Story: Whanganui region

Page 14. Cultural life

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One noted colonial artist was J. A. Gilfillan. His paintings and sketches, made between 1841 and 1847, give a faithful record of early Whanganui and some of its Māori and European inhabitants. Chromolithography was introduced to New Zealand in 1883 by Whanganui printer A. D. Willis, who published several important New Zealand pictorial books. Over 500 sketches, oils and watercolours by Whanganui-born Edith Collier are held by the Sarjeant Gallery. Glass engraver John Hutton is known for his work in Coventry Cathedral in England and St Paul’s Cathedral in Wellington.

In the 2010s Whanganui was home to a number of artists and craftspeople.

Rockin’ Whanganui

Born in Raetihi, New Zealand’s first rock and roll idol, Johnny Devlin, was the son of a railway ganger. The family lived briefly in Ohakune, then Marton, before settling in Whanganui, where Johnny spent his formative years.

Musicians and photographers

Noted musicians with connections to the Whanganui region include organist Gillian Weir, pianist Dorothy Davies and composer Douglas Lilburn. Notable amongst the region’s professional photographers have been William Harding, Frank Denton, W. H. Partington and Mark Lampe. Contemporary photographer Anne Noble is from Whanganui.


The region’s buildings owe much to several notable architects, including Frederick de Jersey Clere. George Allen’s work includes the 1867 Oneida homestead, near Fordell, and St Stephen’s Church in Marton.

Alfred Atkins designed the Ward Observatory and the old Wanganui Museum (now the Savage Club building), and with others designed the distinctive early buildings on Wanganui Collegiate’s campus. C. R. Ford lived in Whanganui from 1914 to 1923, and designed many domestic and commercial buildings in partnership with Robert Talboys. More recently, Bruce Dickson has designed several fine buildings at Wanganui Collegiate and was joint architect for the new Whanganui UCOL campus, opened in 2008.


A rich source of Whanganui history from the 1840s to 1870s is found in the Reverend Richard Taylor’s journals. T. W. Downes’s Old Whanganui (1915) is a valuable resource on Māori history and on European settlement until 1847. Downes also wrote History of and guide to the Wanganui River (1921). Other books on the river have also been produced, the latest by David Young in 1998.

Whanganui has been well served by two general histories: Wanganui (1939) by L. J. B. Chapple and H. C. Veitch, and The Wanganui story (1972) by M. J. G. Smart and A. P. Bates. There are two fine histories of counties: Rex Voelkerling and Kevin Stewart’s on Whanganui, and Stan Laurenson’s on Rangitīkei.


The Wanganui Chronicle, the country’s oldest surviving newspaper, was first printed on 18 September 1856. The Wanganui Herald was published between 1867 and 1986.


Ian Cross, author of The God boy (1957), was born and grew up in Whanganui. A number of well-known authors have lived in the region. Rewi Alley farmed at Moeawatea behind Waverley from 1920 to 1926. Iris Wilkinson (Robin Hyde) was a reporter on the Wanganui Chronicle in 1929 when she published her first collection of poetry, The desolate star. Sylvia Ashton-Warner taught at Pipiriki from 1941 to 1944. James K. Baxter briefly attended the Friends School in Whanganui; he later founded a commune at Jerusalem, where he lived between 1969 and 1972, and was buried. Janet Frame lived in Whanganui from 1979 to 1983.

How to cite this page:

Diana Beaglehole, 'Whanganui region - Cultural life', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 30 May 2024)

Story by Diana Beaglehole, published 16 Jun 2008, updated 1 Jun 2015