Imagining the Past at the Manawatu Estuary

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On a recent trip to our nearest beach we spent time enjoying the estuary at the river mouth, where my local river eventually flows into the ocean. These days the estuary, not shown here in the photo, is a protected heritage area, where many of New Zealand’s native water birds can be found at various times of the year.

It wasn’t the birds that captured my attention on this trip though, but the river and how it served in the opening up of my region in the 1870s when New Zealand was being settled. The river has changed its course over the years since then and definitely doesn’t seem as wide nor deep as it once must have been.

In the beginning, before the region was cleared of forest and before roads were established the river was the major means of travelling inland to where I live. Settlers arriving to the newly established town had to travel up river in large sailing boats for some distance to a nearby thriving port town, then onward in smaller river transport.

I tried imaging the big sailing ships carrying arrivals, people who had been on board for months, eager to reach their new homeland. The river shown here at low tide just didn’t seem to be capable of being navigated by a large sailing ship. However, I enjoyed imaging the presence of so many ships arriving at was back then a thriving port, that I was on board one of them arriving at a strange destination.

This river mouth of the Manawatu River played an important role in the development of my region.

Preparing for Non-Fiction Print Publication

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When you self-publishthe research and writing are the easy parts. The real work begins after the last full-stop is placed on the page.

First there is the editing. I was fortunate to have funding this time and so for the last year I’ve worked with a wonderful mentor / editor throughout the writing. This had many advantages as I learned how to correct my mistakes as I wrote. The final edit was certainly made easier because of this. Consistency was an early challenge, making sure that things such as dates, numbers, titles and punctuation were treated the same way throughout the book. However, the regular monthly contact with my editor soon helped me iron out all my early irregularities.

Citing references was another challenging process, especially as I wasn’t as thorough as I should have been in the early stages. Then there were the photos, deciding which to use and whether I had permission to do so. Some fell into the too-hard basket and as my self-imposed publishing deadline approached I omitted them.

Eventually I felt my work was done, just days before I was due to deliver the manuscript to the designer at the printery. But that is another story.

Blending Your Stories with those of Your Community

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As we know, writing life stories is popular at the moment, recording stories from our past so they are not lost to future generations. We may all think we have nothing special to tell but, from experience, what we find everyday and uneventful, others find fascinating.

Have you ever considered blending your stories with those of your community? Social stories give a reader so much information about the past. Take the hotel in the photo above for example. There are many stories I could tell about this building, from my own family and personal experience back to fascinating things I’ve learned about its history.

All communities have buildings that have been demolished, replaced with more modern constructions. There are also buildings that may be in danger of vanishing some time in the near future. If the stories relating to these buildings are not recorded, part of your community social history is lost.

Why not blend your own stories with those of your community. Start writing them down while you can.

Writing the Book is Only Part of the Story

I’ve allowed myself three years to write the story of the local swimming pool I frequented as a teenager. I didn’t realize how many new skills I’d need along the way. I’m a writer and this is a story I want to tell. I thought I’d research and write and produce a book. Wrong! The reality is this book is taking me on an amazing learning journey.

My book is a local history one, a social history, the story of the local Municipal Baths from 1917 until closure in 1966.That sounds easy, gathering up information and writing. But there’s more to a book than that, as many of you wiser than me already know. I feel as if I’m undertaking a personal three year on-going education course – and I’m enjoying every minute of it.

Of course, there’s the research. This is new for me and I’m already learning rapidly. The people at my local library are amazing, showing me where to locate information and how to access it. The old newspapers are giving me an insight into community reaction to the building of the baths in their town. The Archives contain lots of valuable data. I’ve been recording my own anecdotal stories and will soon be delving into stories from people who experienced the baths long before I did.

The research will continue for a long time yet. I hadn’t ventured too far into the project when I realized I needed to put this story into context. What was the local community like at the time, especially in the 1920s and 1930s? I’m off to the library and onto the internet, gathering stories of the local community and the swimming world of the time.

All this sounds fine, but the book needs to written in a style appealing to a wide readership. I hope to blend facts with my personal stories. This will involve a different style from  my writing so far. I enrolled in an online Creative Non- fiction writing course and this is proving a wise investment of time and money. I’ve been reading a book about undertaking research. I’m also reading books, both novels and factual, which weave backwards and forwards in time, rather than tell a chronological story. I’m getting a feel for how my book will be written.

I’m now six months into my project. My writing skills are improving, I’m getting more skilled at research and I’m becoming e of a social and local historian. Who said writing a book was easy? But I can tell you from personal experience, learning as you go is lots of fun.

Confessions of a Beginning Researcher

I’m a beginner in this world of serious research with so much yet to learn. I also need to develop a little willpower along the way, curbing my natural curiosity to stray off the path when something catches my eye.

I spent a fun hour in the local library yesterday. It started with one small word in the library’s index file – Morgue. The word jumped at me from the Newspaper Index, not what I’d been searching for, but found anyway.

You see, I’m aware the site of the old Municipal Baths was originally occupied by the first city Morgue. This index discovery warranted further investigation.

I tried not looking impatient as I stood behind two people at the librarian’s desk. My turn came. I handed the librarian the name of the newspaper, the date of publication and the page and column I wanted to read – Manawatu Evening Standard, 4 July 1906, page 3, column 3. Then I confessed I had no idea how to access it.

The librarian unlocked the cabinet of antiquated reels of old newspapers on film and helped me load the film and get started. I concentrated on finding the wanted page, ignoring the many fascinating past headlines distracting me. When I found the article the small print challenged my eye sight.

I had three options, print it off at a small cost, e-mail it to myself or bring in a USB stick and copy it for reading at home. I then realised I had a fourth option. 1906 is one of the papers already available on the NZ Papers Past online. I rushed home, impatient to learn more about the community’s outrage at the existence of the Morgue in their residential area. Even worse, it was behind the Opera House, upsetting theatre goers.

From this small entry I found numerous Letters to the Editor complaining about the Morgue. I lost myself in what had been quite a topic of discontent since the Morgue had been established in 1903. The afternoon slipped by unnoticed as a story developed in my head.

Will I be able to use all this information in my next book? Probably not. The Morgue only warrants a small mention, perhaps one or two sentences as background. Was my afternoon spent in reading all I could find useful? Definitely. I now have the background leading up to why the Ashley Street site was chosen for the baths. I also learned how to do newspaper research at the library.

My concern now is staying focussed on the task in hand. How much time should I spend locating information contributing so few words to the final outcome? I still have so much to learn as I go about my research.

I’d love to hear your comments and any tips relating to your own research projects. I’m a real beginner here.

Remembering the Last Tram in New Zealand

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I originally published this piece on Suite101 in December 2009. I’ve long since stopped contributing to that site and when I tried to access this post today I found it difficult to retrieve. Consequently I’m reposting it here. Trams once provided transport throughout the world. Very few remain in public use.

On 2 May 1964, a large crowd gathered in Wellington, New Zealand, to witness the last public transport journey of an electric tram in New Zealand.

By 1964 trams had been phased out in all New Zealand cities but Wellington. It was fitting that Wellington should have been the location of New Zealand’s last electric tram, as the city had been the first in the southern hemisphere to introduce a steam tram service in 1878. These were replaced with electric trams in 1904. After 60 years of serving the capital city, the time arrived for the final tram’s last run. People were sad to see the trams go and lined the Wellington streets to farewell a familiar friend.

The Last Tram

It was a festive occasion. Two other trams Nos 250 and 251, led the procession. Decorated in red, white and blue they made their farewell journey through the city streets. People clambered on board, eager to be part of the historic day by taking their last ride. Others were content to watch.

The last trip traveled from Parliament Buildings, near the Railway Station, to the Newtown Tram Shed. In the minutes before departure, the assembled crowds listened to the Onslow Silver Band play ‘Auld Lang Syne’. Tram 252, decorated with black and gold, Wellington’s colors, had a sign above the driver’s window, reading ‘NZ’s Last Tram, End of the Line’. Flags fluttered at the front and from the roof of the tram.

With Wellington’s Mayor, Frank Kitts, in the drivers seat, the bell clanged for the last time, the conductor yelled ‘Fares please’ and away the tram trundled on its final journey.

The Reason for The Service Being Discontinued

When electric trams first started servicing the country, cars were almost unheard of on the roads. As more and more people started owning cars, city traffic became busier. The slow trams became a hazard in the narrow streets as car drivers became impatient to get places more quickly. Buses were considered safer and easier to manoeuvre, and were gradually introduced in readiness for the closing of the tram service.

Final Destination of Wellington Trams

Some of the old Wellington trams now live at the Wellington Tramway Museum, Queen Elizabeth Park, Paekakariki, a short drive north of Wellington. There, people are still able to take nostalgic rides.

Tram No 252, the last tram to run through New Zealand streets, sits in storage at Motat, Museum of Transport and Technology, in Auckland, where it awaits major restoration.

Trams served their communities faithfully for many years in New Zealand, until they were discontinued because of progress. In Christchurch restored trams now offer rides through the city centre.

Let the Story Begin

Once upon a time, about fifty years ago, a young girl made a trip to the local swimming pool. The water, the dressing sheds, the concrete surrounds and the people all recognised another victim and cast their magic spell, pulling her into their family.

Without stopping to think, she cast off her former life and allowed the magic of swimming to possess her. Day and night during the summer months, for many years, she plunged into the water and reached out for her dreams. Even the winter months beckoned, with only the land fitness and strengthening programme keeping her warm. The girl knew her life was perfect.

But all good stories come to an end. Fortunately for the girl two events coincided. She developed an interest in boys and dating at the same time the City Fathers decided the old baths no longer served a purpose. The old pool had come to the end of its useful life. A new, modern swimming complex was opened across town and the doors of the old baths closed forever.

Now, nearly fifty years later the girl has rekindled her passion for the old brick building which once enclosed the passions of her teenage years. She recognises a story needing to be told, the story of the place the old swimming baths held in the hearts of the town’s swimming community.

Yes, my new writing project has begun. The minute I opened the first archive box of treasure yesterday, I trembled with anticipation. This box held material enabling the fifty year story of the baths to be brought to life. The pool was a grand old lady, opened in 1917 and closed forever in 1966. Her story deserves to be told. Over the next two years or so I intend piecing the story together and recreating the magic that once existed for so many of the town’s young people.

Let the story begin.

Is there a place holding passionate memories from your past that no longer exists?  Why not record your memories, enabling it to live yet again in the hearts of others.

Trees Have Stories Too

How aware are you of the trees in your locality? I confess my knowledge is minimal. Trees grow, they exist for either beautification or to serve a specific purpose and some have existed longer than others.

Two things sparked my recent interest in trees. Firstly, faced with a writing challenge about Trees, I decided to look into the place of trees in the early settlement of my city, a city where trees hold a respected place. Then, a second discovery fed my fascination, a recent newspaper article about an arborist locating and recording details about notable trees in the district that need protecting. Some of these trees go a long way back in time.

With my limited knowledge of the history of my local area, I realise trees played an important part in development here from pre-European settlement days.  The original town site was built in a large clearing on an otherwise forested plain. Early literature, settler journals and local history publications describe the beauty of the forest, the trees and the bird song.

Whenever people choose to live in a previously undeveloped area, they need to build homes and create communities. In order to achieve this back in the late 19th century, trees were felled, houses and business premises were built and the town began to grow. The beautiful forest retreated and the townsfolk lived in a newly cleared environment where mud and dust reigned.

A quick search of an online site, Papers Past, provided fascinating reading. I didn’t expect much when I entered the keyword Trees for one of the local papers from the early 1900s. My astonishment at the wealth of information held me captive for more time than I intended as I located further information.

In the early 1900s, if not earlier, the locals demanded more of the developing town and a group of people formed the Beautification Society, a lobby group to encourage the local Council to plant and grow trees to make the town more appealing. From these early settler endeavours, over a century later our city takes pride in trees contributing to the local environment.

Local history started with a beautiful forest, became cleared and burned off land devoid of trees, back to the formation of a society to plant and beautify the surroundings. For my May writing group challenge I intend further researching the story of the Beautification Society of the past and attempt to record some of its story.

Also read the story of a New Zealand Tree and River, before the arrival of people: Kids Illustrate New Zealand Maori Legend

Writing Memoir Combined with Local History

My first published writing project, a 1950s school memoir, has proved a success and left me wanting to stretch myself further. At first I thought I’d work on another memoir, one set in a place close to my heart when I was growing up.

Competitive swimming occupied my teenage years in the 1960s and my time spent in intensive training coincided with the last five years of the local community baths, before a new impressive swimming complex was built and opened. The old baths became like a second home to me and I wanted to write the story of its last years.

The school Centenary I attended in the weekend brought me in contact again with two swimmers from those teenage years and, as one does at a school reunion, we got talking and sharing stories, not just of the old baths but of swimming in our small province. I didn’t realise at the time, but our conversation became a turning point. A new idea crept into my head, planted itself and started the life of a new book.

Next day I shared the swimming conversation with my husband, also a swimmer from the same period. It became obvious a larger story needed telling. I now need to stretch my writing skills and try something a little more challenging.

The story of the old Municipal Baths in my town needs to be told. The baths first opened in 1917 and lasted just short of fifty years before the new swimming complex was opened in 1966. 2016 will mark fifty years since the closure of the special place in my heart.

The baths story will be told through a combination of local history and memoir. My own life story will be intermingled with the life story of this very popular meeting place for the young people of the town. Three years to research, write and produce this story should be more than enough.

I’m quite excited at the prospect of extending myself. I’m hoping my idea of combining the story of my connection with the baths in the last five years along with the wider community story of the baths through its short life will work.

I know challenges lie ahead of me, especially the extensive research needed. I’m looking forward to sharing my story here, both snippets of my life stories and the things I learn about writing along the way. If any readers have attempted this combination of writing memoir and local history before I’d love to learn about your experience.