A Living Piece of History: An Outdoor Ice Rink in New Zealand

Posted by on Jan 24, 2017

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The remains of an outdoor ice rink near Mount Harper/Mahaanui in New Zealand offer insight into the establishment, use and decline of what may have been the largest outdoor ice rink in the Southern hemisphere. The privately built rink on South Island was a popular social amenity from the 1930s to the 1950s, playing an important role in the development of ice hockey and skating in the country, as detailed in a heritage assessment carried out by Katharine Watson for New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC). A combination of interviews, secondary sources and an archaeological survey were used to inform the history of the rink present in the assessment.

Mt. Harper ice rink lies in the lee of the mountain (the side that is sheltered from the prevailing wind) that gives it its name, at the foot of the glacier-clad Southern Alps of New Zealand. It was built in the early 1930s by Wyndham Barker, the son of a minor member of the English gentry who lived in Canterbury and learned to ice skate while studying in Europe, as explained in the assessment.

The bunds that surrounded the ice rinks still remain to the true left of the Rangitata River (Source: Ian Hill / Department of Conservation)

The bunds that surrounded the ice rinks still remain to the true left of the Rangitata River (Source: Ian Hill/Department of Conservation)

The rinks no longer contain any ice and some now contain vegetation, but the bunds (earth mounds) surrounding the ice rinks can still be seen. Many of the original buildings, such as the ticket office, toilet block, skate shed, a hut built to house the Barker’s cow, Sissy, and the Barker’s house are still standing.

The rink was first built in the summer of 1931-1932 and was fed by water from a nearby stream. However, its original location was too exposed to the nor’westers (strong north-westerly winds that are characteristic of Canterbury in New Zealand), which rippled the ice. Barker subsequently moved the rink closer to Mt. Harper, building the rink by allowing controlled layers of ice to build up over many nights. The rink’s first major public season took place in the winter of 1934.

The shed that housed the hydropower scheme (Source: Katharine Watson/Christchurch Uncovered).

The shed that housed the hydropower scheme (Source: Katharine Watson/Christchurch Uncovered).

A hydropower scheme was also installed in 1938 to power lights for skating at night, while allowing water to be sluiced onto the ice if necessary. “The whole landscape is really legible today, which is one of the things that makes it such a great place,” Watson explained to GlacierHub. 

“These kinds of sites are very important records of the myriad ways in which human societies have used, interacted with, and taken advantage of seasonal ice over time,” added Rebecca Woods, a professor of the history of technology at the University of Toronto. “An archeological site like Barker’s rink would be a candidate for a cool virtual reality tour along the lines of a New York Times 360° video.”

The potential of the site to tell the story of outdoor ice skating and ice hockey in New Zealand has been identified by the DOC. “The designation of the site as an Actively Conserved Historic Place recognizes this and entails a commitment to maintain the key buildings and structures in the expectation that despite being fairly isolated, the difficulty of access may change some time in the future,” shared Lizzy Sutcliffe, a representative from the DOC.

The rink was subdivided over its first few years of use, with up to seven rinks existing in the 1940s. One reason for doing this was that the ice was not freezing well. It also allowed one of the rinks to be dedicated to ice hockey, which Barker was passionate about. In fact, he was an important figure in the history of ice hockey in New Zealand, establishing the Erewhorn Cup, an ice hockey tournament that persists to this day.

Crossing a swing bridge over the Rangitata River. Kent, Thelma Rene. Ref: 1/2-009844-F. Alexander Turnbull Library. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.

Crossing a swing bridge over the Rangitata River. Kent, Thelma Rene. Ref: 1/2-009844-F. Alexander Turnbull Library. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.

The main focus of the rink was definitely ice hockey, along with recreational skating,” Watson explained to GlacierHub. “Competitive ice hockey matches were held at the rink.” The remote location of the rink also meant that it had to be accessed using a punt until a swing bridge was built in later years.

At the time, ice rinks in South Canterbury were all located in the high country, close to the Southern Alps, which meant that most of them were associated with high country pastoral stations farmed by people perceived of as the elite. This rink was probably important in introducing people outside the pastoral stations to ice skating, as it was more accessible to the people of Geraldine, the nearest town. The rink’s development and success were part of a larger movement in New Zealand at the time, where there was increasing leisure time and people were more frequently exploring the outdoors and taking up winter sports, according to Watson.

Gender could also have had an effect on the use of the rink, according to Woods. She explained to GlacierHub that gender has influenced many realms of human interaction with ice, likely extending to the use of ice rinks. “The competitive [ice hockey] matches were all played by men,” added Watson.

Public use of the rink ceased in the mid-1950s for a few reasons, one of which could have been climate change. “Anecdotal evidence suggests that warmer winters were one of the reasons the rink was abandoned,” Watson said. “The later owners of the rink did purchase a refrigeration unit at one point. This seems to suggest that things were getting warmer.” Another reason for the closing of the rink might have been World War II and the changes it brought about including the increased cost of fuel, which made it harder to get to the rink.

A map showing the remains of the ice rink and surrounding buildings (Source: Katharine Watson/Department of Conservation).

A map showing the remains of the ice rink and surrounding buildings (Source: Katharine Watson/Department of Conservation).

The remains of the rink offer some insight into one aspect of past human interactions with ice in New Zealand. Its completeness also makes it an interesting place to visit, if one is willing to make the journey to this remote region. Amidst the remains, it would be easy to imagine the laughter and enjoyment of people skating there, just as they would have done this winter if the rink was still operational.

“Given how dramatically the planet’s temperature is rising, it’s more critical than ever to document these instances [in human history] and demonstrate them to the public,” concluded Woods.

Read more about the rink and view additional photos here.

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