Heritage Month: Focus sheds light on historic Whanganui suburb

The Memorial Tower in the historic Whanganui suburb of Durie Hill. Photo / Bevan Conley

A hilltop suburb overlooking the Whanganui River and with views out to sea was once an important strategic site for Māori.

Now known as Durie Hill, the suburb’s historic significance will be remembered during Whanganui Heritage Month, which runs throughout October.

Whanganui District Council heritage advisor Scott Flutey and students from Victoria University of Wellington will guide a history walking tour of the suburb, designed in 1919 as the first example of the garden-city vision for New Zealand.

Student Olive Russell said research for the one-hour tour has been carried out as part of her cohort’s Museum and Heritage degree studies.

“The guided tour is a ‘history ramble’ of the Durie Hill area covering pre-European settlement, geology, the Garden Suburb vision and the [Durie Hill] elevator.”

Flutey said the walking tour would use oral histories to unearth early historical detail.

“There are the towers of Durie Hill that we know so well, but there are far more layers and significance there than might be apparent to some.

“That particular site has great significance for Māori historically. It was a strategic viewing point – it looks all the way up and down the awa. You can see who’s coming and going, and that, of course, was the highway in those days.

“It ties into other settlements and landscapes too. There are all kinds of interesting layers of use, meaning and significance, and this tour is a way to highlight at a high level that there’s more here that you can see.”

The 25ha site on Durie Hill was developed after World War I as “New Zealand’s first modern suburb” under the vision of the architect Samuel Hurst Seager and the garden city and town planning movement.

The garden suburb layout included curvilinear streets (including the country’s first designed cul-de-sacs, Flutey says), reserves and recreational amenities like croquet lawns, a bowling club, tennis courts, children’s play areas and a public elevator through the hill, connecting the suburb to the city. More than 100 years later, the elevator is still in service.

Between the elevator’s lookout tower and the 1925 Memorial Tower is another historic site.

“All you can see today is a little crumbling section of a picket fence. It is the last remnant of the Duncan polio hospital,” Flutey said.

“There was a homestead there called Puke Tiro – that was the Duncan family’s place. They gifted it to be used as a polio hospital. People from around the country came to Whanganui to recuperate.”

Using a polio treatment pioneered by Australian bush nurse Sister Kenny, the Duncan Hospital rehabilitated polio patients through a trust founded by Sir Thomas and Lady Duncan. The trust was funded by the Turakina Valley hill country farm Otiwhiti Station, so patients could receive free treatment.

The Durie Hill History Ramble takes place on Saturday, October 29. Whanganui Heritage Month and River Festival runs from Saturday, October 8, until Sunday, October 30.

– Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

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