Monday, 20 June 2016

The New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition, Dunedin, 1889-1890 (Part Three - The Exhibition Buildings)

The two engraved glasses from the Exhibition
which I recently purchased for my collection.
(not the best photo but difficult to photograph)
[From my own collection]

This continues my Blog series looking at the "New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition" held in Dunedin between 1889 and 1890. To read all parts of this blog series please click on "New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition 1889-1890" in the left-hand "Labels" menu.

As befitting an 'International Exhibition', and within the exigencies of funding, resources and available space, the Architect, Mr James Hislop, created a magnificent - but temporary - masterpiece. The buildings were always to be of a transient nature and sadly, only some interior and exterior photos remain which enable us to gain only a tantalizing glimpse of what Exhibition visitors may have witnessed and experienced.

The Moorish Inspired Entrance

With a north facing Moorish inspired building, complete with a portico, dome and turrets, this provided a suitably grand entrance on Jervois street to the Exhibition grounds.

Visitors to the Exhibition had first to pass through this grand entrance :

"The feature in regard to this building is a bold-looking dome springing from the rear of the main entrance. The width of the main elevation is to be 154ft. The chief entrance is in the centre, and on either side of the entrance are two square turrets about 40ft high. The turrets are finished with canopy-shaped heads, each surmounted with a small minaret, and carrying a flag-pole. Between these turrets is what may be called a parapet. The height of the parapet from the ground is 23ft. The parapet is continued to the corners, at each of which is an octagonal tower, finished with a minaret and flag-pole."  

"Before entering the main hall, the visitor has to go through the portico, which is 54ft in length and 10ft in width. It is arched on each side with columns and pilasters and the "spandrils" are filled in with ornamented woodwork. Above the keystone is the pediment, the tympanum of which contains the coat of arms, and on each side "spandrils" with cut woodwork on them. the apex carries iron scrolls and a flagpole."

The Main Hall

Having passed through the portico, the visitor now enters the main hall which is about 50 ft in lengthy by 28ft wide, being broken up at intervals with pilasters resting on pedestals. In this hall there are four turnstiles separated by an archway in the centre, three being for adults and one for children. The holders of season tickets and free passes enter through the central archway above which are inscribed the words, "The Earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof". The entrance fee for adults is one shilling with the turnstiles automatically recording the number that pass through them without the need to issue tickets.

The visitor now found themselves under the 85ft high dome. While the Architect had planned it to be of a greater height he had to scale back his plans in this regard due to cost. 

"The dome is octagon-shaped, diminished into 16 sides in the roof. The "spandrils" between the arches are filled in with decorative work in the shape of various New Zealand ferns and flowers..."

A frieze above the entrance to the hall, to the fernery, and to the left and right avenues are embellished with appropriate mottoes "executed in gold ground". These are "Fax Mentis Incendium Gloriæ" (glory is the torch of the mind); "Forti Omne Solum Patria" (the man of courage makes every land his home); "Virtutem Sequitur Gloria"  (merit wins credit); and "Labor Omnia Vincit Improbus" (incessant toil conquers all)

The arches at the above four entrances are draped with heavy velvet curtains. In the panels located beside the side arches are placed large mirrors, underneath these being wire baskets with ferns and flowers. On pedestals at each side of the mirrors are statuettes of members of the Royal Family, and in the centre of the hall - and directly under the dome - is a statue of her Majesty Queen Victoria, being mounted on a pedestal of Port Chalmers blue stone, around the base of which is another wire basket. Above the wall frieze is a very heavy cornice, which is finished with candalabra, with the whole being picked out with colours and gilding. Light is admitted through a wire-wove netting being covered with oil cloth. Eight tons of lead were used in covering the dome.

A large plate glass window affords a view of the fernery from the main hall. To the right and left of the window, but obscured from public gaze, are the refreshments bars.

The entrance hall now leads to the six main display galleries and some of lessor size, all with their various 'courts', a 3,000 seat concert hall (complete with an Exhibition orchestra and pipe organ), courtyards, an aviary (complete with kiwis), an oriental tearoom, gardens, an amusement arcade, an imitation 'Eiffel Tower', a switchback railway, and a merry-go-round.

The Exhibition closed daily between 5.30 pm and 7.30 to allow employees and court staff an evening meal break.

A sketch by Mr Leslie of the Exhibition buildings, taken looking east.
[Source : "The Otago Witness"]

A Quick Run Through the Exhibition Layout

I will, in future Blogs, give a fuller account of some of the more interesting Exhibition 'courts' and facilities which the newspapers of the day describe in great detail. Although some areas of the Exhibition and their location are carefully described in great detail, others display areas are perhaps a little vague but this quick tour will hopefully provide an overview.

Exiting the main hall through the avenue on the right, we first enter the South Seas and Early History annexes which run along the western avenue of the building adjoining Crawford street. Then, in order, those courts occupied by the Colonies of Victoria, South Australia, and of New South Wales. An 'Octagon' at the south western corner promoting the NZ Public Works Department delineates where the New Zealand exhibits commence, being both Government exhibits and of the various provinces which includes the southern and eastern avenues of the building.

The central Octagon in the western court
looking through to the Victorian Court.
Photo by D.A. De Maus
[Source : Hocken Collections]

There are four 'Octagons', another one being located at the south eastern corner which contains a mineral display for the NZ Government while the north eastern Octagon features one end of the Wellington court. The Octagon in the centre of the western annex is part of the Victorian court.

Adjoining the eastern avenue is the Post and Telegraph Office and opposite this area is the "Onslow Pavilion", having been fitted up as reception rooms for His Excellency the Governor.

Following on, we pass agricultural exhibits and some British exhibits which were late arriving before again reaching the main entrance hall. Adjoining this area is the photographic studio.

There are two main flanking annexes running transversely between the eastern and western courts. The first contains the home industries section, the educational section, and the fisheries court while the second annex contains the "Avenue of All Nations" where most of the foreign exhibits are located including the machinery court.

The large concert hall in the southern part of the complex is reached via a wide corridor leading off the Cumberland street (eastern) annexes.

The New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition
Buildings, Dunedin New Zealand, 1889
[Source "The Star"]

The Art Gallery, dining and refreshment rooms are also in the southern part of the complex but are reached via a corridor leading from the southern annexes facing Anderson's Bay Road. The art Gallery is to the left down the corridor and the dining and refreshment rooms to the right, the latter having a useful interconnection with the back of the concert hall.

In the outdoor space at the Anderson's Bay Road end of the Exhibition is the space reserved for side shows including "a switchback railway", "a merry-go-round" and "a model of the Eiffel Tower".

Besides the principal exhibition buildings is "the engine shed for the electric light apparatus".

The Garden Court formed the area bounded by the entrance buildings facing Jervois street, the northern sections of the eastern and western annexes, and the central flanking annex.  

Adjoining the entrance hall is the above-mentioned fernery, being about 140ft long by 57ft 8in wide. Outside the fernery, at each end, is a small rockery. Entering the gardens, a band rotunda is located in the centre, a cascade at the southern end, and a "large Maori house" at the eastern side.

The next blog in this series will provide a description of the musical arrangements for the Exhibition and of some of the notable - and very talented - people involved. The complete series of blogs will be available by clicking on "New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition 1889-1890" in the left-hand "Labels" menu.

Sources :

- Papers Past [National Library of New Zealand / Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa]
- NZ History Net / Nga Korero a ipurango o Aotearoa
- Hocken Collections, Dunedin / Uare Taoka o Hākena
- Toitū Otago Settlers Museum, Dunedin


  1. This morning I was looking at the World Fairs of 1879 (Sydney), 1880 and 1888 (Melbourne) and asking the same question. Why would cities have agreed to spend a fortune on World Fair architecture, only to destroy it all within a year of the visitors going home? In Dunedin, you show very impressive main halls, dome, porticoes, annexes between the eastern and western courts and concert halls.

    What a loss :(

    1. Thanks you Hels. Yes, how can something so beautiful be torn down so quickly? While some buildings were advertised as available to lease after the Exhibition finished it appears no one wanted to take them over so they were all stripped and promptly removed. Yes, such a waste. Melbourne is extremely lucky with their beautiful Exhibition building and some thought appears to have gone into later use for this facility.


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