It is suggested that on her tour to New Zealand in 1953 a young Queen Elizabeth stayed at the Hamilton Hotel. As Richard Walker discovers stacking up such statements is a difficult task.
I sat in a cafe waiting for my sister to join me for lunch, and studied Hamilton Hotel across Victoria St. It's seen better days, and comes across as perhaps overly ornate when you look at it closely. My sister arrived and I nodded across the street at it. Did she know that back in 1953, the recently crowned young Queen had slept there one night during a royal tour of the Antipodes? It seemed, I had to admit, an unprepossessing place for royalty.
My sister had her own story: apparently back in the day it had seen some wild dances. I thought I could remember drinking there once or twice myself, and wondered if it was also the place where for a while a cutting edge contemporary art gallery was housed, one of those unlikely places that pop up in Hamilton from time to time, last a few years and then run out of puff.
But did the Queen sleep at Hamilton Hotel? That's what I thought. I'd been researching the city's history for a supplement marking 150 years since the start of the settlement, and at the core of that was a timeline in which I was trying to record the significant events, or at least enough of them so that there weren't too many obvious gaps.
Somewhere I had come across the gem that the Queen and Prince Philip had stayed at the hotel.
Late in the process, close to deadline, I went back through the timeline and tried to verify as much as I could while deciding not to re- examine all the non-contentious events. Many details remained to niggle me. I had contacted heritage librarian Perry Rice at the Garden Place library and asked him to go through the timeline for me, with some questions I had highlighted. He is encyclopaedic in his knowledge and endlessly helpful. But at that stage I hadn't thought to ask specifically about the Queen's visit, and I couldn't expect him to pick up every detail.
At some stage during the process, I had emailed one contact to say I was terrified of making mistakes that would come back to haunt me. His reply was that he lived with that fear every day. Even the experts can't always be sure.
As for the royal tour, I could no longer recall where I'd got the overnighting detail from. I turned to Google. Internet searches are useful, I had discovered, even when plumbing history that predated computers, and were certainly essential for someone like myself, trying to cram as much as I could into a tight timeframe, with very little background to go on. Books also help, and I had a copy of Gibbons' authoritative Astride the River on a desk at home, along with three or four other heavily illustrated books. So there was some printed material, but they rarely covered the particulars I was searching for, and certainly appeared to have nothing on the young Queen's visit back in 1953.
This was by no means the only detail that bothered me. Among the plethora, for instance, no-one could help me with the date of another building. The Government Life building, as it was called then, remains the tallest in Hamilton, at least so I thought, and I remembered it causing a bit of a stir at the time. But what was that time? I had written 1980, but could no longer recall how I had arrived at that date. And was it still the tallest? Where had I got the information from? Primitive fieldwork helped on that front: I looked at the city from across the other side of the river. It appeared to confirm that the building remained Hamilton's tallest. And finally, thanks to those helpful heritage librarians, I found an article in a NZ architects journal that commented on the building's design. The article was written in 1981 and, frustratingly, didn't give the year the building was opened, but it seemed reasonable to assume it was the previous year. I went with it; I have discovered that sometimes you have to. Did it matter? It was only a couple of lines on a timeline full of other such details; and no- one I had mentioned the building to seemed particularly interested. It must have been two hours' work, minimum, including a fruitless search for a foundation stone, to come up with those two lines.
As for Hamilton Hotel, I found a reference online to the Queen staying there, but one reference is never really enough, not once you've started second-guessing. Finally I found an itinerary of her 1953 visit. It recorded that she arrived in Hamilton in the morning, had a civic lunch here, then travelled on to Waitomo in the afternoon. So it was possible she returned to spend the night in Hamilton, but unlikely since the itinerary recorded that she set out from Waitomo the next morning for Rotorua. I took out the reference. And I still don't know. No doubt with more time, I could come up with the definitive answer, and there may well be many readers of this column who could tell me straight off. But I erred on the side of caution.
This was the story of my timeline: shamelessly using other people's work and time as much as I could, but then doubting almost everything, backtracking, searching, and quickly having to move on to meet deadline.
Along the way, I discovered Seddon Park opened as a cricket ground in 1905, the dome in what is now the casino building has 1660 lenses and packs of beagles were a problem in the early years of settlement. It was utterly fascinating, and I am all the more impressed by the real historians who do this for their living or as a hobby. I also have an insight into the process all those people go through who research some aspect of their family history - not something I've been tempted to do. I was simply a journalist who had lived in the city for a while, scrambling to put together something for Hamilton readers to spend a little time with. I hope the timeline reveals nothing of my scrabbling and only the real, hard facts of the 150 years since militiamen stepped ashore, but I can't say I'm sure of every last detail. That, I have discovered, is history.
- Waikato Times