How Christchurch celebrated the end of war

Sunday 11 November 2018

 from the diaries of Alison MacLeod, transcribed by Museum volunteer Alison Hutton

Although we now remember the Armistice on 11 November, news of it did not break in New Zealand until the following day.

At 9.00 am on 12 November word had started to spread: The Great War, later known as World War One, was over. In Christchurch people gathered in Cathedral Square to celebrate.

Armistice Day celebrations in Cathedral Square, Christchurch

Armistice Day celebrations in Cathedral Square, Christchurch. Canterbury Museum 1950.80.1. No known copyright restrictions

One of the more vivid accounts we have of these celebrations comes from the diary of Alison MacLeod, who was 16 at the time. That day Alison wrote:

Peace! Peace! After four long years of war. The great news came through at 9 o’clock this morning. The first I knew of it was the blowing of the whistles, and bells.

We got the first car down, but first I had to rush out to tack a flag – Union Jack – to the stake in the juniper. I carried two little flags, Union Jack and Australian, with me.

When we got to town, everyone and everything was seething with excitement. Everybody carried flags – I brought two more – and all sorts of noise-making instruments. Whistles, bells, sirens, horns, trumpets, crackers, bombs and weird clanging things made a terrific din, while the Cathedral bells and countless tin cans and kerosene tins being beaten added their uproar.

Decorated motors formed an impromptu procession round and round the Square, the occupants singing, yelling, beating tins and dragging petrol tins containing stones along the ground, while the crowd cheered and everywhere was bunting. All the shops had a great show, Ballantynes and Broadways particularly. Everyone wore red, white and blue, and most carried flags.

Alison MacLeod photograph Ready for anything from MacGibbon Album One crop

This photo of Alison McLeod was taken by Lake Ohau, Canterbury, around 1925. Canterbury Museum. No known copyright restrictions

An unfortunate consequence of the Armistice festivities is that they likely helped to spread the dangerous "Spanish" influenza ravaging the country at the time. Over 18,000 New Zealanders were killed during the four years of World War One; the flu killed around 9,000 in a month. Alison's subsequent diary entries hint at the impact the flu was having in Christchurch at the time.

Wednesday November 13 1918

The epidemic is getting far more serious. All theatres and places of amusement are closed. Also, all meetings stopped. The hospital is full and many deaths are occurring.

It is an awful pity that the celebrations are overshadowed by this. There was to have been a children’s procession, but the health authorities have forbidden it. I went into town in the morning, to the chemist’s – all the other shops were closed on account of peace – for medicine and some photo things. It was like a dead town. The streets were a mess of confetti and cracker remains from yesterday.

Thursday November 14 1918

There is about a column of deaths in the paper. I see in the paper that the Germans are appealing to America for a modification of the terms. Now they are down they are whining like a whipped puppy. I’m afraid they weren’t punished enough. Their papers still say the army was not beaten.

When she wrote these diary entries, 16-year-old Alison couldn't have known they'd be read by people a century later. Her journal-writing habit never left her and she continued keeping diaries until 1974. All her diaries are held in the Museum's collection, where they are being transcribed by volunteer Alison Hutton. Alison Hutton wrote this about Alison MacLeod's life:

Alison MacLeod wrote her first diary entry on her 16th birthday in 1918. In that year she was a student at the School of Art majoring in design (embroidery) and graduated at the end of the year, the award being given by the Governor-General. The following year she attended Rangi Ruru, then after two years enrolled at Canterbury College for a literature course.

However in May of that year (1922) Alison’s father took up the position as Principal of Waimate District High School. Partly because her mother was unwell, Alison gave up her studies and moved to Waimate with the family.

The MacLeods were very soon involved in the active social life of the town. Alison enjoyed dances, and playing tennis at the local courts, and she and her mother received callers as well as returning these calls. Regular baking ensured that their hospitality was warmly received.

While Alison settled in quickly in Waimate, a diary entry from 1 September 1922 makes it clear she missed Christchurch:

I have never felt fonder of Christchurch than I do just now, it is so beautiful with the willows in young leaf, & the river, & the buildings, the dear grey College buildings, the flowers, the stateliness of the Cathedral, the shops in full spring show, the trees. . . . Oh everything in Christchurch! And yet I like little Waimate too. But Christchurch I love.

Alison MacGibbon

Alison MacGibbon (nee MacLeod), aged 18. Canterbury Museum PIC 91/92. No known copyright restrictions

Alison and friends walked great distances in the area, including from Studholme Junction station to Waimate. She also accompanied Dr Hayes when he had to visit patients outside of the town and Alison mourned with the Hayes family when their very young baby died.

Having to give up studies at Canterbury College, Alison was expected to help her mother, but she also enjoyed a very full social life in the South Canterbury town.

Alison moved back to Christchurch with her mother after her father's death. Later in life she married William MacGibbon, who served as a city councillor. She died in 1976.

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