Lyttelton by Rail

Beca Heritage Week 13–23 October 2017 at Lyttelton Library

Lyttelton Museum, working with Lyttelton Library, created the exhibition Lyttelton by Rail to mark the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Lyttelton Rail Tunnel.

In the early days of European settlement, transport was precarious and the rail tunnel was literally a breakthrough for the development of the district, providing a much needed link between the port, the plains and the peninsula.

Timeline and land strata.JPG

The exhibition included historical information and photographs, a 12-minute video featuring locals recounting memories of riding the train, and a modest number of objects. Visitors also shared their stories of using the passenger trains that went through the tunnel.


The exhibition was a great opportunity to engage the Lyttelton community in an important narrative of the region’s history. The most popular aspect of the exhibition was the oversized ‘luggage tags’ on which visitors could write down their rail stories. 

“My husband used to catch the train to High School and somehow managed to acquire a NZ Rail sign stating rules on board.  My favourite is No Expectorating.

“My father and his brother missed the last train back to port one night so they pinched a jigger and got themselves home.”

‘I remember going on a school trip to Wellington by ferry (1961?) which started with a train trip to Lyttelton. Everything very old; old leather seats. Like travelling in an old leather suit case.’


Once a memory was written on a tag, it was displayed in the area outside the exhibition room where a stack of old suitcases sat on top of each other. Sitting with an old settle, the suitcases and ‘luggage tags’ created the atmosphere of an old rail station’s waiting room.


The exhibition connected with a range of audiences, including rail enthusiasts and history buffs, older people who came to relive childhood memories, and current Lyttelton locals.


Still with no museum building (having lost our previous museum in the 2010/2011 earthquakes), we decided to make a feature of the inaccessibility of our collection – at the beginning of Heritage Week our exhibit case held a solitary 1950s train timetable with an accompanying tag highlighting its ‘loneliness’ and asking for the loan of train-related objects and photos. By the end of Heritage Week the case was full.

Items lent.JPG

Comments on the Museum’s Facebook page showed real engagement with the exhibition. Two examples show how memories were jogged:

‘My Father and his brother... both old LYTTELTON boys ... missed the last train back to port one night, so they pinched a jigger and got themselves home lol They went very slowly through the first half of the tunnel.. then hell for leather the rest of the way.  That was back in the 50s.’

‘Best part of going to school was the train there and back, Lyttelton train students were always being called up at school to get a telling off for the behaviour on the train.’

At the time of Lyttelton by Rail, Lyttelton Museum was run entirely by volunteers. We worked closely with our partner Lyttelton Library and were incredibly grateful and buoyed by the generosity of our community.