During the 19th century, birthday books - in which family, friends, and acquaintances were encouraged to clearly print their name against the date of their birth, proved very popular.
An example in the Hawke's Bay Museums Trust collection is the somewhat dilapidated but obviously much-loved and well-thumbed Hitchings birthday book. It is very plain and contains no illustrations, each page having a red-lined border, with a division down the centre, the whole being segmented into four days.
Within each space on the left-hand side is a printed quotation by well-known authors. Tantalisingly, on the right, where once blank spaces begged to be written on, are the handwritten, familiar names of Hawke's Bay's colonial history.
Throughout, in a haphazard fashion, pages have been overlaid with newspaper clippings, while others are plastered with photographs. This epoch of social history was donated in 1970 by Maxine Edgar, the granddaughter of Dr Thomas Hitchings, Napier's first Pākehā medical doctor.
Dr Hitchings arrived at Ahuriri on board the "Salopian" in March 1856, and was welcomed with open arms by the community.
He set up practice in Faraday St where, medically, according to the Hawke's Bay Herald, he "won the respect of the early settlers by his skill and attention". Dr Hitchings very quickly integrated himself into the social whirl of the burgeoning township, gaining a reputation as a "great athletic and musical enthusiast" - both attributes he passed on to his four daughters.
In the birthday book, each member of the Hitchings family has inscribed their name against their date of birth, including Thomas and his wife Mary, who died in 1872.
Their eldest daughter Belle had written her name against March 8 along with the year of her birth (1862), but at some stage, maybe due to vanity, assiduously scratched the year out. Glued over the printed citation next to the date are two tiny photographs of Belle taken in London, depicting a handsome, flamboyantly dressed young woman.
Belle's musical and acting talent was apparent from an early age when at 5 years old she attended the Tennyson House Ladies' School in Napier and received an award for singing. During her early adulthood, Belle participated in many of the musical soirees and theatrical entertainments that were enacted in Napier theatres, and was acclaimed for her musical and dramatic prowess.
Belle was also an exceptionally accomplished pianist and composer. In April 1885, she came to national attention when the Auckland Society of Arts judged a musical composition she had submitted as "highly commended".
Late in 1889, Belle acted as the Fairy Queen in the Napier Amateur Operatic Society's production of "Iolanthe", where her performance was lauded as "really high-class", the newspaper eloquently stating that "no such Queen has been seen before on any stage in New Zealand".
In 1897, keen to further her acting career, Belle ventured to England and was successful in her audition with the reputable Ben Greet Players. This popular group, formed in 1883 by Ben Greet, toured the provinces performing classical dramas, including Shakespearean plays.
Like many professional actors Belle adopted a "nom de theatre", taking Napier - the place of her birth - as her surname. Miss Belle Napier quickly achieved distinction, playing Shakespearean leading characters, reciting monologues and elocutionary items - both humorous and sentimental - singing and playing piano.
Yearning for home, Belle returned to Napier in March 1904 and stayed for six weeks, during which time she gave a series of theatrical entertainments around the North Island.
The "Bush Advocate" described her as having a "splendid stage presence with a strong voice", which she controlled "down to even the softest whisper without allowing the audience to miss a word". Performing solo for two hours, her "intensely dramatic power and quaint sense of humour" commanded the attention of all those present.
In 1905, the year after her return, Belle was accepted by Seymour Hicks to perform in his new Aldwych Theatre in Westminster.
On auditioning, Belle won the part of Lady Crystal in "The Catch of the Season", for which performance she was described as "the most promising of rising actresses", who had an "excellent speaking voice, clear enunciation, and charming gestures".
For Belle, this was a great achievement as Seymour Hicks was well-known in the theatrical world as an actor, music hall performer, playwright and manager who successfully produced Edwardian musical comedy.
Several years later, tired of the extreme rigours of the acting world, Belle settled in London and developed into a society entertainer, becoming highly sought-after by the elite to perform in their homes. She lived out the rest of her life in England.
Tucked into a corner of the book is a handwritten note that sums up Belle's character: "The memory one has of Belle is very clear – an outstanding woman – mentally and physically and with a voice, speaking or singing that would melt a priest, and withal, a splendid sense of humour – one is fortunate in having known such a woman."
The image of Belle captures these qualities - to have known such a woman would have been privilege indeed.
• Gail Pope is social history curator at the MTG.