In the summer of 1928-1929, two elephants, Jumbo and his pal Tommy, used the Wai-iti River, Wakefield, to rinse off as they took a break in their travels toward the North Island.

The pair were part of the Perry Brothers’ Circus on its annual New Zealand-wide tour which had started in the south and was working its way slowly northwards.

Newspaper articles from the time tell of the progress of the circus:

The Lake Wakitip Mail reported on the 4th of December, 1928, of the impressive circus of “60 people, 20 horses and ponies, 10 cages of wild animals comprising lions, tigers, leopards, hyena, wolves, Tasmanian Tiger, and many other rare animals, including Jumbo the huge elephant and his pal Tommy, the midget” coming to Queenstown.

By the 3rd of January 1929, they had reached Christchurch.

On the 17th of January, the New Zealand Herald reported on what could have been a disastrous incident. While making its way from Westport to Murchison, near Hawks Crag, a cage containing a lion, lioness and a tiger slipped off a trailer and rolled down a steep bank.

Fortunately, a gang of railway workers was on hand and, with the aid of an elephant which had to be brought back six miles to the scene, the animals were eventually recovered without significant damage.

Sometime between the 17th and 29th of January, when they were reported performing in Wellington, the circus must have passed through Wakefield. This is when the elephants were photographed penned up beside the Methodist Church on the corner of Arrow and Edward Street, Wakefield, and bathing in the Wai-iti River. It’s believed the bathing spot was near the Pigeon Valley Bridge.

George Taylor Lawrence was the photographer, and it was his grandchildren, Doug and Sally Lawrence, who gifted the photographs to the Waimea South Historical Society.

George Taylor Lawrence was born in Invercargill in 1859, after his father, William Taylor Lawrence, emigrated with his wife from Herefordshire, England, in the 1850’s.

In 1881, when he was 22 years of age, George was a passenger on the steamship Tararua which ran aground on a reef at Waipapa Point while on a regular journey between Port Chalmers and Invercargill and later sank with a large loss of life. After two unsuccessful attempts to get passengers off the ship it was decided to try once more to send a boat, with a strong swimmer with a rope, to reach the shore. George volunteered.

Despite George’s efforts, 131 people perished in this shipwreck. George was one of the 20 fortunate survivors. He had risked his life in getting a rope to shore and raising the alarm, yet ironically it was that act of courage which ultimately saved him.

As he neared retirement the warmer weather of the north beckoned and, when the opportunity arose, he moved to Wakefield in 1919, aged 60.

This story was first published in “Windows on Wakefield” a community newsletter for the town of Wakefield, Nelson. Roger Batt 2016.

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