Following World War One, there was great debate amongst the residents of Thames as to how the war could be suitably remembered. The need for a Memorial was a matter being discussed by many towns throughout New Zealand. Once Thames made the decision to fundraise and build a Peace Memorial, the question of where to place it was an ongoing matter of discussion. We know today the decision was made to build it on the hill between Albert Street and Waiotahi Creek. Bird-in-hand Hill was the next choice, followed by areas such as Deeble’s at Parawai, Causley’s by the Kauaeranga River, Challis’ at Tararu and reclaimed land long the foreshore. Initial feeling was that it should be an integral part of a memorial park, where people could gather; children play and remember those who went to war and those who did not return. The placement chosen therefore seems to go against all discussion at the time as recorded in the Thames Star newspaper. (1)
In 1920 Lawyer Julius Hogben was just one of many who wanted the Memorial Park to be located at the sea end of Mary Street.
He wrote to the Thames Star 12 April 1920:
'…My suggestion, for which I claim no originality, is that our Peace Memorial should be a park which would provide a permanent playing ground for the children of all time and for our many forms of adult recreation. Such a park should be near the middle of the town, say at the foot of Mary Street and would of course be made on ground to be reclaimed (a simple matter in Thames). No such park would be complete without provision for a children’s playing ground on the lines of Myers Park in Auckland. The park might be called Memory Park and at its entrance there should be erected a cenotaph or an obelisk…'
The playground idea went into a hiatus until the idea resurfaced again in conjunction with the town’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations of 1927. During this time fundraising was carried out for Thames projects, with money specifically set aside to establish a playground on Queen Street. The area to be known as the Diamond Jubilee Reserve.
The Auckland Star, 8 February 1929, reported that work was to finally commence on the playground. Money from the Jubilee had been allocated to other projects leaving 280 Pounds for the playground. The Government were giving a subsidy contribution of 560 Pounds, this left a deficit of 124 Pounds. It was thought that the shortfall could be overcome. With regards to equipment for the playground, many donations had been promised. At last the playground was becoming a reality.
In 1929, a plan for the proposed park was submitted to council for approval; whether alterations took place is not recorded. (2) What is known is that many of the items on the plan were still in the playground in the 1960s, whether they had been replaced over the years is a possibility. There were infant and adult swings, sew-saws, a merry-go-round, ocean wave and a long shute. The ‘rock-a-bye’ had a cross placed through it, so may not have been built. The ocean wave is well remembered by many as the large merry-go-round that was able to rotate in a circle and from side to side – a close-up photo not yet available. The ‘large shute’ is presumably the large slide that towered above the ground – at least to a young child it appeared to be at a great height! There were also rest rooms built at the reserve, described as being for the use of country visitors.
The playground was officially opened on Thursday 19 December 1929. It was known as the Diamond Jubilee Children's Playground. It was formally opened by the Mayor of Thames, Mr W Bongard.
The park was popular with young and old, in fact for many it was too popular! In January 1930, The Thames Borough Council was approached by a group of church ministers who expressed their concerns about the playground and requested that the swings and other apparatus be locked up on Sundays. Children were opting to go to the playground rather than go to church.
New Zealand Herald, 24 January 1930
'The council later considered the matter. Members said they considered that the issue lay with the parents and not with the council, which should not exercise jurisdiction on the point raised. There was nothing at the playground that would corrupt a child's morals. It was unanimously resolved that no action be taken.'
The playground continued to be used during the 1930s to 1950s. Over the years, changes did take place to the adjacent ground on the north boundary. This was the area at the intersect of Queen and Mary Street. It had been part of The Thames Gas Works, and was in later years turned into tennis courts, and later used as a carpark. In the 1947 view, we are able to recognise some structures, others such as the slide are possibly hidden behind the trees that have grown along the railway line. (3)
By the 1960s, it is evident that some rearrangement of the playground apparatus had taken place, the positioning reminiscent of how many Thamesites recall the playground. The large merry-go-round aka ‘ocean wave’ can also be seen. On the western side of the Rest Room are the see-saws and large slide. Also the tractor is located right by the railway line on the western boundary. (4)
An aerial photograph taken 25 August 1972 shows a major redevelopment had taken place. During 1969, the Thames Lions' Club undertook the major project of giving the whole playground a make-over. Central to the rebuild was the lighthouse slide, the tunnels, and the Wakatere paddle steamer replica with surrounding paddling pool.(5)
The 'Thames Lions 50th Charter Celebrations' booklet names Jack Louden and Doug Whelan as being involved with planning the playground project during the early part of 1969. In about April of that area, Mayor W C T Brunton turned the first sod, following that there were numerous working bees, with ten members rostered on each weekend. On December 3rd all available members rallied to have the playground ready for Christmas.
There is no doubt that the changes made by the Lions’ Club, were the most major alteration since the park opened in 1929. During 1970 another major change happened. At some stage the Jubilee Park name was discarded and the park was renamed. The definite date for this change has not yet confirmed, but possibly around the time of the Thames Borough centennial celebrations of 1973. Porritt Park was named after Governor-General Sir Arthur Porritt (1967-1972).
It was thought that this photo was taken in the late 1970s or early 1980s. It shows the playground at the time of a flood. The Thames Information Centre is now at the grounds, and the slide and swings can be clearly seen.
The 1983 view of the playground, is taken pre the days of the Goldfield’s Shopping Mall. (6) Changes continued to happen, with the Thames Citizens’ Advice Bureau taking over the Thames Information building. New restrooms were constructed and in recent years the park has had another major make-over, possibly spurred on by changes to Health and Safety Regulations.
The old playground has many tales of people falling off the large slides, being burnt on the hot base, let alone the risks of what one would find in the steps up the lighthouse slide. The tunnels were at times equally dangerous, but equally adored. While recognising the dangers, the past memories of children all echo the same message – how much they loved the playground and that a considerable amount of time was spent at the grounds. It was a meeting place for all ages of children. Some found shelter and thought of it as a safe area. While others knew at as a place of experimentation – the place to smoke, and indulge in a romantic rendezvous and other activities. The poor SS Wakatere was the victim of many a tagger’s so called art, but thankfully it never detracted from the joy children found, running the decks and climbing to the captain’s bridge. The playground without doubt, has a special place in the hearts of many a Thamesite.
Today the playground is safely enclosed to prevent children running onto the road. There are no trains or jiggers to avoid. New equipment and safety areas are designed to challenge the child, while hopefully stretching their limits. I dare say this will not be the last make-over. Let us hope that this and following generations will look back on the old Jubilee Playground and remember fondly their time spent at the park.
If any reader has photographs of the old playground structures, could you please contact The Treasury