Petra Jane Edmunds
University of Waikato

The archives of the Hamilton Beautifying Society, some three boxes in the Hamilton City Council archives, contain every conceivable piece of correspondence from the Society’s three decades of activity: lively discussion over whether to charge citizens admission to the town’s riverbank to watch an annual rowing regatta; public debate over the archaic neck-to-knee bathing suit requirement at Hamilton Lake; newspaper reports of the untimely death of a wallaby at Parana Park, with a request from the Society that visitors not feed the remaining wallaby sweets. Yet among the reams of fortnightly reports from the caretakers of Memorial Park to the society secretary, the ledgers and the comprehensive file of newspaper clippings, the archive is silent on what motivated some of Hamilton’s most prominent citizens to attempt to comprehensively change their environment in the way they did.

In 1912, Hamilton bookseller William Paul led a group of prominent citizens to form the Hamilton Beautifying Society with the intention of ‘forming into parks, planting with shrubs or improving or beautifying in any way’ the lands held by the society and the borough, and to acquire land in order to promote further beautification.[1] With help from the borough council and the domain board, the society planted trees on residential roadsides, established flowerbeds by the railway stations and civic buildings, and cultivated public gardens and recreation facilities at Hamilton Lake and on the banks of the Waikato River. The Soldiers’ Memorial Park and the adjacent Parana Park most clearly show the Hamilton Beautifying Society’s influence. Paul lobbied the borough council and national government to allow Memorial Park to be established on what had once been a public dumping-ground on the Waikato River’s eastern bank.[2] The society removed bracken, blackberry and household rubbish from the area once known as Kowhai Bank, covering the bank with hundreds of native plants. Parana Park was commended as one of the city’s ‘ideal spot[s] for public recreation’, and the Waikato Times praised Memorial Park’s ‘trim lawns’ framed by blooming sweet-williams and dahlias and the ‘unostentatious but essential maintenance’ of Parana Park.[3]

According to the letterhead used by the society, the Society ‘endeavour[ed] to provide for the gratification of the aesthetic feelings of the residents of Hamilton and the strangers within its gate’.[4] Press cuttings from the Society’s archives suggest this goal was achieved: New Zealand Sporting and Dramatic Magazine described Hamilton as ‘undeniably one of the most picturesque towns in the Dominion,’ where ‘natural bush flourishes in green vigour beside modern gardens radiant in exotic flowers’.[5] A visitor wrote to the Waikato Times that he had ‘never seen anything more picturesque and peaceful’ than the city’s riverbanks.[6] Memorial Park caretaker W. A. Wallis explained in his report of 31 March 1925 that he was busy ‘endeavouring to make the park as attractive as possible in every way I can’.[7] Wallis’ other reports show that making the park attractive involved an extreme makeover: filling in part of the creek which flowed through the park, to make a pond for ducks and swans; ripping out and burning pampas grass, bamboo and other undesirable flora; as well as maintaining the flowerbeds and lawns of the park. Every trace of the original landscape was removed, replaced with neat paths and flowerbeds, framed by an artificially-created wilderness of native trees.

This article argues that the concepts of ‘improvement’ and ‘beautification’ had developed morally-charged meanings in the early twentieth century, and that the goals of the Hamilton Beautifying Society can be understood as part of a progressive social trend, which prized ‘wilderness’ and ‘undeveloped’ natural landscapes as both aesthetically appealing and morally improving. ‘Improving or beautifying’ the landscape seems a straightforward goal, but the meanings of such terms as ‘improved’, ‘beautiful’ or ‘natural’ are not inherent or fixed: they are constructed within a community of shared understanding. These terms are given meaning and moral significance by a Western intellectual tradition which defines nature and wilderness in opposition to urban development and civilisation.[8] Indeed, official definitions of the terms show this assumed dichotomy. The United States’ Wilderness Act 1964, for instance, defined wilderness as ‘an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain’.[9] Organisations which seek to beautify or improve their environment, therefore, do so with a specific understanding of what these terms mean. Few histories have been produced about the beautifying societies which flourished in early-twentieth-century New Zealand towns, and those histories that do exist have been largely uncritical about their intellectual and aesthetic influences, and the values which motivated them. To understand what motivated the members of the Hamilton Beautifying Society and the people of Hamilton, it is necessary to place the society within the progressive movement of scenery preservation and social reform active in the first decades of the twentieth century.

Beautifying Societies

Beautifying Societies emerged in New Zealand towns as part of a wider intellectual and aesthetic movement which celebrated the ‘natural’ world as an antidote to urban development. The first urban beautifying society in New Zealand, the Dunedin Amenities Society formed in 1887, charged itself with planting trees on city reserves and conserving the natural environment as the ‘means of healthy and elevating recreation for its inhabitants’.[10] Christchurch Beautifying Association formed in 1897 to ‘plant and otherwise beautify the uncultivated public places in the city’.[11] One of its first tasks was to transform Mill Island on the Avon River into ‘a piece of old primeval forest’.[12] Other towns followed Christchurch’s lead, and by the middle of the twentieth century these sentiments were echoed by beautifying societies in almost every major urban centre in New Zealand. Wellington Beautifying Society sought ‘the further improvement of public parks, gardens, beaches, play-grounds, open spaces and streets’ and ‘the removal or improvement of buildings…which disfigure the landscape’.[13] For city-dwellers in the increasingly urbanised colony, nature held romantic associations of purity and innocence. Environmentalist Sir Charles A. Fleming notes that nineteenth-century settlers ‘could not afford to cultivate the romantic image of the wilderness’. For these settlers, to speak of ‘improving’ or ‘cultivating’ the land meant felling trees, erecting buildings, making it useful for agriculture or industry. ‘Improved land’ was tamed, surveyed, developed. The beautifying societies’ use of the term suggests the opposite: beautifying societies sought to improve land by returning it to a romanticised image of nature, creating overgrown landscapes of native plants, seemingly untouched by human hands.

Urban beautification societies mirror a ‘conservation ethic’ which emerged in the cities of late-nineteenth century New Zealand, part of a wider spirit of progressive reform in New Zealand society. The 1890-1911 Liberal government introduced old-age pensions and compulsory arbitration for industrial disputes, to protect the most vulnerable members of the dominion.[14] And such concerns were not limited to people: in 1903, the government enacted the Scenery Preservation Act. The Act’s aims were pragmatic as well as romantic; preserving areas of forest ensured future supplies of native timber and prevented soil erosion, which benefited agriculture.[15] The conservation ethic emerged, according to Fleming, as a result of increasing urbanisation which created a romantic and nostalgic view of nature; changing recreation patterns; and an emerging national identity separate from Britain, which celebrated images of the unique New Zealand landscape.[16] The new scenic reserves were established along main roads and rail travel routes, making them accessible to city-dwellers nostalgic for ‘rural tranquility and beauty’.[17] The choice of the term ‘scenery preservation’ is revealing: it suggests that natural environments should be protected because they were pleasant to look at, beautiful, picturesque. The report of the Department of Lands to the government in 1910 described the benefits of preserving ‘lands along high ridges, wooded slopes and gullies…waterfalls, thermal springs…for aesthetic but also for economic reasons’.[18] A later report stressed the importance of ‘securing…the few remaining beauty spots of the Dominion, if for nothing else than preserving for the generations who follow a few examples of the primeval scenery that existed in the country at the advent of European occupation’.[19] In a lecture on scenery preservation to the Christchurch Beautifying Association in 1911, Association founder Samuel Hurst Seager called for urban developments which ‘harmonise with their natural surroundings’, and stressed scenery preservation should be complemented by aesthetically-pleasing improvements: ‘[W]e must demand,’ he declared, ‘that our natural scenery be preserved, and that all isolated buildings…erected in such a way that they will not mar the beauty of the scene’.[20]

The Hamilton Beautifying Society, too, sought to conserve what little ‘wilderness’ remained within the town. Society members led the campaign to preserve Claudelands Bush, the last remaining stand of kahikatea that had covered much of the town before human settlement.[21] But most of the Society’s work was not concerned with preserving the natural environment, so much as creating environments which gratified the same aesthetic sensibilities as these natural landscapes. At Kowhai Bank and Parana Park, traces of human settlement were steadily erased from the landscape. The town clerk sent a letter to the park caretaker in 1921, requesting that he move the cow which he had allowed to graze in the park.[22] The Society removed existing vegetation, some predating European settlement and some more recent, and planted hundreds of native trees at Kowhai Bank in August 1923. In 1935, park staff removed virtually all non-native trees from the river bank, and the following year grubbed out the ‘unsightly willows’ lining the creek and replaced them with some 400 natives.[23] The foreman reported that two of his assistants had ventured into the bush for the ‘collection of native and exotic trees for future planting’.[24] As well as the ducks and swans, ‘wild’ animals including an opossum and a pair of wallabies were introduced to Parana Park in the 1930s, to complete the illusion of a prehistoric Eden in the growing borough.[25]

The importance of beautiful natural landscapes was not only aesthetic, but also moral. A ‘back to nature’ movement flourished amongst social reformists in late-nineteenth century Europe, reviving romantic notions of the morally-improving qualities of wilderness. Just as Wordsworth famously recalled the ‘beauteous forms’ of Tintern Abbey to restore his moral being ‘mid the din of towns and cities’, late-Victorian social reformers celebrated wild nature as an antidote to the deleterious effects of the city’s crowded slums.[26] Reformers in Britain decried the ‘ugly destructive unmanageable world’ created by modern industrial society, which kept ‘quite fifty per cent of our population living in sub-human conditions…near or under the poverty line’.[27] New Zealand newspapers similarly equated cities with poverty, crime, misery and moral decay. Crowded into cities by increasing land monopolies, the New Zealand Herald warned that settlers coming to the colony would swell ‘the ranks of poverty and crime’ in the urban centres.[28] Pollution from smoky factories and crowded settlements were also a threat to public health. As early as the 1880s, urban tree planting was promoted as a way to ‘purify’ unsanitary city air for the good of public health.[29] The romantic reformers turned to nature both to improve society’s physical and moral health. In 1898, Ebenezer Howard published his manifesto on the Garden City, To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform. Howard proposed an alternative to the physically and morally unhealthy urban slums in the form of deliberately-planned cities with designated green space for recreation and vast, undeveloped town belts.[30] Supporters of Garden Cities spoke scientifically of the physical, mental and moral benefits brought about by ‘factories set in fields and gardens, houses with plenty of air, room and sunshine, abundant playing fields…[and] sufficient human and natural interest in the environment’.[31] The link was clear: by improving the quality of the city through gardens and green belts, social reformers could improve the quality of its residents.

Unlike Wellington and Dunedin, Hamilton had no town belt in its design. But it was divided by the Waikato River, and its banks became the focus of the Hamilton Beautifying Society’s efforts. The first major work of the Society, Memorial Park was a monument to national and regional identity: its imposing cenotaph honoured the Hamilton men who had fought in the Great War, while oaks and plane trees were marked with plaques bearing the names of fallen soldiers. When wealthy resident George Parr donated his riverside property to the borough for a children’s park, Society president William Paul expressed the wish that ‘we should endeavour to establish at Parana Park a Children’s Model Playground…where mothers can take care of their children…under ideal conditions, and at the same time be able to benefit from the beauty of their surroundings’.[32] Paul’s wish was granted: in 1936, a paddling pool and playground were built in the park ‘for the benefit of the children’.[33]. The park proved a popular picnic spot for families and local schools. Its caretaker, W. A. Wallis, complained in one of his fortnightly reports about boisterous children damaging his carefully laid-out gardens, and asked that the society ban future school groups from picnicking at the park. Certain types of recreation were proscribed in the society’s parks: the solemn soldiers’ memorial park and the neighbouring wilderness were sites for quiet reflection, not boisterous activity. S. Hurst Seager suggested that ‘[t]he pleasure which we derive from all natural scenery depends…upon rousing certain trains of meditation in the mind’, a meditation to be achieved by quiet contemplation.[34] Editorials and letters to the local paper reflect this mode of appreciation, praising the beauty of the ‘slopes and flats of well-kept grass’, the ‘picturesque and peaceful’ landscape.[35] Human activity is almost absent in picture postcards of the riverbank and parks. In one, the tree-lined banks and meandering path frame a distant view of a train on the railway bridge. Another shows a boat peeking out between overgrown trees, while a view of Memorial Park almost loses the cenotaph behind a forest of trees and shrubs.[36]


Memorial and Parana Parks were by far the biggest responsibility of the Hamilton Beautification Society.[37] The Society realised its vision to improve and beautify the borough on these two very different parks on the Waikato River’s eastern bank. The site was cleared and vigorously rebuilt to create the solemn, sculpted Memorial Park, as a monument to national identity. The sprawling Sylvania of Parana Park was similarly sculpted for such purposes. The parks were created to conform to romantic ideals of natural beauty, unspoilt by human intervention, and to provide morally improving antidotes to the social ills of urban living. To improve and to beautify, for the Hamilton Beautifying Society and a public increasingly concerned with scenery preservation, meant to create an imaginary state of nature to be enjoyed with suitable solemnity. Visitors to the parks, both local to Hamilton and ‘strangers within its gates’, responded in a way which suggests they understood the Society’s goal of ‘improving or beautifying’ the city. Commercial photographs of the parks show only hints of human existence. Newspaper editorials and letters praised the picturesque scenery and natural beauty of both sites, and admired the restorative power of this oasis of wilderness. By the 1940s, the romantic vision of William Paul and the Hamilton Beautifying Society had gained popular acceptance. After the national centenary celebrations in 1940, the Society passed its responsibilities to the borough council. One of the last acts of the Society was a particularly Wordsworthian gesture: it memorialised longstanding Society member Dr Hugh Douglas by planting a host of daffodils at Hamilton Lake.[38] Its work to ‘improve and beautify’ the city’s green space is still evident today: a dense wilderness of native trees still lines the riverbank at Memorial Park and tree-ferns still flank the meandering stream through Parana Park.

[1] Hamilton Beautifying Society, ‘Rules of the Hamilton Beautifying Society (Incorporated) Dated 1930’, MSC55, Hamilton City Council Archives, Hamilton.

[2] The Town Clerk informed the secretary of the society, in a letter dated 15 July 1920, that the War Legislation Act 1917 required permission from the Hon. Minister of Internal Affairs for a war memorial to be built. MSC55.

[3] ‘Annual Report of the Hamilton Beautifying Society’ 1936, MSC 55; Waikato Times, 27 December 1938, newspaper clippings album, MSC55.

[4] Hamilton Beautifying Society letterhead, sadly unused and undated, MSC55.

[5] New Zealand Sporting and Dramatic, 23 May 1935, newspaper clipping album, MSC55.

[6] Waikato Times, 13 January 1937, newspaper clipping album, MSC55.

[7] W.A. Wallis, report to the Hamilton Beautifying Society, 31 March 1925, MSC55.

[8] See in James D. Proctor, ‘The Social Construction of Nature: Relativist Accusations, Pragmatist and Critical Realist Responses’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers vol. 88 no. 3 (Sept. 1998), pp. 352-376 for a thorough critical overview of the topic.

[9] Proctor, p. 355.

[10] Report of the AGM of Dunedin Amenities Society, 1915, cited in Caroline Miller, ‘Did the City Beautiful Movement Exist in New Zealand? A Preliminary Conclusion’ in Michael Roche and Caroline Miller, eds., Past Matters: Proceedings of the 8th Australasian Urban History/Planning History Conference (Palmerston North: Massey University, 2007), p. 325.

[11] Thelma Strongman, City Beautiful: The First 100 Years of the Christchurch Beautifying Association (Christchurch: Christchurch Beautifying Association, 1999), p. 2.

[12] Strongman, p. 7.

[13] Wellington Beautifying Society, Wellington Beautifying Society: Its Aims and Objects (Wellington: Wellington Beautifying Society, 1939), p. 21.

[14] Peter J. Coleman, ‘The Spirit of New Zealand Liberalism in Nineteenth Century’, The Journal of Modern History vol. 30 no. 3 (Sept. 1958), pp. 227-235.

[15] Sir Charles A. Fleming, ‘The History and Future of the Conservation Ethic’ in the Proceedings of the Silver Jubilee Conference of the National Parks Authority of New Zealand, Lincoln College, 5-8 July 1978, p. 59.

[16] Fleming, pp. 62-63.

[17] Tony Nightingale and Paul Dingwall, Our Picturesque Heritage: 100 Years of Scenery Preservation in New Zealand (Wellington: Department of Conservation, 2003), p. 7.

[18] Report on Scenery Preservation for the Year 1909-10, Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives (AJHR), 1910, C-6, pp. 1-2.

[19] Report on Scenery Preservation for the Year 1914-15, AJHR, 1915, C-6, p. 1.

[20] S. Hurst Seager, Our Beautiful World: Man’s Work in the Making and Marring of it, a Lecture Delivered to the Christchurch Beautifying Association (Wellington: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1911), pp. 6, 27.

[21] Peter Gibbons, Astride the River (Hamilton: Hamilton City Council, 1977),  p. 213.

[22] Letter from Town Clerk to Foreman of the Hamilton Beautifying Society, 17 August 1921, MSC55.

[23] Annual Reports of the Hamilton Beautifying Society, 1936 and 1942, MSC55.

[24] Foreman’s Report to the Hamilton Beautifying Society, 22 July 1936, MSC55

[25] Foreman’s Report to the Hamilton Beautifying Society, 16 September 1936, MSC55.

[26] William Wordsworth, ‘Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey on revisiting the banks of the Wye during a tour, July 13, 1798’

[27] Dugald Macfayden, ‘Sociological Effects of Garden Cities’, Social Forces vol. 14. no. 2 (Dec. 1935), p. 250.

[28] New Zealand Herald, 5 June 1871, cited in Coleman, p. 231.

[29] James Beattie, ‘Colonial Geographies of Settlement: Vegetation, Towns, Disease and Well-being in Aotearoa/New Zealand, 1830s-1930s’, draft manuscript, forthcoming in Environment and History (November 2008).

[30] Ebenezer Howard, Garden Cities of To-morrow (London: Faber and Faber, 1945), pp. 54-55.

[31] Macfayden, p. 252.

[32] Hamilton Beautifying Society, twenty-ninth Annual Report (undated), MSC55.

[33] Report of the Hamilton Beautifying Society for the year 1932-33, MSC55.

[34] Seager, p. 1.

[35] ‘Beautifying a River’, New Zealand Sporting and Dramatic, 23 May 1935, Newspaper clippings album, MSC55.

[36] ‘Waikato River Hamilton N.Z. F.G.R. 5994’ (n.d.), ‘On the Banks of the Waikato River Hamilton N.Z. F.G.R. 5996’ (n.d.), ‘Soldiers Park, Hamilton, NZ'(n.d.), John Elsbury’s NZ Postcards Page, <> [accessed 7 April 2008]

[37] Gibbons, Astride The River, p. 213.

[38] Gibbons, Astride The River, p. 214.