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  • Writer's pictureGrant McLachlan

Matakana Landmark First to Turn 100

Matakana’s first public art installation – the Matakana War Memorial – will be celebrating its centenary in 2020. The statue and plinth, unveiled on 24 April 1920, was the first statue memorial unveiled in New Zealand following the end of World War I hostilities.

“Memorials located at junctions in rural communities were not only surrogate tombs but also place markers, entrances, and symbolised outposts to the British Empire,” says Adrienne Miller, curator of the memorial.

“Nowadays, some towns want to be known for their large gumboot, carrot, trout or, dare I say it, public toilets. Matakana found the best sculptor in the land to carve a quintessential landmark.”

For a village of only 313, the death toll of those who were deployed was twice the national rate.

“The statue was a significant sacrifice by locals in memory of the sacrifices of their men. When so many Fallen didn’t have marked graves, when so many didn’t return, and many of those who did returned gravely ill, the community wanted a prominent way of remembering and reminding the toll war had on shaping their proud community.”

“The names of those commemorated tells the story of the war. Several died of measles before deployment and several died following the war from poison gas-related respiratory conditions. The men fought in every battle that New Zealand forces served during the war.”

Local donations commissioned the sculpture and the Campbell family provided a site at the junction. In 1955, the Campbell family donated the land to the public.

“The design and designer of the memorial is especially significant. Sculptor William Henry Feldon, responsible for works such as Government House, the Auckland Town Hall and Auckland Ferry Terminal, was also brigade major of the Auckland Mounted Rifles, which Matakana had its own troop. Feldon chose New Zealand materials and themes for the memorial.”

Used to sculpting Portland stone in Britain before migrating to New Zealand, Oamaru white stone was seen as an excellent alternative. The memorial is one of the earliest and few examples remaining.

The statue is the first of King George V in the world. The second was also by Feldon atop Rotorua’s Arawa War Memorial.

“There are many subtle and significant elements in the statue. The King is adorned in a field marshal’s cavalry full dress, which is a reference to being commander of the local cavalry troop.”

The ‘peace and victory’ theme is demonstrated by the statue holding the King's Proclamation of 7 November 1918 calling for two minute's silence while, in the left hand, is an Auckland Mounted Rifles sword prepared to be raised in victory.

“Commissioned so soon after the soldiers returned from war, the memorial is a snapshot of the community’s raw emotions.”

At the time of commissioning, soldier and politician Sir James Allen recommended that communities ordered ‘catalogue’ obelisks and cenotaphs often made in Italy, citing that he didn’t believe New Zealand possessed talent worthy of sculpting fitting memorials.

“Matakana was the first community to go against the trend. Very few memorials are by New Zealand artists. During his illustrious career, Feldon sculpted more than all his contemporaries combined.”

At a time of great patriotism in the community, the memorial was a prominent entrance to the village. The original site at the junction was also chosen as it was where families farewelled troops. “The memorial also signified an outpost to the British Empire. The King atop a place marker, known as a stele, addressing the locals was an outward projection of local pioneer pride.”

The memorial also holds several secrets. Feldon was a grand Freemason and the gestures, shapes, marks, and orientation of the statue have been the subject of much speculation.

“Like Feldon’s Papakura and Mercer memorials, the statue was originally oriented towards London and the First World War battlefields.” As the condition deteriorated, memory of its purpose faded.

“It’s such a shame that the history of the memorial was not well kept, especially by those previously charged with its preservation. The Auckland Council has since worked with us to prevent some of the mistakes of the past.”

The statue was completed in December 1919 and appeared in Matakana in January 1920. The Prime Minister, William Massey, cancelled the unveiling for that month but local Member of Parliament and Minister of Defence and Public Works, Joseph Gordon Coates, unveiled the memorial on the same day that the Prince of Wales (and later King Edward VIII) arrived in Auckland to thank the dominion for its contributions to the war effort. The following day, Matakana held its fourth ANZAC Day service, ending with a march down the main street and a wreath laying ceremony at the newly unveiled memorial.

For the centenary, Matakana School is creating a “Prayer Wall’ public art display behind the Memorial for the annual ANZAC day ceremony to be held on Saturday April 25th at 10am.


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