Fact or Fallacy? Five Urban Legends from the Cable Car Debunked.

 By Jay Èvett

Ask any Wellingtonian to rattle off a local legend from their day and you will get different stories depending on when they grew up. You may hear about tooting in tunnels, Japanese submarines in wartime Wellington Harbour or speculation over the identity of a certain fountain-bucket thief. However, one source of stories remains constant across generations – the early days of the Wellington Cable Car. But as with all urban legends, sometimes spinning a good yarn can get in the way of the facts. I’ve gathered together the top five tales you’re likely to hear about the Cable Car and tried to set the record straight about what really happened: are they fact or fallacy?

Tall Tale 1:
The Cable Car was built amidst a web of backdoor deals and shady agreements

Muir & Moodie (Firm). Wellington cable car and city. Ref: 1/2-003716-F.Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

FACT: The Cable Car’s early days are a web of conveniently interlocking business interests and political back-scratchings. There were so many intricate deals cut that it’s impossible to capture the full picture, even a century on. For example, whenever the line’s construction was delayed by the Council, heavily critical articles were published in the New Zealand Times to put pressure on them to cease the delays. The same newspaper purchased a plot on Lambton Quay, which it then leased to the Kelburne & Karori Tramway Company to build its lowest cable car terminal and offices – offices which were occupied by directors of the company, one of whom was a leading board member of the New Zealand Times. See, complex – and that’s just one small part of the web.

This net of convenience was cast so wide that there were few influential personalities who weren’t connected to the project, from former mayors and newspaper editors to business moguls and even a Prime Minister!

Tall Tale 2:
The Cable Car engineer’s young daughter was the first person through each tunnel

Kelburn cable car line, Wellington. Original photographic prints and postcards from file print collection, Box 10. Ref: PAColl-6208-14. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

UNVERIFIABLE: While there are multiple reports that Vera Fulton – engineer James Fulton’s 11-year old daughter – was the first person to pass through all three tunnels, there are no contemporary sources confirming this. What we do know is that Fulton’s tunnels were plagued with bad luck, casting significant doubt over whether this claim is true. A delicate and precarious job by nature, once two work gangs connected their tunnels in the middle it was common for the smallest worker to be sent to check its integrity. This highly dangerous task brought with it the potential for a section of the wall to collapse – something Fulton knew all too well as it happened several times during his work on the Karori Tunnel.

Did James Fulton allow 11-year old Vera to undertake this risky task not just once but thrice? We may never know but we’re more than happy to hear from anyone who could verify this tale for us once and for all!

Tall Tale 3:
Victoria University was bribed by the Cable Car to build in Kelburn

Hunter Building, Victoria University, Wellington. Adkin, George Leslie, 1888-1964: Photographs of New Zealand geology, geography, and the Maori history of Horowhenua. Ref: 1/4-023178-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

FACT:  Believe it or not, even institutions of higher learning were not above the power of the Pound. After searching for a location for its new campus, in 1901 Victoria College decided to build adjacent to the Cable Car line, abandoning plans to build in Mount Cook. What changed their mind? A liberal £1,000 ($178,000 today) ‘donation’ from Cable Car investor and Northland suburb developer Charles Pharazyn was offered to the College, on the condition that their campus was built in Kelburn. [E1]

This was to the despair of Mount Cook residents, who had been hoping that Victoria College would convert the former Mt Cook Prison into their primary campus. However, thanks to Pharazyn’s ‘generosity’, the iconic Hunter Building opened its doors in Kelburn three years later and in doing so ensured a steady stream of customers to the nascent Cable Car for years to come.

Tall Tale 4:
Prisoners were used in the construction of the line

Terrace Gaol, Wellington. Crown Studios Ltd: Negatives and prints. Ref: 1/1-032512-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

FALLACY: Contrary to popular belief, prison labour was never used during the Cable Car’s development. Tunnelling was a highly precise skill that was in short supply during the line’s construction. It’s unlikely that a significant portion of the Terrace Gaol’s population were skilled tunnellers (who hadn’t yet tunnelled their way out of the prison itself!).  Likewise, with dynamite used extensively to blast the line into Kelburn Hill it is just as unlikely anyone wanted to risk convicts handling anything explosive. This myth appears to have been inspired by prison gangs building infrastructure in Kelburn, at the time mistaken to have been working on the Cable Car line, as well as the use of the infamous ‘convict bricks’ from the Terrace Gaol brickyard to form the tunnel walls.

Tall Tale 5:
The 1973 accident was the only serious incident in the cable car’s history


FALLACY: While the best-known incident was the 1973 accident in which a construction worker was totalled after walking in front of a downward-bound cable car at Clifton Station, it was not the only significant occurrence in the line’s history. In the days of non-existent Health & Safety practices, the Cable Car was a hotbed for serious injuries and even deaths. Seriously heavy and originally incredibly cumbersome to operate, most reported incidents related to the cars’ unwieldy brakes and inability to stop promptly. This led to a record number of shattered bones, facial injuries, and compound fractures  among unlucky passengers and passers-by, including the amputation of a 10-year old girl’s foot after she stepped off the carriage too early and was caught by the wheels. Several deaths also occurred on the line, the first recorded in the minutes of the company’s annual meeting in 1905 [E2] , with three further deaths in 1918, 1931 and 1932.

Despite being less grisly compared to previous incidents, the accident in 1973 tends to overshadow earlier accidents due to the significant impact it had on the Cable Car. Not only did it trigger a serious investigation and see the closure of the line in 1978, but it brought the city to rally behind the continued service the cars provided, eventually leading to the introduction of the fenced tracks and enclosed carriages we know today.

So, there you have it – the top five Cable Car urban legends laid out and laid bare. Have you got any other local myths you’re curious about? Pop into Wellington Museum or the Cable Car Museum and have a chat to the staff behind the counters – you may be surprised by what you find out!

This post is written by Jay Èvett, Visitor Services Host for Museums Wellington and Director of Te Pāhi Pōneke | Wellington Historical Theatre Co. Special thanks to Alice Moss-Baker for her tireless work helping find the truth behind these tales.


[E1] Kevin Bourke, Kelburn, King Dick and the Kelly Gang: Richard Seddon and political patronage (Wellington: Hit or Miss Publishing 2008), p.150

[E2] Perfect, Colin (Prepared for the Wellington Museums Trust). Conservation Plan and Restoration Review for Kelburn Cable Tramway Gripcar 3. 2007. ISBN 978-0-473-12203-4

Object(ive) Perception.

(Written by Brent Fafeita, History Curator – Museums Wellington)

“The new limitations are the human ones of perception”
Milton Babbit,

The heated 2016 US Presidential Election showed us that perception now strongly roams across Fact and Fiction. ‘Fake news’ is the buzz term and ‘actual fact’ is, at least to some, a matter of perception. ‘Truth’ varies according to utterer and intended usage.


Facebook news engagement, 2016. Source: 

But perception (and bias) are not easily talked about when looking inward at ourselves. It is one thing to talk of how others have difficulty with this, but altogether another to overcome personal and work-place resistance to talk of our own. Only through continual reflection and seeing through others’ eyes can we get a sense of all the possible alternate views and viewpoints. We then become better critical thinkers about the world around us.

In museums, we showcase protected objects, but these objects only exist because some person or persons in history deemed the object important enough to collect and protect – sometimes a factor of happenstance, sometimes of personal status or power. Likewise, the history connected to an object has been retained because some person or persons thought it too was important to collect and protect. The reality of recording history however lends itself to influence by the beliefs and thinking of the recorder. And as perceptions change overtime, so too do collecting habits. Those who collect now are selecting what to collect based on their current worldview, beliefs and bias.

Exhibition entry panel. Source: Museums Wellington

Ngā Heke, at Wellington Museum, is a celebration of objects with varied amounts of ‘known’ histories. One objective is to promote thinking around what the object is and why it is here. Some of these objects demand their story be told as known by the Museum, while some allow for a minimalistic label approach to encourage imagination. For others, we offer alternate histories to challenge the very notion of fact – one is the Museum-told history while another is a fabricated but possible history. Visitors are encouraged to choose the history they believe or prefer using voting tokens, and then are invited to create their own alternate histories nearby. All these methods highlight perception and bias in varying ways.

Voting tokens. Source: Museums Wellington

Among many meanings, defines perception as ‘the state of one’s ideas, the facts known to one.’ The key words here are facts known to one. Further, the many meanings of perception highlight the many forms it can take, and like an optical illusion, these can be different from different viewpoints. Our minds interpret what our senses record, and sometimes the mind only interprets what it wants or is able to comprehend.

Source: The Exploratorium

Other forums address perception in a variety of ways. showcases an ‘alternate history’ timeline, and The Museum of Alternative History (MOAH) presents ‘a selection of the fittest explanations for the nature of the world and universe, and alternate histories contrary to … well … history’ ( An alternate history theme park in Virginia (closed 2012) titled Professor Cline’s Dinosaur Kingdom (, was a reimagination of the American Civil War with the inclusion of dinosaurs. How much different would history be if this was the actual case?! In text, the book Provenance: An Alternate History of Art’ edited by Gail Feigenbaum and Inge Reist explores:

”… in myriad ways how an owner’s relationship with a work of art or, in varying degrees, with the object’s previous owners can change irrevocably the way the work will be perceived and understood by future generations.” 

Many museums throughout history have operated on the basis of being an authority on our material world. Museum practitioners however should discuss more our challenges with perception and bias. In a user-defined world, perhaps perception is best left up to the ‘user’ – the one connecting with the object in the moment? Although lovely in concept, this appears near impossible. We encounter bias by merely placing objects on display. They are selected, presented and interpreted using some form of bias, known or unknown. By discussing our challenges in being objective, visitors are reminded that we too are governed by the same challenges of perception. And if judgement comes, we should welcome and embrace it to further the discussion of how museums of the 21st century should act.

‘Write Your Own Label’ wall. Source: Museums Wellington.

Looking ahead, we can’t be certain of future collecting practice, or even of the collections themselves, including the information attributed to them. Of importance is perhaps not the information, but the actual connection between object and ‘user’. Further, instead of rewriting history based on current perception, we accumulate and promote the creation of more. In this way value is placed in the many, not just the one believed correct. It is my view that all things extending from the material to the immaterial, from history to today and beyond, are governed by the perceptions of those partaking, and therefore those partaking are fundamentally the most significant aspect. Then again, that is just my perception, even if subconsciously, I am being biased.

‘All our knowledge is the offspring of our perceptions.’
Leonardo Da Vinci,


Whose story?


(Written by Nik Bullard, Social History Curator – Museums Wellington)

Nairn Street Cottage, the Wallis family home for over a hundred years, is a gem quietly tucked away in Central Wellington. The Wallis family story spans three generations – the original settlers Catherine and William who arrived from England in 1857, their daughter Clara who moved back into the Cottage with her children around 1910 and Clara’s daughter, Winifred, who was still living in the family home in the 1970s. Due for demolition, public interest saw the house saved and restored. It opened as a museum in 1980.


(Catherine and William Wallis, Museum Collection)

But how does a museum tell stories about people they don’t know and who have now passed away? This is an issue we have telling stories about the Wallis family and their home. Although we know a good deal about the Wallis’, we don’t know enough to be definitive about them.

We can get around this by talking about society back in the day – this is what life was like back then, this could be why the original settlers emigrated here, these are the social and technical changes they would have experienced along the way. So we know enough about life from the 1850s until the 1970s to paint a rich enough general picture of how life was.

But going from the general to the particular is more difficult. There are the fantastic research facilities such as Papers Past at the National Library (and the Wallis’ turn up in old newspapers) and the City Archives has the Cottage’s house and services plans. Probate records, court proceedings, school rolls, property transfers records can reveal information too. We can ask architectural experts about specifics to do with the house (mortise and tenon joints, hand-made nails, native timbers etc).

Wellington Independent, 1871. Image: National Library of New Zealand.


But that still leaves us with the problem of how to get down and personal with the Wallis’ themselves. The next stage of development at the Cottage is to tell the story of the house and the three generations of Wallis’ who lived there across time. As a social history curator for the Cottage, I’ll do this by giving Catherine, William, Clara and Win a room each and theming it in a different era (ranging from 1860 to 1970). I’d like to pretend they are still alive at that time and talk about their thoughts on issues of the day and the wonders of technical advancement.

But what did they think and believe? How did Catherine and her daughters (and her husband and sons for that matter) feel about women’s suffrage? The 1913 Waterside lockout? Were they for or against that? How did the Great Depression and both World Wars affect family members? Turning on the first water tap or electric light? How did that feel?

1913 Wellington Waterfront Strike from Alexander Turnbull Library, Sydney Charles Smith Collection (PA-Group-00242) Reference: 1/2-046169;G

The other tool we have at our disposal is talking to family members – of which there are a lot! Perhaps a relative can give some insight into the moral or political character of a Wallis. Or this method can yield memories of relatives visiting the Cottage and what furniture and fittings may have been there. We have brief transcripts of a couple of relatives’ memories but we would LOVE to hear from anyone else who has stories of the Wallis’ to share.

The Wallis’ Primitive Methodist Church on Webb Street. Image: National Library of New Zealand

Telling biographical stories is an interesting dilemma and one that historians face all the time. When reading an historical account of someone’s life (biographical or autobiographical), bear in mind that it is someone’s interpretation of that person and events of the time. It’s good to think to yourself, ‘So whose story is this?’ ‘Do they have an agenda or are they pushing a bandwagon?’ ‘Are there other views about this person or event out there?’ I suggest you research widely and then make an informed decision yourself.

thatcher   thatcher-2

But back to Nairn Street Cottage. Along with technological developments, I want to talk about the issues of the day, especially the huge changes that have occurred in society for women over that time. However I’ll be pretending to be a Wallis family member and this will be coloured by my own political and personal views. Although I will try to speak with integrity and authenticity, it will be a case of ‘poetic license’ and the hope that I am telling stories that are close enough to the real thing.

If not, visitors are always there to tell me where I went wrong! And believe it or not, we appreciate that in the museum world.

Photo illustration based on image from Wallis Family Collection.



Photo: Justine Hall



Ngā Heke: Bringing Māori Voices into Wellington Museum

Te Whanganui a Tara is the name of one of our most prized taonga at Wellington Museum, the tukutuku and poupou panel created for us by Rangi Hetet, the late Erenora Puketapu-Hetet and their whanau. It is currently sitting quietly, almost alone on level two of the museum while we prepare new exhibits to be installed, but not for long. Soon a noisy family of other taonga will surround Te Whanganui a Tara, keeping our poupou and tukutuku warm with different voices, creating a conversation of sight and sound and diverse perspectives, just like a whānau. Te Whanganui a Tara tells some of the Māori origin stories of Wellington. The new taonga continue those stories and bring voices from contemporary young Māori artists and poets into the Museum.

To have the full experience, you will need to visit level two when it re-opens as Ngā Heke during our Steampunk Weekend on 26th November 2016. In the meantime, below we profile the wonderful artists who have created new work for Wellington Museum. Continue reading “Ngā Heke: Bringing Māori Voices into Wellington Museum”

Trams on Film: History of Wellington Transport

This fantastic old Pictorial Parade covers the development of transport in Wellington up until 1970. Worth watching for the narration alone. But the visuals are also brilliant. Many thanks to Archives NZ, quoted below. Also, Brownies! Wellington tourism! And unfortunately offensive use of taonga Māori, as well as some jolly good old-fashioned sexism… These historical films are always eye-opening.

Continue reading “Trams on Film: History of Wellington Transport”

Our Science Wahine

Sexism in Science has been a fairly well-publicised issue in recent months, with several articles and the publication of a new BWB text Why Science is Sexist by Nicola Gaston. I have been wanting to write about our Science Curators for some time as they both have fascinating and diverse backgrounds, they’re both women with international careers, and they’re both curators primarily at Space Place at Carter Observatory. Strong evidence of why it’s important to make sure prejudice doesn’t hold girls & women back! Here are their stories in their own words:

Dr Claire Bretherton


As a child I was always fascinated by the stars, looking up to the sky and wondering what was out there. I remember  going outside with Dad to see Halley’s comet in 1986. I grew up in a small village near Winchester in the south of England. We had pretty dark skies with no street lights along our road, but even so it was pretty hard to spot and didn’t quite live up to the spectacular previous visit in 1910 when Carter Observatory’s Cooke Telescope was amongst the first in the world to photograph the comet. Rather than being deterred, this just inspired me to find out more.

Continue reading “Our Science Wahine”

Curating Māori Wellington Part One

About 15 months ago I began work as Museums Wellington’s first Curator Māori. I was pretty excited for many reasons: love of history and Wellington; curiosity to know more about Wellington’s Māori history; the many possibilities I could see for improvement in how we (as a city) remember our Māori stories. How you feel about these topics depends where you are on the vast spectrum of different kinds of local people. I am local now, but not as local as those born and bred here. I have ancestral connections here, but not in a way that means I have mana whenua in this place. In comparison with some, I know a bit about the history of this area; in comparison with others, I know hardly anything at all. But I am always keen to understand these things better, so I figure that’s a good place to start.


The confusing and conflicting histories of Wellington are not just legendary to some who work in this area, but also to some who come from here*. In a post like this, of few words and less-than-deep analysis, I won’t try to lay out the reasons for this, suffice to say the process of colonisation has been so lengthy and disruptive you need a shovel and several decades to get down to the bottom of it, no matter where you are. What I do want to write about in this post is layers, and whakapapa, and invisibility. Continue reading “Curating Māori Wellington Part One”

Space, and a Certain Time and Place

As happens regularly in museums, we have recently been updating an exhibit at Space Place at Carter Observatory. This means ‘resting’ objects that have been on display, swapping in objects that have not been on display, returning items that we have on loan from generous individuals or institutions, and refreshing graphics and interpretation panels. Along the way we might go through the archives and rediscover stories hidden away like old scrapbooks at the back of a cupboard.

My beautiful picture

Peter Read, the People’s Astronomer, was an iconic figure on 1960s and 70s New Zealand television. There is a special place for him at Carter Observatory, and at NZ On Screen. Digging through one of our digital cupboards, we rediscovered these wonderful old images from a 2010 Carter Observatory exhibition about Peter. Some of them are from his time in the US witnessing the Apollo 15 launch. They are affecting for capturing a specific time and place while focusing so fervently on space and the future. They also tell part of Peter’s story, as do the film clips of his long-running television show ‘Night Sky’. The refreshed Peter Read exhibit should soon be installed at Space Place at Carter Observatory; in the meantime enjoy this online exhibition. And look out for a special Wellington feature at the end featuring a whole lot of history you won’t want to miss (but you may want to forget!)

My beautiful picture

2-3in 2in 4in cooke 4 in gregorian Continue reading “Space, and a Certain Time and Place”

I was photographing everything – Alison Jones

One of the great pleasures of opening The Attic at Wellington Museum has been seeing visitors spot themselves or their family members in the exhibits. We’ve had a visit from the granddaughter of the architect of our 1890 building, Frederick de Jersey Clere, and from the grandchildren of Ken Coles who features in the 1956 Chimpanzee Tea Party film. One of our most popular exhibits has been ‘Working on the Job’, a series of images of New Zealand Rail in Wellington in the 1990s, taken by then-clippie Alison Jones. It is with some delight that people recognise places and faces in the images, and sometimes even see themselves. Our Social History Curator, Nik Bullard, has curated an excerpt of the show for our first online exhibition. Also featured below is a brief but exclusive interview between Nik and Alison. If you want to see more, you can find it in The Attic




2005-5043-6 Continue reading “I was photographing everything – Alison Jones”

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