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Whatever happened to... the Larnach Castle ball?

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Whatever happened to… the Larnach Castle ball of ’67?

Headlined in local media at the time as the "social event of the year, if not the decade", three University of Otago students hosted a hugely successful ball at Larnach Castle in September 1967 – the first formal ball held at the castle since 1906. Now, 50 years on, a reunion ball is to be held on the same September date – the 9th – coinciding with and celebrating 50 years since Dunedin’s Barker family took ownership of the castle.

Watch original film footage from the 1967 Larnach Castle Ball. 

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Built by William Larnach in the Scottish baronial style, the castle is located high on Otago Peninsula. It took 200 men three years to complete the shell of the structure by 1876, and craftsmen continued working for a further 12 years embellishing the interior.

However, by the time Margaret and Barry Barker bought the castle in 1967 it was in state of near ruin with significant water damage to the once stately interior. Undeterred, the three enterprising students – Eion Edgar (now Sir Eion), Alistair Edmond and Russell Davis (now deceased) – decided it would be the perfect setting for a ball, and they set about making this happen.

With an army of willing helpers – and with the blessing of the Barkers – they spent weekends at the castle cleaning and painting the ballroom which had, until quite recently, been used to pen sheep! Toilet facilities were especially installed by Mr Barker just in time for the event. The guest list of about 400 comprised students and a few old school friends who travelled from around the country to attend.

While it was expensive at $12 per ticket – compared to the usual $3 or $4 for a student ball – it was a “splendid occasion”, says Sir Eion. Guests were collected by buses from their pre-ball events, driven to the castle where they drank sparkling wine, enjoyed a banquet meal and danced to live music until 4am. Student hostels granted special late passes for the event.

In true baronial style, the ball began with pipers leading a grand march into the ballroom where huge log fires were burning. The banquet was provided by the University Union caterers and transported to the castle as there were no suitable kitchens on site. Crayfish, chicken and suckling pig were served on the castle balcony. The attire was formal with men in black tails and most women in long gowns with white gloves.

"It was a magical night that we have never forgotten,” Sir Eion says.

Larnach Castle Executive Director Norcombe Barker says the family was very grateful for the work the students did to bring the ballroom up to a standard suitable for holding this event, the first in what was to become a new tradition of balls at the castle. An annual winter ball is now held in the castle’s beautifully restored ballroom, with guests in Victorian attire.

“So, in planning our year of 50th anniversary events, a reunion of this first ball seemed a very appropriate – and exciting – celebration. I contacted Sir Eion and was very pleased that he agreed.”

With no guest list and only a few old photos to hand, Sir Eion and Alistair Edmond have been working to track down as many of the former ball-goers as possible.

“The response has been brilliant – very enthusiastic,” Sir Eion says, “but there are still a few places left so we would be delighted to hear from anyone else interested in reliving this event. It will be a wonderful night.”

If you were at the 1967 ball and would like to attend the reunion, please contact Sir Eion Edgar on 021808099 or email eion.edgar@forsythbarr.co.nz

The ball will be preceded by an informal get-together on Friday 8 September.