Last train to paradise: journeys from the golden age of New Zealand railways – New Zealand e-book month

The Auckland-Opua Express once carried passengers to the Bay of Islands, the Onehunga Boat Train used to be part of the main route between Auckland and Wellington, and the Rotorua Limited enabled tourists and the well-to-do to take the waters in Rotorua. Later trains like the Silver Star and Northerner – even the Kaimai, Geyserland and Bay Expresses, withdrawn in 2001 – had a distinctive character too.

Almost everyone in the first half of the 20th century travelled by train – including royalty. In 1869 the first royal train journey from Lyttelton to Christchurch carried the Duke of Edinburgh; the first fully-fledged royal train carrying the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall (the future King George V and Queen Mary) plied the route of the Rotorua Limited and the South Island Express; in 1920 the Prince of Wales traversed the country by train with Lord Louis Mountbatten. In 1927 the Duke and Duchess of York (the future King George VI and Queen Elizabeth) travelled more than 1700 miles by royal train. Other distinguished visitors whose stories are told in the book include the English comedian J.L.Toole and his company (1890), Australian poet Will Lawson, singers Dame Nellie Melba, Dame Clara Butt, Irish tenor John McCormack and Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin, Polish pianist Ignace Paderewski, ‘March King’ John Philip Sousa and his band, ballerina Anna Pavlova, the 17-year-old violinist Yehudi Menuhin, writers Rudyard Kipling, Zane Grey and George Bernard Shaw, and actors Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh.

Last Train to Paradise describes the halcyon days of New Zealand rail, some of which the author was fortunate enough to experience personally. The ‘name’ trains and journeys cover a considerable period of New Zealand’s history, from the late 1800s, through the ‘golden’ era of train travel (the first four decades of the 20th century), and conclude with the introduction of new services in the last half of the century.

The railway lines described in the book cover every part of the country – and some that have almost been erased from popular memory.

You can readLast train to paradise as an e-book from our Overdrive collection.

Last train to paradise is also available as a paper book.

Rex Nan Kivell

book coverFrom Reginald Nankivell, born illegitimate in New Brighton, to Sir Rex De Charembac Nan Kivell – the fascinating story of Rex Nan Kivell, “the ultimate outsider”. Our hero used the opportunity of the First World War to get to Europe where he educated and reinvented himself to become a successful art dealer and collector.

Rex was descended from Robert and Elizabeth Nankivell who arrived in Wellington in 1840. A son, John, married Susannah Day. In 1849 the Nankivell and Day families moved to the embryonic Canterbury Settlement on the ship Sisters, becoming pre-Adamites, people who were here before the arrival of the First Four Ships.

George Henry, son of John and Susannah, was born in Christchurch about 1854. He married Annie Welch  at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian church on 24 April 1878. George was a South Brighton labourer and fisherman. On 29 February 1896 Harry Hawker, 28, arrived at George’s door. He had rolled through quicksand after the night-time capsizing of the yacht, Waitangi on the Estuary, bringing a tale of the loss of his contemporaries, James Murray, Francis Herbert Stewart and the older, well-known hotel keeper, William Francis Warner. Searchers combed the area and the bodies were found. The funerals were a big event in the small city and Premier R. J. Seddon sent flowers to decorate Warner’s coffin.

A daughter, Alice, was domestic servant for New Brighton grocer, Alfred Henry Wyatt. Later the Nankivells sent her to Cust where, on 8 April 1898, she gave birth to an ex-nuptial child, Reginald.

Entry #2172 in the Criminal Record Book at Archives New Zealand, Christchurch, dated 1 November 1898, concerns Alice Nankivell’s charge of ‘bastardy’ against Wyatt. On 20 May 1899, the magistrate ‘dismissed the charge on merits’, this despite Wyatt’s reputation for seducing his maids.  There was no appeal – perhaps because, on 18 May, Alice had married Noah Clegg at All Saints’ church, Burwood.

On 25 August 1899 Reginald was baptised at the Wesleyan church, Woolston. He believed that his grandparents were his parents and that his mother was his aunt. Not till he was 16 did he learn the truth.

Reginald went to the New Brighton Primary School. He began an apprenticeship at the bookbinding firm of Andrews & Co in Cathedral Square which ended in May 1916.  Pretending that he was two years older than his true age and describing himself as a bookbinder, he enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. He worked at the New Zealand General Hospital, Brockenhurst, Hampshire, and the New Zealand Command Depot, Codford, Wiltshire. He was described as being  insolent, stealing and masquerading as an officer. He was discharged in England in 1919.

Calling himself Rex de Charembac Nan Kivell, Reginald claimed to belong to Canterbury’s land-owning gentry, to have attended Christ’s College and fought on the Western Front. He worked on archaeological excavations, visited galleries and exhibitions, became an art connoisseur and collected books, paintings, documents, manuscripts and artefacts relating to the history of New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific.

Rex joined the Redfern Gallery in 1925, became managing director in 1931 and promoted British, European and Australian artists like Sidney Nolan,Henry Moore, Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland and Paul Nash. In 1946 he began discussions with the National Library of Australia about the loan of his pictures, books and other material. In 1959 he sold the collection to Australia for 70,000 pounds($126,574), a fraction of its true value, becoming one of the country’s great cultural benefactors.

In 1953 Rex gifted a selection of British prints to the art galleries of Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. The gift included works by leading artists of the day. Key works from the Christchurch collection were displayed in an exhibition Graphica Britannica: highlights from the Rex Nan Kivell Gift (13 May 2005 – 28 May 2006).

The Australian government recommended that he be appointed C.M.G. in 1966 and knighted in 1976. He died on 7 June 1977, leaving an estate worth 653,747 pounds($1,184,177). He left his gold watch and bracelet to his chauffeur and watercolours of natural history subjects to Queen Elizabeth II.

The Australian Dictionary of National Biography wrote:

Sir Rex had lived an extraordinary life, shaped in the grand manner to his own exacting design. An archetypal outsider—illegitimate, homosexual, self-educated and antipodean—he acquired a residence in London, a country house in Wiltshire and a villa in Morocco overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar. Oliver Stead described him as the quintessential expatriate, obdurate in his refusal to return, yet obsessed with images of his birthplace and its region, his whole identity bound up in his colonial past.

George and Annie did not see their grandson after he went to war; indeed, Rex never again visited New Zealand. George, 81, of 36 Bligh Street, New Brighton, died on 21 December 1934. Annie moved to Halswell where she died, at 77, on 28 April 1936.

This information came from Richard Greenaway – an expert on the local history of Christchurch. Some of you might have been on one of his fascinating cemetery tours. He has an eye for a good story and the skill and patience to check and cross check all kinds of references. He has compiled a wonderful array of New Brighton stories.


The library has some great photographs of New Brighton capturing its life as one of New Zealand’s premier seaside suburbs, full of life and character. New Brighton residents have been good at recording their local history and the place has inspired novels and biographies.

Drag and drumming – A Farewell to the DIC

The music and piano department on the ground floor of D.I.C.The Christchurch branch of the Drapery Importing Company (DIC) began advertising its wares in 1885. The original building burnt down in 1908 and a new one reopened in 1909 (oh for such speed in rebuilding) and it continued operating successfully until 1978 when it merged with the next door Beaths (later Arthur Barnett.)

The DIC used to be one of the triumvirate of big department stores in Cashel Street, the others being Beaths and Ballantynes. My first memory of it as a child is of going into a gloomy high-ceilinged room that was the children’s department. It was all very Are You Being Served, except much darker. High on the shadowy walls, groovy 60s dresses in neon colours were displayed on mannequins. There was something strangely surreal about it.

In my last two years at school I got to see a different side of the building during a holiday job in the accounting department. Hidden from the public and emerging from behind the temporary divisions, I was surprised to see quite a fine building.

My farewell memory to the DIC was in an empty upstairs area of the building which was converted into a performance venue for the duration of an Arts Festival. Here the gloomy interior came into its own. It was the perfect cabaret location.

Following some rather timid local jazz musicians, Gareth Farr burst onto the stage as Lillith LeCroix in a flamboyant red dress and followed his drag act with a world class session of drumming. It was a memorable goodbye to a building which held a lot of memories.

Do you have any memories of the DIC building? Share them here.