Story: Southland region

Page 11. Society and culture

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Scottish Presbyterians

From the early days of European settlement, Southland was markedly Scottish and Presbyterian. In 1871 over 60% of Southland’s British immigrant population was Scottish-born – the highest proportion in New Zealand.

The first Presbyterian church in Invercargill was erected on a site on Tay Street in the 1860s. The present structure, designed by John Mair and built in Italo–Byzantine style, was completed on the same site in 1915. It is the largest church in Southland, and was the cornerstone of Mair’s reputation as an architect.

The temperance and prohibition movements had strong support from Presbyterians. Mataura electorate voted no-licence in 1902, and Invercargill followed suit in 1905, by a margin of nine votes. It went ‘wet’ again in 1943, and the Invercargill Licensing Trust was established to run all the city’s liquor outlets. Over the years the trust has been the main contributor to many Southland organisations. A licensing trust was also established when the Mataura district voted against prohibition in 1954.

Irish Catholics

Invercargill had a significant Irish Catholic minority, mostly working-class, who emigrated from Galway from the 1860s and settled in South Invercargill. Catholic communities also settled in the Hokonui Hills and in parts of western Southland.

Māori and mining culture

The Māori–Pākehā world of coastal Southland and Stewart Island has contributed a distinctive element to Southland culture. So have the coal-mining towns of Nightcaps and Ōhai, with their strong labour movement, which found an echo in working-class Invercargill.

Brickbats, and a bouquet

After a 1965 world tour that included Invercargill, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards reputedly called the city ‘the arsehole of the world’. Before Southland’s 2005 clash with the British Lions rugby team, BBC commentator Brian Moore compared Invercargill to ‘Chernobyl … or Bhopal or wherever really’. 1 On the other hand, British comedian John Cleese, after rounding on Palmerston North as ‘the suicide capital of New Zealand’, said Invercargill was ‘delightful’. 2

Music and theatre

The Invercargill Garrison Band, which won national awards for decades, was established in 1867. Their signature tune, ‘The Invercargill march’, was composed by bandsman Alex Lithgow in 1908.

Colonial Invercargill was regularly visited by touring musical and vaudeville companies, partly because Bluff was often the first port of call for ships from Australia. Until 1903, performances took place in Sloan’s Theatre (also known as the Theatre Royal) in Dee Street. In 1906, the Invercargill Borough Council opened the Civic Theatre to replace Sloan’s. The Grand Theatre (later the Regent) was principally a cinema, but also hosted touring stage shows.

After the First World War the rise of the cinema saw these tours wane, and operatic and repertory societies took their place. The Invercargill Operatic Society dates from 1925, and the Repertory Society from 1929.

The Invercargill Competitions Society promotes and stages children’s theatre. The Southern Institute of Technology has a drama school, and also uses a television channel, Cue (formerly Southland TV), to provide multimedia distance learning.

The Operatic Society became the Invercargill Musical Theatre Company in 1993. It stages major musicals, cabarets and theatre–restaurant shows every year in Invercargill’s Civic Theatre. The Repertory Society mounts three shows a year.

Writing about Southland

Publications about Southland date back to the compilations by Robert McNab and James Herries Beattie. Frederick Hall-Jones and his son John made an immense contribution to Southland local history, as did brothers Neill and Alexander Begg.

Recent publications covering Southland include The book of Southland records, Cyclopedia of Otago and Southland and Murihiku: the Southland story, but in the 2010s a full regional history still remained to be written.

Roll of honour

Southlanders who have gained national prominence as artists and writers include musician Alex Lindsay, poet Ruth Dallas, choreographer and dancer Michael Parmenter, opera singer Deborah Wai Kapohe, country singer Suzanne Prentice, pianist Janetta McStay, cellist Ewan Murdoch, sculptor Molly Macalister, painter Nigel Brown, glasswork artist Phil Newbury, and writer and comedian Jon Gadsby. Most are commemorated on a plaque in Invercargill’s Civic Theatre.

Writers, artists and performers

Born in 1913 in Invercargill, Dan Davin captured the distinctive world of local Catholic communities in the early 20th century. Award-winning poet Cilla McQueen lives in Bluff, and her work has a strong regional flavour.

Southland’s best-known ‘indigenous’ painter is Trevor Moffitt (1936–2006). He painted a series of powerful landscapes – masterful works of storm-whipped macrocarpas against black skies, looming over wind-flattened grasslands.

Even more than New Zealanders as a whole, Southlanders have made reputations away from home, including playwright Robert Lord, poet Bill Manhire, Chris Knox (rock music), Rowena Jackson (ballet), and Geoffrey Cox and Peter Arnett (journalism).

  1. Southland Times, 24 May 2005, p. 1. › Back
  2. Quoted in Michael Cummings, ‘Palmy called Fawlty.’ Manawatu Standard, 4 March 2006, p. 1. › Back
How to cite this page:

David Grant, 'Southland region - Society and culture', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 January 2020)

Story by David Grant, published 8 Sep 2008, updated 1 May 2015