The Remarkable Mr Godber

Posted by on

This was the last of my regular pieces for FishHead magazine. They wanted me to continue but I needed a break after churning out over 100 of them (dating back to the first in the Wellingtonian). The subject is another of my favourite Wellington characters, Percy Godber. There was just the usual single image in the FishHead piece, but limiting yourself to one is hard with Godber, and so this has turned into a mini-exhibition. I have often thought Godber deserves a book and/or another exhibition (the National Library did do one about 20 years ago). 

Godber's busy day

Photographer: Arthur Percy Godber. Godber at his finishing lathe, Petone Railway Workshops, ca 1905. APG-0126-1/2-G, Alexander Turnbull Library

This is the image I began with - a self-portrait of Godber, railway worker, photographer, and much more besides. He is at his brass finishing lathe in the Petone Railway Workshops. “This,” he tells us on the little notice in front of him, “is my busy day.”

He was a railway worker all his working life, starting as a fitter and turner apprentice at Petone in 1891. After being promoted to machine shop foreman in the 1920s he worked briefly at the Hillside workshops in Dunedin before returning to the new Woburn workshops, where he worked until his retirement in 1931. For most of those years he photographed all that went on in the workshops. By the time of this photograph the Petone workshops were one of the key hubs of the North Island railways, employing over 700 men to build and maintain the steam locomotives and rolling stock on which the rail system depended. Godber’s photographs provide a unique record of this long-gone era of home-grown railroads heavy industry. 

Godber - railway workers

Photographer: Arthur Percy Godber. Railway workers and an H class locomotive used on the Rimutaka Incline, ca 1900?. APG-0432-1/2-G, Alexander Turnbull Library

But trains were just one of his enthusiasms. He was also a lifelong volunteer in the local fire brigade and there are many images of the brigade at work. Here is one showing his colleagues proudly posing with their new fire engine.  

Godber - fire engine

Photographer: Arthur Percy Godber. Fire engine and crew outside the Petone Fire Station, 1916. APG-0593-1/2-G, Alexander Turnbull Library

 And here is one of his many photographs of local fires and their aftermath.  

Godber petone fire

Photographer: Arthur Percy Godber. Houses destroyed by fire in Petone, ca 1900?. APG-0020-1/2-G, Alexander Turnbull Library

 There are photographs of local events too, such as the first Anzac Day celebrations at Petone, or this one, of a procession up Jackson Street in 1902, to celebrate the end of the South African war.  

Godber SA War

Photographer: Arthur Percy Godber. Petone procession celebrating the end of the South African war, 1902. APG-0065-1/2-G, Alexander Turnbull Library. At the head of the procession is the impressive "HMS Petone" float, created and manned by Railway Workshop employees.

 His rail travels around New Zealand produced other studies, including a fascinating series documenting the kauri timber camps, bush railways and timber-gathering work along Auckland's rugged west coast during World War I. You can see most of them here

As might be expected, domestic life features too, with affectionate shots of his wife and children at their family homes, their "Railway Whare" in Petone, then Silverstream.  

Laura and Arthur

Photographer: Arthur Percy Godber. Percy and Laura Godber, 1910. APG-1383-1/2-F, Alexander Turnbull Library

Perhaps more unexpected is his growing fascination with Maori art and culture. The watercolour drawings he made of over 200 North Island Maori kowhaiwhai (rafter patterns) are now a valuable research record. This one is from the Te Ore Ore wharenui, near Masterton, destroyed by fire in 1939.  You can see more of his kowhaiwhai drawings  here 

Godber Te Ore Ore

Artist: Arthur Percy Godber. Kowhaiwhai, Te Ore Ore wharenui, ca 1939. Watercolour, 230 x 295mm, E-302-q-3-007/079, Drawings and Prints Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library

 Through his Church connections he also corresponded with a group of Tuhoe school children. Among his photographs is a happy group portrait of him and his wife with a Tuhoe school group from Maungapohatu. He was helping host them on a visit to Wellington to see the New Zealand centenary exhibition. 

Godber - Maungapohatu visitors

Photographer: Arthur Percy Godber. Maori visitors to the Centennial Exhibition, with their teacher, Miss I D Paulger. Back row, from left, Kiri Te Kere, Miss Paulger, Colin Hartwig, Percy Godber, his wife Laura, Norman Hartwig - (Norman and Colin were Percy and Laura's grandsons). Front row (from left): Meri Kahukura, Waiparani or Pautere Te Heuheu, Hiki Kahukura and Waiparani or Pautere Te Heuheu. APG-1465-1/2-G, Alexander Turnbull Library

  He was a man of wide interests, with a strong community commitment, all recorded in a lifetime of photography. Over 2000 of those photographs have now been digitised by the Alexander Turnbull Library and can be seen on the National Library of New Zealand website. Its a wonderful collection. Browse them all here 



Leave a Comment