Focus On: The Waimate District and Historical Society Archives

In the first of our collection highlights series, we hear from Sue at the Waimate District and Historical Society Archives.

The Waimate Historical Society governs the local museum and archives in the Waimate District of South Canterbury. The Waimate Historical Society was established in 1954 when the town was celebrating 100 years of European settlement. Endeavouring to collect records and photos for the celebration highlighted that a great deal of historical records had already been destroyed.

In the 1980s progress began towards getting an archive facility but it wasn’t until 1999 that a purpose built archive was opened.  Previously documents had been in open storage.

The archival vault was built onto an existing building, which the society had purchased with a grant from district residents Ian and Isobel Dempsey. Further funds were obtained from the Lottery Grants Board. The Dempsey Complex, as it is known, contains the research reading room, genealogy rooms and the 110m2 climate controlled vault. There are over 250 linear metres of records, but there is room to install an additional 380 linear metres of records.

Collections include early local government documents dating from 1864 (including rate books, maps and correspondence), business and local group records, personal papers, school records, religious records, farm diaries, military records other valuable material pertaining to the Waimate District. The photo collection consists of more than 8000 photographs. The oral history collection features more than 50 people and over 120 hours of memories. At the time of recording, 1998-2002, most participants were over 80 years of age and provide an insight into the period between the two world wars and the life in the community during the depression. The recordings have been transcribed and illustrate a farming community that has always been supporting and supported by people living and working in the area.

Volunteers have done an excellent job of cataloguing materials. Early letters of correspondence to and from Council have the names of the writer and the addressee catalogued. Family historians are delighted to see the handwriting and signature of an early relative. More interesting is the content of the letters. They are more than just residents complaining about the state of the footpath outside their house.  One letter we found recently really captured the desperation of an out of work father in 1894 :

To the Chareman and gentlemen of the Waimate county council gentlem I Should Be very glad if you could See your Way clear to give me a fue Wecks Work as thar No Work to Be got enewar I have stell sex children to provide for as Well as house rent to pay if I cant get Work I shant be able to seport my famley I Would ask you gentllemn to give this your a tenshen I Ben out of Work goin on 4 Weeks

Two specific collections that are worth a special mention are the Dash Scrapbooks and the Miss Armstrong notes:

The Dash Scrapbook Collection

George Dash (1871-1959) was known as Waimate’s ‘Grand Old Man’. He was Mayor on two occasions that amounted to a total of 16 years. Among his many accomplishments in what was a very full and busy life, he somehow found time to compile 47 scrapbooks that are housed in the Archives vault. The scrapbooks cover all aspects of Waimate life, photographs, newspaper clippings, casual verse, invitations and letters. They cover the years 1925 to the mid 1950s and provide an excellent example of general life in a small rural town during this time period.

Most scrapbooks are actually old farming journals with each page covered over with Dash’s new material. The scrapbooks characterise Dash as someone extremely proud of Waimate with an aptitude at (and foresight for) recording details and also with a love of verse.

Dash Scrapbook from Waimate District and Historical Society Archives

The Miss Armstrong Collection

Miss Margaret Armstrong came from the Waihaorunga area of Waimate and worked for the government Lands and Survey Department. Her collection in the Archives is the result of her knowledge of the Land Records System and her interest in the Waimate area. The collection equates to 1.5 linear metres of mainly handwritten notes on all types of spare scraps of paper pertaining to a history of early run holders and the breaking up of estates in agricultural farms and small grazing runs. There is evidence Miss Armstrong intended to collate this material into a book to be called ‘ The Gathering of the Waters’, but this did not come to fruition. The title came from the development of land in Waimate County drained by the rivers Waihao, Hakataramea, Waitaki, Pareora, Otaio, Makikihi and Hook.

Volunteers have endeavoured to sort, group and transcribe Miss Armstrong’s collection. Their time has been well spent as recently a researcher spent an afternoon looking through the notes pertaining to the Hakataramea area. In an email he wrote:  “I got several bits of new information yesterday so from my view point at least, it is wonderful that your archive took the trouble to preserve and sort Miss Armstrong’s work. It is a great pity she did not finish it with a published work.”

Waimate archive vault volunteers

Archive documents are catalogued on the PastPerfect museum collection management software. The catalogue is not online, but researchers can search the catalogue in the building or contact the archive with a research enquiry.


The Waimate Archive facility is open to the public Tuesday through Thursday from 1:30pm to 4pm.

For enquires contact:

Sue Hanham, Archivist

Waimate District and Historical Archives

28 Shearman Street

Waimate, 7924

Ph (3) 689-7842



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Filed under Collections, Focus On, South Canterbury

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