Paul Diamond

Beyond the barricades

When the foundation stone of the Sarjeant Gallery was laid in Whanganui in September 1917, war loomed large. The country was in the third year of the Great War, with no end in sight. The governor general, the Earl of Liverpool, dressed in full military kit, performed the honours, in front of a large crowd of locals and a big muster of troops.

The mayor of Whanganui, Charles Mackay, acknowledged that while some people may think it was ‘inopportune’ to inaugurate an art gallery during wartime, he believed it was important to demonstrate that the war did not absorb all energy, ‘but that national and civic life still moved forward with the same steady progress that has marked it in the past.’ He concluded his speech by looking forward to peacetime, and invoking an earlier war, much closer to home.

‘On this very spot formerly stood the Rutland Stockade, where in the time of the Maori War the Imperial regiments were camped. Here, where once was all military activity, where indeed was the very centre of that war, there is arising a temple built for all time and dedicated for ever to the arts of peace.’1

When the Gallery was completed in 1919, the Great War was over, but Mackay’s hope that the building would be a symbol for peace wouldn’t be realised. Less than a year after the opening, Mackay was in prison for shooting another man. As a consequence, Mackay’s name and title were erased from the Gallery’s marble foundation stone. To understand what happened, and why the stone was altered in this way, you need to re-trace the story behind the Gallery’s creation.

A generous bequest from Henry Sarjeant was the financial impetus for the establishment of a Fine Art gallery in Whanganui, at a time when there were very few public art galleries in New Zealand (as opposed to art society galleries).

Henry Sarjeant exemplified the European settlers who came to Whanganui in the nineteenth century, creating immense wealth which underpinned the town’s later expansion. As Mackay pointed out in his speech at the inauguration ceremony, ‘keen man of business though he was, [Sarjeant] realised that man does not live by bread alone, and that material things are not the whole or even the greater part of the happiness of life. His mind was open to every form of intellectual activity.’ This encompassed the Wanganui Arts Society, undoubtedly influenced by his wife, Ellen. The pair had married in 1893, when Ellen was 23 and Henry 63. Ellen Stewart was the daughter of Sarjeant’s colleague, John Tiffin Stewart, who helped found the society in 1901.

A week after Sarjeant died on 12 February 1912, a letter from his widow to the town clerk appeared in the local papers. It explained that Sarjeant had left the balance of the residue of his estate in trust ‘to establish and maintain in the Borough of Wanganui a Fine Art Gallery.’2

This announcement came as mayor Charles Mackay, then in his sixth consecutive term,3 was embroiled in a row with the borough engineer. Mackay claimed that councillors had agreed to support him; when they changed their mind he threatened to resign and two days after Mrs Sarjeant’s letter was published, Mackay followed through on his ultimatum. It was an abrupt interruption to a seemingly charmed run as mayor.

Mackay was born in Nelson in 1875. In 1901, he arrived in Whanganui, then a burgeoning town with a large commercial port. Its location beside a navigable river providing access to the North Island interior gave it a strategic advantage before the development of the main trunk railway and roads. A satirical portrait published in 1907 picks up the story about what happened after Mackay arrived in the town that had adopted ‘Pretty, Prosperous and Progressive’ as its motto:

‘After qualifying as a barrister and solicitor in a country office, and being the proud possessor of two university degrees, he migrated to a larger sphere for his activities to find scope. He made the astounding discovery that there are more six and eightpences to be transferred from one pocket to another in a large than in a small town; Mr. Mackay has a shrewd notion on which side his bread is buttered.’4

Mackay caused an upset when first elected as mayor in 1906, at the age of 31, narrowly beating the incumbent to become Whanganui’s youngest and second New Zealand-born mayor. A character sketch published just after he was elected highlights the opportunism that would define his career:

‘Mr. Macky [sic] is one of those earnest, pushing young chaps, with a lot of vivacity and personal charm. About eighteen months ago he showed how charming he was by marrying Miss Duncan, the charming daughter of one of Wanganui’s oldest, richest, and “best” families.’5

By 1912 the picture was changing. Following his row with the engineer, Mackay stood in the elections that year, against an opponent, but nevertheless managed to win nearly three-quarters of the votes. At the end of this term in May 1913, he ‘retired’ from the mayoralty.

Meanwhile, the committee set up to implement Sarjeant’s gift was preoccupied with acquiring artworks, and not building a gallery. The works included a marble statue, ‘The Wrestlers’, a three-quarter-sized copy of an ancient Greek original, purchased by Sarjeant’s widow and her new husband John Armstrong Neame (art master at Wanganui Collegiate) during their visit to Europe.

The Neames returned to Whanganui in 1915, the same year that Mackay decided to stand again for the mayoralty and successfully beat two opponents. Now plans to build the Gallery gathered pace, despite the country being at war. ‘[Mackay’s] position as both Mayor and as a member of the Sarjeant Art Gallery Committee enabled him in association with the Neames, to see through the planning, competition and construction of the Sarjeant Gallery with acumen and flair.’6

A fortnight after being re-elected, Mackay was caught up in conflict as attitudes to the enemy, particularly Germans, hardened. Following the sinking of the Lusitania on 7 May and news of casualties, anti-German violence flared up around the country. The worst outbreak was in Whanganui on 15 May, when a pork butchery owned by Conrad Heinold was destroyed, and other businesses were damaged. Mackay faced the crowd, urging them not to descend to the level of the Germans. When he tried to appeal ‘in the name of British justice’, he was hit with a stone and wounded under one eye.

The violence gave Whanganui some notoriety but otherwise ‘the town went through the same experiences as other centres. Patriotic meetings and speeches were the first order of the day to stimulate recruiting. Then followed the raising of money for war purposes, and finally the settling of soldiers on their return.’7 As mayor, Mackay was involved with all of this activity, but the recruitment drive in particular would have far-reaching repercussions for him personally. When war was declared he was 39, of eligible age for service. In October 1915 he objected to council support for married men who had enlisted, going further to argue more generally that ‘so long as single men of military age are available, married men should not be encouraged to enlist’.8 As a result, Mackay came under pressure to sign-up, and in February 1916, with conscription looming, he enlisted. This was publicised in papers nationwide and the prime minister sent his congratulations. Despite being called up to train as part of the reinforcements he was regularly farewelling in his capacity as mayor, he didn’t go to camp, citing as an excuse the difficulty in finding a replacement for his legal business. Whether this was valid or not, it would later be seized on as ammunition by his enemies.

By June 1916, four designs for the Sarjeant Art Gallery had been selected by Samuel Hurst Seager, the Christchurch-based architect appointed to assess the competition. The Gallery Committee reported in October 1916 that number 16, submitted by Dunedin architect Edmund Anscombe, was the winner and recommended that he be appointed as architect.

There was a delay after Seager suspected that the design was not by Anscombe, but by his 21-year-old articled pupil, Donald Hosie. Seager went to great lengths to clarify authorship, and he and the council both sought legal opinions – which offered conflicting advice. Although Hosie was widely believed to be the author, in December 1916 the council decided to appoint Anscombe, and he, not Hosie, was credited as the architect on the foundation stone.

At the same time as the argument over authorship was raging, Hosie had enlisted and was stationed at Featherston Military Camp, due to leave for Europe. In December 1916 Mackay intervened, writing to the head of the military forces in New Zealand and getting agreement for Hosie to be held back so he could complete the drawings. Hosie stayed in Dunedin and had finished the drawings by March 1917.

When Mackay stood for re-election in April 1917 he was challenged by the local MP, Bill Veitch, but managed to hold on to the mayoralty. That month, the tender for the Gallery building was let, and construction began.

The building is starting to take shape in a photo of the ceremony to lay the foundation stone, in September 1917 (Page 42). The official party is sitting between the two stones, one remembering Henry Sarjeant, the other acknowledging the governor general, Mackay and others involved with the Gallery. Just over three weeks later, Hosie was killed at Passchendaele.

As the Gallery neared completion, Mackay turned his attention to organising an opening exhibition and assembling a permanent collection of artworks. He launched a letter writing campaign, contacting galleries, artists and collectors in New Zealand and Australia, asking them to loan works.

When the mayoral elections rolled around again in 1919, Mackay was challenged once more, this time by Leslie Sigley. Mackay beat Sigley amid mounting opposition. Critics argued that loans, rates increases and neglect of town amenities were evidence that Whanganui was being mismanaged, and called for ‘a change in borough management,’ maintaining that ‘sound business brains are wanted by the man sitting in the Mayoral Chair’.9

The day before the elections, a pointed letter from one of these businessmen was published in one of the local papers. Tom Williams was an auctioneer, and having lost to Mackay in the 1915 elections, was chairing Sigley’s campaign. Headlined, ‘Mr Mackay and the Limelight’, Williams’ letter criticised Mackay for not doing enough to support returned soldiers, and ended by condemning the mayor for not serving, describing his excuse as a sham.10 Mackay responded with a personal attack on Williams’ mayoral career.11

Mackay was in the news again in July 1919 when he was run over by a milk cart. After successfully suing the cart-driver, who announced he’d have to sell his cart and livelihood to pay the fine, Mackay was criticised for being a well-resourced bully.

Mackay was still recovering from his accident when the Sarjeant Gallery was opened by Prime Minister Massey on 6 September 1919. While there are no known photos of the opening ceremony, there is a photo taken during Massey’s visit, just before he dedicated a roll of honour at the Cosmopolitan Club. Massey is flanked by the town’s MP Bill Veitch, and by Mackay. Tom Williams, Mackay’s arch rival and fellow Borough councillor is sitting beside Mackay.

The event that preceded Mackay’s downfall was the visit of the Prince of Wales to New Zealand in 1920. This tour was to acknowledge New Zealand’s support in the Great War and soldiers could be expected to play a major role. The programme proposed by the Wanganui Borough Council featured a concert and a supper party for the town’s young people at the Sarjeant Gallery. The RSA objected and successfully lobbied for a concert of its own. Mackay was a veteran of many local disputes, but had met his match with the soldiers – although one letter writer suspected ‘the Returned Soldiers’ Association is being used as a tool to assist in the lowering of Mr Mackay in the eyes of the ratepayers for political purposes. There are certain people in this town who have a personal grudge against Mr Mackay, and never fail to ventilate some imaginary grievance in order to “show him up”’.12

The visit was a shambles and exposed Whanganui to ridicule across the country and in Australia. There was a power cut during the civic concert, and the Prince spent barely any time at the supper, after which the crowd stole the food and looted the silverware belonging to the mayoress.

Worse still for Mackay, the row with the soldiers intensified after the Prince’s visit, and the RSA allegations of Mackay’s disloyal utterances and contemptible conduct were published. He was also under fire for requesting invitations to events welcoming the Prince in other centres. The soldiers (and other enemies) may have known of a secret about Mackay that made him vulnerable. In 1914, during the period when he wasn’t mayor, he sought treatment for ‘obsessions of “Homo-Sexual” nature’.13 This was revealed less than a fortnight after the Prince’s visit – in spectacular fashion, as the row with the soldiers escalated. Somehow, Walter D’Arcy Cresswell, a young returned soldier who was visiting relatives in Whanganui found out about Mackay’s homosexuality. After being introduced to Mackay by a cousin, Cresswell confronted him, threatening to reveal Mackay’s homosexuality unless he resigned as mayor.

Mackay shot Cresswell, who survived, and ironically become well-known himself for homosexuality. Mackay was sentenced to 15 years hard labour for attempted murder.

Following the shooting, councillors elected Tom Williams as Mackay’s replacement. Some time after this, Mackay’s name and title were removed from the Sarjeant Gallery foundation stone. No contemporary account of this has emerged, and we can only speculate about why the stone was damaged and why it was kept secret.

Certainly there was anger directed towards Mackay. In the lead up to the 1921 council elections one newspaper referred to ‘the unfortunate legacy of a previous occupant of the Mayoral chair’14 and the other paper blamed voters ‘who, when opportunity offered time and time again, neglected to vote out a plausible opportunist, and vote in a safe and trustworthy man.’15

More is known about other erasures of Mackay’s name in Whanganui. Shortly after Mackay went to prison, his wife changed her name, reverting to her maiden name and altering the surnames of the couple’s three daughters. In January 1921 the council decided to rename Mackay Street Jellicoe Street, after the governor general. Mackay, then the longest serving mayor, had become what anthropologist Michael Taussig calls a ‘public secret’, something generally known but which cannot be spoken of.

In 1926, Mackay was released after serving six years of his 15-year sentence. The survival of his inmate file means we know a lot about his time in prison. Mackay was transferred seven times, spending time in five of the ten prisons he could have been in.

In late 1923 Mackay was transferred from Waikeria Prison (then set aside for reformable hard labourers) to New Plymouth Prison – reserved for homosexuals and other ‘prisoners who were sentenced for acts of sexual perversion.’16 His appeal against the transfer was overruled by the deputy head of the prison service, who noted in the file, ‘in my opinion New Plymouth is the place to which he belongs.’

At New Plymouth Prison, ‘men deemed morally untrustworthy worked in the prison’s quarry, which possessed a basin-shaped configuration and allowed a high degree of supervision.’17 It’s significant then, that on arrival there, Mackay, who’d apparently managed to avoid hard labour until this point found himself stone napping in the quarry.

In June 1926 Mackay’s appeal to the Prison Board was successful and he was released ‘on probationary licence for the unexpired period of his sentence, with permission to leave the Dominion in charge of his sister, and to remain out of New Zealand during the currency of his licence.’18 On 6 August, Mackay was freed from prison and that day sailed for England with his sister Margaret Jean Mackay.

Very little is known about what happened once the pair got to England. Mackay’s sister apparently helped her brother establish himself in a new profession, possibly advertising. The most detailed glimpse of Mackay in London comes from the writer Hector Bolitho.

Bolitho covered the 1920 tour of the Prince of Wales, and was also commissioned by the Wanganui Borough Council to write a promotional booklet ahead of the Prince’s visit. Bolitho had left New Zealand in 1921, for Sydney where he edited the Shakespearean Quarterly. He’d later write that ‘Shakespeare was the reason for my emigrating from my birthplace, New Zealand, to the sophisticated world of Sydney.’19 This apparently, was not the whole story. In 2004, 30 years after Bolitho’s death, a different explanation emerged in an essay about his life in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

‘Homosexual, but obliged to conceal his true nature, Bolitho was never at ease in the then homophobic atmosphere of New Zealand society. In May 1920 his boyhood mentor Charles Ewing Mackay (1875–1929), mayor of Wanganui, was arrested and imprisoned for seriously wounding a man to whom he had made homosexual advances. Shaken by this scandal, in 1921 Bolitho left New Zealand for Australia, where he became editor of the Shakespearean Quarterly and literary editor and drama critic of the Sydney Evening News.’20

In 1923 Bolitho moved to England, establishing himself as a bestselling writer of more than 60 books. One book, Older People, a memoir published in 1935, features an unnamed person who is clearly Mackay, and recounts his arrival in London: ‘His body was tired and warped when he arrived in London, and he was poor. Slowly, the wonder of England enlivened his blood and smiles came to his melancholy face.’21

By November 1928 Mackay had moved to Berlin, then the world’s third largest city after London and New York. This was during the period of Berlin’s much-mythologised ‘golden age’ towards the end of the Weimar Republic – a flowering of art, theatre, architecture, film and literature.

Mackay was working as a freelance journalist and teaching English. The following year he was killed in the Berlin street fighting known as Blutmai (Bloody May) which began after the Communist Party organised demonstrations on 1 May, in defiance of a government ban. When the police dispersed the crowds, violence erupted. The violence escalated, becoming concentrated in two working-class neighbourhoods: Neukölln and Wedding.

Sefton Delmer, the Berlin correspondent for the Sunday Express, hired Mackay as a stringer so that he could cover both areas. Mackay was also working as an English-language teacher and ignored warnings from his teaching colleagues before joining Delmer on the evening of 3 May. After visiting both areas, the pair returned to Delmer’s flat for supper. While Delmer sent his story to London, he sent Mackay back to Neukölln to check on what was happening. When Mackay’s taxi arrived at the barricades, police told him to leave the area. He’s thought to have walked around the block, and was later seen walking down Hermannstraße towards the barricades. When shooting broke out, he was standing in front of a clothes shop, and was shot in the stomach, probably by a police sniper in an apartment 110 metres away. He was dead before help arrived.

When news of Mackay’s death reached Whanganui, the newly elected mayor, William Rogers, was being sworn in. In his speech, Rogers ‘took occasion to refer to the death of Mr Mackay, and said that at such a moment they could all afford to be generous’.22 This note of forgiveness notwithstanding, the silence surrounding Mackay remained.

By the 1970s, the nascent gay rights movement was challenging this silence. Having established branches in the main centres, the Gay Liberation Movement asked its members to set up groups in smaller towns. As a result, the Wanganui Gay Rights Group was formed in 1977. Its members became aware that Mackay’s name and title had been erased from the Sarjeant stone and began to campaign for its restoration.

In the late 1970s, during Gay Pride Week, members of the group laid a wreath in the shape of a pink triangle, the international symbol of gay rights and pride, beneath the stone. According to one version of the story, the custodian, thinking the wreath was war-related, took it over to the nearby war memorial, only to have the wrath of the RSA and the gay group falling upon the mayor, Ron Russell.

Unbeknown to the gay group, Arthur Bates, a manager at the Wanganui Chronicle and local historian, was working behind the scenes to have Mackay’s name restored. Russell, who was a returned soldier, decided he couldn’t be seen to be giving in to pressure from a gay rights group. There was also resistance from Dr Herbert Donald Robertson, the honorary curator of the Gallery, who’d been involved with the Gallery Committee in Mackay’s time. Dr Robertson apparently told Russell that over his dead body would Mackay’s name go back on the foundation stone.

So nothing happened until the next mayor, Doug Turney was elected in 1983. The second year of his term coincided with the 60^th^ anniversary of Whanganui becoming a city. It’s thought that this was a factor in his decision to ask the town clerk to have the name restored in 1985 – five years after the death of Dr Robertson. A memo in the council archives (Page 39) is the only recorded reference to the restoration of Mackay’s name to the stone.

There may have been another reason for the timing of the restoration. Pink Triangle, a bimonthly gay newspaper based in Wellington was printed in Whanganui. It has been speculated that this meant the town was aware of the possibility of national publicity about the stone, which it pre-empted by restoring it. Just after the name was reinstated on the stone, a feature article about Mackay appeared in Pink Triangle (Page 60), noting that his name had just been restored.23

Since then, there have been other articles about the 1920 shooting, as well as plays, novels and other works inspired by it, leading one historian to quip that far from being written out of history, the story of Charles Mackay had now become a cult.

As the story continues to prompt intrigue and become better known, the way it is understood changes over time. Something unmentionable in the 1920s becomes a cause célèbre featuring a gay martyr in the 1970s and 1980s, during the campaign to decriminalise homosexuality. More recently, the story has become a curious topic for heritage talks and local history newspaper articles.

One thing that doesn’t change is the need to try and understand what happened to Mackay in its own context. As Greg Dening has pointed out, ‘the most unhistorical thing we can do is to imagine that the past is us in funny clothes. Our imagination has to allow us to experience what we share with the past and see difference at the same time…When we empower the past by returning it to itself, we empower our imagination to see ourselves’.24 We need to try to imagine what it was like to be vulnerable to blackmail and to be confronted with someone who, no matter what course of action you chose, would destroy your life. We also need to ask what it meant to take opportunism too far, going beyond the barricades one time too many.


  1. Wanganui Chronicle, 21 September 1917, p. 6. 

  2. Wanganui Chronicle, 19 February 1912, p. 4. 

  3. From 1875-1914 mayors were elected annually by non-plural voting. ‘Throughout New Zealand, annual terms persisted until 1915 when they were aligned with the biennial councilor elections.’ Graham Bush, ‘Evolution of the local government electoral process,’ in Empowering communities? Representation and participation in New Zealand’s local government. Edited by Jean Drage. Victoria University Press, Wellington, 2002, pp. 16–44. 

  4. Harold Collins, Familiar faces : a short historical sketch of Wanganui celebrities, Hatherly & Johnson, Wanganui, 1907. 

  5. Free Lance, 9 June 1906, p. 1. 

  6. Christopher Cochran (and Celia Thompson), Sarjeant Gallery, Queen’s Park, Wanganui: Cultural heritage assessment, Christopher Cochran, Wellington, 1998, p. 4. 

  7. Leonard James Bancrift Chapple, and H. C. Veitch, “Wanganui”, Printed by the Hawera Star, Hawera, 1939. p. 244. 

  8. Wanganui Chronicle, 20 October 1915, p. 6. 

  9. Wanganui Chronicle, 16 April 1920 p. 5. 

  10. Wanganui Chronicle, 29 April 1919, p. 8. 

  11. Wanganui Chronicle, 30 April 1919, p. 4. 

  12. Wanganui Herald, 24 April 1920, p. 11. 

  13. Statement from A.G. Mackay, 24 May 1920, AAOG W3559 11/1920 Box 217 Rex v Charles Evan Mackay: Attempted Murder. 

  14. Wanganui Herald, 26 April 1921, p. 4. 

  15. Wanganui Chronicle, 27 April 1921, p. 4. 

  16. Charles E Matthews, Evolution of the prison system, Government Printer, Wellington, 1923, p. 13. 

  17. Peter Boston, A Caged Tiger: The Regulation of Male Sexuality in the New Zealand Penal System, 1917 to 1952, unpublished paper presented to New Zealand Historical Association conference 1998. 

  18. Report to Minister of Justice 14 December 1926, p 15, JW2179 1, Prison Department Correspondence 1923/6/7 to 1933/21/4. 

  19. The Bulletin, 6 February 1965, p. 41 (from Hector Bolitho papers at Dunedin Library 1976/278). 

  20. Michael Thornton, ‘Bolitho, (Henry) Hector (1897–1974)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/50314, accessed 7 Nov 2011]. 

  21. Hector Bolitho, Older People, Cobden-Sanderson, London, 1935, p. 34. 

  22. Wanganui Chronicle, 9 May 1929, p. 6. 

  23. Phil Parkinson, ‘The Wanganui Affair of 1920’, Pink Triangle, Issue 56 November/December 1985. 

  24. Dening, Greg. “Empowering imaginations.” The Contemporary Pacific 9.2 (1997):419+. Academic OneFile. Web. 6 Mar 2011.