After the Basin Reserve was further developed in the 1870s, the structures surrounding the ground also began to take shape with Wellington College, St Marks School, St Patrick’s College, and St Joseph’s School being built. Close by were two other prominent buildings; the Mount Cook barracks and the Caledonian Hotel. This echoed the growth through the city as Wellington’s population increased rapidly.
From the earliest days of the Basin Reserve’s establishment, cricket matches were hugely popular. Spectators flocked to the ground for matches regardless of whether it was for club or city – and large crowds would often turn up to watch cricket practices. At this time to be a prominent Wellington cricketer was to be a celebrity and to be in the right social circles meant to be at the Basin on game day. This made the ground the place for ladies to be seen walking in their Sunday best often wearing a large hat and carrying a parasol.
From 1900 to about 1920, the Basin Reserve was the venue for almost every civic event in Wellington. The Basin’s location and size made it the ideal site whenever a large crowd was expected for an event. This saw everything from local gatherings, Maori cultural exhibitions, and Dominion Day celebrations to fundraisers, galas, and coronation events hosted at the ground.
Maori carnivals were often held at the Basin Reserve, with two of the largest being held in 1900 and 1903. Maori performed kapa haka and sang waiata at these events which were seen to reinforce Maori allegiance to the Crown. These carnivals were attended by iwi from throughout Te Upoko o Te Ika a Maui (the lower North Island) and each iwi would bring a brass band to compete. The bands that attended, like the the Otaki Maori Brass Band, were quite famous at the time. Camps were set up on the Reserve, often with space for 300 people to sleep, and hangi were prepared.
In the early days of the Basin Reserve’s existence there weren’t any playing fields in Te Aro so it was decided that the eastern side of the Reserve would be designated as a ‘common’ where children could play. The ground was a paradise for young children, with trees, winding paths, quaint enclosures with high fences, a merry-go-round, and a sloping grass bank to roll down. The children especially enjoyed watching the caretaker “Fatty” Strong use his horse Dobbin to pull the heavy roller used to prepare the ground. Many schools and colleges also used the Basin Reserve for their school sports. Today it remains a popular spot for local school cross country running races.
Other civic events held at the Basin Reserve over the years include:
- Amateur athletics contests: including three legged races, sack races, spectacular obstacle courses, egg and spoon races, wheel barrow races, and jumping and throwing competitions;
- Band exhibitions and national band championships: in 1945, 500 bandsmen delighted a crowd of 10,000 despite it pouring with rain. On weekends, bands would often use the Basin to practice and this provided nearby citizens with an afternoon of free entertainment;
- Celebrations: also held regularly, celebrations included the January 1890 50th jubilee of the colony where the entire population of Wellington (about 30,000 people) were invited. In 1908 a similar event was held when New Zealand’s designation as a colony was replaced by the new title: ‘Dominion of New Zealand’. There was also a massive celebration held at the Basin on VE day 1945, offering various exhibitions including balloonists and helicopter landings;
- Religious events: on 25 February 1934, 25000 people went to the Basin Reserve to celebrate the diamond jubilee of Archbishop Redwood – at the time, the oldest Archbishop in the world (95 years). A similar event occurred with the visit of Father Patrick Payton in 1954 when another 25000-strong crowd attended to hear Father Payton say the rosary;
- Fundraisers: there were always many fundraisers held at the Basin Reserve, including fundraising cricket matches in 1915 (where Wellington celebrities dressed as 1850’s “gentleman cricketers” to raise funds for the war effort) and 2011 (where actors and athletes mixed to raise funds after the Christchurch earthquakes). Another earthquake fundraiser occurred in 1906 after San Francisco was shaken by a disastrous earthquake.
Since the earliest days of its establishment the Basin Reserve has been one of Wellington’s biggest assets. Most citizens of Wellington would have had reason to attend events at the Basin during their lifetime making the ground a much-loved icon of the city.