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Wel­ling­ton is a city near and dear to our hearts. But to out­siders it must seem like a daunt­ing des­tin­a­tion. It is the world’s most south­ern cap­it­al city, and is also the most remote cap­it­al city on the globe. Here it is, life brist­ling with­in windswept hills, which gaze out towards the South­ern Alps and the South­ern Ocean bey­ond. Its air­port can be buf­feted by blustery winds, its roads often lashed by rain and its fer­ries can­celled by rolling swells. But it can also be the greatest city on Earth.

When not­able guests have turned up on our shores, they have fre­quently exper­i­enced the full recep­tion from Wellington’s land­scapes and people. Vis­it­ors have faced a spec­trum of Wel­ling­to­ni­an emo­tions – joy, anger, hys­teria, ador­a­tion and grief. To cel­eb­rate our celebrity past, Fish­Head has delved into the files at the Nation­al Archives to find these pieces of his­tory – snap­shots of times where Wel­ling­ton and its people brushed shoulders with world-fam­ous outsiders.

The Beatles

Beatles 1

The Beatles were respons­ible for the flut­ter­ing hearts and the fer­vent mad­ness that swept the cap­it­al in 1964, when they played two shows at Wel­ling­ton Town Hall. Scenes at the air­port were chaot­ic, with the throb­bing crowds of young women almost prov­ing too much for the 30 police officers who tried to keep them con­tained behind a wire fence.

They were gBeatles 2reeted with a tra­di­tion­al Māori wel­come – all of which was smothered by the shrieks of ador­ing fans. They were mobbed at their hotel, too, with the band smuggled through a bottle shop into the Hotel St George, where they took to a bal­cony so the mob could see them.

It was pan­de­moni­um on the street below, with police hav­ing to use dogs to clear the crowds of scream­ing girls and police motor­cycles dam­aged by the teen­agers. The band’s con­certs weren’t any calmer either. They were framed by stage inva­sions, high-pitched screams and stiletto heels pier­cing leath­er seats as fans stood on them for a bet­ter view. In a truly paro­chi­al moment, John Len­non was able to make an unlikely reunion with second cous­ins from Lev­in, while Ringo Starr met with fam­ily mem­bers in Karori.


The Rolling Stones


The Rolling Stones have a notori­ous repu­ta­tion. They have often been described as the greatest show on Earth and the ori­gin­al bad boys of rock. They are the sin­ners whose hard life­styles of sex, drug abuse and alco­hol­ism fused to cre­ate the blue­print of mod­ern rock music.

The band’s shows have inspired many hair-rais­ing legends, but it was in Wel­ling­ton in 1966 where they met their match. The band had already toured the city in 1965 but returned the fol­low­ing year for more per­form­ances in both the cap­it­al and Auck­land. The 1965 shows had been marked by fans try­ing to rush the stage to seize Mick Jagger.

How­ever, the 1966 show at the Wel­ling­ton Town Hall was an even more intense affair, with a num­ber of people again invad­ing the stage to get close to band mem­bers. At one point a man leapt from the audi­ence and attacked Mick Jag­ger, before being dragged off by secur­ity personnel.

The show got so out of hand that Bill Wyman and Keith Richards cut the power to their gui­tars and with­drew to the rel­at­ive safety of the side of the stage before order was restored to the ven­ue. It’s believed a girl later fell from the theatre bal­cony, suf­fer­ing injur­ies and dis­lo­cat­ing her legs. Reports from the time indic­ate that the Auck­land show was much calmer.




Wel­ling­ton has been well ser­viced by Roy­al vis­its. These include Prince Charles’s birth­day party at the Governor-General’s res­id­ence in 2012 – which included a massive fruit­cake adorned with paro­chi­al emblems of Kiwiana cul­ture such as jan­dals and rugby balls made of icing. Charles and Cam­illa were jostled by throngs num­ber­ing in their thou­sands on a walk­about along the Wel­ling­ton water­front. Prince William’s vis­it in early 2010 to open the new Supreme Court build­ing also drew massive crowds.

How­ever, some Roy­al vis­its are more not­able than oth­ers. Late on 24 Decem­ber 1953, the Tangi­wai rail dis­aster occurred near Mt Ruape­hu. One hun­dred and fifty-one people were killed when the train they were trav­el­ling in caused the lahar-dam­aged Whangae­hu River Bridge to col­lapse, send­ing the engine and five car­riages plum­met­ing into the flood­wa­ters below.

The event plunged the nation into shock and mourn­ing. Twenty bod­ies were nev­er recovered, pre­sumed swept away by the force of the flood­wa­ters into the ocean – some 120 kilo­metres away. The dis­aster took place at a time coin­cid­ing with the Roy­al Tour of 1953 and 1954. The Queen moved imme­di­ately to respond in the after­math while mak­ing her Christ­mas broad­cast, fin­ish­ing with a mes­sage of sym­pathy to the nation. Prince Phil­lip atten­ded a buri­al ser­vice in Karori Cemetery on 31 Decem­ber to mark New Zealand’s worst ever rail acci­dent, where he spent time sol­emnly talk­ing to people attend­ing the mass buri­al of the Tangi­wai dis­aster victims.


Ernest Shackleton


Explorer Ern­est Shack­leton is famed for his exped­i­tions across the Ant­arc­tic, and en route spent time in New Zea­l­and. In 1907 he used Lyt­telton as a base for the Nim­rod exped­i­tion, which aimed to pen­et­rate fur­ther south than any pre­vi­ous trips to the Ant­arc­tic, get­ting with­in 160 kilo­metres of the South Pole.

How­ever, Shackleton’s asso­ci­ation with New Zea­l­and was not always one of suc­cess. The Imper­i­al Trans-Ant­arc­tic Exped­i­tion failed when the Endur­ance was crushed in the ice in Octo­ber 1915, and the explorer and his party were marooned. They made a risky voy­age in the ship’s life­boats, which meant five tor­ment­ing days on the open sea before they landed on inhos­pit­able Ele­phant Island. Res­cue was unlikely as the island was nowhere near ship­ping lanes – and so Shack­leton decided to risk a 1,500-kilometre open-boat jour­ney to South Geor­gia, where whalers could help them.

Shack­leton and five oth­ers com­pleted the fri­gid voy­age in per­il­ous con­di­tions, and then returned to Ele­phant Island with the help of the Chilean author­it­ies to res­cue the men he left there.

Shack­leton then trav­elled to New Zea­l­and to meet his expedition’s oth­er ship, the Aurora, which had drif­ted from its moor­ing in Ant­arc­tica – a calam­ity that had left the Ross Sea party stran­ded at Cape Evans in McMurdo Sound. Before set­ting south­wards again to res­cue them, he spent time in Wel­ling­ton exper­i­en­cing wilds of a dif­fer­ent kind – wan­der­ing in the hills of the Rimu­ta­kas for fresh air and exer­cise. For a man who had been through such phys­ic­al and men­tal hard­ships, Shack­leton could still acknow­ledge good times, scrawl­ing on the back of a snap­shot mark­ing the jaunt, “Memor­ies of a happy day”.


Mark Twain

Mark TwainFamed Amer­ic­an author Mark Twain made it to New Zea­l­and in 1895 as part of his sweep­ing tour of the Brit­ish colon­ies: he was try­ing to raise money after going broke fol­low­ing invest­ments in failed print­ing tech­no­logy. He was con­duct­ing paid lec­tures to raise funds to pay off debts – events that ulti­mately paid him more in life exper­i­ence. Hav­ing been warned by a man he deemed a “lun­at­ic” who burst into his Whan­ganui hotel room claim­ing there was a plot against his life, Twain headed south, trav­el­ling the 10 hours to Wel­ling­ton by horse and trap.

The author stayed only three days in Wel­ling­ton, paus­ing to gath­er energy for the return leg to Aus­tralia. He spent his time walk­ing and enjoy­ing social priv­ileges, and idling around what he described as the “mag­ni­fi­cent gar­dens” of the Hutt. He called Wel­ling­ton a “fine city and nobly situ­ated; a busy place, and full of life and move­ment”. Twain boarded the Mararoa to Sydney on 13 Decem­ber. He said his time in New Zea­l­and was all too brief. Wel­ling­ton was the last he saw of the coun­try, and he gave it the endorse­ment that he was “not unthank­ful” for the glimpse he had of it.


Eleanor Roosevelt


Elean­or Roosevelt vis­ited Wel­ling­ton in late August and early Septem­ber 1943. The main reas­on for her vis­it was to see US troops sta­tioned in the area, to see the oper­a­tions of the Amer­ic­an Red Cross in action, and to see more of the con­tri­bu­tion of New Zea­l­and women to the war effort.

The First Lady, wife of then US Pres­id­ent Frank­lin D. Roosevelt, was also fully occu­pied by the Second World War and the ongo­ing efforts of the Amer­ic­an forces fight­ing in all quar­ters of con­flict. Wel­ling­ton was a huge sta­tion­ing post for US Mar­ines. Eleanor’s trip is an incred­ible feat to ima­gine – com­ing across the Pacific dur­ing the height of the war, through waters where Japan­ese nav­al forces oper­ated, in order to reach New Zealand.

While Eleanor’s hus­band was by no means fra­gile, he was a sick man. His para­lyt­ic ill­ness was largely kept from pub­lic view, but it was some­thing his wife had to grapple with. His ail­ing health would ulti­mately fail in 1945, leav­ing his fam­ily and the whole nation in mourning.

While Elean­or Roosevelt lived on to see the end of the Second World War, she had sac­ri­ficed much in sup­port­ing her hus­band and con­duct­ing her own work dur­ing the con­flict. Admir­al Wil­li­am Hal­sey, Jr praised her vis­it to the South Pacific, say­ing “she alone accom­plished more good than any oth­er per­son, or any groups of civil­ians, who had passed through my area”.


The Polish Children of Pahiatua

Polish children

Not all out-of-town­ers are short-term vis­it­ors. One of the most touch­ing events in Wellington’s his­tory was the arrival of 733 Pol­ish chil­dren in 1944. They were refugees from the Second World War, which was still raging across Europe and through­out the Pacific at the time of their arrival. Prime Min­is­ter Peter Fraser, Pol­ish Con­sul Count Kazi­mierz Wod­zicki and his wife, Count­ess Maria Wod­zicka, wel­comed the chil­dren to New Zea­l­and on board the USS Gen­er­al Ran­dall in Wel­ling­ton. The refugees com­pleted their long jour­ney by tak­ing two spe­cial trains from Wel­ling­ton to Pahi­atua, and were farewelled from Wel­ling­ton Rail­way Sta­tion by a crowd of hun­dreds of school­chil­dren wav­ing New Zea­l­and and Pol­ish flags – treat­ment that con­tin­ued at sta­tions fur­ther up the line.

The young refugees’ des­tin­a­tion was a camp that had been set up in 1942 to house Ger­man and Japan­ese nation­als deemed ‘ali­ens’ by the state, but had been con­ver­ted for the children’s needs. The fin­an­cial assist­ance of the exiled Pol­ish gov­ern­ment was dis­con­tin­ued after a while, and so the care of the chil­dren fell to the New Zea­l­and gov­ern­ment. These Pol­ish chil­dren put down roots, and their con­tri­bu­tion to com­munit­ies around New Zea­l­and – includ­ing Wel­ling­ton – has been immeas­ur­able ever since.

The Springboks 1981 Tour


Some­times vis­it­ors aren’t made to feel wel­come. That was def­in­itely the case in 1981 when the tide of pop­u­lar opin­ion had already turned against apartheid in South Africa and the voices of oppos­i­tion reached full cres­cendo. The Spring­boks tour was the cata­lyst for nation­wide protest action, and Wel­ling­ton was no different.

The flash­point of the tour in the cap­it­al occurred in the late after­noon of 29 July, when 2,000 anti-tour protest­ors gathered near Par­lia­ment with the inten­tion of march­ing up Moles­worth Street to protest at the home of South Africa’s con­sul to New Zea­l­and. They were met by lines of police officers who had cre­ated a staunch pos­i­tion on Moles­worth Street, passing an order to protest­ors that they were not to move any further.

That order fell on deaf ears, and as the crowd marched they were for­cibly stopped by police officers armed with bat­ons. There was con­fu­sion about which side was to blame, with the police claim­ing the act­iv­ists had blatantly refused to obey instruc­tions and protest­ors claim­ing the volume of march­ers behind those at the front forced them for­ward into police lines. How­ever, the res­ult of the action was undeni­able – protest­ors were left bleed­ing and in dis­ar­ray, with some dis­solv­ing back into the city while oth­ers struck up a chant of “Shame, shame, shame!”

The rugby test in Wel­ling­ton took place on 29 August fol­low­ing the can­cel­la­tion of two matches in Hamilton and Timaru. The Spring­boks emerged vic­tori­ous in the cap­it­al, defeat­ing New Zea­l­and 24–12.


Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh

Vivian LeighThe vis­it of true stars to New Zea­l­and in the post-War cli­mate stirred up massive pub­lic interest. One such vis­it included Sir Laurence Olivi­er and his wife Vivi­en Leigh, who toured Aus­tralia and New Zea­l­and in 1948 as part of the Old Vic Theatre Com­pany for per­form­ances of Richard III, The School for Scan­dal, and The Skin of Our Teeth.

There’s no under­stat­ing the star power the couple had. Hav­ing been knighted the year before, Olivi­er had also just won the Oscar for Best Act­or for his role in Ham­let, a film pro­duc­tion he also dir­ec­ted. Vivi­en Leigh was a heavy hit­ter, hav­ing already won the first of her Best Act­ress Oscars, for Gone With the Wind in 1939.

It’s appar­ent, how­ever, that while in Wel­ling­ton Olivi­er was ill. Theatre sheets for The School for Scan­dal at the St James Theatre advised that he was indis­posed and Der­rick Pen­ley would take his part instead. A pho­to­graph­er for the Even­ing Post later cap­tured a shot of him screw­ing his eyes up at the rain while being hois­ted in a stretch­er by ambu­lance men on to the Cor­inthic at Glas­gow Wharf on 16 Octo­ber, pre­sum­ably while the group left Wellington.

Vivi­en Leigh had been dia­gnosed with tuber­cu­los­is some years earli­er, and also suffered from depres­sion and bipolar dis­order. The tour took its toll on their rela­tion­ship, too, with sev­er­al major argu­ments between them dur­ing the trip.


US President Lyndon Johnson

Lyndon JohnsonThe vis­it in 1966 of US Pres­id­ent Lyn­don John­son was set against the back­drop of New Zealand’s con­tro­ver­sial involve­ment in the Viet­nam War. He was the first United States pres­id­ent to vis­it New Zea­l­and, and his mis­sion was inten­ded to shore up sup­port for the con­flict in Viet­nam. Prime Min­is­ter Keith Holyoake had repeatedly res­isted calls for New Zea­l­and to send troops, but army engin­eers were sent in June 1964 and com­bat forces were sent from May 1965 onwards.

Pres­id­ent Johnson’s whirl­wind vis­it in 1966 sparked massive interest, with tens of thou­sands of Kiwis cram­ming the streets of Wel­ling­ton to get a glimpse of him. Momentum was against anti-war pro­test­ers, with their ban­ners torn down by cheer­ing mem­bers of the pub­lic when they tried to tar­get the Pres­id­ent at Par­lia­ment on 20 October.

Ulti­mately, Johnson’s vis­it achieved its aims. The last New Zea­l­and troops left Viet­nam on 22 Decem­ber 1972, with the final cas­u­alty fig­ures reach­ing 39 dead and 189 wounded.

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