The construction of a community hall was a landmark in the social development of a rural district – somewhere to hold 21st birthdays, weddings, bingo nights, flower shows, farewells and Victory parties for soldiers in both world wars, and a home for Scottish country dancing and Guide and Scout troops. The authors of On a Saturday Night: Community Halls of Small-Town New Zealand have worked hard to bring the history of these social hubs to life, with local residents sharing their memories and oldtime photos. Memorable occasions from the pasts of 39 representative community halls from north of Whangarei to Mossburn in Southland are recalled and illustrated, alongside modern photos of their exteriors, interiors and special features.
A few are modern and fully equipped, others are the ramshackle reminders of a more spartan era. Halls with modern chairs and kitchens are outnumbered by those rejoicing in mismatched cast-off furniture, Pinex ceilings and the ubiquitous whistling Zip water heater. A handful still house faded shelves of the community’s original lending library. A couple – the classically Italianate Gaiety in Akaroa and the refurbished bags-of-swank Waipawa Town Hall in Hawke’s Bay – are in an aspirational class of their own.
Some halls are now shut up, or converted to barns or holiday homes; their communities dwindling as rural employees commute from towns, or vanished along with the extractive industries that spawned them. At first sight a somewhat thin topic for a book, but give it a go and you’ll warm to it.
ON A SATURDAY NIGHT: COMMUNITY HALLS OF SMALL-TOWN NEW ZEALAND, by Michele Frey and Sara Newman, photographs by John Maillard and John O’Malley (CUP, $45).
Dale Williams is a writer and editor.