When I was researching the work of mining-town photographer Joseph Divis a few years ago, I came across a small group of images of children from Waiuta School, apparently dressed in costumes for a play or plays. There were no labels, and no one could tell me anything about the play. Waiuta is now a deserted mining village, and the school was closed in 1951.
In 2009 I took the photographs to a meeting of the Friends of Waiuta in Christchurch, and passed them round to see if anyone had any ideas. To my delight, Gwen Poole (nee Jones), then in her 80s, had vivid memories. She was the fairy in the photograph above, and remembered that the play, performed at Waiuta in 1933 or 1934, was called Jan of Windmill Land. It was a musical written by Clementine Ward, and widely performed through the British Empire – on Papers Past you can see reviews of when it was performed locally by Southbridge District High School in 1931 and Miramar South School in 1938. This musical was particularly suitable for schools as it had parts for children of all ages. The youngest children were flowers under the control of their guardian fairy.
The older children played Dutch men and women, dressed in traditional dress. It was a wholesome picture of Holland seen through British eyes – possibly rather different to the memories of the large number of Dutch settlers who came to New Zealand.
The play contained a segment about the Dutch festival of Sinterklaas, when St Nicholas (known in English-speaking countries as Santa Claus) arrives in Holland accompanied by Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) and his black assistants wearing golliwog masks.
Gwen Poole remembered that the costumes, which were circulated around different schools by the Education Board, arrived at school in boxes. There was great competition among the children for different costumes as everyone wanted a golliwog costume.
Present-day readers may be horrified at the images of boys smoking pipes (or at least pretending to) and children dressed in golliwog costumes – a reminder of how ideas about what is appropriate or offensive changes over time. I wonder what parents in 80 years’ time will tut-tut about when they look at pictures taken in 2014.
Source: Simon Nathan, Through the eyes of a miner: the photography of Joseph Divis. Wellington: Steele Roberts, 2010.