School Britannia

18 Jul

Alice Hunt with shieldThe Supernova exhibition features a child’s Britannia costume. Te Manawa interviews Alice Hunt, for whom the costume was made in 1935.

What was the significance of the school balls? Were they something that was looked forward to all year?

Oh yes, it was a big, major event of the year. We spent weeks learning the folk dances and Grand March, and getting our costumes made. For Hokowhitu School it was a big event.

How many children were at the school?

I would think about three hundred. Something like that, at that time. There was a very good community spirit in the area then. The school committee would hire a bus service around the Hokowhitu area to take families to the ball, because people didn’t have cars in those days, much. It took a lot of organising, I can see, looking back.

Was the ball at the school?

No, the ball was at what was the Empire Hall, in Princess Street. It’s no longer there. It was in Princess St next door to the hotel, on the corner of Main Street. It had quite an imposing frontage, but the hall was pulled down years later.

How much preparation did your father put into the Britannia costume?

Quite a bit. I remember him making it, because he was a working craftsman jeweller, and he beat the sheets of brass for the front and back armour, and I remember him working on that. And of course he had to keep trying it on me to get it to the right size, so I particularly remember that, and I remember him making the shield, and painting it, and of course the trident, and the helmet. So there was a lot of work that went into it, really, when you come to think of it. My mother made the dress, and I think she plaited the red, white and blue on the helmet, so he had it all ready by the time the ball came along.

How long did it take him?

I would think probably six weeks, on and off, because he had to earn a living as well. So it was a spare time job, but he was very accomplished with metalwork.

Was this quite different from what he’d worked on before, being a jeweller?

He did a lot of different things. I know he made a caliper for somebody who had a damaged leg, and he did a lot of work in metals. So he would do the fine jewellery – that was his specialty – but he also did a whole lot of other things with metals.

Where did he get the materials?

I think he would have bought them from travellers who came around; being a working jeweller, he’d have just ordered it: the sheets of brass and the glass baubles and things that are on it.

Was it comfortable?

To a certain extent. When I put it on, we went to the ball, of course, and the first thing was the Grand March, where we all lined up: the little ones at the front, right through to the[seniors] – and we marched around the hall, round and round, coming down first in pairs, and the next time you go round you come down in fours and then you come down in eights, until finally you got the whole school settled in the hall, facing the front, all in rows. And it was alright for that, but then that was dismissed, and I remember my father coming over and pulling out the pins on the shoulders of the armour. It all came off quite easily because I couldn’t dance in it! And from then on it was folk dancing: Strip the Willow and all those old-fashioned dances.

I think I have listed somewhere the dances I remember. We had practiced the dances so much, either out in the concrete rectangle at the school, or if it was wet you practiced them in the long school corridors, with the music coming from a wind-up gramophone with a big horn on it.

So you needed help to get out of it?

Oh yes, my father had to [help] but it wasn’t difficult. And then I had a white frock underneath and could be comfortable and dance to my heart’s content.

Did you have anything else to identify you as Britannia once you’d taken [the armour] off?

Not really, no. The identification was all in the shield and the helmet and the armour.

What was the reaction to the costume?

I think some of the parents where quite intrigued with it and amazed at it, but we were just children, everyone enjoyed what they were wearing, and dancing. I don’t remember any reaction. The Hokowhitu School ball was a bit different, they didn’t have prizes for costumes; they felt that that rather spoiled the effect, to pick out one or two better than others.

Oh, and the other thing I should say is that at that time, Britannia was quite well known, because on the penny coin, and I think one or two other coins, there was a Britannia seated with her shield and trident on the coin, so everybody knew Britannia because those were the coins we used in those days. I don’t think many would know Britannia very much now.

Did you father make other costumes in other years for you?

Oh yes, he made a lovely crown and sceptre for a fairy outfit – a fairy queen – and that was a crown in brass, which we still have at home. But he always had a hand in what I wore. My mother did the sewing to his bidding, I think! He was the organiser of costumes. Pretty fond memories of those days. I was just thinking how – because I soon grew out of it, I couldn’t wear it again – but it was always around, and children, when they got to the right size, would all have a try on of the outfit, and later some of the grandchildren. So it’s been well used, I think it’s a bit battered compared with how it was when it was first made, but it’s really stood the years very well.

Did it ever get worn to another ball?

No, I don’t think so. I can’t recall that it was ever used again like that.

So it was important for you to have a different costume every year?

Oh yes.

Did you have a favourite of the costumes that you wore?

No, not really. I suppose that was the most outstanding one. There were other costumes that I wore, but that one stays in my memory best of all, really, and being taken up to Miss Lowe’s studio to wear it all over again and have my photograph taken.

That was done separately from the ball?

Yes, that was later, that was a Miss Lowe – Daisy Lowe, photographer – she had a studio, and she and my father were good friends, so he took me up there to have my photograph taken.

Was that common, for children to be photographed later on?

It was, because people didn’t have cameras at home very much, so they would record their children by taking them to get a studio photo taken, when they could afford it. My father was in Samoa with the occupation force of World War One. He was there from 1917, and one of the few photos we have of that time is of a tableau of various countries that were at war with Germany, and in the central position there is a Britannia – but it’s not made out of metal, it’s made out of cardboard and things like that. But he must have had a hand in that, because he’s in the photo, as a soldier, kneeling and holding up his gun. That may have been the germ of the idea of the Britannia costume.

He just had to wait another twenty years to execute it.

Heh, yes.

Images by Udo von Mulert