About Us

A Brief History of the Wanganui RSA

Preface

The first association of old soldiers in Wanganui were the members of the local militia and the British military who took part in the land wars. Members assembled in the early 1900’s for a reunion and had their photo taken. The next mention of these men was at the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1920 when 17 of their number were in the guard of honour which welcomed the Prince at the railway station. They also paraded in the afternoon at the garrison parade at Cooks gardens.

Prior to this in February 1919 the veterans association under the command of George Tuffin had paraded at the unveiling of the re-sited Lion Monument and the newly constructed Veterans Steps in Queens Park. At the same ceremony the members of the South African Veteran’s Association under the command of Sergeant Major Burr paraded. Members of this association also paraded for the guard of honour of the Prince of Wales when 39 members paraded. This association finally called it a day in the early 1970’s when the few remaining through infirmity or old age wound up the association and deposited their minute books and records in the archives of the Whanganui Regional Museum.

Beginnings

The hospital ship ‘Maheno’ arrived in New Zealand in January 1916 bringing the first casualties from the Gallipoli campaign. As the men returned to their home towns they got together to discuss their future which led to returned soldiers clubs being formed. Here in Wanganui Colonel Hughes convened a meeting of returned men on 22 January 1916. Thirty men attended. Mr Thomas B. Williams, chairman of the patriotic committee and the mayoress Mrs C. H. Mackay offered the help of their organisations in setting up the club. However those present were more interested in abusing the authorities for their lack of assistance to returned men. The meeting descended to a slanging match. In the middle of this debate Captain Donald Simpson of Wellington arrived and calmed those present down. He had been going around the country from his base in Wellington to the various towns and cities holding meetings of returned men with a view to forming a dominion wide returned soldiers association. It was then moved by Private R. McGregor and seconded by Private Floyd that a soldiers club be set up in Wanganui. The mayoress offered to furnish the club with the help of her committee. No time was lost and on 26 January 1916 the club was opened in the Christchurch schoolroom. Tom king was elected president, Jim Moore secretary and Jack Rowe was elected treasurer. The newly formed club depended on the patriotic committee for the furnishing and rent of the club room. The former women’s club in Taupo Quay, next to Johnson’s building, was rented by the patriotic committee for the returned men. It was officially opened by Mr W. P. Aldridge, the first president. In 1917 the club was visited by the Govenor General Lord Liverpool. However as time went on accounts submitted by the RSA to the patriotic committee for payment were questioned and the members of the soldiers club realised that they should be independent. On 12 December 1917 a public meeting was held to launch a public appeal for funds so that the soldiers club could have their own building. To the amazement of the conveners of the meeting, those present said in no uncertain terms that they did not want a permanent building, so the meeting adjourned with no decision made. In 1918 Alf Burnett of Wicksteed Street launched a campaign for funds for a soldiers club rooms to be built in St Hill Street on a section donated by him. Plans were drawn up for a suitable building and the fund raising was a success. However by this time 14,240 wounded had been repatriated to New Zealand and twenty five branches of the New Zealand Returned Soldiers Association had been set up. The members of the Wanganui Soldiers Club did not want to be affiliated to the dominion body and decided to be independent. The name was changed to the Empire Veterans Association. The foundation stone for the new club rooms was laid on 25 April 1919 by Mr Alf Burnett at a ceremony at which the secondary school cadets provided the guard of honour. It is from this day that the present Returned and Services Association dates its beginnings.

Visit of the Prince of Wales

When it was announced that Prince Edward, Prince of Wales, was to visit Wanganui during his visit to New Zealand in 1920, the returned soldiers were determined to give him a diggers welcome. After all, many of the returned men had met him when he visited the New Zealand division in France during World War One. The Soldiers Club drew up a programme which provided for the returned men to parade at the railway station on his arrival then another parade at the garrison parade at Cooks Gardens in the afternoon. The Soldiers Club booked the opera house for a concert in the evening. In the meantime the borough council had organised a civic concert to be followed by a supper party in the Sarjeant Gallery. It was finally agreed that the returned soldiers would hold their concert at 6.00pm in the opera house and the civic concert would be held at the Majestic Theatre at 8.00pm. On 3 May 1920 the the royal train arrived at the Wanganui railway station. As the Prince stepped onto the platform he was greeted by Mayor C. E. Mackay and local member of parliament Hon. W. A. Veitch. Drawn up outside the station was a parade of returned soldiers including seventeen who served in the land wars and seventeen Boer War veterans. After inspecting the returned men the Prince entered his car and then preceded by two mounted policemen the royal car and escort departed for the Newmarket Hotel. The royal party stayed here during their time in Wanganui. During that time a guard was provided by the Wellington West Coast regiment, with sentries posted at the exit doors. In the afternoon a garrison parade was held at Cooks Gardens. The territorials and school cadets were under the command of Lieutenant Colonel W. H. Cunningham. A contingent of 468 returned soldiers were on parade together with 12 nurses of the Royal Nursing Corps, 7 Royal Flying Corps pilots, 39 Boer War veterans and 17 veterans of the 1860’s militia. It was an important day for the returned men as a number received medals earned by them for bravery in the recent war. After visiting Wanganui Collegiate School the Prince arrived at the Wanganui Opera House for the 6.00pm returned soldiers concert. From there he was whisked to the Majestic Theatre for the civic concert. During the final item by the garrison band the lights failed. The conductor of the band promptly switched the music to the march the band had played during the day from memory. They had to keep repeating until the lights came on again. From there the Prince and his party went to the Sarjeant Gallery where supper was to be served. He arrived at 10.50pm and after a cursory walk round departed at 11.00pm, much to the disappointment of the official guests. The Mayoress had lent her precious silver cutlery and next morning found it had disappeared as the guests had souvenired it. In the meantime the Prince had returned to the hotel accompanied by his aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Louis Mountbatten. They set out to accept an invitation from the soldiers club to visit their rooms. They sneaked out the back door of the hotel without being observed and into a waiting car. They received a warm welcome when they reached the club rooms in Taupo Quay and before long the poker games were in full swing and lasted until 4.00am. A well kept secret at the time. Next morning the Prince, with his entourage, left by car for Marton and many of those who had hosted the Prince, including the officials of the soldiers club, decided to accompany them. So ended a most memorable visit which saw the Soldiers Club win a high public profile. By November 1920 the building of the Soldiers Club was completed and was opened by Governor General Earl Jellicoe. By this time the men were back from the war and wanted to take charge. As Mr W. H. Cannon stated at the annual meeting in June 1936 “I was president at the time and we were demoted.” The new committee severed links with the patriotic committee and the Soldiers Club was replaced by the Wanganui Returned Soldiers Association. Mr Cannon stated that the supervision by the new executive was lax and the secretary left with all the funds. The association survived this set back only to have the next secretary abscond with the funds too. This forced the club into liquidation. The proceeds of the liquidation were to go to the patriotic committee for the benefit of returned soldiers. The club building had a mortgage of three thousand pounds. Records are very sketchy but in the next report James Patterson had possession of the building. He let it to the Victoria League but after a year they vacated it when they shifted to Wakefield Chambers. It was then that Mr Patterson used it for storage and put in a cart dock. To do so he removed the foundation stone. Unfortunately it has never been found. So ended the first chapter of the Wanganui Returned soldiers Association.

Wanganui Empire Veterans 

On 27 April 1929 Mr W. Cunningham called a meeting of returned soldiers with a view to forming an association of returned soldiers under the name of the Wanganui Empire Veterans. A meeting was arranged to be held on Empire Day in the Druids Hall at which the returned soldiers would be invited to attend and join. The officers elected were T. Hickman, president (New Zealand Land Wars), Mckenzie Forbes, vice-president (Boer War) and six men from World War I formed the committee. Evidently Mr Hickman did not accept and within a month Mr E. Merewether became president. The group met in the Druids Hall as they had lost possession of their own building. The committee not only arranged ANZAC Day parades but in June they paraded with the South African Veterans at their memorial in Cooks Gardens and again on 11 November for Armistice Day. They held several very successful smoke concerts. They organised the selling of poppies with the help of the Victoria League members. However the RSA headquarters in Wellington objected to supplying them with poppies as they were not an affiliated branch of the association. On 15 October 1934 the Empire Veterans Association amended its rules and changed its name to the Wanganui Returned Services Association, a branch of the New Zealand RSA.

The Rebirth of the Wanganui RSA

At some time in 1935 the RSA was granted the use of their former club rooms which were then known as the Victoria Hall. However they had to share it with other organisations. Early in 1938 negotiations were entered into with the patriotic committee with a view to getting an agreement for the repurchase of Victory Hall. This resulted in the purchase being signed on 14  April 1938. Once again the Wanganui RSA had their own headquarters. At the same time they purchased the furniture in the hall from James Patterson.

ANZAC Day 

ANZAC Day became a very special day for the returned men and they held a service each year. At first there was no set venue. On Anzac day 1923 the service was held in the site of the cenotaph in queens park which was being built. It was unveiled on Armistice Day that year by Colonel Melville c.b; m,.c; D.S.O. at a special parade of returned men. From then on the annual service was held there at 11.00am each ANZAC Day. This was followed by the civic service at Cooks Gardens at 2.00pm, which was also a garrison parade. At 8.00pm the RSA ANZAC Day concert was held in the Wanganui Opera House. In 1935 the 11.00am service was replaced by the dawn parade. The dawn parade was a great success as it meant more to the returned personnel. The ANZAC night concert became a tradition and the Opera House was packed. The talent that was found among members of the association was amazing. Armistice Day, 11 November was usually observed on the following Sunday by a church parade. However for a while members of the association paraded in front of the post office to observe the two minutes silence when everything came to a halt. Poppy Day was organised each year by Miss Mildred Newcombe and the funds raised by the sale of poppies enabled the welfare fund to keep operating. With their own club rooms again the club activities progressed. With the prospect of war imminent the RSA supported the territorials and when the national reserve was formed many members joined. During the Second World War the RSA hall became a servicemen’s club. The mounted rifles were in camp on the racecourse with the national reserve at Castlecliff and men from these units enjoyed the hospitality of the club, as did other personnel home on leave. By 1945 men were returning from overseas, they took office in the RSA and set to work to rejuvenate the association. An RSA Bowling Club was established and proved popular with members and has survived ever since. The RSA Little Theatre was formed with a membership of two hundred. They acquired a property in Wicksteed Street and converted it into a theatre. Unfortunately it was badly damaged by fire. Undeterred the members set to work and rebuilt it. After a most successful succession of programmes over a period of thirty five years a lack of active members saw the Little Theatre closed and the building sold. Golf tournaments were held regularly, with some hilarious performances by members on occasions, which all resulted in a fun day. Unfortunately time caught up with members and the annual ANZAC night concert went into recess.

Chartered Club Licence

The attendance of members at the club by 1950 had dropped to about fifty. President Maurice Wadey called a general meeting to discuss the situation and to suggest that a chartered club licence be applied for. This would enable the club to have its own bar. The president pointed out that legislation had just been passed which enabled returned services clubs to obtain a licence. The meeting of members lasted three hours. Members freely expressed their opinion with a large section speaking against the proposal. Mr Wadey tactfully got the meeting to agree to the proposal and application was made for a charter. The charter was granted in 1951 and immediately steps were taken to build extensions to the club rooms to house the new facility. The opening ceremony was attended by a large number of members. At one stage there was a proposal from a section of the members to sell the St Hill Street property and acquire the former brewery on the corner of Somme Parade and Bates Streets. However it was not agreed to and extensions have been carried out to the original building as and when required. The latter years of the association has seen many changes as the executive have endeavoured to meet the demands of the modern world. Members have got older resulting in a greater demand on the welfare funds. It has been essential that war pensions match the increase in the cost of living and no reduction have been be tolerated on the grounds of economy. Negotiations with the city council for more land has enabled the association to undertake three building projects, giving members more facilities. In September 1988 the Gallipoli restaurant was opened. An amenity that has been well patronised by members and the general public. The membership rules were amended to include members of the current armed forces. In 1990 the RSA club was established which broadened the membership further and enabled members to enjoy the amenities of the club although they could not become members of the Returned Services Association. The look of the association has broadened with the passage of time. In recent times grants have been made to welfare and special needs of such groups. The association has been more outgoing in its attitude to the wider community. The association over the years has fostered kindred clubs which come under its umbrella such as the prisoners of war, ex-navalmen’s association and similar clubs. Over the years the entertainment provided by the association has grown and today covers many facets. Two important duties that are vital to the life of the association are the weekly visiting of sick members and the attendance of members at the funerals of their comrades where the RSA funeral service is read and the placing of poppies on the casket by members is conducted. Despite the fact that many members are growing older they still maintain their loyalty to the association.

NZRSA Women’s Section Wanganui Branch 

On 30 June 1942 the Wanganui RSA and the city council called a meeting to form the Women’s Section of the RSA. Mrs r. G. Talboys, wife of the RSA president, presided. History does not record whether any service women from World War I attended. However it was decided to elect an executive consisting of two members from wartime women’s organisations such as the army relatives, navy league, red cross, air force relatives etc. Mrs Talboys outlined the functions of the committee which was the setting up and running of the ANA Club (army, navy & air force). This was set up on the first floor of the Commercial Club. Within a short period the section had a membership of 275. Assisted by junior members, they provided luncheons and evening meals seven days a week, with dancing followed by supper in the evening. In the 1944 annual report it was recorded that during the year 8,000 meals had been served. Another activity of the Women’s Section was running a Christmas party for servicemen’s wives and their children. Farewell functions for men going overseas was also catered for by members of the section. Later, welcome home parties were similarly organised. The Women’s Section at this time assisted the Victoria League in the Poppy Day collection. In July 1944 the visiting of servicemen’s wives in the maternity hospital was undertaken by members. In October that year the RSA clubrooms were opened and the Women’s Section provided afternoon teas. By this time the military camps based in Wanganui had been closed and it was decided to close the ANA Club but to keep it open on Sunday nights. In 1945 it closed its doors for the last time. This saw the election of a new executive. At a meeting called for this purpose it was announced the RSA president had intimated the executive of the RSA would like to see the president of the women’s section be the wife of a serviceman. At this time Mrs N. R. Bain, who had organised the Poppy Day appeal since 1921 on behalf of the Victoria League, was retiring and the Women’s Section assumed the responsibility for organising the appeal from then on. Monthly meetings of members were instituted and these have continued to the present day with an attendance of 100 plus. Indoor bowls was also an activity commenced by the club. Today membership of the Women’s Section is open to female relatives of servicemen as well as ex servicewomen. The section has a membership of over 100 and is very active in welfare work. Each year they continue to organise the Poppy Day appeal with great success. On ANZAC Day members place a sprig of rosemary to which is attached a red poppy on each returned serviceman’s grave at both the Aramoho and Heads Road cemeteries. A group of members provide entertainment at the hospital and rest homes. One of their popular annual functions is the bowling tournament.  The Women’s Section is most active in visitation and welfare work for the benefit of returned servicemen and women. With the passing of the years and as memories of World War II dim, it could be expected that interest in the section would wane, but to the contrary it is as active today as it was when it was formed in 1942.