The History of Garden Gnomes in New Zealand: An interview on Radio New Zealand

Garden History Research Foundation Trustee Ian Duggan was interviewed by Jesse Mulligan on his ‘Afternoons’ show on Radio New Zealand (Tuesday 21 March, 2023) about the history of garden gnomes in New Zealand.

Listen to the interview via Radio New Zealand at the link, below:

Upcoming talk (Hamilton Gardens): From Paradise to Pompeii: Near Eastern origins of the ancient Roman garden

Peristyle garden, House of the Vettii, Pompeii. reconstruction. Wikimedia commons.

Annette Giesecke will present “From Paradise to Pompeii: Near Eastern origins of the ancient Roman garden” at Hamilton Gardens, at 6 – 7:30 pm on the 27th April (room TBA).

$5 door charge and raffle.


Mention of ancient Roman gardens conjures images of lavish suburban estates outfitted with sprawling gardens containing specimen plantings from around the world, aviaries and fishponds, pergolas for outdoor dining, and sculpture-lined swimming pools such as those described by statesman Pliny the Younger in his letters or evidenced by the remains of the emperor Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli. Such gardens would influence Byzantine, Islamic, and monastic gardens as well as gardens of Renaissance Europe; they would resonate in gardens from the seventeenth century onwards, their underlying presence felt to the present day. But the Roman world had not always been a garden showcase.

This lushly illustrated lecture traces the origins of the Roman domestic garden ‘movement’ from the mid second century BCE, when conquests in the Near East—the former Persian Empire including Egypt—exposed Romans to garden traditions already thousands of years old. On the model of Near Eastern kings and potentates with their ‘paradise’ gardens, wealthy Romans created gardens that were Roman empires in miniature, gathering in the monuments of the larger world in replica. Romans of lesser means soon followed suit, replacing kitchen gardens with paradises situated at the very heart of their homes.


Annette Giesecke is a specialist in the history and meaning of ancient Mediterranean gardens. Her work extends to the many cultural uses of plants in antiquity, including symbolic, religious, culinary, medicinal, ornamental, and technological. Her books include A Cultural History of PlantsClassical Mythology A to ZThe Mythology of Plants, The Good Gardener? Nature, Humanity, and the Garden, and Earth Perfect? Nature, Utopia, and the Garden.

Annette is currently affiliated with the Centre for Science in Society, Victoria University of Wellington and serves as a Trustee of the Garden History Research Foundation.

‘Natural Lifeboats’: Reports of Giant Water Lilies in New Zealand

Ian Duggan

Giant water lilies have appeared in the news recently with the description last year of a new species, Victoria boliviana – the Bolivian waterlily – recognised by Guinness World Records for possessing the world’s largest waterlily leaf, with a diameter of a little over three metres.

The genus Victoria was coined in 1837 by John Lindley, professor of natural history at the University of London and a secretary of the Horticultural Society of London, in a description based on specimens of the giant Amazon waterlily collected in British Guiana (now Guyana) by German-born explorer Robert Schomburgk. The genus was named after the new Queen of the British Empire, Victoria, with the description published in the year of her accession to the throne. It was accordingly given the name of ‘Victoria regia’.

To put a slight spanner in the works, however, an earlier description of the species had already been made, in 1832 by German botanist Eduard Friedrich Poeppig, where it was placed within the genus Euryale, under the name Euryale amazonica. It was first included in this genus due to its perceived similarity to Euryale ferox, the ‘prickly waterlily’, a water lily found in southern and eastern Asia. While it was correctly appreciated by Lindley that the species should be classified in a new genus, and not within the Euryale, nomenclatural rules dictated the species should be correctly named Victoria amazonica, using the original species designation, and using the new genus name. Nevertheless, the name Victoria regia remained entrenched within the literature for many years.

Postcard. Victoria regia, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Date and Photographer unknown. Duggan collection.

How aware of Victoria were New Zealanders?

The first mentions of giant water lilies in New Zealand newspapers came in the early 1850s, regarding English specimens[i]. “The Victoria Regia water-lily continues flowering beautifully in the open pond at Messrs Week’s nursery, King’s Road, Chelsea. The whole plant has a gigantic appearance, having twenty leaves, each leaf twenty feet in circumference, and the foot stalks thirteen feet in length.”[ii]

A few years later, reports began arriving from closer to home, in Australia.

Firstly, “An amateur florist in Ballarat”, reported the Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle via the Tribune in 1862, “has succeeded in raising three plants of the Victoria Regia from seed. As soon as the house they are in is finished, and the plants large enough, it is the intention of the grower to exhibit them.”[iii] Nothing more was reported from Ballarat, however. From 1868 through to 1893, a theme emerged of the progress of the plants at Adelaide Botanic Gardens. In October 1868 it was reported that “Among the sights to be seen in the Botanical Gardens at Adelaide, is a gigantic Victoria Regia water-lily. The Advertiser states that it was planted on the 23rd July last, and from a small root, throwing out a single leaf six inches in diameter, it has spread over almost the whole extent of the aquarium, about 40 feet by 30 [9 by 12 metres]. The leaves are round, and some of them four feet [or 1.2 m] in diameter. The stalks are very lengthy, and the leaves do not crowd upon each other, but each floats on the surface of the water, with a clear space separating it from any other leave”.[iv] A few days later it was noted it was just coming into bloom.”[v] In November, “The Victoria Regia has proved a great attraction to the Botanic Gardens, and over 30,000 persons have visited it since it came into bloom.”[vi] For those following the news of the Adelaide Victoria, disappointment – and perhaps some confusion – would have been felt in August 1870, when it was reported that “Serious depredations have taken place from the Victoria Regia house, at the Botanical Gardens. The house will, consequently, have to be closed to the public, except on certain days”.[vii] Whatever happened, the lilies were still to be seen. A correspondent in September 1871 described the scene, with “a large hot-house full of beautiful tropical plants, with a Victoria regia floating in the centre, the leaves of which were as round as a dinner plate and fully four times as large”[viii] Disaster struck in late 1874, however, when a single line was reported in at least five separate New Zealand newspapers, stating in truly Australian style: “The Victoria Regia in the Botanic Gardens has been destroyed by larrikins.”[ix] All was not lost for Adelaide, however, as in 1893 it was noted that “several magnificent blooms of the Victoria Regia have been on view to visitors of late. One of the staff had the idea of testing the carrying capacity of one of the large floating leaves, and a little girl of nine years of age was placed upon the miniature raft in a sitting position. A photograph was taken of the interesting incident”.[x]

This report leads us to the second theme from overseas reports, the buoyancy of the leaves, and a fascination with the number of people they could support. Preceding this Australian report, in 1870, “Mr. Wm. Sowerby, of the Botanic Gardens, Regent’s Park [England], gives… a very curious and instructive account of what is termed a natural lifeboat — that is, the leaf of the gigantic Victoria regia, which he says he was able to load — and is still floated — to the great weight of 426 lbs [= 193 kg]. He believes that, with care, it could be made to float a number of persons”.[xi] In 1896 William’s son James Bryant Sowerby was in the news for similar reasons; “A curious personal experience has been that of Mr J. B. Sowerby, the assistant secretary of the Royal Botanical Society, London. Recently he sat on one of the floating leaves of the Victoria Regia water lily for a considerable time, without causing it to sink appreciably, ‘thus supporting a weight of 150lb’ [68 kg]”[xii] Elsewhere, in 1876, it was reported that “The leaves of the gigantic waterlily, known as the Victoria Regia, in the Botanic-garden at Ghent [Belgium], having attained a remarkably large size, Mr Van Hulle, the chief gardener, recently undertook to determine their buoyant power. One leaf easily supported a child, and did not sink under a man. Mr Van Hulle then heaped bricks over its entire area, and found that before the leaf became submerged a weight of 761 lb [345 kg] was floated.”[xiii]

Another theme was that of the association of Victoria with the freshwater jellyfish, Craspedacusta sowerbii, which was named in honour of J.B. Sowerby. In 1880 it was noted that “A new freshwater jellyfish (Medusa) has been discovered in England by Mr. Sowerby, Secretary of the Botanical Society. It is very abundant in the lily-house in Regent’s Park, London, in the warm water tank devoted to the cultivation of the Victoria regia. The largest specimens are nearly half an inch in transverse diameter.”[xiv] A few years later, it appeared in association with the plant again in another set of gardens: “much interest was aroused by the discovery of a fresh-water Medusa, or jelly fish, in the water tank devoted to the ‘Victoria regia’ lily in the Botanic Gardens, London. No one knew whence the interesting little stranger came, and after a short time it disappeared. For three years nothing has been seen of it; but suddenly it has reappeared, not in London, but at the Botanic Gardens, Sheffield, in a tank containing the ‘Victoria regia’. Certain water plants had been sent from London to the Sheffield Gardens in April 1892, and again a year later, so that the ‘infection’ from one tank to the other is fully accounted for.”[xv] Fast forward to 1929, when they were recorded again in their initial site of English discovery; “They were first observed in 1880 and their appearance was a mystery. For three years they inhabited the tank, and then, in 1883, they disappeared as suddenly as they had come. It was though at first that the draining of the tank for six months in the year explained the mystery, for no jellyfish like being out of water. Now, after an absence of forty-five years, the jelly fish are once more swimming in the tank in which they were first found”[xvi]. Seemingly unaware of the Sheffield report, it was noted: “This family of jelly fish has never been found at any other place except Regent’s Park.”[xvii] This jellyfish was first recorded in New Zealand in 1956, firstly from Lake Taupo, and then later that year in Lake Tarawera. While now widely distributed in New Zealand, it has seemingly not been recorded in association with giant water lilies.

Craspedacusta sowerbii, a global invader originating from China (Barry O’Brien, The University of Waikato, photo)

But what about Victoria in New Zealand?

The first hint of the introduction of giant water lilies into New Zealand was in 1867, with a curious denial by a supposed importer: H.C. Field, Esq., of Wanganui, stated that “it was a mistake about him having imported the Victoria Regia, but that he had made several unsuccessful attempts to import the English water lily.”[xviii] The first likely introduction was reported a few years later, in the New Zealand Herald in 1872: “Those who have seen that magnificent water plant the Victoria Regia Lily in the full bloom of health and beauty, will be glad to learn that the seed has been imported into New Zealand. A Hawkes Bay contemporary says: We learn that a packet of seeds of the Victoria Regia was brought down by Mr. Bryant in the Star of the South. These seeds are to be sent to Taupo, to be planted in the most favourable pools. The seeds were obtained by the Agent General from Kew gardens. We sincerely hope that this effort at acclimatization may be successful. The introduction of the plant will not be of any practical benefit, but as perhaps the most magnificent of the water lilies it is well worth the trouble of introducing it if only for ornamental purposes”. The Auckland newspaper continued, “Might not our society endeavour to procure seeds and make a trial with them in some of our neighbouring freshwater lakes?”.[xix]

Nothing seemed to come from the Taupo introduction, and the possibility of further importations were not reported until around 60 years later. The Timaru Herald in 1931 noted an offer of the water lily to Timaru Botanic Gardens: “The curator reported as follows:—’I am attaching letters from Mr H. H. Brown in connection with seeds of Victoria regia, and will be pleased to know what I am to do in connection with the matter. — My own opinion is that to accommodate such plants in Timaru at the present time would be very expensive, and rather ahead of the times.’— It was resolved to recommend that the offer be not accepted, but that the seeds be offered to other towns with hothouse and tank accommodation.”[xx]

In 1934 it was hoped that Christchurch Botanic Gardens would receive seeds from Germany: That year they received a large consignment of seeds of hardy trees and shrubs from the Arnold Arboretum [at Harvard University], in the USA, most not yet in cultivation in the country, forwarded on request and in exchange seeds of New Zealand plants would be sent. It was the intention of the curator of the gardens Mr McPherson, to build up the policy of such exchanges over the following twelve months. McPherson was hoping for specimens of the New Zealand sundew, which he hoped members of mountaineering clubs might be able to help procure; “The seeds are wanted to carry out an exchange with the German Botanic Gardens. It is the intention of the German authorities to send specimens of the hardy variety of the giant waterlily, Victoria Regia which has its home in the Amazon River, South America. The leaves are large enough to bear the weight of a small child.”[xxi] Nothing apparently came of this hope.

“Victoria regia, The Giant Water-Lily of the Amazon. Their leaves can support the weight of a child, being upward of ten feet in diameter”. Star (Christchurch), 19 January 1929, P 21 (Supplement)

Around 100 years after the first reports in New Zealand newspapers, and a number of false starts, the Giant Water lily was finally grown in New Zealand. In 1950 it was reported that “Victoria Regia, a giant Amazon water lily, is being grown in Auckland from seed brought from Kew Gardens, London. The seed of Victoria Regia has germinated before in New Zealand, but has never reached maturity. This seed, brought out by the new assistant director of the city, parks department, Mr. George Dean, is being carefully nursed in a heated tank in one of the propagating houses. The leaves reach a diameter of 7ft. [= 2 m], with edges which turn up 4in. to 6in. [10-15 cm]”. The report was sure to add, “They are strong enough to bear the weight of a small child”.[xxii]

As might be expected, the plants proved popular. In January 1951, a “crowd estimated at between 15,000 and 20,000 filed into the Auckland Domain tropical house to see the giant water lily Victoria regina flower at the week-end. The lily, which is the first of its kind to be successfully germinated in New Zealand, started to open at 6.30 p.m. on Saturday and continued to develop throughout the night and Sunday. It was estimated by one of the attendants that an average of 150 people entered the house every five minutes between 1.30 p.m. and 7.30 p.m. on Sunday and between 4.30 p.m. and dusk on Saturday.”[xxiii] It is interesting to note the incorrect spelling here, with the plant noted as “Victoria regina” rather than “Victoria regia”, a mistake that has not been uncommon through time.

More of the country got to experience the plant in 1953. “A leaf of the Victoria Regia lily which is growing in the tropical house of the Auckland Domain has been sent to Wellington as an exhibit at the national flower show. It was six feet [1.8 m] across, and was sent by air freight. Special packing was required to ensure that the leaf arrived in good condition. It was covered with a sheet of burlap and damp moss, and then rolled in thick building paper. This container, which had a diameter of about 14 inches [=36 cm], was reinforced with battens. The parcel weighed 56 lb [25.4 kg]. The Victoria Regia lily in the domain is the only plant of its kind in the Dominion. A leaf had not previously been sent by the Auckland City Parks Department to another city”.[xxiv]

Postcard: “Domain Tropical House, Winter Gardens, Auckland”. “On the pond in the picture is the rare giant Amazonian lily, Victoria Regia”. G.B. Scott Publications, Auckland. Date unknown. Duggan collection.

Auckland Domain continued to grow the plants. In 1954, the process of moving the plant from the Domain nursey to the Winter Garden glass houses was detailed: “The biggest water lily in New Zealand, the Auckland City Council’s Victoria Regia, has been transplanted. About 12 months old, it was carried in a wheelbarrow from the Domain nursery to the tropical house in the winter gardens. Five gardeners, supervised by the council’s horticultural adviser (Mr G. F. Fillmore), were needed for the job. A native of the Amazon river area, the lily will be grown in water heated to between 75 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit [24-29 C). It was wrapped in to keep it warm on the short journey from the nursery to the tropical house. The plant is the fourth to be grown in Auckland. It now has four leaves each about 15 inches across. Last year’s lily grew 18 flowers and 43 leaves. The flowers are pure white when they open in the evening and change to a beautiful pink the next day. They last for a day”.[xxv] They were sure to note, of course, that “By Christmas the leaves should be more than six feet in diameter and strong enough to support a small child”.

Year by year, the water lily continued to provide an attraction. In January 1955, “Nearly 4000 visitors watched the season’s first flower of the giant South American Victoria regia water lily passing through the last stages of its two-day life cycle in the Domain winter gardens yesterday. They were still coming after nightfall, and the tropical house, lit for the occasion, was kept open until late. The bloom went through a remarkable transformation in colour and shape. It was pure white when it opened at 6.15 p.m. on Sunday, and the outer petals remained cupped during the night. Yesterday the petals dropped down to water level. At 3 p.m. a faint pink tinge began to appear at the base of the flower and slowly seeped through the petals, deepening all the while. At 6.10 p.m. the inner cone of small petals began to open. At 7 o’clock the drooping petals were old rose, and the cone at the top a duller red.

This morning the flower dropped down under the water, where the seed will ripen before floating to the surface.

A second bud bobbed to the surface of the pond yesterday. It appears to be a poorer specimen, and the gardeners may decide to remove it. Last year’s plant produced a flower about once every four days. Two dozen persons were waiting for the tropical house to open at 8 a.m. yesterday. Throughout the day there was an average of 60 grouped round the lily pond.”[xxvi]

For a number of years, blooms were a regular event, with some exceptions. In 1960, it was noted that: “It became an annual attraction until two years ago, when continuous alterations to the tropical house made its care too difficult”. However, “If all goes well, the giant South American waterlily Victoria regia will bloom again in the Auckland Domain winter gardens this season. Seed now on its way to Auckland from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London, will be sown in the tropical nursery at the Domain as soon as it arrives. A plant may be ready for shifting to the central pond about mid October.”[xxvii] Flowering was apparently unsuccessful, however.

In 1961, it was noted – finally using the species’ correct name – that “A seedling of the giant Amazon lily (Victoria amazonica) has been raised in the Auckland Domain nursery. It will be planted in the pond at the tropical house next month, and if it does well its short-lived but spectacular flowering cycle should take place at the end of December or in January.”[xxviii] This attempt was successful, with reports from February 1962 noting that “the giant Amazon water lily (Victoria regina amazonica) flowered on Sunday night for the first season since 1955… The creamy white petals of the first bud unfolded shortly before 7 p.m. As the flowering cycle of the nocturnal flower lasts only two days—the petals turn a deep pink on the second day—the garden was kept open until 9 pm to allow visitors to see the lily”. Interestingly, it was also noted that “This year’s plant is the first to be grown from seed raised in New Zealand”.[xxix]



[i] The Exhibition of 1851. New Zealander, 2 April 1851, P 2

[ii] Lyttleton Times, 14 February 1852, P 5

[iii] Victoria. Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, 29 January 1862, P 3

[iv] Otago Daily Times, 5 October 1868, P 5

[v] Australian Telegrams. New Zealand Herald, 13 October, P 7

[vi] Australian Telegrams. Daily Southern Cross, 14 November 1868, P 6

[vii] Latest Australian News, West Coast Times, 13 August 1870, P 2

[viii] Notes by the Way. Lyttleton Times, 25 September 1871, P 3

[ix] Intercolonial News. New Zealand Times, 3 November 1874, P 3

[x] Colonist, 27 May 1893, P 4

[xi] General News. Tuapeka Times, 12 February 1870, P 3

[xii] Otago Witness, 5 March 1896, P 63

[xiii] Southland Times, 10 May 1876, P 3

[xiv] New Zealand Herald, 18 December 1880, P 3

[xv] Science Notes. Otago Witness, 10 May 1894, P 48

[xvi] Science Notes. Western Star, 5 March 1929, P 3

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Acclimitization Society. Press, 27 April 1867, P 3

[xix] New Zealand Herald, 24 July 1872, P 2

[xx] Timaru Herald, 10 November 1931, P 8

[xxi] Botanic Gardens. Star (Christchurch), 12 January 1934, P 10

[xxii] Gisborne Herald, 26 August 1950, P 6

[xxiii] Press, 23 January 1951, P 6

[xxiv] Press, 11 February 1953, P 8

[xxv] Five Men Move Water Lily. Press, 23 October 1954, P 9

[xxvi] 4000 Visitors Watch Giant Water Lily Turn Red. Press, January 1955, P 8

[xxvii] South American Waterlily. Press, 8 July 1960, P 18

[xxviii] Press, 8 September 1961, P 12

[xxix] Water Lily in Flower. Press, 8 February 1962, P 10

Hamilton’s Lake Rotoroa – “One of the Town’s Finest Assets” 

by Ruth Wackrow

Eventide. Hamilton Lake. Cartwright photo, date unknown. © 2018 University of Waikato Library. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

Lake Rotoroa (Long Lake)[1] – unimaginatively referred to as ‘Hamilton Lake’ by many local residents – is a natural lake in the heart of Hamilton City, formed when the Waikato River changed course around 20,000 years ago[2]. It is a well-used recreational haven that’s popularity stretches back well over one hundred years. Today many people utilise its large destination playgrounds, sports fields, rose garden, retired steam train, and Verandah Café. People can also walk around the entirety of the lake, which includes large boardwalks on the south-western side[3].  

Prior to European colonisation of New Zealand, Māori used Lake Rotoroa for harvesting kai, where they collected kaakahi (freshwater mussels) and kooura (freshwater crayfish)[4].  

While little is recorded of the pre-European history of the lake, its development as a public amenity from the late 19th Century was widely reported in the newspapers. Initiating this, on the 17th of April 1886, it was published in the New Zealand Herald that “The Hamilton Lake, 141 acres, which lies on the borders of the borough, has just been vested, by notification in the New Zealand Gazette, as the property of the borough”, and the area became a public reserve[5]

The lake and surrounding domain were immediately put to use as a recreational area and during the late 19th Century there were various types of swimming, boating, and athletic activities held there. One of the first public events was held in January 1888, when a merry-go-round, shooting gallery, and Russian swing to launch people into the water were in action[6].  

In August 1888 one of the first tree planting events took place at the domain, which approximately 250 people attended. The first tree to be planted was a large oak, and then around 1500 pre-prepared holes were filled with a variety of different trees[7]

The Hamilton Swimming Club hosted the Waikato Anniversary Swimming Races in 1888[8] and 1889[9], which proved to be very popular. The 1888 event was attended by between 400 and 500 people. During both years, in addition to the swimming races, there were refreshment stalls, tents, a merry-go-round, flags, and boats and canoes on the water.  

A regatta held on the 30th of January 1889 was highly successful with more than 1300 people present. Rowing clubs travelled from the North Shore, Auckland, and Ngaaruawaahia. It was published in the Waikato Argus that the lake was “one of the finest waters for rowing on imaginable, and the picturesque grounds at the back provide a natural grandstand for viewing the contests” and “no place could be more suited for such a gathering”. The Hamilton Brass band played, and there was a publican booth and refreshment booths. There were also swimming races, dingy races, canoe hurdle races, and waka racing, which the public enjoyed[10].  

The Lake, Hamilton, NZ. Photo by Gaze and Co. Date unknown. FT Series Postcard. IC Duggan collection

Various other swimming and rowing competitions were held at Lake Rotoroa over the late 1800s and early 1900s, which were hosted by the Hamilton Swimming Club and the Hamilton Rowing Club[11] [12] [13] [14] [15] [16] [17] [18] [19].  It was reported that these events were well attended and appreciated by Hamilton’s residents.  

Volunteers from the Hamilton community cleared and burned off scrub in 1901 to make more room for recreational activities[20]

In December 1902, Mr. George Parr acquired a consignment of trout that came via train from the Waimakariri, which he released into Lake Rotoroa. It was thought that if the trout were able to reproduce, trout fishing would be a good addition to activities on the lake. However, some were doubtful that it would succeed because it had been tried unsuccessfully around 15 years prior[21]. Mr. Parr acquired more trout in 1903, this time releasing 1500 fry into the lake[22]. Nevertheless, both releases proved unsuccessful and trout were not established in Lake Rotoroa.  

Realising that trout might never be successful, in 1904 bookseller and publisher Mr. W.H. Paul decided to instead try releasing perch for the purpose of game fishing[23]. After releasing more perch in 1905[24] [25] this endeavor was found to be successful, with the fish observed to be “doing well” in 1906[26], and one was caught in 1908 of a good two-pound size[27].  In 1916 one angler caught five perch in one day, proving that the fish were well established[28]. By 1935 the stock of perch in the lake was so great that 100 were caught and given to the Auckland Acclimatisation Society[29].  

During the 1900s the Lake Domain continued to be well used during the warm months by the public, and school and community groups. The Hamilton West School picnic was held in 1904[30], and on the 8th of February 1905 the Grand Aquatic Carnival and Sports evening was held at the domain. A “brilliant and illuminated procession” marched from the railway station in Frankton to the lake where foot races, boat races, and races for children were enjoyed[31]

In 1910 one Frankton resident wrote to the Argus about their recent outing to the Lake Domain where they watched an excellent band performance. They were, however, very disappointed that the grounds had not been kept to a good standard. The gates were also locked meaning that children’s prams and go-carts needed to be lifted over the fence, and horses and buggies needed to be parked along the street, which was believed to be unnecessary as there was ample room within the domain[32]

Fireworks displays were also a favourite attraction for the public[33]. In 1910 one major display included a “realistic representation of a waterfall”, a moving butterfly, a peacock with multi-coloured feathers, and a sparkling fountain. There was also “humorous moving pictures” on a screen and the fire club swinging act of Flamos[34]

In order to “add to the attractions” at Lake Rotoroa a number of black swans[35] [36], white swans, and mallard ducks[37] were introduced, and in April 1911 a warrant under the Animals Protection Act 1908 was published in the New Zealand Gazette declaring the lake a sanctuary for both native and imported game, meaning that people were not allowed to hunt them. Signs were placed around the lake to inform the public[38]

The Lake. Hamilton, NZ. Date and photographer unknown. Ian Duggan collection.

A Boxing Day carnival was held at the lake in 1916 to fundraise for the Hamilton Beautifying Society, which had been formed in 1912. Mr. George Parr was appointed director of the carnival. He told the Beautifying Society that he wanted it to be a large event, and that he would try to arrange transport for people from Ngaaruawaahia, Horotiu and Huntly through the Waikato Shipping Company. The carnival had various attractions such as maypole dancing, swimming races, greasy boom, greasy pole, swings, skittle alley, tug-o’-war, launch trips, boating, archery, sack races, potato races, motor rides, guessing competitions, water shoot, rowing races, seesaws, a Christmas tree, refreshments, and an athletic programme[38].  

At the Hamilton Domain Board’s meeting on the 8th of November 1917, Mr. Arthur Swarbrick – the Boards first chairman, who became instrumental in the development of the lake as a community resource – spoke about how the board had “big things in view”[40].  

Born in Derby, England, Swarbrick moved to the outskirts of Hamilton, New Zealand, at the age of 25, where he began a career in farming. In 1893 he took over Mr. Hay’s legal practice and built up his own firm – Swarbrick and Swarbrick. He served the Waikato community as the first chairman of the Domain Board, first president of the Hamilton Law Society, first chancellor of St Peter’s Cathedral, choir master at St Peters Church, president of the Operatic Society, foundation member of the Hamilton Club and the Waikato Rowing Club, a master of Lodge Beta of Freemasons, and was involved with the Waikato A&P Association and the Racing Club[41] [42].  

Swarbrick believed that there were “Glorious opportunities” that would be a shame not to develop, and he intended to form a drive around the lake, and to “get things in order” within the Domain grounds. The matter of how to finance the work was also discussed at the Hamilton Domain Boards meetings, as was the fact that the Auckland Domain Board had received thousands of pounds of city funds for work in their domains, but Hamilton did not have this same source of funding. It was decided that the Board would try to bring politicians to the lake during their upcoming trip to Hamilton to discuss the matter[43]

The increasing popularity of swimming in the lake meant that the changing rooms were becoming inadequate by December 1918[44]. There were complaints that the changing sheds were “unsanitary”[45], and although the lake was lovely to swim in, the muddy floors – particularly in the women’s dressing area – were deemed unacceptable as the women’s and girl’s long dresses would drag in the mud[46]

The lake continued to attract large numbers of people, and a raft that had been purchased by the Domain Board was being so well used in 1921 that they decided to get another one[47]

The level of the water in Lake Rotoroa notably fluctuated over time[48] [49] [50], and in April 1921 the low level was becoming a real concern. Mr. Swarbrick commented that the Domain Board had received concerns about this topic in the past and that they always gave it their full attention. He said that the Railway Department used water from the lake for its engines, and that he had instructed them to build a dam in order to keep the lake at a proper level, and this had been effective. The lake level always naturally dropped in the summer and then refilled again in the winter. However, in the previous year the board elections had not taken place, a legal entity had not formed, and so they had no power to act upon people carrying out certain works which drew water from the lake and therefore seriously lowered the water level. Mr. Swarbrick and other Board members intended to visit the lake drainage area to see what might be done, and to hire surveyors to map out the lake boundary. He said that draining the lake and turning it to mud flats would be a “serious disaster to the town”[51].  

On the 3rd of August 1921 Mr. Swarbrick stated that the water from the lake was being “systematically drained off and the surface of the Lake lowered”. The Board said that there was a peat formation that next to the lake served “to retain water in the lake so long as it is not artificially drained to draw water off of the Lake”. The owners of the land in this area intended to section it off for housing and drains had been cut to dry the surface off, with more possible in the future. The combination of this private work and the Railway Departments water use was having the effect of draining the lake[52].  

At the Chamber of Commerce meeting on the 8th of August 1921, it was decided that the Hamilton Chamber would support the idea of protecting Lake Rotoroa from being drained. Mr. George Parr, who was president of the Chamber of Commerce, said older residents of Hamilton remembered the lake being many feet deeper and that they should not let private enterprise ruin the lake because it was a well-used asset especially in the summertime. The lake water was not as cold as the river, and it was safe and pleasant. Mr. A Chitty, another Chamber of Commerce member, said that in Hukanui, to the south of Hamilton, there previously was a lake where people could sail a boat, but it was drained until only a small amount of water was surrounded by a large amount of mud, which meant that the water became unapproachable. The Hamilton Chamber of Commerce decided to assist the council and the Domain Board in the matter[53]. It was decided that in order to protect the lake the Hamilton Domain Board would try to purchase the land from the private owners who were carrying out the drainage works.  

A new tea kiosk was opened on October 14th 1922[54], which proved to be very popular. A “small fleet of well-built and thoroughly safe pleasure boats” was purchased and steps at the end of the jetty were also made. Wooden grates were added to the women’s changing room floors, but it was agreed that the rooms would need to be further upgraded and enlarged for the following year because of the increasing popularity of the area. People often travelled long distances to get to the lake, including from Auckland [55]

During 1923 the gardens were enhanced, with around 700 trees planted [56] and the Lake Domain proved to be a wonderful setting for the Girl Scouts fortnight long camp in January 1923[57],the Boy Scouts Rally in October 1923[58]and the South Auckland Caledonian Societies events [59] [60] [61]

An agreement still could not be reached by 1923 between the Domain Board and the private owners of the land adjacent to the lake in order to stop the lake being drained, so the Board requested that the Government step in. The Government obliged and the land was taken under the Public Works Act[62]. A compensation claim was later made by the previous landowners, Hanna, Paterson, and Deluen of Auckland. It was found that the men were offered 1000 pounds for the land by the Board, which they rejected, and the land was then seized. The court awarded the men 1,960 pounds[63]

Although the problem of draining the lake was averted, another serious problem was taking hold within Lake Rotoroa. Weeds and rushes were beginning to take over. Mr. Swarbrick commented that the rushes were growing so rapidly because of the decrease in the water level which began years prior[64]. By 1925 the problem was so serious that safe swimming areas were marked out and notices were issued advising people where to swim[65].  The Domain Board said that the weed died down over winter and then regrew rapidly over the warmer months, and that it was not possible to cut it back unless the water was calm which hadn’t occurred for months prior[66].   

At the beginning of 1926 Mr. Swarbrick completed trials for appliances to clear the lake of weeds. He had found one to be effective enough to clear a safe swimming area. However, it required four men and a horse to operate it and was very slow. If the board was able to get hold of a motor to run the machine it would speed things up considerably. However, a lack of funding meant this was not possible[67].  

On the 28th of November 1927 Mr. Swarbrick passed away at the age of 76.  He was survived by three sons and a daughter. His wife, Adriana passed away 18 months prior to Arthur’s death[68].  

Entrance to Lake. Hamilton. NZ. Cartwright Photo. Date unknown. Ian Duggan collection.

To honour the late Mr. Swarbrick, the Domain Board decided to erect memorial gates in December 1927, due to having “closely associated with Hamilton affairs for 40 years” and had “given a great deal of his hard-earned leisure to work connected with the preservation, administration and development of Hamilton’s domain lands”. A committee was appointed to raise funds and arrange details[69], and on the 3rd of January 1930 the Swarbrick memorial archway was officially opened in front of a large crowd. The South Auckland Pipe Band performed a guard of honor and then played two songs[70]. Over the last few months of his life, Mr. Swarbrick had spent a lot of time thinking about what an appropriate entrance to the Lake Domain could be. The stone archway was said to be fitting because it was not a barrier to the Lake Domain, but rather an open door to welcome people. Two marble slabs were placed in the archway. One reads, “this entrance is dedicated to the memory of the late Arthur Swarbrick”, and the other “Chairman, Hamilton Domain Board 1913-1921, 1925-1927. If you seek a further monument, look within”[71]. The Swarbrick memorial archway is still a great feature at the entrance to the Hamilton Lake Domain today, though no longer used for vehicular traffic as it once was.  

Swarbrick Memorial Archway, Photo by Ruth Wackrow 

The lake weed was still a major problem in July 1929, so the Domain Board decided to lease a weed cutter from the Government. A marine saw that they had used earlier was deemed not effective[72]. In February 1929, Lake and drainage expert Mr. B M Finlay visited Lake Rotoroa and gave his opinion that the lake weed could not be controlled effectively by cutting it; the roots must be pulled out[73]. Despite this, in October 1929 the Domain Board purchased a weed cutting launch for 350 pounds[74].  

New Weed- Cutting Machine Employed on The Hamilton Lake. New Zealand Herald, 10 May 1930, p8

By January 1931 a large amount of work had been completed at the Domain. New first class changing sheds had been erected and the area around them had been tarred and sanded, miniature golf links had been formed, lawns extended, additions to the boat sheds made, weeping willows were planted, and the troublesome lake weed was well under control. The beautiful spot was extremely popular for recreation for people from all over the district. The Lake Domain was “undoubtedly one of the town’s finest assets”[75].  

More work was undertaken in December 1931. Old trees were cleared, new trees were planted, the road was improved and fences were built. Flowers were also planted including red begonias, lobelia and blue ageratums[76].  

By 1933 the lake had reached its maximum level and overflowed its banks on the western side[77]

In early July 1935 bulbs that had been planted on the Swarbrick memorial began to bloom, and the 30,000 bulbs that had been planted around the lake followed soon after[78]. A nursery that had been formed on the Domain grounds held 1300 native trees, 500 hydrangeas, 100 lawsonia shrubs, and six Norfolk Pines 79].  

In October 1936 another prominent member of the Domain Board passed away, Mr. W. H. Paul. Mr. Paul had been president of the Hamilton Beautifying Society for 15 years and also served as Chairman of the Domain Board. It was said that there was “no man who has done as much as Mr. Paul to make Hamilton more beautiful”[80]. A Norfolk Pine was planted in his memory in order to “keep the memorial of Mr. Paul evergreen”[81]

Despite increasing financial commitments, the Hamilton Domain Board continued improving the Lake Domain throughout 1937 and beyond. Improvements to the golf links and kiosk were made, additional seats and benches were provided, the changing area was improved, around 500 native and imported trees and shrubs were planted, and the lake was “freer of weeds than it has been for the past 15 years”[82].  

Despite best efforts for many decades to continue clearing the lake weed, it was a persistent problem and in 1959 11,000 liters of a sodium arsenite formulation was used as a herbicide in Lake Rotoroa, meaning that 5,500kg of arsenic was supplied to the lake. Copper, lead, cadmium and zinc also currently enter the lake via stormwater runoff. The report “Significance of Arsenic in Sediments of Lake Rotoroa (Hamilton Lake)” 2011, showed that Under the Resource Management Amendment Act (2005), the level of arsenic in the sediments of the Lake Rotoroa lakebed does meet the criteria of being “contaminated land”. However, the risk to the health of recreational users and workers on the lake is deemed to be low due to the “infrequent nature and short durations of typical exposures”[83].  

High bacteria levels in the water have unfortunately made the lake unsafe to swim in since 1984[84]. Although swimming in Lake Rotoroa is not currently safe, a number of other recreational activities do take place on the water including dragon boating, waka ama, yachting and boat racing[85].  

The Hamilton Lake Domain now also has two large playgrounds, one on the eastern side and one at Innes Common on the western side. The eastern side of the Lake Domain has a large ‘destination playground’, which includes water play, a toddlers play area, Verandah Café, a retired steam train suitable for climbing on, and the beautiful rose gardens that were formed in 1952 and still bloom very well today[86]. To the west, Innes Common has the Gallagher Hockey Centre, cricket fields, a parkour training area, half basketball court, barbeques and swings[87]. To the entire lake domain remains an extremely popular recreational destination especially during summer.  

Rose Garden, Hamilton Lake Domain. Photo by Ruth Wackrow 

[1] [2] Lowe, D.J. 2014. How the lake [Lake Rotoroa] was formed: influence of the ancestral Waikato River. In:Taylor, J. Hamilton Lake – City Playground. Published by Jeff Taylor, Hamilton, pp. 6-13.

[3] Hamilton Lake Domain Destination Playground. Hamilton City Council  

[4] Lake Rotoroa: an Ancient Lake Makes a Comeback. Elton Rikihana Smallman. 10 February 2016. Stuff. 

[5] Waikato District News. New Zealand Herald, 17 April 1886, Page 7  

[6] Page 3 Advertisements Column 2. Waikato Times, 28 January 1888, Page 3

[7] Tree Planting at The Hamilton Lake. Waikato Times, 18 August 1888, Page 2

[8] Aquatic Sports on The Hamilton Lake. Waikato Times, 31 January 1888, Page 2 

[9] Waikato Times, 31 January 1889, Page 2

[10] Hamilton Regatta. Waikato Argus, 1 January 1898, Page 3 

[11] Athletic Sports. New Zealand Herald, 22 February 1890, Page 6 

[12] Untitled. Auckland Star, 21 February 1891, Page 4 

[13] Page 3 Advertisements Column 3. Waikato Times, 9 January 1892, Page 3 

[14] Page 3 Advertisements Column 3. Waikato Times, 26 January 1893, Page 3 

[15] Hamilton Rowing Club. Waikato Times, 10 November 1904, Page 2 

[16] Untitled. Waikato Argus, 14 December 1904, Page 2 

[17] Hamilton Regatta. Waikato Times, 30 January 1904, Page 3 

[18] The Waikato Argus, 23 March 1905, Page 2 

[19] Hamilton Rowing Club. Waikato Times, 27 November 1905, Page 2 

[20] Waikato Argus, 29 October 1901, Page 2 

[21] Waikato Argus, Volume XIII, Issue 1438, 20 December 1902, Page 2 

[22] Local and General. Waikato Times, Volume LV, Issue 6260, 27 October 1903, Page 2

[23] Perch for The Hamilton Lake. Waikato Argus, 14 May 1904, Page 2 

[24] Waikato Argus, 16 September 1905, Page 2 

[25] Auckland Acclimatisation Society. New Zealand Herald, 11 October 1905, Page 7 

[26] Angling in The Waikato. Waikato Argus, 20 October 1906, Page 2 

[27] Waikato Anglers’ Club. Waikato Argus, 19 August 1908, Page 2 

[28] Local and General. Waikato Times, 14 January 1916, Page 4

[29] News of The Day. Auckland Star, 11 April 1935, Page 6

[30] Local and General. Waikato Times, 17 December 1904, Page 2 

[31] Local and General. Waikato Times, 7 February 1905, Page 2 

[32] Hamilton Lake Reserve. Waikato Argus, 17 January 1910, Page 2 

[33] Waikato Argus, 21 December 1911, Page 2

[34] Fireworks Display. Waikato Argus, 3 February 1910, Page 2

[35] Waikato Argus, 11 August 1911, Page 2  

[36] Hamilton Borough Council. Waikato Argus, 10 December 1910, Page 2 

[37] Hamilton Reserves. New Zealand Herald, 8 January 1924, Page 9

[38] Hamilton Borough Council. Waikato Argus, 28 April 1911, Page 2

[39] Boxing Day Carnival. Waikato Times, 5 December 1916, Page 4 

[40] Hamilton Lake. Waikato Times, 9 November 1917, Page 4

[41] Veteran Lawyer. Sun (Auckland), 29 November 1927, Page 11

[42] The Dead Tell Tales: Arthur Swarbrick. Lyn Williams. Apr 14, 2015 

[43] Hamilton Lake. Waikato Times, 9 November 1917, Page 4 

[44] Local and General. Waikato Times, 28 December 1918, Page 4

[45] Insanitary Bathing Shed. Waikato Times, 5 January 1922, Page 6 

[46] Public Opinion. Waikato Times, 7 October 1922, Page 2

[47] Local and General. Waikato Times, 7 December 1921, Page 4

[48] Untitled. Waikato Independent, 25 February 1908, Page 4 

[49] Local and General News. Waikato Times, 6 November 1918, Page 4

[50] Lowering of The Lake. Waikato Times, 16 March 1921, Page 7

[51] Crashing the Lake. Waikato Times, 6 April 1921, Page 5

[52] Hamilton Domain Board. Waikato Times, 3 August 1921, Page 6

[53] Protect the Lake. Waikato Times, 9 August 1921, Page 4 

[54] Local and General. Waikato Times, 4 October 1922, Page 4

[55] Improving Hamilton. Waikato Times, 7 February 1923, Page 6

[56] Weeds in a Lake. New Zealand Herald, 7 February 1924, Page 11

[57] Girl Scouts in Camp. Auckland Star, 4 January 1923, Page 4

[58] Boy Scouts’ Rally. New Zealand Herald, 23 October 1923, Page 8

[59] Caledonian Sports. New Zealand Herald, 4 January 1928, Page 12

[60] Caledonian Sports. Auckland Star, 4 January 1929, Page 12

[61] Local and General. Waikato Times, 25 November 1929, Page 4

[62] Hamilton Lake. Auckland Star, 1 December 1923, Page 13 

[63] A Compensation Claim. Thames Star, 29 March 1926, Page 4

[64] Rushes in The Lake. Waikato Times, 7 March 1923, Page 4

[65] Page 6 Advertisements Column 3. Waikato Times, 21 November 1925, Page 6

[66] Hamilton Lake. Waikato Times, 21 November 1925, Page 8

[67] Weeds at The Lake. Waikato Times, 20 January 1926, Page 2

[68] The Dead Tell Tales: Arthur Swarbrick. Lyn Williams. Apr 14, 2015 

[69] Late Mr. A. Swarbrick. New Zealand Herald, 8 December 1927, Page 12

[70] Late Mr. A. Swarbrick. New Zealand Herald,3 January 1930, Page 10 

[71] Hamilton Domain. Sun (Auckland), 3 January 1930, Page 6 

[72] Weeds on Hamilton Lake. New Zealand Herald, 4 July 1929, Page 13 

[73] How Is the Lake Fed? Waikato Times, 9 February 1929, Page 7

[74] Hamilton Domain Board. New Zealand Herald, 3 October 1929, Page 11

 [75] A Fine Asset. Waikato Times, 27 January 1931, Page 6 

[76] Hamilton Domains. Waikato Times, 24 December 1931, Page 8

[77] Hamilton Lake Level. New Zealand Herald, 6 July 1933, Page 13 

[78] Local and General. Waikato Times, 4 July 1935, Page 6

[79] Local and General. Waikato Times, 9 October 1935, Page 6

[80] Tree as Tribute. New Zealand Herald, 15 August 1936, Page 15

[81] Enduring Memorial. Waikato Times, 14 August 1936, Page 9 

[82] Hamilton Lake. New Zealand Herald, 31 December 1937, Page 13

[83] [84] Significance of Arsenic in Sediments of Lake Rotoroa (Hamilton Lake) 

[85] Hamilton Lake 

[86] Rose Garden at Hamilton Lake 

[87] Innes Common Playground. Hamilton City Council. 

Oh, ‘Chute! Santa’s near miss with the Auckland Wintergarden Glasshouses

By Ian Duggan

Construction of the Wintergarden glasshouses in Auckland Domain was initiated during World War I. The Temperate (or Cool) House was erected first, between 1916 and 1921, for the year-round display of flowering plants. Although planned at the same time, the Tropical House was not added until the late 1920s. Both houses, designed by leading architects William Henry Gummer and Charles Reginald Ford, are described as a pair of barrel-vaulted steel and glass structures, separated by an enclosed courtyard.[i]  Still standing and a popular destination today, the Wintergarden glasshouses came under threat by aerial bombardment in 1937, though not from some wartime enemy. Instead it was from Santa Claus, parachuting in to the Domain to deliver presents. Besides the potential damage to the facilities, this story could also have spelled the messy end of Santa, in front of hundreds of children.

In early November 1937, Auckland City Council granted a request from Farmers Trading Company Ltd to allow the landing of a parachutist, attired as Father Christmas, in the Domain. Nevertheless, as the Auckland Star noted, it was “reported to the council” – though it is unclear from the article, by whom – that it actually had no power to stop anyone landing on the Domain anyway.[ii] Advertisements began appearing in newspapers soon after; “Real life Santa Claus will jump from his ‘plane and come down by parachute”. “When will he be here?” the advertisements asked, and perhaps more ominously in hindsight, “Where will he land?”.

“Where will he land?” Advertisement from New Zealand Herald, 5 November 1937, P19

Initiated in 1934, by 1937 the Farmers Christmas parade had already become an important event on Auckland’s calendar. However, the founder and general manager of Farmers, Robert Laidlaw, was already keen on adding something that would deliver more of a splash, devising a somewhat more newsworthy method for Santa’s arrival. According to the 2011 book “Man for Our Time: Robert Laidlaw, The Founder of Farmers”, his initial intention was to have Santa parachute into Auckland Harbour, to be picked up by a speedboat. The advertising manager, however, was more circumspect, worrying that Santa would be smothered by the parachute before the boat could reach him. As an alternative, Laidlaw suggested landing at the Domain. At first, the Council forbade the event, worrying that it might endanger the lives of the spectators.[iii] Nevertheless, they soon acquiesced, with the jump set for 20 November.

Advertisement, Auckland Star, 19 November 1937, P12

When the day had passed, the landing was labelled as “a narrow escape”, as the parachutist – George ‘Johnny’ Sellars – was reported to have barely missed one of the glasshouses. The incident was reported in a number of paper, thus:

Jumping out of an aeroplane when it was only 1000 feet above the Auckland Domain on Saturday morning, a well-known parachutist, Mr G. W. Sellars, had a narrow escape from serious injury when he was able to sway his parachute just in time to avoid crashing through the glass roof of part of the Winter Garden. As it was, he landed heavily in a small garden plot beside a concrete path, and jarred himself considerably… Mr Sellars was to land on the outer domain as Father Christmas, and was then to help in the distribution of toys on the ground… The aeroplane was so low that the spectators, of whom there were several thousands on nearby banks, were able to distinguish the parachutist’s form very clearly as he stood on the wing before jumping off. There was a fairly strong south-west-erly wind at 1000 feet, and this immediately blew Mr Sellars from the direction he intended to take. Then, as he came down to the shelter of the surrounding trees, the still air caused him to drop more quickly and he landed very heavily. While the parachute was falling, Mr Sellars could be seen vigorously attempting to counteract the effect of the wind and so to land on level ground. He obviously saw the danger of falling into the Winter Garden, and fought to swing the parachute away from it. Until he was within a few yards of the roof, however, it seemed almost certain that he was going to fall on the glass, and it was only on the last few seconds that he was able to avoid it.”. [iv]

“Santa Claus Arrives by Parachute” – Sellars, dressed as Santa Claus, descending over the Wintergardens. New Zealand Herald, 22 November 1937, P6

So Sellars avoided collision, but where did he land? The story continues:

“He [Sellars] then disappeared from the view of the spectators and fell into the garden patch between the two hot-houses. Only a few moments before two gardeners had been bedding plants there, and by the time Mr Sellars had disentangled himself from his parachute and hundreds of children and adults had dashed up to see what had happened, the garden was almost wrecked. Mr Sellars meanwhile had found that his Father Christmas beard had been twisted awry by the fall, and he limped into shelter to fix it before returning to help with the gift distribution—which he did, in spite of his nerveracking experience.”[v]

While this contemporary report outlines his landing in a garden, a later account from the book “Man for Our Time” giving Robert Laidlaw’s perspective provided a slightly different, dramatized version of the near collision and landing: “Robert held his breath. Santa was heading on a collision course with the Wintergarden glasshouses… As Robert watched the spectacle play out before him a single thought raced through his mind: ‘I’m going to be the first person to kill Santa Claus’”.  This account gives a different landing spot, stating “Santa flew over the roof missing the glass by inches and seconds later there was a tremendous splash from behind the buildings. He had landed in the middle of the lily pond”.[vi] This report, while certainly adding to the mythology, should perhaps be taken with grain of salt, given the landing area differs from that in the contemporary accounts, while the date of the incident was also given incorrectly there.

Regardless, Sellars himself denied he was in any such danger, disputing the newspaper reports, stating that the aeroplane was flying at an altitude of about 2000 feet, and that he was capable of avoiding the glass house at any time during the descent:

My landing on the thinly-wooded slope below the Outer Domain was made purposely” said Mr. Sellars. “The dense crowds on the banks and in the centre of the ground made it seemingly impossible for me to land without injuring somebody—perhaps a child. Furthermore, I was not injured in the slightest by the fall, which, contrary to the report, was one of the lightest I have ever made. By spilling air from the parachute, thus increasing the speed of the descent, or by allowing the ‘chute to guide me over the glasshouse, I had it within my power to evade the glasshouse easily. There was not, at any time, the slightest danger“.[vii]

Sellars following a successful jump at Mangere. New Zealand Herald, 17 August 1936, P6

So, Sellars claimed he was never in any real danger. But was he a source that could be trusted? Hundreds of newspaper reports can be found on Sellars’ parachuting exploits through the mid- to late-1930s, as at this time he was something of a New Zealand celebrity.  Do these suggest he would provide an honest self-appraisal?

Well, no serious injury was sustained during this jump, as he parachuted – again dressed as Santa – only one week later at an air pageant at Te Kuiti.[viii] However, he did have a tendency to play down his near misses. In June 1937, for example, at an event held at Wigram, Sellars stepped out on to the wing ready to make his jump: “to his horror, he saw that the pilot chute, which draws out the main parachute, was issuing from the pack and streaming behind in the slip stream. Realising the danger of the parachute becoming tangled in the tail of the aeroplane, Sellars quickly jumped, and was fortunate enough to fall clear and descend safely”.[ix] Following up with the press, however, he – in familiar fashion – stated he was never in any real danger: “There was no question of any possibility of fatal results to my jump”, he declared, followed by a statement of his belief that his parachute apparently had been tampered with.[x]

A year earlier, in July 1936, Sellars landed in the Manukau Harbour, and was found standing up to his armpits in a creek, before his timely rescue by rowing boat. In his retelling of this experience, he said he was dragged under the water by the unopened parachute, but he unfastened the harness and regained his feet. It was stated he was lucky he did not land in the deepest part of the creek or in the mangroves.[xi] This is especially true, given his admission in other sources that he was unable to swim.[xii] His inability to swim also provides another good reason why it might not have been a great idea for Sellars’ Santa to have descend into Auckland Harbour rather than the Domain.

So who was this parachuting Santa, W.G. Sellars?

George Sellars was born at Green Island, Dunedin, educated at Balclutha District High School, and started a career as a railway fireman.[xiii] He took up flying in November 1931, and was reported to be an airman who was not troubled by superstition – he made his first aeroplane flight on Friday the 13th that year.[xiv]  Influenced by watching several parachute descents by Flying Officer J.S. “Scotty” Fraser, Sellars decided to become a professional parachutist. In 1935 he passed the Royal New Zealand Air Force test at Wigram aerodrome, becoming only the second aviator to pass, and only the first after Fraser.[xv]  

Widely reported in the papers, a number of incidents occurred during Sellars’ career besides the Wintergardens miss and near drownings. For example, in February 1936, making his first descent at a pageant at the Hood aerodrome, Masterton, Sellars landed in a tree. Not able to avoid it, he landed on the top branch, fully ninety feet above the ground. It was reported that he was fortunately not injured, but it took him a fair amount of time and patience to untangle the parachute. Sellars was said to have been given a “rousing sendoff when he gamely went aloft for his second jump”, but on this occasion he also missed the landing site and came to settle in an orchard a few hundred yards from the hangar.[xvi]

“Parachutist Treed”, Poverty Bay Herald, 9 March 1936, P12; H.L. Cornish Photo.

Unperturbed, in July 1936, Sellars – against his own better judgment – undertook a descent at Mangere, Auckland, in a heavy downpour of rain, with 45-mile per hour wind speeds at ground level. Although he maneuverered his parachute so that he set down in the middle of the landing field, he was unable to release himself: “lying helpless on his back, he was towed by the ‘chute for about two hundred yards before he could unfasten the buckle and let it go. The empty pack on his shoulders protected him, however, and although both he and the ‘chute got plastered in mud neither suffered any worse damage”.[xvii]

On yet another occasion, at Carterton, he was caught in some high-tension power lines.[xix]  However, he was involved in his most serious accident to this point in January 1937, when making a descent at Otaki Beach. Carried by strong winds, he was thrown violently against the vertical face of a sandhill, and was completely knocked out by the impact. Sellars did not regain consciousness for two hours, “and when he did he was surprised to find himself in bed, a doctor and a representative of the police standing by the bedside. All he could remember about the parachute jump was the approach of a sandhill. Apart from a headache, Mr Sellars suffered no ill-effects”.[xx]  Unsurprisingly, it was reported that year that no insurance company in New Zealand will accept him as a risk.[xxi]  These stories are but a few among a variety of mishaps reported. Nevertheless, Sellars did have his successes also. For example, he attained the Dominion record of more than 7000 feet for a parachute drop[xxii], which was not broken until 1951.[xxiii]

Luck soon began to run out for Sellars, however. An ominous warning came during a breakfast encounter in early May 1938, when a woman – not knowing who he was – declared: “I see this fool Sellars has been jumping out of an aeroplane with his parachute again. What a fool of a man he is. He ought to know that he will do it once too often and kill himself. You mark my words, he’s done it often enough now; he won’t get away with it much longer.”[xxiv]

In May 1938, he got away with it one last time, landing on the steel roof of a car at an event at Mangere, after leaping from 1500 ft. On this occasion he escaped uninjured, apparently without a bruise; the car itself was hit with such force that the body was dented.[xxv] But soon after, in July, the prediction, and sadly Sellars, came to pass.

Sellars fell to his death on 2 July 1938, approximately seven months after the Wintergardens incident, before a thousand people at the Westport Aero Club’s pageant, and just a few days after he made his 200th descent.[xxvi]  His was the third parachuting death in New Zealand at that time, the previous one coming two years earlier – that of his initial inspiration, “Scotty” Fraser.[xxvii] Sellars was described at the time of his death as a single man, aged only 28.[xxviii]

“Mr G. W. Sellars making a parachute descent at Wigram aerodrome”, Press, 8 June 1937, P14


[i] Domain Wintergardens, Heritage New Zealand:

[ii] News of the Day. Auckland Star, 2 November 1937, P6

[iii] Hunter, Ian (2011). Man for Our Time: Robert Laidlaw, The Founder of Farmers. Hunter Publishing.

[iv] A Narrow Escape. Ashburton Guardian, 22 November 1937, P4

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Hunter, Ian (2011). Man for Our Time: Robert Laidlaw, The Founder of Farmers. Hunter Publishing. ISBN 9781927181003.

[vii] Reprot Denied. Auckland Star, 22 November 1937, P8

[viii] The Air Pageant, King Country Chronicle, 29 November 1937, P5

[ix] Parachute Thrill. Evening Star, 24 June 1937, P10

[x] No Real Danger. Evening Star, 25 June 1937, P8

[xi] Parachutist Makes a Wet Landing, Northern Advocate, 13 July 1936, P6

[xii] Parachute Jumping To-morrow. Manawatu Times, 19 December 1936, P7

[xiii] Parachutist Killed. Press, 4 July 1938, P10

[xiv] Local and General, New Zealand Herald, 2 January 1936, P8

[xv] Parachute Test. Press, 20 June 1935, P17

[xvi] Landed in a Tree, Wairarapa Daily Times, 2 March 1936, P4

[xvii] Dragged in Mud. Auckland Star, 7 July 1936, P15

[xviii] Parachutist Injured. New Zealand Hearald, 30 August 1937, P10

[xix] Parachute Tragedy. Evening Star, 4 July 1938, P7

[xx] Local and General. Manawatu Herald. 18 January 1937, P2

[xxi] Art of Parachute Jumping. Evening Star, 22 October 1937, P3

[xxii] Parachutist Killed. Press, 4 July 1938, P10

[xxiii] Press, 30 January 1951, P8

[xxiv] Otago Daily Times, 13 May 1938, P8

[xxv] Struck Car. Auckland Star, 23 May 1938, P10

[xxvi] Parachutist Killed. Press, 4 July 1938, P10

[xxvii] Parachute Tragedy. Evening Star, 4 July 1938, P7

[xxviii] Parachutist Killed. Press, 4 July 1938, P10

John Cooper’s “World Famous” Topiary Gardens

by Ian Duggan

Topiary skill… is less common in New Zealand than in older countries, for most people hold that a tree is a thing to be burnt and not clipped into a semblance of a bird, a beast or a politician [Auckland Star, 1932].[i]

“Quaint garden…”, Taranaki Daily News, 18 May 1931, P 5 (no known copyright restrictions)

Topiary – the art of cutting hedges and trees into ornamental shapes resembling animals, decorative objects and geometric forms – was never widely practiced in New Zealand, with few local examples mentioned in our newspapers up to the 1950s. However, there is the odd exception, such as this one from Onehunga, Auckland, in 1932:

“There is a very quaint instance in a garden facing the Esplanade, the waterfront road at Onehunga. On a grassed terrace there is a complete set of furniture for a tea party of three. The table is a Pinus insignis [now Pinus radiata] with its branches flattened and trimmed flat to represent the round top. The chairs, one at each side and one at the back farthest from the road, are ingeniously “built” out of Elaeagnus. The bare stalks represent the legs, and the leafy branches have been coaxed into the exact shape of seat and back, with an inviting hollow for the shoulders. The suite would have delighted Peter Pan and Wendy, and it is more than probable that if there are any fairies in the borough of Onehunga they must haunt the spot on moonlight nights and hold wonderful banquets there”.[ii]

Despite this article appearing in six newspapers, scattered between Auckland and Christchurch, this garden never received a second story.

The most widely reported topiary gardens in local newspapers were those of Mr John Cooper (b.1863; d.1942) of Newman, a small settlement located 4 km north of Eketāhuna in the Wairarapa region, which were often accompanied with photos. This garden, on the route used by travellers between Wellington and Wairarapa[iii], obtained a good amount of coverage through the early 1930s, and was said by one newspaper report to have been “world famous”. [iv]

In 1931, for example, the Manawatu Times reported: “This unusual sight is to be found in the garden of Mr. J. Cooper, at Newman, Eketahuna. Macrocarpa hedges, kept closely clipped, appear in the guise of tables, chairs, animals, and haystacks, sheep, deer, and birds are to be found on the lawns”.[v]

“An unusual garden at Newman…”, Evening Post, 20 December 1933, P 19 (no known copyright restrictions)

Similarly, the Dominion in 1934 notes: “A garden in the ancient topiary style is one of the outstanding sights between Eketahuna and Pahiatua. The gardener, who skilfully clips his conifers to the shapes of tables, chairs and animals, has spent many years developing his effects.”.[vi]

Unsurprisingly, the gardens were quoted as being “the source of considerable interest owing to the unusual shapes into which various bushes and shrubs have been trimmed”.[vii] Among the most celebrated visitors was Lady Bledisloe, the wife of the Governor-General.[viii]

John Cooper was born in Mākara, west of Wellington, in 1863. He was the son of Mr William Cooper, who – it was reported in John Cooper’s obituary – “arrived in New Zealand in 1856 from St. Helena, where he was one of Napoleon’s guards, being an officer in the British Imperial Army”.[ix] At least, that is how the story went. As descendent Paul McDonald points out, William wasn’t even born until after Napoleon had died, with the family narrative (including his rank of officer) likely all part of a fabrication formulated to obscure William’s wife Eliza’s African ancestry.

John Cooper’s early life was spent bush-felling in the Mākara, Wairarapa and Bush districts, and he followed in his fathers military footsteps, when at 17 he was on active service at the colonial attack on Parihaka, and later became a member of the Eketāhuna Mounted Rifles.  Cooper moved to his famous garden site around the time of his 1893 marriage to Miss Charlotte Dowsett, of Newman.

New Zealand Herald, 16 February 1934, P 8 (no known copyright restrictions)

During his time in Newman, John took an active interest in the affairs of the district, including being a director of the local School Board, a member of the Domain Board, and he served as a Sunday School teacher at the local Methodist Church for some period. His topiary gardens were a retirement project, after he stood back from active farming in 1920.[x] Most of his attention to the gardens followed the death of his wife, Charlotte, in 1931.[xi]

Cooper’s time at Newman came to an end in 1938, when it was reported he would be leaving to take up residence at Rotorua.[xii] In a 2004 book on his gardens, author Margaret Lucas noted that the motivation behind the move was that if his topiary gardens were a success in such an off-the-beaten-track location, it was sure to do well in a major tourist centre.[xiii]

To Malfroy Road in Rotorua, he was accompanied by his youngest son, Len, and Len’s wife Vera. It was reported that Cooper’s intention was to transplant his topiary from Newman to Rotorua. Indeed, in the June 1939 issue of the Australian magazine ‘Pix’, Len was featured with topiary in the Rotorua garden, including a topiary swan and wheelbarrow – just three months after being planted – which featured alongside examples of topiary gardens from Australia, the United States and The Netherlands.[xiv] However, Lucas reports that most of the plants had died en route.[xv] Nevertheless, the Rotorua experience was not to last long. Following the outbreak of World War II, Len was required back on the farm, and the Rotorua garden was abandoned.[xvi]

Advertisement, New Zealand Herald, 25 October 1940, P 11

John Cooper died in a private hospital in Pahiatua in August 1942. At the time of his death, very little apparently remained of the topiary at Newman, besides a suite of furniture deemed too large to have been transplanted to Rotorua; this was trimmed until the Cooper farm was sold in 1960.[xvii] Following a number of years of abandonment, the house was restored in the 1970s, and named ‘Glendon’. The story of its restoration can be found in the book “Glendon: Topiary & Tranquillity, A History of Two Gardens”, by Margaret Lucas.[xviii]


[i] The Passing Show, Auckland Star, 25 February 1932, P 6

[ii] Growing Furniture, Auckland Star, 30 August 1932, P 6

[iii] Auckland Star, 9 April 1935, P 5

[iv] Manawatu Standard, 25 August 1942, P 2

[v] Quaint Garden, Manawatu Times, 15 May 1931, P 8

[vi] Dominion, 15 May 1934, P 7

[vii] New Zealand Herald, 16 February 1934, P 8

[viii] John Cooper and Lady Bledisloe standing alongside topiary, circa 1930s, Masterton District Council.

[ix] Manawatu Standard, 25 August 1942, P 2

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Obituary. Mrs John Cooper, Pahiatua Herald, 29 September 1931, P 7

[xii] Personal, Pahiatua Herald, 10 June 1938, P 4

[xiii] Lucas, Margaret (2004) Glendon: Topiary & Tranquility: A history of two gardens, Heritage Press Ltd, Palmerston North, NZ

[xiv] Sculptor’s Art in Living Shrubs, Pix. (Australia), v. 4, no. 1, 1 July 1939, pp 46-47

[xv] Lucas, Margaret (2004) Glendon: Topiary & Tranquility: A history of two gardens, Heritage Press Ltd, Palmerston North, NZ

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Ibid.

Upcoming Talk (Hamilton, NZ): Common Ground: Garden Histories of Aotearoa, 24 November 2022

On 24 November 2022, at 6-7pm, author and gardens enthusiast Matt Morris will talk about his book: “Common Ground: Garden Histories of Aotearoa” – a history of gardening in Aotearoa NZ from 1200-2020AD. He will also share information about two new book projects he is working on, on related themes.

Matt Morris has always lived in Christchurch. After completing a PhD on Christchurch garden history he began working in the Sustainability Office at the University of Canterbury, where he has remained since 2009. He is deeply involved in community-led food resilience initiatives (which he has worked with for over 20 years) and has surrounded his home in New Brighton with fruit trees and vegetables.

Chartwell Room, Hamilton Gardens, $5 door charge and raffle.

Upcoming Talk (Hamilton) – ‘Cultivating Relationships: Colonial Women and their Married Life in the Garden, 1850-1914’

Recent historical trends have seen the emergence of the garden as a space through which to examine the social and cultural history of particular groups and places. This talk will examine marriage in colonial New Zealand through the lens of the garden.

Looking at the way in which couples interacted in the garden throws new light on colonial life and relationships. This talk will focus on the point of view of women and, through their own words and experiences, show how vital the space of the garden was to the development of colonial society.

Annette Bainbridge will present her talk “Cultivating Relationships: Colonial Women and their Married Life in the Garden, 1850-1914” at The Chartwell Room, Hamilton Gardens, at 6 – 7 pm on the 4th November.

$5 door charge and raffle.

What’s in a name? Bacchus and the ‘paddle plant’

Annette Giesecke, Centre for Science in Society, Victoria University of Wellington

Almost without fail, I select native plants when adding to my small garden landscape, being conscious of the need to maintain habitats for precious native fauna. I happen also to find New Zealand native flora both fascinating and beautiful. The small-leaved Muehlenbeckia astonii [‘shrubby tororaro’] – its wiry, architectural branch structure having evolved in response to bracing winds; cold, dry environments; and, possibly, pressures from browsing moa – is a particular favourite.1 Nonetheless, I am seduced by exotics from time to time. Most recently, it was Kalanchoe thyrsiflora, known commonly as the ‘paddle plant’, that caught my eye and found its way onto my porch (Figure 1). In this case a combination of shape, colour, and name made this plant irresistible… especially its name.

Figure 1: Kalanchoe thyrsiflora. Photo by Forest and Kim Starr, Wikimedia Commons.

The paddle plant looks something like a super-fleshy Rosa centifolia [‘cabbage rose’]. Native to South Africa, the paddle plant is a succulent with rounded leaves that are greyish-green and have striking, wide red margins at least part of the year. As its scientific name betrays, the plant bears ‘thyrsus-shaped’ flowers. The Latin species tag thyrsi-flora literally means ‘thyrsus-flowering’. But what is a thyrsus? Greco-Roman religion provides the answer, which has its roots in the cult of the Greek god Dionysus.

Figure 2: Head from a statue of the young Bacchus/Dionysus. First half of 1st century A.D.
Bronze with silver. Accession number 96.AB.52, the Getty Museum (open source content).

Dionysus, called Bacchus by the Romans, is today widely known as the god of wine, but this reflects only part of the god’s identity in antiquity.2 As it happens, Dionysus also was not a Greek god in origin. Rather, he was native to the ancient Near East from where he was imported to Greece. From Greece he was later introduced to Rome. As for his sphere of influence, Dionysus originally was a vegetation deity. Specifically, he represented sap, the life-sustaining liquid in plants, and for this reason he was viewed as being responsible for luxuriant growth in all plant life (Figure 2). Over time, Dionysus became associated with a range of life-sustaining fluids derived both from plants and from other sources in nature, for example wine, honey, and milk. In his play The Bacchae, the Greek tragedian Euripides (5th century BCE) described the arrival of Dionysus in Greece, as well as the nature of his worship, in detail. From the first, Dionysus was extremely popular, and his cult spread like wildfire. Little wonder, as Dionysus was the ultimate ‘democratic god’. In his eyes all were equal: slave and free, male and female, young and old, even human and animal. The god offered people a welcome release from the worries, hardships, and constraints of daily life, all facilitated by drinking a bit of wine. In earliest times, his celebrants would drain their cups (thereby actually partaking of the god that wine embodied), don a fawnskin, clutch a thyrsus, and head for the hills or other wild places in order to commune with nature in ecstatic dance (Figure 3). Something of a magic wand, the thyrsus was a fennel stalk topped with a clump of ivy. According to Euripides, a thyrsus could be used as a weapon, especially against those who disrespected the ‘foreign’, gender-fluid, shapeshifting god (the long-haired, effeminate Dionysus could assume the shape of a serpent, a bull, fire, and even a burgeoning grape vine). Alternatively, the thyrsus could be used to work miracles. When struck with a thyrsus, the earth flowed with streams of milk and honey.

Figure 3: Marble relief with a female celebrant of Dionysus holding a thyrsus. Adaptation of work attributed to the sculptor Kallimachos. Period: Early Imperial, Augustan, ca. 27 B.C.–A.D. 14. The Metropolitan Museum, New York. Fletcher Fund, 1935, Accession Number: 35.11.3 (open source content).

In a state of manic ecstasy – literally ‘standing outside oneself’ (ancient Greek ek-stasis) – the gods’ worshipers snatched up small animals, tore them apart while alive (Greek sparagmos), and ate them raw (omophagia). While appearing barbaric to modern sensibilities, this ritual gave worshipers access to fresh blood, another liquid incarnation of the god. Over time, however, this form of worship was considered ‘over the top’ even by the Greeks. As they became more urbanized, new, more restrained forms of worship were introduced. The city of Athens took the lead in popularizing theatrical productions as the chief public form of honouring this much revered and popular god. As wine drinkers will know, this beverage is conducive to blurring reality and encouraging shifts in behaviour. In view of this fact, a connection between playacting and Dionysus, the wine god, can quite naturally be made.

Figure 4: Kalanchoe thyrsiflora, illustration by Matilda Smith. 1899-10-01. Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, “original illustrations and published plates”, p. 7678.

In any event, the thyrsus would remain one of Dionysus’ most important symbols throughout antiquity. Depiction of a thyrsus alone could suggest the presence of the god. What, then, of the paddle plant? When flowering, this plant produces a metre-long stalk atop which vibrant yellow, fragrant flowers cluster (Figures 4 & 5). The resemblance of this Kalanchoe’s flower stalk to a thyrsus is striking, hence noted Irish botanist William Henry Harvey’s publication (1862) of this plant as the thyrsus-flowering Kalanchoe, Kalanchoe thyrsiflora, in his Flora Capensis; being a systematic description of the plants of the Cape Colony, Caffraria, & port Natal (1862).3

Figure 5: Kalanchoe thyrsiflora in flower, with the parent plant dying back. Photo by Paul Venter, Wikimedia Commons.


1. Will Harvie, “Moa had minor role in evolution of twiggy native shrubs”, 12 Jul 2021

2. See for example, Annette Giesecke, The Mythology of Plants: Botanical Lore from Ancient Greece and Rome (Getty Museum, 2014), pp. 66-75.3.

3. The full citation of this work is: William Henry Harvey & Otto Wilhelm Sonder. 1859–1933. Flora Capensis; being a systematic description of the plants of the Cape Colony, Caffraria, & port Natal. 7 vol. in 11. Kalanchoe thyrsiflora appears in Fl. Cap. Vol. 2: 380 (1862).