pukekura park - bowl of brooklands

The desire to have a Soundshell in the park was recorded as early as 1950 when Baden Winchcombe and some of his friends got permission from the Park committee to play recorded music from the Tea House on Sunday evenings during the summer. The concerts started at 8.15 and ran until 10pm with 24 sides of records being played. The first half of the concerts were described as “light classical”, and the second half consisted of “major works” of a more “serious nature”. The equipment which Winchcombe and his friends supplied amplified the sound so it could be heard clearly around the lake. Having a Soundshell would have made this experience better.

Also in 1950 the Park Committee highlighted a Soundshell as a possible project in a list of over twenty possible projects. However, it was at the bottom of the list of priorities and probably would never have eventuated if left to the Park Committee.

Original sketch of proposed location of Soundshell at the west of Cannon Hill.

By 1954 the call for a Soundshell was getting stronger and a committee was formed whose members came from the Community Arts Service, New Plymouth Ballet Club, Caledonian Society, New Plymouth Orchestra, Choral Society, Operatic Society, and the Philharmonic Society.  A sub-committee recommended that the Soundshell should be situated on the path on the south-west side of Cannon Hill facing towards the Tea House. The size of the stage was to be 38ft at the front, narrowing to 21ft at the back, with a depth of 20ft. This was apparently the size of the Soundshell at Napier. (TH, July 24, 1954). Representatives from nine organisations attended the Park Committee’s August meeting with the proposal. The Park Committee decided they would defer any decision until 1955 as they were busy with other projects, mainly the Queen Elizabeth illuminated fountain. Following the deferral, the proposal seemingly disappeared

Wrestling Match at Water Carnival

January 14, 1957 (Taranaki Daily News)

In January of 1957 the newly formed Public Relations Office organised a very successful 3-day Water Carnival in the Park organised by Eric Handbury the Public Relations Officer. This was so successful that it encouraged Eric to try and organise another event that was bigger and better, and to do this he realised he needed a bigger venue.  He was shown the area at Brooklands and immediately saw its potential comparing it to the Hollywood Bowl at Los Angeles

Bowl of Brooklands site before transformation

The tree in the middle of the paddock was a copper beech that had been planted in 1939 by Thomas Horton. It was sucessfully dug up and moved where it thrived until 2021. picture (Taranaki Herald, June 11, 1957 )

In June of 1957 the Park Committee was approached by the Public Relations Office with a request to hold a festival in February/March 1958 on the site that would become the Bowl of Brooklands. The Park Committee gave them the green light for their festival. At the time the grassy slope that audiences now use at concerts, was a muddy, uneven paddock with a few cattle grazing on it.

Handbury called the event the “Festival of the Pines” because of the imposing stand of pine trees on the boundary between the racecourse and the Bowl.

With a budget of only £485 and no financial assistance available from the Park Committee or the City Council the development of the Bowl of Brooklands became a huge community effort with Eric Handbury as the driving force behind it.  

When the Park Committee agreed to the Bowl of Brooklands being constructed, they also agreed to give the New Plymouth Public Relations Office Board of Control exclusive rent-free rights for five years to stage shows. At the same time the Park Committee made it clear that they would not put any money into the venture.

Photo News - December 1957

The original idea was to use two islands that were in the middle of the Brooklands Lake as stages, but Hanbury soon realised that wasn’t going to be practical and decided to build a concrete stage.

The stage construction was supervised by master builder Malcolm Lay and was designed to have 2400 square feet of acting space. The sound shell, designed by Robin Sinclair, consisted of a parabolic wooden arc supporting a cantilevered tubular frame which in turn had four separate acoustic baffles suspended from it.

 Work started in August, and with the lake drained, the first job was the removal of one of the bigger islands and a few smaller islets. These were dug out by hand and soil wheelbarrowed away across the lakebed. Where the stage is was originally swampy ground that was consolidated.  

It also proved necessary to replace a bridge that had crossed the lake at its narrowest point, north of the stage site. This had been vandalised during the war years by locals for use as firewood. Its replacement was organised by the Park Committee.

The first job in constructing the stage was building a concrete supporting wall. The stage itself overhung the wall giving the appearance that it was floating over the water. All the concrete was mixed on site and barrowed where required.

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Photos from Photo News February 1958

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Once the stage was completed the next job was the installation of the parabolic Soundshell support. This was done in two pieces and pinned together at the top. The acoustic baffles were then lifted into place. Health and safety was not a priority back then in relation to the construction methods used.

Original lighting layout sketch Puke Ariki ARC2014 642 2

A sound shed was constructed north-west of the bowl, near one of the plane trees, giving the sound technician Frank Stead line of sight to the stage. Baden Winchcombe had advised on the equipment needed for the Bowl and instructed Frank on its operation.

The lighting system was designed by Caleb Wyatt with the electrical control equipment being housed in an old army hut supplied by the New Plymouth Savings Bank.

Bulldozers were brought in to even up the rough ground so seating could be installed. The seating took the form of 12ft long planks nailed on top of wooden stakes driven into the ground using sledgehammers.

Although the Festival of the Pines proved successful there were a few issues. The conveniences were makeshift and lacked privacy, and the changing facilities for the performers were very poor, and apparently only lit by candles. One other issue was the croaking frogs which at times tended to drown out the performers.

Completed Bowl ready for entertainers

Taranaki Daily News February 25, 1958

In May of 1958 the Public Relations Office approached the Park Committee with an ambitious eighteen point plan to improve the Bowl facilities which were accepted by the committee.

Before the 1959 Festival of the Pines the wooden parabolic arc and suspended baffles were replaced with a permanent sound shell supported by columns rising from the stage, they were designed by Ted Borrell and constructed by Riddick Bros. & Still Ltd. Two wooden 9ft x 9ft x 25ft high towers were erected in the lake incorporating sound and lighting systems. These were 90ft apart to avoid affecting spectator’s view of the stage. The speaker system was designed by Baden Winchcombe. An access road was created from the racecourse making better access for spectators from the eastern part of town. The audience seating was ripped up, the area regraded, and new seating for 7,000 spectators built that was supported on concrete blocks.

New Soundshell and Speaker Towers

Taranaki Daily News, February 17, 1959

To pay for the improvements the Brooklands development fund was created. This was a publicly funded scheme that would give members preferential treatment with parking and ticket allocations. Another notable feature of the Bowl was a water curtain which sprang up from water nozzles positioned along the front edge of the stage.

In 1959 permanent changing rooms were built and a second stage known as the “Woodland stage” was erected to the right of the main stage.

By 1960 the running of the Bowl had become too difficult for the Public Relations Office and so the Bowl of Brooklands Trust was set up. In 1961 the toilet block at the south-eastern end of the Bowl Lake was constructed which replaced a less permanent structure nearby.

In subsequent years more changes were made the most significant being in 1996 when the new stage and roof were built onto the front of the existing stage, so the stage was all the one level, and the Baden Winchcombe sound towers in the lake were removed. These changes were completed in time for the ENZSO concert in February 1997. Another major development at this time was gaining the TSB Community Trust as a major sponsor and giving them naming rights for the Bowl for ten years.

In 1995 the stand of pine trees that were the basis for the festival name were deemed dangerous and were removed, around 100 trees. They were subsequently replaced with new pines, to recreate the skyline stand.