Marlborough cultural life


Marlborough has a rich musical and cultural history, with the Marlborough Repertory and Blenheim Operatic Societies having provided regular local entertainment for many decades.  But it was not always easy to muster a decent number of players - or an audience in the earliest days of settlement.

Making their own fun 

"In these days of radios in every home, radio-gramophones, juke-boxes and regular cinema would not be surprising if people...lost the art of making their own music and drama; however entertainment of local origin still flourishes in Marlborough, " said the Marlborough Express in 1959.1

In fact, from the earliest days of European settlement, concerts, dances and social evenings were appreciated. As early as 1860, popular Saturday night concerts were held in the Blenheim Library for sixpence a ticket.2

The Gondoliers, 1918The first show performed by Nelson Operatic Society, 1918, the Gondoliers. Marlborough Historical Society Collections - Marlborough Museum.
Click image to enlarge

However, lack of involvement and patronage thwarted some attempts to bring culture to the district. In September 1880, the reviewer of a fundraising entertainment in Picton commented: "indeed, shortly before the performance commenced, it was even suggested that the entertainment should be postponed, as only two or three spectators had appeared."  The show went on and the reviewer did not spare the players, writing: "One of the greatest arts of the actor is to appear natural, and this Mr Palethorpe fails to do."3

The Blenheim Philharmonic Society was formed in 1868 but was gone by 1877. A brass band also suffered from lack of patronage and the first Blenheim Choral Society ran from 1888 to 1897.4

In 1891, the Express pondered on the winter evening amusements available for young people in Blenheim." There are occasional dances, the Ambulance Classes may take up a night a week for a few, and probably a choir practice does the same for some of the others, but we look in vain for anything like the improvement societies that are common in other parts of the colony." June 3 1891.5

Marlborough Orchestral SocietyMarlborough Orchestral Society, Blenheim Town Hall 1919. Marlborough Historical Society Collections - Marlborough Museum. Click image to enlarge
The Gondoliers programme coverThe Gondoliers programme cover Courtesy of Marlborough Historical Society Collections - Marlborough Museum
Click image to enlarge

However, by 1905, there were three bands, a local orchestral society, several choirs and, there was anticipation about the construction of a new town hall.6

The Rapaura Orchestra - also known as the Upper Spring Creek Orchestra - was established and conducted by Harry Robinson in 1902 with orchestra members contributing sixpence each at every practice to raise funds for the piano.7

Blenheim's Operatic Society was formed in 1918 to address the shortage of musical theatre in the town. In its first 75 years, the society staged 74 major productions.8 

By the time the Marlborough Repertory Society celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1998, it had produced more than 130 full-length plays.9

Marlborough's annual Performing Arts Competitions have been the nurturing ground for generations of local performing artists. The first competitions were held in May 1949, with 540 entries over 160 classes which included song, piano, bagpipes, dancing and elocution.10

The Theatres

"For many generations the mere mention of Ewart's Hall must have conjured up memories of the few exciting treats of childhood..." Ewart's Hall in High Street was the venue for concerts, shows and lectures, with an audience of 100 considered ‘a good house'.11

His Majesty's TheatreHis Majesty's Theatre
Marlborough Historical Society Collections - Marlborough Museum. Click image to enlarge

On 13 August 1912, His Majesty's Theatre was opened. "It was the most costly structure yet raised in the capital of Marlborough," reported the Express. The theatre could accommodate up to 1300, although this was reduced to 900 when the seats were replaced in the 1940s.12

However by the 1960s, the once beautiful theatre had earned the nickname ‘The Bughouse'. In the late 1960s, Blenheim's Town Hall (built 1906) and his Majesty's Theatre were both demolished due to earthquake and safety concerns.  

In 1970, the Repertory Society bought a boatshed from the Blenheim Rowing Club for $1800. Many hours of hard work and goodwill have gone into converting the shed into the Boathouse Theatre, which continues to be the home of the society.13

While the Operatic Society converted a Lakings Road bakery into rehearsal rooms in 1972,14 it wasn't until the 461-seat Marlborough Centre opened in February 1985, that they were back in a proper theatre again.15  The Society's name was changed to Blenheim Musical Theatre in 2006 to better reflect its repertoire.16

Blenheim’s 700 seat purpose-built multi-million dollar ASB Theatre was opened in March 2017 and quickly became an entertainment hub for Marlborough.17

2010 (ed 2017)

Sources used in this story

  1. The Marlborough Express, Provincial Centennial Supplement 1859-1959.  published November 1, 1959. p. 29
  2. The Marlborough Express supplement, p 29
  3. Amateur Dramatic Entertainment (1880, September 1) Marlborough Express,  2
  4. McIntosh, A. D. (1977) Marlborough: a provincial history, Christchurch: Capper Press. , p 353.
  5. Winter Evening Amusements (1891, June 3) Marlborough Express, 2
  6. The cyclopedia of New Zealand, volume 5: Nelson, Marlborough, and Westland Provincial Districts, (1906) Christchurch, N.Z. : The Cyclopedia Company, p.33 
  7. Matthews, N. & P.[1995] Rapaura:  a district history. Cape Catley Ltd.  pp 112-114
  8. Ward, N. [1993], Sunshine and song: a jubilee history of the Blenheim Operatic Society, 1918-1993, [Blenheim, N.Z.] p 1
  9. Brooks, C. (1998) From bughouse to Boathouse: 50 years of the Marlborough Repertory Society, [Blenheim, N.Z.] : Marlborough Repertory Society, (introduction).
  10. Brooks, C. (1998) 50 years on stage: 1948-1998, [Blenheim, N.Z.] : The Society. (introduction)
  11. McIntosh, p 352.
  12. Ward, p 24.
  13. Brooks,  p7-9
  14. Ward, p 14
  15. Ward, p 17
  16. The Blenheim musical theatre
  17. McPhee, E. (2016, January 24) Controversial theatre building 10 years in the making. Marlborough Express, on Stuff:

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Further sources - Marlborough cultural life



  • Brooks, C. and Brooks, G. The Pictorial Record: Marlborough's monthly magazine (Renwick, Marlborough, N.Z) (1994- 14 issues) : Brooks.  
  • Dr Cleghorn's memory lives on at rotunda (1995, Apr. 5) Marlborough Express. p. 1. 
  • Marlborough pictorial [1966-1974] [Blenheim] : Marlborough Historical Society Inc.  
  • Pierson, J. (1999)  George Cleghorn and the band rotunda. New Zealand Memories, 1999; 3(20).

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