites for local Māori. [42]

In less than one decade Hamilton will celebrate Parana Parks’ 100th birthday. It is still very well utilised by the public, a fact that Mr. Parr – and all those who made such an effort to turn Parana Park into the place it is today – would be proud of.

A view towards the Kōwhai themed playground, Parana Park, Hamilton, 2022. Photo Ruth Wackrow.

References

[1] Bequests to Hamilton, Waikato Times, 2 March 1929, P8

[2] Obituary, Waikato Times, 26 February 1929, P6

[3] Beautifying Society, Waikato Times, 22 April 1931, P10

[4] Beautifying Hamilton, New Zealand Herald, 7 May 1932, P16

[5] Beautifying The Town, Waikato Times, 4 January 1932, P6

[6] Parana Park, Waikato Times, 21 January 1932, P8

[7] A Garden City, Waikato Times, 7 February 1933, P3

[8] Waikato Times, 8 April 1933, P5

[9]  Memorial Bridge, Waikato Times, 12 March 1931, P6

[10] Port Waikato Club, Waikato Times, 4 August 1933, P3 

[11] Glory of Summer, Waikato Times, 14 December 1935, P9 

[12] Theft of Plants, Waikato Times, 21 December 1935, P7 

[13] Coronation Trees, New Zealand Herald, 13 September 1937, P12 

[14] Improvements to Park, New Zealand Herald, 30 March 1933, P11

[15] Poverty Bay Herald, 23 February 1937, P2

[16] Parana Park, Waikato Times, 5 August 1937, P8

[17] Paddling Pool, Waikato Times, 30 April 1937, P9 

[18] Bathing for Children, Waikato Times, 16 September 1937, P8 

[19] New Paddling Pool, Waikato Times, 19 October 1937, P6

[20] Is Parana Park Making Your Kids Sick? Waikato Times, 25 February 2013

[21] High Bacteria Levels Close Children’s Water Feature in Hamilton Park, Waikato Times, 5 February 2020

[22] Borough Amenities, Waikato Times, 29 December 1937, P6 

[23] Waikato Times, 19 September 1939, P6

[24] League Of Mothers, Waikato Times, 25 February 1931, P5 

[25] Women’s World, Waikato Times, 24 November 1936, P3

[26] Garden Party, Waikato Times, 31 March 1939, P8

[27] Children’s Fete, Waikato Times, 5 December 1936, P8 

[28] Guides’ Field Day, Waikato Times, 1 November 1937, P3 

[29] P. & T. Ladies’ Association, Waikato Times, 13 November 1937, Page 16 (Supplement)

[30] Mr Norman Tate, Sun (Auckland), 29 December 1928, P12

[31] Garden Party, Waikato Times,18 November 1933, P8 

[32] Garden Fete, Waikato Times, 27 November 1933, P8

[33] School Garden Party, New Zealand Herald, 27 November 1934, P3

[34] Picnics in Park, Waikato Times, 29 November 1934, P8

[35] Parana Park, Waikato Times, 1 December 1934, P7

[36] Use of Public Park, New Zealand Herald, 30 November 1934, P15

[37] News of the Day, Gisborne Herald, 11 December 1942, P2 

[38] Open-Air Theatre, Waikato Times, 12 October 1943, P4

[39] Visitor’s Praise, Waikato Times, 3 October 1945, P4 

[40] Open-Air Theatre, Gisborne Herald, 17 October 1945, P6

[41] Open-Air Theatre, Otago Daily Times, 17 March 1947, P4 

[42] New Zealand Parliament, [Volume:670; Page:17080], Nanaia Mahuta, Hamilton City Council (Parana Park) Land Vesting Bill — In Committee

One thought on “Hamilton’s Parana Park: “A Haven from the Busy Rush”

  1. This is an impressive and well-researched article. Thank you. Hopefully it will encourage council to put up a plaque acknowledging its significance for Maaori and subsequent confiscation

    Liked by 1 person

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