Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 51, September 2007
by Ollie Richardson, Real News Waihi.
Owen Morgan MBE, last mayor of the Waihi borough, served the Waihi community for over 50 years, as councillor, then as its mayor and throughout this time as a volunteer on many committees. In 2002 I interviewed Owen for a University paper I was doing. This article is based on that interview.
Tracing Owen's life, we get a glimpse what Waihi was like in the 1930s and onward. It was his town, where he always lived and was in business. His father and grandfather before him too, played an integral part in Waihi's early days.
What particular problems did Waihi have in the 'in between mining' days, between the closure of the first phase of mining in 1952 and the start of the second phase in 1987? And what, as councillor and mayor, were his greatest triumphs and disappointments? What did he see as his most valuable contribution to his community?
The youngest of four children, Owen Morgan was born in Waihi on 24 June 1919 and lived there for all his life, except for the years of World War 2.
His maternal grandfather, Thomas Gilmour, came to Waihi in January 1891 to take up the post of first underground mine manager at the revamped Martha mine with its new English shareholders.
In 1893 Thomas shifted his family over from Thames. Owen's father, Vivian Morgan, arrived here in the late 1890s to teach at the Waihi School of Mines, where his brother, Percy Morgan had been appointed the first director in 1897. In 1905, when Percy left to take up a position with the NZ Geological Survey Department, Vivian was promoted in his place.
"At one time," Owen said proudly, "all the Schools of Mines directors in New Zealand, of which there were five, had trained in Waihi. My father also taught chemistry and maths, as well as surveying, geology and mechanical drawing. He was very versatile and also sports minded."
His mother was born in Thames and arrived in Waihi aged 11. She married his father at 19. "The Gilmours had come from Northern Ireland. My mother had that good Irish humour about her and she was a very loving mother," he reminisced fondly.
Owen's tertiary studies took place in the late 1930s at the Waihi School of Mines under his father, and while studying was also employed as lab boy. With only a £10 per week income, which was not considered much at that time for someone with an MA, his father had started a small side-line, manufacturing gold alloys (dental gold) for the dental profession.
"All equipment was available to him at the School of Mines and as I was lab boy he trained me to do it as well," Owen said. "The School of Mines also boasted a dark room, so I learnt about photography too. As well as all this there was a radio class run by Keith Wrigley. He wanted trained staff for his fledgling radio factory and this was one way of getting them. I was also one of his pupils, and subsequently became a radio operator during WW2." After the war Owen's interest in radios led him to become a radio ham.
"It's amazing how you can talk to someone and they could be anywhere in the world." In spite of his scientific background Owen could still marvel at what subsequent generations take for granted.
Owen met Rosemary in 1945 when he was visiting his cousin, Mary Morgan, in Ohakea. Mary was married to Rosemary's brother and Rosemary, working as a school dental nurse in nearby Palmerston North, visited her brother that same weekend. Eighteen months later they married.
After the war in 1945, Owen set up in business on his own account in Waihi and supplied dental copper amalgam to the school dental service, until mercury became the favoured metal to use in fillings. Silver amalgam also continued to be used but the gold fillings were considered too expensive. His overheads were not so high, with the factory right next-door to their home, which gave him an edge over many other suppliers. A ton of the amalgams were sent throughout the country each year, and the silver was from the Waihi mine.
Into the local body politics fray
Owen's career in local body politics began in 1950, when he was persuaded to stand as councillor by the then town clerk Frank Murray, who had just been a guest speaker at the newly established Rotary Club where Owen was a founding member. There was a shortage of candidates and Murray persuaded some of the Rotarians to put their names forward as council candidates.
"I had a feeling for community things," Owen said wryly. "I had just chaired the school reunion committee of Waihi High School, and soon got a feeling for local government." First time up he narrowly won a seat on the council. He was just 30 years old.
Waihi - sixty years ago
So, what was Waihi like more than half a century ago, I asked him. He wrinkled his brow, looking back.
"It was very run down after the war," he said slowly. He recounted there was a lack of manpower. The gas and waterworks were struggling to keep going. The gold mine was about to close. It had opened under new ownership in 1890 and eventually closed in 1952, but had been threatening to close for the previous 30 years as profits dwindled, costs went up and the price of gold on the international markets remained static. All these things combined to grind the mine to a halt, and as they were the major employer in the town, this threat of imminent closure in turn constricted the development of Waihi. "There was no confidence in the future of the town at all," he said.
New ventures in Waihi
The end of this first phase of mining coincided with the beginnings of an electronics industry, and this new industry was to become a steady employer of several hundred Waihi folk. Not as large an employer as the mine had been, it none the less helped to fill the void. The establishment of a cheese factory in 1953, which was the biggest in the country at the time, also helped to take up the slack.
"The cheese factory built up a very good reputation under the management of Tom Myers. Farming of course, has been the backbone of Waihi, it has been a service town to the farming industry as it is now, along with horticulture," he said. Many miners owned small farms which they worked at weekends and aerial topdressing, carried out by ex-WW2 pilots, helped fertilise the Waihi plains and valleys, making them much more lush and economically viable.
Keith Wrigley, who had started the fledgling radio manufacturing industry in Waihi in 1932, had died soon after WW2 and the business was taken over by the Public Trust under the direction of Tom Spencer, who was as Owen recalled, also the first president of the Rotary Club. In 1952 the company was sold to shareholders and the electronics giant PYE bought a controlling interest. Before long the factory began churning out TV sets.
"The first televised rugby match was in 1954 and it was transmitted from Waihi Rugby Park," he told me. "The reason for the televised match was that the Government was dragging its feet in introducing television to New Zealand. We arranged for TV sets to be put in the hospital and around various places in the town and gave it a lot of publicity. The match was the Barbarians against Thames Valley and in the middle of it the power went off." He chuckled. "We only saw half the match on TV." By 1962 the company had 340 employees on its payroll.
As a raw council recruit Owen remembered that the then mayor was H J (Snow) Pickett, who was also secretary of the miners' union and a great debater. "I learnt a lot from him and he did a lot for the town".
Waihi reduced in size
It was Snow Pickett who led a deputation to Wellington to persuade the Government to assist Waihi as the mine was winding down, and at his suggestion the Local Government Commission reduced the size of the Waihi Borough substantially. The outlining areas were returned to the Ohinemuri County Council. Over 70 acres of sections which the Waihi Borough held at Waihi Beach, 11 km to the south-east, had been invested in the council and the "burgers and burgesses" (citizens) of Waihi by an Act of Parliament.
"I recall Snow saying, 'these will be worth money, one day'. Of course in those days they were not worth much at all." The leases brought in a substantial annual income for the borough.
"The council resisted selling off the sections for many years. When the rumours of local government amalgamation were too persistent to ignore, it was decided to offer them to the leaseholders at market rates, and spend the money on Waihi."
Owen was re-elected in 1953, and chose not to stand in 1956 and 1959 as he and Rosemary were busy raising their five children, and he was also still nurturing his own business.
"Remember, all council work was voluntary in those days, the mayor got a pittance but for the rest it was all voluntary work."
When a by-election was called for in 1960, Owen again stood, successfully. He continued in this role until 1974 when he took a shot at the mayoralty against the incumbent mayor, Alan Dean. He missed out on the mayoralty and was only narrowly re-elected as councillor "I hedged my bets and I nearly missed on both. It doesn't do you any good to divide your votes, I learned."
However when Dean retired in 1977 Owen again offered himself as a mayoral candidate. This time he was accepted by the Waihi people and held the post until the end of the borough's days in 1989. Fittingly, his grandfather Thomas Gilmour had also been mayor - from 1904 to 1908.
Water supply problems
In his early days in the council, Owen remembered the council promoting the improvement of Waihi's water supply.
"There was one source of water only in those days, from the Walmsley Valley, and the main pipe had leaks like geysers. Water restrictions were commonplace. The first thing was to replace that pipe, the second was to introduce a secondary supply from the Waitete Valley. Since the new water supply was opened, there have been no water restrictions to speak of in Waihi. That was my greatest achievement, the water supply.
"We tried hard to introduce more streams but were foiled by the Catchment Board. That was a disappointment. Another disappointment to him, he told me, was that in the early 1980s Waihi Beach turned down the offer of the Waihi Borough to supply them with water too.
"We would have built a big dam, a reservoir to supply Waihi Beach, and possibly Waikino too, but the referendum which was held turned the offer down. The Beach ratepayers, many of whom were absentee landowners, voted against it. The big dam, which was very much in the mind of the borough engineer, Henke Bange, didn't come off, because of that.
"There would have been many other small disappointments. I certainly remember there were very long meetings that went on 'til after midnight. The next day I would have what I called a 'council headache' which was a physical headache, because I was frustrated. Looking back, these frustrations seem unimportant now. Actioning letters from ratepayers always seemed to take up a lot of time, but the issues they raised were not trivial to them."
"The sewerage reticulation, which was completed in the mid 1980s, was made possible by the foresight of Snow Pickett, whom I have already mentioned. We completed that project debt free," he said proudly, "because of the funding that had been amassed through ongoing sales of the Waihi Beach leasehold sections."
During the 1960s and 1970s the council sealed many of the borough streets and generally made Waihi a lot more prosperous looking. By 1962 almost 300 new homes had been built since the mine closure, and number of light industries had made Waihi their home, against all predictions that the town would become a ghost town without the mine.
It was a quiet haven, well placed to reach Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga and Rotorua. Property values stayed low compared with those in the cities, and it didn't take the urbanites long to realise that if they sold up in Auckland they could buy something of equivalent comfort here and still have a substantial nest-egg left over. Many, looking for a way out from frenetic city life, settled in and around Waihi.
Second phase of mining
The late 1970s also saw renewed interest in gold prospecting as the price of gold finally began to climb, and in 1987 a mining licence was granted to a consortium who called themselves Waihi Gold Mining Company, also the name of the earlier company of which Owen's grandfather had been manager. The mining licence allowed them to excavate what was known as 'Pukewa' or Martha Hill, the hill riddled with shafts and drives 15 levels down.
The idea was to get at all the gold left behind by the first phase of mining. As the hill was right in the middle of the town and hard up against a residential area, there were many who opposed the granting of the licence and Waihi became a town divided with pro and anti mining factions.
Full circle for Waihi
In 1989, with the local body amalgamation at the direction of central government and against strong opposition, scion of Waihi and the borough's last mayor, Owen Morgan stepped down from public office and Waihi became a ward of the Hauraki District Council.
The loss of Waihi's autonomy, hard fought for and won in 1902 from the Ohinemuri County Council, was mourned by many, none more so than Owen Morgan, who saw very few advantages for Waihi in the amalgamation and firmly believed every community should have its own tribal head.
One of the most contentious issues in the amalgamation process in the Western Bay of Plenty was that the dormitory suburb of Waihi Beach did not follow Waihi to Hauraki, but instead was incorporated in the Western Bay of Plenty District.
Although the deciding factor in amalgamation was supposed to be community of interest to keep communities together, in this case political interests decided otherwise.
This was so decreed by Central Government, the boundaries were were settled on water catchment areas, and as the Ohinemuri River flowed westward so Waihi's administration was settled in Paeroa.
The mayor of the newly created Hauraki district was none other than Basil Morrison, who had been the Ohinemuri County chairman for a number of years. It felt like full circle for Waihi, as the borough had originally been shorn from that county.
Very busy in retirement
In his retirement Owen did not stand still. He continued his membership of the Rotary Club, was actively involved in the local branch of the Forest and Bird Society, belonged to the Waihi Historical Society, sat on the Waihi Walkways committee, enjoyed the Waihi Tramping Club and belonged to Search and Rescue.He also kept bees and chooks.
He also became interested in computers, dabbling in desktop publishing, and surfed the internet. Owen had always kept a hand press and turned out tickets, flyers and leaflets for many of the organisations he was affiliated to.
In 1992 he was named in the Queen's New Year's Honours list. The MBE for services to his community was long overdue, many Waihithens felt, but he never mentioned it, nor used the acronym after his name. Reports said he saw the honour as very flattering, but it was a team effort with Rosemary.
Owen was a man who had not been afraid to move with the times, embracing new proven technology as it came along. He saw what needed to be done and went about the job with a quiet efficiency. He was also wise, knowing when it was time to speak out and when to keep quiet. Thoughtful, sincere and fair are adjectives which spring to many people's minds when his name is mentioned.
Owen passed away on 22 November 2003 and his family names will be forever remembered with Gilmour Street, Margaret Street, (after his maternal grandmother), Morgan Park, Gilmour Park and now also the Owen Morgan Memorial Fountain in the man-made lake at this park.
All a fitting remembrance for a family which has led Waihi from its very early days of development until the end of its autonomy in 1989.
For a long time the Morgan family pondered how they wanted to mark Owen's life in Waihi. They were looking for a public memorial which would be fitting, added to the ambience of Waihi and was reasonably safe from vandals. Eventually the idea of a fountain for Gilmour Lake was mooted and it fitted the bill. The family donated the installation to the Waihi public and Hauraki District Council undertook to install it and meet the upkeep costs. The Waihi Rotary Club offered to purchase coloured lights to enhance the fountain's allure at night and on a brilliant Saturday afternoon on November 25 the public were invited to the official unveiling of the Owen Morgan Memorial Fountain.