Wednesday, 21 February 2018

A city in the making

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Back in the early 1950’s, when I was but a slip of a kid, a group of local Masterton businessmen set up an organisation called the 20,000 Club. Its major aim was to raise money to build a war memorial. The name was chosen because it was expected that the town, with a population of around 12,000 at the time, would soon grow to the magical figure of 20,000 and Masterton could proudly declare itself a city. The figure has no magic anymore. Some years ago the government lifted the threshold for cityhood to 50,000 and there would need to be a massive upsurge in the procreative process’s around the suburbs for us to make the new mark. We know too, of course, that the hospital could never cope if we did.

It was a lively little town back in the 50’s thanks in great part to the efforts of the 20,000 Club to cobble together enough money to build the stadium and pool complex chosen to honour our war dead. There were wonderful carnivals in Queen Elizabeth Park, concerts in the Regent Theatre and most exciting of all, speedway racing every Wednesday night at the Solway Showgrounds.

As a 12 year old third former attendance at the speedway was achieved by riding on Ken Aplin’s suburban bus service that did the rounds of Lansdowne to pick up us kids who loved the thrill of the racing and became mildly addicted to the smell of kerosene.

Local heroes Harry Mangham and Des O’Connor would pit their skills against Wellington and Wembly star Bruce Abernathy. No matter how far back they handicapped Abernathy, he always seemed to win, tearing past the checkered flag with his flowing white silk scarf fluttering behind him in a defiant gesture. Abernathy was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His father owned the Chukka shirt factory in Lower Hutt and was able to indulge his son in his passion for racing motor bikes with incredible skill and daring. I got to know him in later years when he was a member of the Terawhiti Licensing Trust. I’m sorry to say time had not treated him kindly; the demon drink had taken its toll on his mind and body. He passed away some years ago with little of the family wealth evident. Harry Mangham tragically died at a relatively young age in a top-dressing aircraft crash.

The 20,000 Club brought to town an ex-kiwi concert party producer named Tommy Kirk-Burnand to help them run their stage shows; also a musician named Geoffrey Farrell. Their concerts were superbly crafted and provided great entertainment.

In the park the carnivals resembled some of the Esther William’s films, popular at the time, with speedboats on the lake and water skiers in tow performing gravity defying displays and exhibiting remarkable balance. Basil Bodle’s “Miss Vesta” was the main towing speedboat and rides were also available on Doug Cameron’s launch which was to later die a slow death at the back of his section on the corner of Villa Street and Lincoln Road. The Town Council eventually stopped these excursions as the wake from the boats was eating away at the lake shore.

Later minor miscreants who had been sentenced to community work installed rock walls around the lake, but by then as a member of the Junior Chamber of Commerce (Jaycees) I’d help build a solid concrete bridge over to an island to facilitate access to a miniature train we were installing so water skiing displays could not be reinstated without decapitating the performers.

Meanwhile a Queen carnival was held with Business Queen Maureen McLachlan, Farmer Queen Cathy Douglas, and Sports Queen Josephine Mackley as participants. The Regent Theatre was packed for the entertaining variety concert produced by Kirk-Burnand and featuring Geoffrey Farrell that preceded the crowning.

With all this effort you would have thought that the new complex would open debt free, but in fact the 20,000 Club eventually finished up penniless. It was apparently the high cost of staging the speedway that diminished all their raised cash and ironically the Council was called upon to pay their creditors.

The Masterton Licensing Trust eventually came up with most of the capital cost of the stadium and pools complex, taking out a long term loan on which it paid the principal and the Borough Council paid the interest. The complex was opened in 1958. Total Licensing Trust contribution was around sixty thousand pounds and converted in to 2018 dollars it would seem like they got a very good deal. And so ironically it was the public bar beer drinkers who paid for the recreation center.

The 20,000 Club, despite the impeccable business credentials of the men who established it, failed to raise the money it sought, but sixty-five years after its inception the town now boasts 23,000 inhabitants. Lamentably the target was reached well beyond their lifetimes.

(Footnote:Recently Masterton was named 'New Zealand’s most beautiful city' so somewhere along the line the 50,000 starting point has been forgotten, but no one around here is arguing.)

“If you would be known, but not know, vegetate to a village; if you would know, and not be known, live in a city.” - Charles Caleb Colton


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