Murchison Theatre

27 Fairfax Street, Murchison

  • Murchison Theatre.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Karen Astwood. Date: 1/06/2009.
  • Murchison Theatre. Image courtesy of
    Copyright: Shellie Evans - flyingkiwigirl. Taken By: Shellie Evans - flyingkiwigirl. Date: 11/03/2015.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 2 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 1636 Date Entered 13th August 2009


Extent of List Entry

Extent includes the land described as Lot 1 DP 2621 (CT NL80/96), Nelson Land District and the buildings known as Murchison Theatre thereon, and its fittings and fixtures. (Refer to map in Appendix 1 of the registration report for further information).

City/District Council

Tasman District


Tasman Region

Legal description

Lot 1 DP 2621 (CT NL80/96), Nelson Land District

Location description

When travelling along Waller Street/State Highway 6 through Murchison, turn north into the upper end of Fairfax Street.


The Murchison Theatre, located on the main street of the town was built c.1920 and was the second successive community hall constructed on its site. This timber framed and clad building was primarily used as a picture theatre and as such it brought the world to this isolated district.

Despite exploratory expeditions to the area in the 1840s and gold being discovered soon after, it was not until the late 19th century and early 20th century that Murchison developed into an established town. In the late 19th century the only community meeting space was a hall associated with the Commercial Hotel and named after successive proprietors of that property. This building was used for everything from dances to community meetings, school lessons and church services. In 1916 that hall was demolished and the Murchison Theatre was erected on the same site, which included cinema facilities and was also used for dances and other social gatherings. The hall was upgraded in 1937 changing the function from a multi-purpose hall to a dedicated theatre for film screenings and theatrical productions. This was a popular addition to the available leisure activities in the district, and before roads improved and the advent of television was the only entertainment option of its kind which was easily accessible in the relatively isolated area. The Murchison Earthquake of 1929 affected the amount of disposal income and focus of local people and the cinema suffered as a result. However, its reopening in 1931 with a programme that included 'talkies' was a sensation. The business was not always problem free but a committed and supportive local community made sure it continued until the 1980s. Theatre groups and other performers then took over the main use of the theatre and it continues to be a functioning community performing arts hall.

This modestly sized theatre hall is of a simple and appropriately functional design. However, certain features of this rusticated weatherboard clad structure clearly reference architectural traditions of halls and theatres, such as its symmetry and the use of the classically influenced pilasters on the front façade. The auditorium is rectangular with a curved ceiling and the seating is arranged on a raked floor leading down to the stage area, the installation of which in 1937 demonstrated the change in function of the hall.

The construction of the Murchison Theatre is of local significance because it is emblematic of the rising fortunes of the town in the early 20th century. The site of the Murchison Theatre has a long history of providing the rural and relatively remote local community with a meeting place, and when it was constructed in the early 20th century and opened as a cinema it added social value to the lives of the residents as it facilitated a popular leisure activity. This building has always been important to the community, who have continued to support and maintain the theatre, which is the largest space of its kind in the town.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

Despite people being drawn to the area by the lure of gold, Murchison did not really coalesce until the early 20th century. It was during this period that the Murchison County Council was formed and other physical signs of its status as an important centre for the local rural community began to appear. These included a number of civic buildings and churches. The Murchison Theatre is an important remnant of this boom period and demonstrates that local people now had sufficient disposable income and leisure time to be able to enjoy the entertainment it provided and sustain the business. The upgrading of the auditorium in 1937 to create a specialist cinema facility, and the amount of seating installed is indicative of the popularity of the pastime and its importance locally.

Architectural Significance or Value:

The Murchison Theatre has architectural value as a rare example of a characteristic small town hall from the early 20th century that was converted to function specifically as a cinema and theatrical venue. While it may not be as ostentatious as those found in larger cities it makes use of the architectural vocabulary of its counterparts in the decorative features of the entrance section of the building. The 1930s creation of the raked floor sets the Murchison Theatre apart from halls of a similar period which were used to screen films in other districts, because it demonstrates that the buildings primary focus became that of a cinema and theatrical facility rather than a general multi-purpose hall.

Social Significance or Value:

The Murchison Theatre has significant social value locally as the main auditorium in the town for cinematic experiences and performing arts. Its presence on the site of the first hall in the town, its initial function as a multi-purpose hall, and then its development into a theatre carried on the tradition of this site being an important centre of community social interaction and leisure activities.

(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history:

The Murchison Theatre survived the devastating Murchison Earthquake of 1929 unscathed structurally but its business was directly affected by the event. The fact that it took several years for film screenings to recommence after the event is indicative of the time it took local people to rebuild and resume their lives again to a point where a leisure time activity, such as attending the cinema, was economically tenable.

(e) The community association with, or public esteem for the place:

The local community has consistently supported the Murchison Theatre since its construction, either passively through their attendance at movie screenings or theatrical and other events, or actively through involvement and support of the work of the community trusts which have owned the theatre since the late 1930s. As the largest hall in Murchison it is a valuable community asset.

(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural complex or historical and cultural landscape:

The Murchison Theatre's position within the historic streetscape of Fairfax Street, which was the main street of the town and includes a variety of important local civic, recreational, residential, and commercial buildings which all date from the late 19th century and early 20th century, exemplifies the coming of age of Murchison as a town during this period and the multiplicity of buildings that its growth in status and population demanded.

Summary of Significance or Values:

This place was assessed against, and found it to qualify under the following criteria: b, e, and k.


It is considered that this place qualifies as a Category II historic place.


Additional informationopen/close

Historical Narrative

The settlement of the Nelson region is said to have begun with the landing of the prominent early iwi, Waitaha, in the waka Uruao. This travelled from Hawaiki and the voyagers made landfall on the Boulder Bank c.850, near what would become Nelson city. From there scouting parties set out to explore the interior while others continued their journey by sea down the east coast of the South Island. Maori later developed a series of trails inland around the Murchison and Nelson Lakes area such as that through Tophouse Pass. For Maori, and eventually the Europeans who used it in the mid 19th century, this and other tracks in the area were vital passages providing access to the West Coast as well as eastern and southern districts.

A European association with the Nelson area was first established in 1642 when Abel Tasman anchored in what was to be called Murderer's, then Massacre, and now Golden Bay. The result of this first visit was a lethal exchange between the Dutch sailors and Ngati Tumatakokiri. It was centuries after this initial encounter that European interest in the area began in earnest with explorative visits from Captain James Cook and Dumont D'Urville and a few others. Then in the late 18th and early 19th centuries flax traders and sealers began to frequent the coast around Nelson. However, because there were few whaling stations in the immediate area there was no substantive European settlement until the New Zealand Company's establishment and settlement of Nelson from 1841.

The company explored the potential of several sites for its settlement but Nelson was chosen as the nucleus because of its harbour and the plentiful supplies of game and fish, despite the generally swampy nature of the low lying areas. It was then a matter of Captain Arthur Wakefield meeting with the various iwi of the region to persuade them to agree to the proposed settlement. This was essentially a confirmation and extension of a land sale organised by the Tory expedition in 1839. The meeting took place at Kaiteriteri and Wakefield eventually negotiated a deal with those in attendance. However, subsequent events demonstrate that in regard to this and some later transactions there were discrepancies in what each party believed they had agreed to. This led to several instances of conflict in the Nelson region during the 1840s, in particular. Perhaps the most well-known occurrence was the 'Wairau Massacre' in 1843.

It was not until the 1850s that the Nelson community and its subsidiary towns began to coalesce. Provincial government was established in 1853, and most of the farm land from Wakapuaka to Brightwater was occupied by this date. Between 1853 and 1858 the European population of the district had risen from 4,587 to over 7,000 and continued to grow and prosper into the 1860s and 1870s with the aid of the local gold rushes and the nationwide demand for the area's produce. The gold rushes also saw the development of small trading and supply settlements further inland.

Early explorations into the Murchison area were undertaken in the 1840s by Charles Heaphy, Thomas Brunner, and William Fox. Until the discovery of gold in the proximity there was little to entice people into the area, but by 1865 there was sufficient interest in the area for Brunner to return and survey the town, which was initially called Hampden. This name was changed to Murchison in 1882 to forestall confusion with a town in Otago and also one in Hawke's Bay. However, at this time and indeed until the 20th century, Murchison was considered a frontier settlement and its continuance relied on small-scale gold mining operations and its timber industry. Roads in the area were rudimentary, if they existed at all, and so access was minimal and difficult. This isolation did not foster commerce and as such the standard of living of most local residents in the late 19th century was barely above subsistence.

Murchison seems to have come of age in the early 20th century, changing from a frontier settlement into an established support centre for the burgeoning dairy industry and other commercial enterprises. This transition was recognised in 1909 when the town became the centre of Murchison County, an area that was previously incorporated into the Inangahua County. This was a status symbol, but also a result of the growth of Murchison's identity as dairy farming area as opposed to that in Inangahua County which was characterised by mining and milling. The transition from frontier community to established town and seat of local governance was physically marked in Murchison by the building of the Council Chambers (1913) and other civic buildings. The presence of several large hotels in the town centre by 1900, complete with stables and often an associated hall, and enough patronage to ensure their ongoing viability, is also evidence of this early 20th century change in the town's fortunes.

There were several halls in Murchison by the beginning of the 20th century. These were generally multi-purpose venues were community meetings, dances, concerts, and other gatherings like church services and schooling were sometimes held. The first hall in the town was constructed by George Moonlight who was the proprietor of the Commercial Hotel in the 1870s. This was known as Moonlight's Hall and the name changed depending on who was in charge of the hotel, for example, it became Rait's Hall in the 1880s. However, in 1916 this original hall was demolished and replaced with the current building by H.R. Duncan who was the owner of the Commercial Hotel at that time soon after. The specific date for the construction of the Murchison Theatre is uncertain but it was built by about 1922. Soon after it was built the first films were shown in the building by a local company and it was also used for local dances and balls with people from all over the district attending.

Perhaps the biggest event in Murchison during the 20th century was the Murchison earthquake on the morning of 17 June, 1929. Despite both being magnitude 7.8 earthquakes the devastating effects of the Murchison earthquake were overshadowed in the national consciousness by the destruction caused by the Hawke's Bay earthquake. However, for those who experienced it in and around Murchison the earthquake was terrifying. A Glenhope resident, Jean McWha recalled everyone's relief when the initial reports that Murchison 'had disappeared completely under slips' was proven false by the streams of refugees who evacuated the town and headed for Nelson the next day.

Despite surviving the earthquake relatively unscathed structurally, the event affected the cinema business of the hall. It is perhaps not surprising that film screenings did not resume until John Rennie leased the building in 1931 given the priority people would have given to rebuilding their lives, and the lack of disposable income that this and the initial effects of the Great Depression would have had. However, when Rennie did open for business it was with a novelty previously unseen in Murchison, 'talkies', which caused a sensation among local people.

Despite being a popular leisure time destination, by 1937 Rennie was finding that the film screenings were not profitable. This motivated the forming of the Murchison Theatre Company in 1937 by a group of local citizens. This company had the specific aim of making sure that the district maintained a cinema venue and as such they bought the theatre building. Well-known local people were involved in the company, including L.W. Hodgson and D. Downie, both of which had prominent family businesses in Murchison by the early 20th century. In the same year as the company purchased the theatre it upgraded the facilities, which included the installation of better seating and the raked floor. The company then began to screen films again.

This period was one in which it is said that 'almost everyone went to the 'pictures,' some travelling long distances from the valleys each week, with rugs and hot water bottles to keep them warm in winter.' The movies were shown every Saturday night but if that session was overbooked a Friday night screening was often held. Children's films were shown on a Saturday afternoon and the productions were also staged in the theatre. However, eventually patronage steadily declined after television became more widespread and this forced the company to dissolve in 1973.

The building was then in a stasis for several years until it was purchased by Bill Oxnam for a bargain price. The Murchison centenary celebrations in 1976 brought the condition and facilities at the theatre, which is the only venue in the town suitable for seating large numbers of people, into question. As a result of a QEII Trust loan, Oxnam, with the help of the community, was able to paint the exterior of the theatre and to also build onto the back of the building to incorporate the then outside toilet facilities into the building proper. A highlight of the centenary of Murchison was a concert performed by local and Nelson-based people in the theatre. The projectors were also restored at this time and weekly film screenings recommenced with a showing of 'Towering Inferno.' The last recorded movie screening at the theatre was in 1984.

As a result of the celebrations the group which came together for the centenary performance formed the Murchison Theatrical Society, which has been based in the building ever since. This company used to stage regular performances but has suffered recently from the lack of an enthusiastic director. The building, which was vested in the community group The Murchison Theatre Incorporated in 1991, is now most frequently used by the local country music club and also on occasion by the high school's drama students.

Physical Description

Construction Professionals:


Murchison Theatre and its neighbour, the Commercial Stables, are situated close to the Commercial Hotel which they were originally associated with, and on what was previously the main street of Murchison. It is one of the largest buildings in the town and has the greatest capacity of any local hall.

The theatre is a gabled rectangular hall building, clad in rusticated weatherboards, with multi-paned double-hung sash windows, and has a corrugated iron roof which has three conical topped ventilation shafts spaced along the ridge. The entrance opens directly onto the footpath and is defined by being of a lesser width than the main body of the building. Similarly this main body, which is that of the auditorium, is distinct from the backstage and utility area at the rear of the building.

The entrance area also features the only decorative elements that refer to broader architectural traditions used in hall and theatre architecture from the time period. These include pilasters flanking the large central entrance door, as well as the on the outer corners of the front façade. The vertical window frame components of the windows on either side of the entrance also feature pilasters, as well as projecting cornice-like hoods. The upper gable section of the façade resembles a pediment through the use of a cornice and deep eaves, which both also feature decorative corbel courses. The awning over the entrance does not appear to be original upon close inspection of a 1928 photograph. This may have been added to the building when the Murchison Theatre Company upgraded facilities in 1937, or at any point subsequently as it appears in a photograph from 1977.

The remainder and majority of the exterior of the building is the same as the entrance section without the decorative features; clad in rusticated weatherboards, and containing six multi-paned doubled hung sash windows on each side, with the exception of the southern façade on which the window has been altered to accommodate a door. The rear of the building contains the utility and backstage areas of the theatre, which were added in 1976 and form a lean-to which spans the width of the building and also leads around to the northern side of the theatre.

The interior of the building has three main sections: the entrance, the auditorium, and the backstage area. The auditorium including the stage is the largest space in the building. The backstage area is almost exclusively that which was added in the 1970s. The northern lean-to created access to the front of the auditorium and an external access point, as well as housing a ramp which leads up to the stage. The rear lean-to incorporated the existing toilet facilities into the building and also includes changing rooms and other backstage facilities and storage.

Upon entering the theatre the entrance is immediately flanked by the box office to the left and a storage area for costumes and props to the right. The box office also provides ladder access to the projection room which is directly above the entrance. The auditorium is screened from the entrance and access is at either side of this wall. The seating in the auditorium is of several designs but all seem consistent with the 1937 upgrade of the theatre. These are positioned in a main central body of seating and two flanking sections of 14 rows down the gently raked floor that descends towards the stage and screen of the theatre at the eastern end. This seating enables an audience capacity of over 200 people. The rectangular and purely functional appearance of interior is softened by a curved ceiling which may have been created to enhance the acoustics and or the insulation of the building. It is uncertain when this ceiling was installed.

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1920 -
Theatre constructed

1937 -
Auditorium upgraded

1976 -
Building extended at eastern end and painted

Construction Details

Timber, glass, corrugated iron

Completion Date

24th June 2009

Report Written By

Karen Astwood

Information Sources

McAloon, 1997

Jim McAloon, Nelson: A Regional History, Whatamango Bay, 1997

Mitchell, 2004

J and H Mitchell, Te Tau Ihu o te Waka - A History of Maori of Marlborough and Nelson, Wellington, 2004

New Zealand Historic Places Trust (NZHPT)

New Zealand Historic Places Trust

Murchison Theatre, Murchison NZHPT File 12008-042

Brown, 1976

M C Brown, Difficult Country: An informal history of Murchison, Murchison, 1976

Grigg, 1947

J R Grigg, Murchison, New Zealand: How a settlement emerges from the bush, Murchison, 1947

Other Information

A fully referenced version of this report is available from the NZHPT Central Region Office.

Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.