Percy Reserve: Summer dancing

At the Wellington Region afternoon of Early Wellington Dances in April, we danced Ian Simmonds’ dance Percy Reserve (The Linden Collection), which commemorates the many years of summer dancing at Percy Scenic Reserve in Lower Hutt.

1955: Summer Dancing in Percy Reserve, Wellington Evening Post Scottish Country Dancers at Percy Scenic Reserve, Korokoro, Lower Hutt. Evening post (Newspaper. 1865-2002) :Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post newspaper. Ref: EP/1955/2562-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22736027

Percy Scenic Reserve has a fascinating history, originally being the site of the Percy family’s mill, established in the 1840s. The family was one of the pioneer families of Petone, with Joseph Percy and (later wife) Anne Maria Welch arriving as settlers in the early 1840s.

Scene at Korokoro, circa 1860s, with Percy’s Britannia Flour Mill. Photographer unidentified. NatLib image

View from the Percy family property (later Percy Scenic Reserve) in Maungaraki, looking south down the Hutt Valley toward Petone, Somes Island and Wellington Harbour. In the left foreground is Percy’s flour mill. Photographer James Bragge, circa 1860s. NatLib image

1902: View of Lower Hutt looking due east from Percy’s Reserve. The edge of Ratanui Tennis Court is at the bottom right. Photo: Barclay Hector Upper Hutt City Library Heritage Collections

From early on, ‘the mill soon became a social hub hosting dances and events.’ Land nearby was later developed as a private garden, and in 1939 three of the Percys’ grandsons gifted the park and its special plant collections to the Crown ‘for the purposes of a scenic reserve’.

‘From the 1950s the reserve was regularly used for a variety of cultural events such as dances and performances.’ Scottish Country Dancing was one of the groups favoured by the Petone Borough Council in those years. (See Hutt City celebrations of Percy Reserve 70th anniversary)

Interestingly there is a family connection to Scottish Country Dancing through past Wellington dancer, Plimmerton Scottish Country Dance Club tutor and later Johnsonville member, Margaret Bailey (now Bailey-Allison).

Margaret tells me her 2x great-aunt was Anne Maria (Welch) Percy, wife of Joseph Percy, who was ‘the mother of all those Percys who didn’t marry, and who bequeathed the family land’. In New Zealand, you never have to look far for a family connection.

The Scottish Country Dancing connection with Percy Reserve began in the 1950s.

1955: A Scottish Country Dancing demonstration

Dancing at Percy Reserve seems to have begun with a Sunday afternoon demonstration in March 1955, at the request of the Petone Borough Council.

Fifty dancers from Wellington district took part, and the white frocks and tartan looked particularly attractive against the background of bush-clad hills. A light mist hanging round the tree-tops only increased the resemblance of the scene to thills of Home.

The NZ Scottish Country Dancer 1955, p 19

Amazingly it was performed before ‘some 700 spectators’, and followed on from a January demonstration on the lawn in the moon-lit Botanical Gardens.

The 1955 season was deemed to be ‘highly successful’ with these two public demonstrations having ‘given fresh impetus to Scottish Country Dancing in the District’. (The NZ Scottish Country Dancer 1955, pp 3,19)

1955-1956: Dancing under lights

By end of 1955, the Petone Borough Council had installed flood lights and a PA system, and offered the Reserve free to the Scottish Country Dance community to dance one evening a week throughout the summer.

This was such an exciting development, the 1956 NZ Scottish Country Dancer had a full page spread on Percy’s Scenic Reserve

Regular evening dancing started on 21 November 1955, broke for Christmas and resumed to coincide with the second New Zealand Summer School held 3-14 January 1956 at Wellesley College, Eastbourne.

On 12 January 1956 at this second summer school, the New Zealand Scottish Country Dance Society came into being, fulfilling ‘a recommendation made some 12 months earlier from the first Summer School’ [held 27 December 1954 to 7 January 1955 at the Boys’ High School, Napier]. (The NZ Scottish Country Dancer 1956, p 11)

What Jack Seton had to say

At that inaugural meeting, dancer and musician Jack Seton was elected the first President of the New Zealand Scottish Country Dance Society. He was also one of three teachers at the second Summer School, and was very excited about summer dancing at Percy Reserve.

Jack Seton MC’ing a Scottish Country Dance. Photo supplied by Ruary Laidlaw

In the Hastings Notes from Affiliated Clubs  in the 1956 magazine, Jack writes enthusiastically:

Since I came to lovely New Zealand, I often wondered if I could ever capture the same thrill at a massed display [as he’d experienced at a demonstration at Holyrood Palace]. During the last Summer School, the class together with members of the Wellington and District clubs performed at Percy’s Reserve. The setting, plus the lighting which added colour to the contrast of tartan sashes and kilts against the green sward brought back the same happy feeling, a feeling which made me inwardly proud of the leaders of clubs who have brought our dances to such a high standard of perfection and a love for every member who gave of his best.

The NZ Scottish Country Dancer 1956, p 19

Percy’s becomes an institution

From the 1950s onwards summer dancing at Percy Reserve was part of the fabric of Scottish Country Dancing in Wellington. Some years were better than others weatherwise, with gatherings washed out on occasion.

In 1971 summer dancing was still going strong, with Lower Hutt Club writing:

This year we were very fortunate with the weather for all eight nights’ dancing at Percy’s Scenic Reserve. On the Hutt Club’s nights, approximately 10 sets turned out for dancing under the stars.

The NZ Scottish Country Dancer 1971, p 36

In 1972, Wellington Club reported that ‘on two of our allotted nights the grass was too wet to allow us to cavort’. But large numbers continued to enjoy dancing at Percy’s throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s.

An exciting development in the 1980s was live music at Percy’s Reserve. Peter Elmes’ notes include a dance programme for 26-1-82 at Percys Reserve and the 1984 Dancer magazine mentions live musicians playing at some of the Percy Reserve nights in 1983.

Little other mention was made in magazines during the 1980s or 1990s. Other events took priority, with summer dancing at Percy’s Reserve having become a normal part of the Wellington Scottish Country Dancing calendar.

Clubs might go into recess for the summer months, but warmer weather never seems to deter the Scottish Country Dancer. Outdoor dancing at Percy’s Reserve during January and February … keeps the fitness levels up until clubs recommence in early March.

The NZ Scottish Country Dancer 1995, p 35

The end of an era

After 1995, I can find no further mention of summer dancing at Percy Reserve in my collection of magazines, and come 1999:

In January/February, outdoor dancing was held at Riddiford Gardens in Lower Hutt – each night being hosted by a different club.

The NZ Scottish Country Dancer 2000, p 25

Summer dancing at Percy Reserve was a feature of Scottish Country Dancing in the Wellington Region for at least forty years – a mighty fine run indeed.

A personal note

Rod and I started dancing in 1991 and we have happy memories of dancing in Percy Reserve in the summer (despite being eaten alive by midges). It was a lot of fun, and we were still young, so dancing on the grass didn’t impact our feet the way it does these days.

Rod became tutor of Johnsonville in 1997 and can remember taking some nights at Percy Reserve in that role, so it would seem summer dancing was still going strong at Percy’s into the late 1990s.

Summer dancing had transferred to Riddiford Gardens in Lower Hutt by January 2000. Harbour City Happenings Vol 2 No.5 November 1999, p6

Kristin Downey
21 May 2023

Originally published on the Johnsonville Scottish Country Dance Club website