Since the Whanganui Regional Museum settled back into its splendidly restored Watt Street headquarters, a number of visitors have commented that it is good to see it back in its "original" home.

In fact, the stripped classical front building of the museum was not its first location.

The museum actually had its origins in the front parlour of Mr Samuel Drew, jeweller, collector and taxidermist who, in the 1890s, was persuaded by Whanganui citizens, possibly led by his put-upon family, to close his private museum.

The collection was sold at a considerable discount to a newly established museum trust to be put on exhibition in a purpose-built venue in Queens Park.

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When Drew hosted a preview of the new Wanganui Public Museum in 1894, the Wanganui Chronicle hailed it as "a valuable and comprehensive collection of exhibits, classified and arranged on the most artistic and yet practical system".

Within 25 years, despite doubling in size, the Museum was plainly too small to contain the burgeoning collection and the crowds who came to see it.

Funds were duly raised and the current premises opened to the public in 1928. The building left behind was now ready to embark on its surprising second act.

The first Savage Club was founded in London in 1857, named with heavy irony after a disreputable minor eighteenth century poet.

Caricature of a Wanganui Savage Club Member. Artist: B Howell, Photograph: Whanganui Regional Museum
Caricature of a Wanganui Savage Club Member. Artist: B Howell, Photograph: Whanganui Regional Museum

It was a men-only social club with a particular emphasis on the literary arts and a tradition of members entertaining meetings with impromptu songs and recitals.

An astonishing line-up of famous names joined the club at one time or another, including Charlie Chaplin, Dylan Thomas, Robert Falcon Scott, Harry Secombe, P G Wodehouse, Peter Ustinov and three British kings. More recently, the Duke of Edinburgh and Alex James from Britpop band Blur have been members.

Savage clubs travelled with the British Empire, arriving in New Zealand in the 1880s.The Wanganui [sic] branch was established in 1891, with Samuel Drew among its most active members.

Expanding on the original model, it was based on an appreciation of music, art, drama, science and literature. Members were at the centre of the town's gentlemanly club culture by 1933 when it was agreed by the Wanganui City Council that they should be offered the old Museum buildings.

Wanganui Public Museum soon after 1895 when the building formally opened. Photographer / Dick Hofma Ltd, Wanganui, around 1900, Whanganui Regional Museum Collection
Wanganui Public Museum soon after 1895 when the building formally opened. Photographer / Dick Hofma Ltd, Wanganui, around 1900, Whanganui Regional Museum Collection

Stripped of Drew's fantastical taxidermy the rooms might have looked a little drab, but the club set about making them their own. Before long, they were festooned with colourful murals and a remarkable array of caricatures of and by members.

The extraordinary interior provided a dramatic setting for over 80 years of dinners, concerts, lectures and inter-club "raids". In recent years, the club's decor caught the eye of documentary photographers including Lawrence Aberhart and Andrew Ross.

The Wanganui Savage Club wound up in 2016. Trustee Ted Duggan helped with the transfer of the club's archives to the Museum collection. The buildings are now used by the Whanganui Musicians Club.

Frank Stark is the director of Whanganui Regional Museum.