Friday, May 3, 2013

Wanganui Mayor Shot Dead By Police

Mayor Mackay

Over the years, the town of Wanganui has seen more than its fair share of controversial figures. And back in the 1920s, not many tears were shed when one of its more colourful characters met his demise.
Charles Ewing Mackay, disgraced former mayor of Wanganui, was shot dead by Berlin police today in history, 3rd May 1929. But what of his history back in New Zealand? And what of this 'disgrace'?
Mackay was born in Nelson in 1875, son of the headmaster of Wellington College. A brilliant student, he graduated BA in 1895 and LLB in 1900. He was called to the Bar in New Plymouth in 1901, and the following year established his own law firm in Wanganui. There in 1904 he married Isobel Mary Agnes Duncan, from a prominent Wanganui family.
That same year, he entered local politics: he was mayor 1906-1913, again in 1915-1920, and stood twice for Parliament, unsuccessfully.
Mackay was a controversial and energetic mayor, responsible for much of the growth and development of Wanganui between 1906-1920. His projects, often expensive, were always farsighted - he advocated an electric tramway system; improved the town's roading, water supply and fire services; was instrumental in having the Dublin Street Bridge built; worked hard to encourage the development of the port and local industry.
Wanganui's Sarjeant Gallery
His principal project from 1915 was the construction of an art gallery for Wanganui, using the bequest of benefactor Henry Sarjeant. He tirelessly solicited artworks and reproductions from overseas, and even persuaded the army to delay the overseas posting of one of the architects, until the gallery's working drawings had been completed. During WWI he promoted the construction of a library and museum to complement the gallery, and also begun investigating the possibility of a power station for the borough.
But 10 May 1920 was to change his life dramatically...
Cresswell, 1948
Walter D'Arcy Cresswell was a returned soldier, visiting relatives near Wanganui. The two men became friendly and met several times. But after an argument at his office, Mackay shot and wounded Cresswell.
Cresswell later alleged that Mackay had made homosexual advances towards him (remember that homosexuality was a crime in NZ until 1986). Cresswell then attempted to extract a letter of confession and resignation from the mayor. He claimed that Mackay (who'd previously sought treatment for his homosexuality) had made advances, then panicked when faced with the prospect of public exposure. Cresswell claimed that he had only led Mackay on "to make sure of his dirty intentions." But Cresswell, later known to be homosexual himself, may not have been entirely innocent. Indeed, there was widespread speculation that he'd been enlisted by others to blackmail the mayor into resigning. This however has never been proved...
Mount Eden prison today...
Mackay was arrested and charged with attempted murder. The case was reported nationally, under such gleeful headlines as 'dirty intentions' and 'disgusting features'. Mackay pleaded guilty, was convicted of attempted murder and was sentenced to 15yrs' jail, which he began serving in Mount Eden prison.
After his imprisonment he was declared bankrupt; his wife Isobel divorced him and returned to her maiden name of Duncan; Wanganui's Mackay St was renamed Jellicoe St; his name was sanded off the foundation stone of the Sarjeant Gallery; his portrait was removed from the Borough Council chambers and destroyed. No mention of him or his services to Wanganui appeared in any local history for the next 50 years!
Charles Mackay was released from prison in 1926 after 6yrs 3 mths, on condition that he left NZ. He went to England and worked as a journalist for the Sunday Express. In 1928 he moved to Berlin and, later that year, was covering the street battles between communist irregulars and the police. On the night of 3 May 1929, he was shot dead by an officer who mistook him for a communist.
Dublin Street Bridge
Germany officially expressed regret to his family, and representatives from the British Embassy and German Foreign Office attended his funeral. Though his death was widely reported in NZ, only brief mention was made of his earlier achievements.
In 1985, following homosexual law reform in NZ, Mackay's name was reinstated on the Sarjeant Gallery foundation stone, and his considerable contribution and place in Wanganui's civic history was restored.
The (at the time) sensational nature of Mackay's disgrace in 1920 all but expunged from local history a career of considerable public service. But was the 'disgusting' and 'dirty' incident all just a misunderstanding? Or was it dirty politics at a local level? Was Mackay cleverly framed? We will never know now.
However what is certain is that Wanganui today owes much to the tireless efforts and influence of Charles Mackay.

1 comment:

Janet Balcombe said...

Hi there, I was loving your Mt Eden Prison photo and would respectfully ask if you would give me permissio to use it as a shot in a utube video I am making. See my website The video is a reading of excerpts of the book and I would like your Mt Eden pic to drop in behind one of the sequences if I may. Cheers, Janet Balcombe