Manawatu Gorge, N.Z. Then and Now

Today’s post is part history, part travel advisory for the benefit of visitors. The second part won’t be news to New Zealand readers!


This postcard mailed in the early 1900s, shows a painting of the Manawatu Gorge from the eastern entrance, as it was in the 1860s.

In the early days the Manawatu Gorge, a natural cleft dividing the Ruahine and Tararua ranges, was covered with beautiful bush from hill top to the brink of the river that flows through it. There was no track through the gorge, and the settlers in the Woodville district were unable to have any direct communication with those living on the west coast.

When the Government decided to open up the country, a bridle track was made on [the southern] side of the gorge; it was later widened into a road, but until the bridge was built, people crossed the river in a cage suspended from a wire; cattle forded it as best they could. Later timber was cut in the bush about the settlement of Woodville, then hauled by bullocks and floated down the river to the site of a bridge which was opened in 1875.

After the bridge was built a four-horse mail and passenger coach travelled daily through the gorge, and its arrival was eagerly awaited by everyone at Woodville, for it was their only connection with the outside world…….

Then the [railway] line through the gorge was commenced [on the opposite side], and the Woodville end became a very busy settlement, where temporary dwellings housed many of the workers on the line. The boring of two large and three small tunnels, bridge building, and excavating, made the job a long one, and the work gave many of the settlers a good start.

At last it was finished, the eastern and western coasts of New Zealand [North Island] were linked by road and rail, and the first train travelled through the gorge in 1891.
‘Tales of Pioneer Women’, Ed. A. E. Woodhouse. Whitcombe & Tombs Ltd., 1940.


The Manawatu Gorge now. State Highway 3 from the western end.

The road has been vunerable to landslides, euphemistically known as “slips” in New Zealand, since it opened. The rail line as well, to a lesser extent. Each one seems to get bigger and more expensive to fix. The engineers and road crews had not long recovered from repairing a huge slide that closed the road for 18 months when another came down in April this year, followed by a smaller event a couple of months later. Expert opinion is that the hillside is unstable and moving slowly all the time, encouraged by a very wet winter. It is too dangerous for road crews to go in and clear the mess. (Some of the boulders are about half the size of a small car).


Looking east down the gorge. Ruahine mountains and rail line at left; Tararua mountains and road at right.

Fortunately there are two alternative routes; the Saddle road to the north, and the Pahiatua Track to the south. Not a “track” anymore but neither road was built for State Highway traffic volumes. Noises are being made about building a new road along a reliable route while bureaucracy uses buzz words like “public engagement in the process” and moves at its usual glacial pace. A final decision will be made in December, after the ground dries out. Meanwhile we have to wait and see which political party holds the purse strings after the general election on 23rd of this month.


One alternative route, over the Pahiatua Track. Not a “track” anymore but obviously not made for high traffic volumes.

Whatever the outcome – if you’re planning to visit the North Island of New Zealand, don’t expect to cross it via the Manawatu Gorge this summer. Or, perhaps, ever.

Sometimes Nature wins.


The Old Tower, Lynmouth, Devon.

Tucks postcard of the old tower at Lynmouth, Devon, England.

The Old Tower, Lynmouth. This is a “modern antique,” but unlike most of its kindred it is both ornamental to the quay it stands on and comely to the eye, and when the tide is up in the little harbour to sit in its shadow is one of the pleasantest idlenesses in the world. [Artist – E.D. Percival]

When this postcard was issued by Raphael Tuck and Sons in 1908, the tower was less than 70 years old. It had been built around 1860 by a General Rawdon. Web pages without number copy and repeat this name but not one can tell you who he was. Not even his first name. Accepted wisdom, and almost every site, says the General built the tower as a folly to hide seawater storage tanks that supplied a salt water bath at his house. Charles G. Harper, in a book printed at the same time as the postcard, has a similar but slightly different version.

…. an inspection of old prints leads one to believe that, though there are more houses now [in Lynmouth], the enclosing hills are more abundantly and softly wooded than then. And, with the exception of the Rhenish tower built on the stone pier, every-thing has been added legitimately, without any idea of being picturesque.
That quaint tower, a deliberate copy of one on the Drachenfels, owes its being to General Rawdon, who resided here from about 1840, and, finding his aesthetic taste outraged by a naked iron water-tank erected on posts, built this pleasing feature to harmonise with the scenery. An iron basket, still remaining, was provided to serve for a beacon, and now that Lynmouth is lighted by an installation of electric glow-lamps, a light is shown from it every night.
‘The North Devon Coast’, Charles G. Harper. Chapman & Hall Ltd., 1908.

This tower was swept away in a terrifying flood on August 15, 1952 that destroyed homes and took many lives in Lynmouth. Read this incredible eyewitness account by retired policeman Derek Harper who was awarded the George Medal for his bravery on that disastrous night.

A faithful replica of the tower was built on a lengthened pier in 1954.

Landseer’s Lions

Tate; (c) Tate; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Duchess of Abercorn and daughter by Landseer. Tate Gallery.

Sir Edwin Landseer, the painter…..was one of my father and mother’s oldest friends, and had been an equally close friend of my grandparents, the Duke and Duchess of Bedford. He had painted three portraits of my father [the Duke of Abercorn], and five of my mother. Two of the latter had been engraved, and, under the titles of “Cottage Industry” and “The Mask,” had a very large sale in mid-Victorian days. His large picture of my two eldest sisters, which hung over our dining-room chimney-piece, had also been engraved, and was a great favourite, under the title of “The Abercorn Children.” Landseer was a most delightful person, and the best company that can be imagined. My father and mother were quite devoted to him, and both of them always addressed him as “Lanny.”

My mother going to call on him at his St. John’s Wood house, found “Lanny” in the garden, working from a ladder on a gigantic mass of clay. Turning the corner, she was somewhat alarmed at finding a full-grown lion stretched out on the lawn.

Trafalgar Square lion

Landseer had been commissioned by the Government to model the four lions for the base of Nelson’s pillar in Trafalgar Square. He had made some studies in the Zoological Gardens, but as he always preferred working from the live model, he arranged that an elderly and peculiarly docile lion should be brought to his house from the zoo in a furniture van attended by two keepers. Should anyone wish to know what that particular lion looked like, they have only to glance at the base of the Nelson pillar.

Vintage postcard of Trafalgar Square, London, by the Photochrom Company.

On paying an afternoon call, it is so unusual to find a live lion included amongst the guests, that my mother’s perturbation at finding herself in such close proximity to a huge loose carnivore is, perhaps, pardonable.
‘The Days Before Yesterday’, Lord Frederic Hamilton, Hodder and Stoughton. 1920.

The photograph of the captive lion was taken by Gambier Bolton, probably in the early 1890s, and published on a postcard by Raphael Tuck & Sons about 1905. This pioneering animal photographer was sometimes described as the Landseer of photography and his original prints fetch high prices from collectors today.

Salisbury Cathedral


Tuck’s Oilette. 1904

Very few English cathedrals have received the unstinted praise that has been bestowed upon Salisbury. It is well deserved. The beautiful and peaceful situation, the wonderful harmony of the building, and the marvellous spire are all most impressive, and charm the visitor. There is of course the greatest possible interest to be found in the study of the alterations and additions made to the Mediaeval cathedrals, but it is good to have at least one building that speaks, and that so beautifully, one thought.

… 1220 the building as we know it was begun, three alters being completed in 1225…. and in 1258 the whole building was finished, costing, at present value*, about half a million [£]. The spire was added about one hundred years later. Since then there have been renovations and restorations, and certain strengthening works, but the beautiful church has survived them all, and is substantially as its builders left it, the most perfect example of the period.


Publisher, J. Salmon Ltd. Artist, A. R. Quinton.

Features to be noticed. The beauty of the site, and the proportions of the building. No other church has stood on this site.
Spire: highest in England, and the most beautiful in the world; thickness of walls 2 feet to a height of 20 feet, and then only 9 inches; 23 inches out of perpendicular.
Number of windows is said to equal the days of the year; the pillars the hours; and the doorways the months.
‘Notes on the Cathedral’ [pocket guide book], W. H. Fairbairns, S. P. C. K., London.
* ‘present value’ – c. 1912.

Salisbury from Harnham Hill. Vintage Photochrom Celesque series postcard.

Salisbury from Harnham Hill. Photochrom card. Celesque series.

For a vertigo-inducing view of the famous spire from the outside, go to this recent feature in the Daily Mail.

Book your own tour of the tower (from the inside) on the Cathedral website.

Artistic Licence

These two vintage postcards, published when London’s Admiralty Arch was still “new”, illustrate the liberties an artist could take with a scene compared to a photographer (in the days before Photoshop).

Admiralty Arch2

Tuck’s Oilette number 7975. One of a set of 12. First recorded use 1919.

In this view by H. B. Wimbush, Nelson’s Column has grown to a dizzying height and dwarfs the Arch. The domed tower on the right has not only been stretched but moved several hundred meters to the left. As you can see from the image below, it can’t actually be seen from this position at all. We can only speculate on why the artist put it there. It may have been simply to balance the composition. Digital photographers didn’t invent the art of bending reality – they were just catching up.

A vintage postcard of the new Admiralty Arch, London.

National Series. Published by M & L Ltd.

The truth is less exciting, although this image is so empty it must have been taken on a weekend in the off-season! Not much doubt about which card would have sold best. The message on the back of this one is more interesting than the front. The writer has dated it 16. 6. 16, although the last number has been over-written and could be 19. The message takes up all of the back so it must have been posted in an envelope, and we have no address for the recipient.

Dear Mrs Land,
Just had a note from Mabel to say she has settled down. Will try and get out to Richmond where she lives in a day or so. Everything went off just fine at the wedding and say – Tom Murray is a splendid fellow. Straight as you make them. Will see you soon as we are booked for U.S.A. on 28th this month. Have still the wee mascot so I’m safe.
Kind regards to Mr Land and self. A. R. Don.

It’s a tantalizing hint at the lives of several people and leaves more questions than answers. Was Mr. Don an American soldier being repatriated in 1919 after the war, or a private citizen braving the Atlantic U-boat menace in 1916? Whatever the case, he was superstitious enough to need a lucky charm. Did Mabel find it difficult to settle down and why, and was she the bride? Was the splendid Tom Murray the groom?

Maybe one of you fiction writers out there can exercise your own artistic licence, change the names, flesh out the characters, invent your own answers, and create a short story. I’m sure novels have been inspired by less.

London’s Shaftesbury memorial

A vintage postcard view of Piccadilly Circus in 1904.

This image was taken in 1904 when ‘Eros’ was just eleven years old. Arthur Mee, writing a little more than 30 years later when advertising hoardings had begun to creep over the architecture, had this to say about Piccadilly Circus……

It is better to see it by night, when the glow of the lights blots out its shabbiness, for half the Circus is a noble spectacle and half is worthy of a third-rate town. London in the grip of private interests moves slowly to its destiny, but the time is coming when Piccadilly Circus will be worthy of the millions of money that have been poured into it in our own time. It has three or four fronts fit for any site in any city; it has the most marvellous Underground Station in Europe, and it has, enthroned in the centre of it, a delightful cupid worthy of the Golden Age of Greece. It is Sir Alfred Gilbert’s Eros, set up in this scene of gaiety in memory of the Earl of Shaftesbury who tried to bring a little more brightness into the lives of children.

Eros rises as a winged archer above a bronze fountain with two octagon basins set on steps, the basins decorated with little cupids. It was the first aluminium figure in the streets of London, if not anywhere. The monument was set up in the last years of last century [1893], in the days of the old Board of Works, and there was much trouble concerning it. Sir Alfred Gilbert received £3000 for it and it cost him twice as much. There were such annoying small experiences as the stealing of the drinking-cups, and the sculptor was displeased with the setting of his lovely figure, and finally, when the powers that be required that he should surround it with a parapet, Sir Alfred shook the dust of England from his feet and went into exile, leaving behind this letter to the Board of Works:

“There is more than £3000 worth of copper in the memorial. Take it, melt it, turn it into pence, and give it to the unfortunate people who nightly find a resting-place on the Embankment, to the everlasting shame of the greatest metropolis in the world – and cease torturing an artist.”

Sir Alfred remained in exile for 20 years and came back to finish a monument at Windsor at the personal request of George the Fifth.
‘London’, Arthur Mee, Hodder and Stoughton 1937.

There is more to the story of Gilbert’s exile in 1901 and his return in 1926 (25 years later) than Arthur Mee reveals here. Follow Gilbert’s link to find more.

Dating the imageThis postcard has not been used but the horse-drawn ‘omnibus’ at bottom right advertises a play, the Fairy’s Dilemma, at the Garrick Theatre. This was a comedy written by W. S. Gilbert that had a short run from 3rd May to 22nd July 1904.
The two Gilberts are not related, as far as I know. It’s just an odd coincidence that both names pop up in connection with this card.