John Roughan

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

People in our past: A real family newspaper

One clan has been working for the New Zealand Herald through all of its 150 years. The Wilson story is told by John Roughan.

William Chisholm Wilson founded the paper in 1863.
William Chisholm Wilson founded the paper in 1863.

Bill Wilson carries the first name of his great-great grandfather who founded the New Zealand Herald but that is not unusual in his family. The firstborn of nearly every generation has been named William in the founder's honour.

Auckland was a frontier settlement, just tents, whare and a few timber buildings along dirt roads, when William Chisholm Wilson arrived with his wife Margaret and their three children in 1841.

They had left Scotland newly married, nine years earlier. William, a Highland farmer's son, had just completed a printing apprenticeship. Like fellow young Scots John Logan Campbell and William Brown, they were chasing the opportunities to be found in virgin territory on the frontiers of Britain's empire.

The Wilsons went first to Tasmania, where William became a journalist and their children were born. After six years the family moved briefly to Sydney before coming to the new colony of New Zealand.

Auckland was to be its capital. A dirt road called Shortland Cres led up a hill to Princes St where Governor Hobson and his officials were having houses built.

The little capital had a printing press that produced the country's first newspaper, a weekly called the New Zealand Herald and Auckland Gazette. There William found a job.

The weekly folded within a year but there were more short-lived papers. After working as a reporter for four years, Wilson and a colleague, John Williamson, started their own.

The New Zealander, as it was called, circulated throughout the northern half of the North Island, for the next 18 years. In Auckland its readership was rivalled only by a paper owned by Brown, the Southern Cross.

The Wilson-Williamson partnership fell apart in 1863. Most historical accounts blame their difference of view over how the Government should respond to the Maori King movement in the Waikato. But a recent book by a former Herald deputy editor, David Hastings*, suggests the cause was more likely the Southern Cross' move to daily publication the previous year.

Wilson, the more pragmatic of the pair, decided the New Zealander was not good enough at news gathering to compete with the daily. So he went out on his own, founding the New Zealand Herald that continues to this day.

When Wilson died in 1876 his sons, William Scott Wilson and Joseph Liston Wilson, inherited the newspaper. By then it was facing competition for sales from a new paper that was to become the Auckland Star.

The Herald's first Queen St office.
The Herald's first Queen St office.

While the Star dominated the evening market the Herald and the Daily Southern Cross competed hard for morning sales. The latter was struggling when it was bought by an enterprising young Yorkshireman, Alfred George Horton.

Horton had migrated to the South Island, founded the Timaru Herald and, coming north, bought a half share in the Thames Advertiser which he had then sold at a good price to buy the Southern Cross at a bargain.

A merger of the two morning papers was an obvious response to the rising Star. Horton teamed up with the Wilson brothers and the first edition of the New Zealand Herald and Daily Southern Cross appeared at the dawn of 1877.

The Wilsons and Hortons were to be in business together for nearly 120 years. Every generation of their families has worked for the Herald during that time.

By coincidence both the Wilson brothers and Alfred Horton died within months of each other in 1902-03. For the next 40 years the company was led by William Robert Wilson, and Henry Horton.

Horton was "without doubt the dominant character", according to a later editor of the Herald, the late O.S. Hintz.

In speech notes Bill Wilson has preserved, Hintz said: "W.R. Wilson appeared less frequently on the editorial floor but all of us soon learned to appreciate his many sterling qualities.

"Once you were accepted as part of the establishment W.R. knew all about you and invariably treated you with that gentle courtesy and kindness that were so typical of him."

Auckland has an additional reason to remember W.R. Wilson - known to the family as Willie - for the donation of the Wilson Home in Takapuna to the Crippled Children's Society in 1935.

Bill remembers Willie, his grandfather, as a stately gentleman, a director of the Herald until 1949, but bedridden in his later years when he loved to talk to his grandson about school and ply him with L&P.

Bill's father, Stuart Scott (S.S.) Wilson, grew up in the big house at St Leonards beach.

Today's Takapuna Grammar School grounds were part of the property. His father was a good golfer and keen follower of all sports who died too young at 59 in 1966.

Bill grew up in Arney Rd, Remuera, not far from the Hortons in Victoria Ave. He and Michael Horton, later managing director of the firm, knew each other from childhood. The families both had baches at Manly beach.

Bill joined the Herald in 1957 as an apprentice on the rotary press where magazines such as the Listener and the AA Bulletin were printed. He was there when colour printing of advertising started in 1960 and the Herald doubled in size to 64 pages. He retired as circulation manager and an executive director of the company in 1998.

Bill Wilson, who retired as circulation manager and an executive director of the company in 1998.  Photo / Brett Phibbs
Bill Wilson, who retired as circulation manager and an executive director of the company in 1998. Photo / Brett Phibbs

His two sons work for the paper today. Matt Wilson is general manager of newspaper sales and circulation and his older brother, Will, is mechanical foreman at the Ellerslie printing plant.

Descendants of the founder's second son, Joseph Liston Wilson, have made a contribution too. One of them, Joe Wilson OBE, was chairman of the Auckland Navy League for more than 20 years.

The Herald was run by families that kept it well connected to the city it served and preserve for it a heritage of lasting value.

* Extra! Extra! - How the people made the news by David Hastings, Auckland University Press, 2013.

- NZ Herald

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