1925 South Seas Exhibition (thelothians.blogspot.com)

On July 24th 1925, after a construction period of only 13 months, Mr J. S. Ross, President of the Exhibition Committee, received the keys to a glittering complex of 11 buildings. They were built of timber, brick and glass and stood surrounded by carefully planted trees and plants. Dunedin’s New Zealand and South Seas International Exhibition was ready for the exhibitors.

To arrive at this historic day, an awesome amount of work was undertaken. For starters, 25.000 loads of clay were carted onto the site to reclaim Lake Logan. 3.000 loads of soil were added to create gardens. On top of this, 2.500 trees were planted, along with 120.000 herbaceous and bedding plants. To assure the finished grounds covering 11 acres, would truly stun visitors, 600 packets of seeds were sown. Slums nearby were levelled and a highway was built from central Dunedin to facilitate ease of travel.


The mammoth undertaking was not new to the southern centre. The first exhibition ever held in the young colony was also mounted in Dunedin. Just 17 years after the arrival of the first settlers, the town hosted the Dunedin Exhibition of 1865.  It was a celebration of the rapid growth and prominence Dunedin achieved as a result of the Otago gold rush of 1861. 29.800 people attended. It was a fine achievement for a town which less than two decades earlier had been a land of unbroken bush.


With the success of this local exhibition still in their minds, the city fathers wanted to impress people from other parts of the empire so they organised the first New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition in 1889. It was to commemorate the jubilee of the proclamation of British sovereignty over New Zealand. It was also mounted to cultivate better relations with the Australian Colonies and the South Pacific islands. A staggering 625.478 people attended during its month run. This was nearly 18.000 in excess of the estimated European population of New Zealand at the time. The population of Dunedin was 45.898.

First South Seas Exhibition 1889 (Hardwick Knight Collection)


In the period after this exhibition, Dunedin’s fortunes began to change. By the 1920s, the population drift north had begun. Dunedin needed to reclaim its previous place of prominence. It was decided another exhibition would draw people back to the southern centre. This exhibition had to rival any held in the world. Dunedin would show New Zealanders the city still held an important role in the rapidly developing colony.

1925 South Seas Exhibition (flickr.com)

Invitations to participate were issued to countries around the world. Sadly however, on opening day, the Auckland and Wellington stands stood empty. In fact, Auckland took two months to mount a basic display of only 4 exhibits. Wellington managed a lacklustre 9 exhibits. The northern provinces felt it was just a promotion for Dunedin. Canterbury felt differently. It staged the largest provincial stand with 27 exhibits that were hailed as exciting and colourful. The New Zealand government mounted 22 displays that filled 3 buildings. Science in agriculture was carefully and fully presented. The Department of Agriculture stand in particular caught visitor’s fascination. It consisted of a walk through cowshed that was also a full working model.


Australia believed the offshore colony was of little import. It took a small space and spent little money or effort on its exhibition. Visitors shuffled quickly past a meagre display of transparencies featuring the country’s tired tourist attractions. Britain, on the other hand mounted a series of impressive displays which traced the country’s history, demonstrated its manufacturing power and proudly flaunted its pre-eminence in both men’s and women’s fashion.

Other nations were attracted to the exhibition with 24 mounting colourful displays that brought visitors back time and time again. Their belief in the success of the exhibition was well founded. Just 59 days after opening, a Miss Jean Lamont of Invercargill became the one millionth visitor to pass through the gates and was presented with a gold watch to commemorate the happy occasion.


There were many other attractions apart from exhibits to draw the crowds. New technologies demonstrated how the world was rapidly changing. Electricity played a major role not only with the exhibits themselves, but also with the spectacular lighting that created an illuminated fairyland at night.

The Scenic Railway sent screams echoing around the hills that cradled the site. The Merry Mix Up, Dodgems, Whip and Caterpillar drew more screams while the Fun Factory drew gales of laughter from all who peered at their distorted reflections in a series of crazy mirrors. For those wanting a less boisterous outing, the Maori House or aquarium held their interest.

Water Caves Ride (Dunedin City Council Archives)


On April 30th 1926, two days before the Exhibition closed, Mr J.Trench of Dunedin was presented with 20 pounds for becoming the three millionth visitor to pass through the gates. The Exhibition had met all expectations by becoming a resounding success. Profits from the exhibition allowed construction to start on Dunedin’s magnificent Town Hall. Tourism in the province had boomed and Dunedin was once again able to enjoy her day in the sun. It didn’t last. As the exhibition buildings were removed and the city returned to normal life, Dunedin’s population continued to drift north.

The city does now however have a permanent exhibition – her glorious Victorian architecture, a legacy of a rich past. As time goes by, this superb collection of fine buildings will only draw more and more visitors. Dunedin has achieved three successful exhibitions in her relatively brief history. Without being aware of it, the city is now itself an exhibition.

Ceidrik Heward





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