The Edwardian Seaside of Sumner c. 1905

Sumner Beach was the last stop on the Sumner line. In this intriguing photograph, we can see the goings on of a typical summer’s weekend,  one hundred and six years ago.  Hundreds of city dwellers have taken the tram from Christchurch, more often than not, squeezed in like ‘sardines in a can’.  The anticipation to get off the tram’s hard wooden seats and out of the compartment’s stuffy confines would be palpable, as soon as the tram got to Shag Rock corner. To stretch their legs and breathe in the fresh sea air after Christchurch’s dampness, poor drainage and pungent smelling streets, must have been good.

Once at the seaside, there was so much to do – donkey rides, climbing Cave Rock, strolling on the pier, contemplating the ocean waves, swimming in a bathing machine, riding on the swings and hand pulled merry-go-round, listening to the band in the rotunda as well as having refreshments at one of the tearooms or cafes.

In this photograph on the right, we see how the day trippers loved to climb and congregate on the top of the iconic Cave Rock.  Women, men and children stand on the relatively flat top around the Signal Station,  for a better view of the beach below and the distant city to the west.  The steep steps must have been difficult for the ladies who were dressed in layers of long heavy petticoats and skirts – even harder for those clutching parasols.  But the desire to gain a better vantage point, outweighed the dangers and did not deter them in the slightest.

Some ladies hold black parasols to protect themselves from the bright sunlight,which was always harsh when reflected off the sea.  Heavy rain clouds can be seen rolling in from a southerly direction and are about to threaten the unprepared visitors with a sudden downpour.  At least those with parasols will be dry.

Below them, on the sandy beach is Mr. William’s and Mr. Felgate’s donkey pen. Excited children crowd around,  anxiously awaiting their turn to ride on one of the donkeys.  If a child cannot afford the 3 d. for the ride, there is a certain thrill in being near the animals and getting the ocassional pet of the gentle donkeys’ soft muzzles.

In the foreground, we are drawn to two little girls who are intently focused on a possession a young boy is holding out to them.  Perhaps he has just won a prize, or found a crab on the sand.  The seaside offers a new and exciting environment for the Victorian child, and he is contemplative as he wonders at the object.   All the while, his large dog sits obediently beside him.

Children Taking Donkey Rides, Sumner c. 1905
Children Taking Donkey Rides, Sumner c.1905 Source: Bridge and Hasting Family Records/Marion Hastings Bridge. Image: Christchurch City Libraries File Reference Photo CD 5, IMG0019.

The donkey rides were the most popular of activities and almost a rite of passage for all Christchurch children who visited Sumner beach.  The donkey owners, Mr Spiers and Felgate had brought their famously gentle and abiding donkeys over from Australia.

Mr Spiers who lived in Sumner had a pen, on the east side of Cave Rock.  The notoriously quiet little Mr. James Felgate and his partner, Mr Williams, who always wore a bun hat and claw hammer coat, had their pen on the south side.

Although donkey rides were relatively safe on the soft sand, there was always the odd accident which the newspapers of the day would report in great detail,

” Accidents & Fatalities”

A little boy, five years old, named Keve Farritt, fell off one of the donkeys at Sumner this afternoon and sprained his ankle.   He was brought to Christchurch by the 1.10 p.m. tram from Sumner, and then taken home in a cab to his home in Springfield Road.”

Taken from The Christchurch Star, 20th February, 1901, Page 3.

The swings and roundabout were popular with both adults and children. As with many activities, the roundabout proved difficult for ladies hindered with layers of long skirts however the particular merry go round operator had made it easier to climb onto and access the seats,  by attaching four ladders up the contraption’s centre pole. Once everyone was seated, the operator  would begin the ride, by pulling on the rope attached and walking around the centre.

Children Surround the Donkey Pen Below the Yard and Mast Arm on Sumner Beach c. 1905 Source: CCL One Photograph, Black & White, 16 x 21 cm, Bridge New Zealand Newspaper Cuttings Album 0423 Photo CD 3, IMG0035 Archive 334, p. 89.
Children Surround the Donkey Pen Below the Yard and Mast Arm on Sumner Beach c. 1905 Source: CCL One Photograph, Black & White, 16 x 21 cm, Bridge New Zealand Newspaper Cuttings Album 0423 Photo CD 3, IMG0035 Archive 334, p. 89.

As the sun went down, the tired and often hind sore donkeys would be walked to Redcliffs where they would be put out to graze along the road’s grassy verges. Others would be fed and watered at at holding yard near Moa Bone Point Cave.

Afterwhich, Mr Felgate would count his takings which – on a good day – would be as much as £8 – a fortune for a working man.

The donkeys were a great attraction for the Victorians and Edwardians visiting Sumner. As we study the photograph, one can only imagine what their presence brought to the atmosphere of this beach – the soft neighing, the smell of the hay, the joy it brought to the parents to see their children riding and the excited squeals of delight of the children.

On the sands at Sumner
Children with donkeys on Sumner Beach, Christchurch. Taylor, J N fl 1900s :Photographs of Wellington. Ref: 1/2-104790-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22688046

We can also laugh at this amusing anecdotal newspaper article of the time, written by a Star reporter about the local inhabitants:-

“This week at Sumner Beach, Donkeys held an indignation meeting. Mr Longears, who took the stool, said he had called the meeting. He thought it was time they protested against being mistaken for Borough Councillors (cries of “Ear, ear!”).  They didn’t object to being sat on by kids or to being whacked over the hinder parts, but why were they insulted? Passersbys constantly remarked, “Hulloa, the Council are doing some work,”  “The Council are getting sensible!”  “The Council have stopped braying,” and things of that kind.  Mr Carrots agreed with the last speaker.  He never met a borough dignatory without blushing and being afraid “that the latter would freeze on to him as a long-lost brother”. Mr Balaam remarked that one of the Councillors wanted to know why they (the Council, not the donkeys) didn’t give a display at the Exhibition. He (Mr Balaam) hoped they would.  If they could beat the display or exhibition given once a week for a long time past he would go without thistles for a year. Finally it was resolved to petition Parliament to bring the Council under the Noxious Weeds and Other Local Pests Act – “And your petitioners will ever bray” etc. etc.”

Star , Issue 8615, 5 May 1906, Page 4

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