Story: Castle, Ronald Brian and Castle, Zillah Vivien

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Castle, Ronald Brian

1907–1984

Pharmacist, musician, instrument collector

Castle, Zillah Vivien

1911–1997

Musician, instrument collector, music teacher

This biography, written by Peter Kitchin, was first published in 2000.

Ronald Brian Castle was born in Newtown, Wellington, on 23 December 1907; Zillah Vivien Castle was born there on 19 January 1911. They were the two youngest of seven children of Annie Ayres and her husband, John Castle, a pharmacist who had established John Castle Chemists in Newtown in 1888. After attending Newtown School, Ronald attended Wellington College and Zillah Wellington Girls’ College.

John and Annie Castle believed their youngsters should be educated in the fullest sense, and all were taught the value of music, and about books and art. The three sons became pharmacists, as did two of the daughters, Mavis and Mona; they were among the earliest women pharmacists in New Zealand. Each opened their own chemist’s shop and there were eventually five in the John Castle group. Ronald took papers at Victoria University College as part of his pharmaceutical training and registered as a pharmacist in September 1929. He would have preferred a literary career, but the depression intervened and he joined the family business. He later published several slim volumes of verse.

Zillah opted for a life in music, and in 1930 gained 190 out of a possible 200 in her LRSM diploma examinations; at the time it was reputedly the highest pass mark awarded to any candidate. Her reward, in 1931, was a violin scholarship to the Royal College of Music, London, where she went chaperoned by Mavis, her eldest sister. They returned in 1934. Zillah soon made her name as a violinist, performing as a soloist, with orchestras and for radio broadcasts. An advocate of modern violin works, she performed Vaughan Williams’s The lark ascending for the first time in New Zealand. She began giving music lessons and over the years taught hundreds of Wellington youngsters and acted as a mentor to pupils who graduated to orchestra ranks. Outside his pharmacy work, Ronald played bassoon for the Wellington Symphony Orchestra, and together he and Zillah performed in concerts for schools.

Both were passionate about music. In the 1930s, with their sister Mona playing viola da gamba, Zillah playing viola d’amore (her favourite) and Ronald on the recorder, they formed what is thought to be New Zealand’s first baroque music ensemble to use instruments of the period. Neither Ronald nor Zillah married, preferring to continue the musical traditions centred on the family home in Colombo Street, Newtown. This in fact consisted of three adjacent houses, numbers 25, 27 and 29: number 29, with mews attached, was expanded to contain their extraordinary collection of early and unusual musical instruments.

Begun in the 1930s, this has been described as the largest private collection of its type in Oceania. Its 500-odd items range over every imaginable non-electronic mechanism capable of producing a musical note; many were gifts from people who wanted a good home for an unwanted instrument. The collection, which grew into a private museum, included workable examples of every member of the violin family, as well as didgeridoos, a zuffolo, harpsichords and a crwth, harps, tablas, a sáhnāī, horns, trumpets, clarinets, a hurdy-gurdy and hundreds of other pieces. In the early years of their collecting Ronald and Zillah specialised in baroque instruments, but subsequently included later instruments and non-European items. The bulk of the collection was purchased by the Auckland Museum in 1998.

The Castles also collected textbooks and volumes of rare music; these are now in the Alexander Turnbull Library collection. There were numerous works of art, and a collection of dolls, toys and children’s books and magazines.

The Castles’ instrument collection was open to inspection at invitational soirees. Zillah, in the trademark earmuff plaits she had worn since childhood, would describe each piece and demonstrate them to salon guests by playing short passages. Ronald, who could play most but preferred keyboard and reed instruments, would hum melodies in accompaniment both for his sister and himself. He could be badgered into playing his main instrument, the bassoon.

Ronald’s principal pleasures were playing with groups, corresponding with musicologists abroad, and annotating additions to their collection. He also built a museum of pharmaceutical objects and apparatus above the family chemist shop at 139 Riddiford Street. This is now in the care of the Pharmaceutical Society of New Zealand. He retired from the pharmacy business in 1981.

Ronald and Zillah Castle were members of their neighbourhood Trinity Methodist Church. When it was demolished and the congregation amalgamated with the Church of Christ, their church-going ended. They had sung, played and worshipped there with their parents, and the break was deeply felt.

Music rang from the Castles’ house for more than 50 years. With Ronald’s death at the family home on 10 May 1984 and Zillah’s increasing deafness in old age, the gaiety and public face of presentations at Colombo Street declined, until by the late 1980s a typical silence was rarely broken. A year before Zillah’s death – also at home, on 8 October 1997 – she was delighted when a quartet of orchestral players, former pupils, came to perform for her.

How to cite this page:

Peter Kitchin. 'Castle, Ronald Brian and Castle, Zillah Vivien', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5c13/castle-ronald-brian (accessed 19 October 2019)