With the Wanganui Savage Club folding in October, Zaryd Wilson spoke to rangatira Bill Oram about its history

The door of the komiti room is a portal to an past era.

And there's a sense of sadness as Bill Oram, Ted Duggan and Dennis Price walk through it.

They're committee members of a club on its last legs. In fact, two days later - at its last AGM - they voted to close the club for good. The komiti room is littered with relics; a ballot box form, shield carrying the Auckland Savage Club logo and other from the length of the country, lyric sheets, signed guest books from the past century.


The members rifle through, picking pieces up, explaining what they are and what they mean. It's like show and tell.

"It is a sad affair that we are shifting out, but that's it - we can't run it," trustee Ted Duggan says.

The Wanganui Savage Club can no longer attract new and younger members. There is no one under 50.

So in October, after 125 years, the Savages will leave the unique terracotta and baby blue Wanganui Savage Club Hall for the last time.

The hall - one of Whanganui's more impressive buildings - was built in 1893 as a museum for the city but struggled to contain the growing collection.

At that time the Wanganui Savage Club - formed in 1891 - were meeting in homes and temporary locations throughout the city.

"They heard about the Savage movement and thought 'oh, we'll get one going here'," present rangatira Bill Oram says.

"So they got it going and some of their performances were at people's houses or different halls."

Mr Oram is in his second stint in the top job, appointed rangatira in 2008 for two years and he's been back in the role since 2015.

He first joined the entertainment and service club - which once had a waiting list - in 1997.

"A neighbour across the road, he was a member, and he said you want to come along to korero.

"I'd heard all about the Savage Club and had been inside a couple of times.

"I said I can't sing and I can't act, but I can do backstage and help do the bar. In those days you had to (perform). But I was lucky - I just snuck in."

So he ended up signing up.

"It was just the companionship and camaraderie of the men and they didn't look down on you, sort of thing, they respected you."

That respect is what Mr Oram credits with his own development.

"When I first started I was sitting in the audience or backstage for a year, until one of the members said 'oi, come here. You don't have to say anything. Just be a person on a seat'.

"I did the sketch, it wasn't too bad, just sitting there," he says.

"Then the next korero he said I need you again. Then he said you've got to read this little line there. But I made the fatal mistake, I looked up and saw the audience. Everything just went boom. But they didn't mind, they didn't care. If you made a mistake they you just carried on. Now I hardly get off the stage."

Around this time the club was relaxing rules as it tried to stay afloat, and in 1998 the club opened its doors to women to join.

"A couple of the older members fought tooth and nail to stay the traditional way but most of them agreed. It was pretty unanimous," Mr Oram says.

The club wouldn't have lasted until now without women, who now outnumber men.

"It changed it for the good. The women joined in, they agreed to all our protocols and that. They fitted in well and we survived, we thrived for a while."

The Savage Club movement started in London in the 1840s. It was essentially a literary society and a meeting place for out of work musicians and theatre people - a place for companionship and entertainment.

"When it stared in England they thought they had to have a theme," Mr Oram said. "So they took on the Anglo-Saxon theme - the indigenous population - and then it went to South Africa and took on their indigenous cultures and then to the United States and took on the native Americans.

"When it came here they took on the Maori theme."

And so Maori titles, language and culture is a big part of the club. The head of the club is rangatira, the meetings are koreros. They sing Maori lyrics to songs.

Is it cultural appropriation?

"The older Maori didn't mind," Mr Oram says. "Some of the younger Maori have complained, (saying) "you're appropriating'."

One of the clubs younger members, Fred Frederikse, says: "There was a time when there were very few Pakeha singing Maori songs but the Savage Club was one of them."

The club has a monthly korero where members share a meal and put on entertainment among themselves such as songs and sketches.

They also hold raids - exchanges between clubs.

"We've been nearly all around New Zealand," Mr Oram said. "We've gone down south on raids and gone down to conferences every second year. They greet you as though they see you every second day."

Fundraising events have also been a big part of the club's activities.

Mr Oram rattles off the causes; an MRI scanner for the hospital, the Stroke Foundation, Cancer Foundation, Riding for the Disabled and Hospice.

The club was strong through the 20th century, peaking at its limit of 250 members with up to 50 on the waiting list.

There was a lull during the First World War but it carried on doing reviews to raise money for returning soldiers.

By 1926 they were back running properly and the club helped form the Kindred Club,; a national network of Savage Clubs.

The Wanganui club went on to have about three dominion presidents and played a big role in the national movement.

"We've had some prominent names," Mr Oram says.

Reg Tecofsky performs at the Wanganui Savage Club's June korero. Photo/ Bevan Conley
Reg Tecofsky performs at the Wanganui Savage Club's June korero. Photo/ Bevan Conley

But at the start of the 21st century, with the club on the ropes, the committee members had another battle: to save the building synonymous with the club.

The club had managed the building since it took in over in the 1920s and paid a nominal rent to the council.

"And in 2006 Michael Laws was in (as mayor) and he said 'you've got to get out. We're bulldozing it down cos it's an earthquake risk'," Mr Oram says.

"A couple of our members fought tooth and nail for two years. We had a councillor, John Lithgow, he was dead against Michael Laws bulldozing this place down. He was a member of this club.

"(Mr Laws) said 'you buy it and in future years you'll have to earthquake proof it'. We had engineers check it out and they said no you don't have to."

A deal was struck and the Savages bought the building for a $1 and assumed responsibility for it.

"We won that and we bought the building for a dollar and we've maintained it and kept it going."

The building was key to the club and it wouldn't have worked anywhere else, Mr Oram says.

"It is the key part of our Savage Club. Every club that comes in here is amazed at what it is. It's the ambience for it all and the caricatures and pictures and photos around the wall. It's amazing."

Last month's korero and AGM drew a few more people to the hall than usual.

The remaining members were joined by past members and relatives to see the vote on closing the club.

"They're sorry it's closing down but it's just a sign of the times," Mr Oram says.

Four of the Wanganui members will join the Eltham and Hawera club to remain active in the movement but the Wanganui club's final korero will be on October 2.

A ceremony will be held a week later to sign the hall over to the Whanganui Musicians' Club.

It's fitting in a way. A club focused on entertainment and camaraderie but fit for modern times.

"In a way they are similar," Mr Oram said.

"They're getting younger ones coming in and doing things on the stage. Even though it's a newer style of music and everything like that.

"We've tried to keep it going, we've advertised and we've got a couple of people in and they decided it wasn't their thing. It didn't work.

"It's hard. Because it was a damn good club."