Masterton lensman at heart of scandal

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Part of a panorama T.E. Price took from the gasworks tank in Bannister St in 1887, looking along the street toward town. St Matthew's Church is visible in the background.
Part of a panorama T.E. Price took from the gasworks tank in Bannister St in 1887, looking along the street toward town. St Matthew's Church is visible in the background.

The Wairarapa region has been well-served by a large number of gifted photographers since they first plied their trade in the region in the 1860s. Wairarapa archivist Gareth Winter has been looking at the life of one of the most interesting, Welshman Thomas Edward Price.

For a man reputedly descended from the ancient kings of Wales, the small rural town of Masterton must have seemed a bit of a comedown.

When Thomas Edward Price arrived in 1879 to set up an "education depository" and photographic studio, he came to a village on the northern edge of the Wairarapa plains.

Thomas Edward Price, photographer, who plied his trade in Wairarapa in the 19th century. PHOTO/WAIRARAPA ARTCHIVE
Thomas Edward Price, photographer, who plied his trade in Wairarapa in the 19th century. PHOTO/WAIRARAPA ARTCHIVE

The recently named Queen St was dotted with shops and houses, but there were large gaps still comprising paddocks, and even the central block around the Post Office had gaps.

But, by the time T.E. Price left town in 1896, he had established himself as the region's most important photographer, he had built up one of New Zealand's most important collections of Maori portraits, and had served a time on the borough council.

He had also become embroiled in a salacious scandal that filled the newspapers for a brief period.

Price was born in Builth, Breconshire, Wales in 1838. In 1852, he and his family migrated to Melbourne, Australia, and then he ventured further on to New Zealand in 1863. It seems he was interested in gold, as he started work on the West Coast, at Westport and in the then bustling township of Charleston.

He was back at work in Charleston by 1869 then in Timaru in the 1870s.

He arrived in Masterton in October 1879 and soon had a flourishing business, producing photographs for both Maori and Pakeha alike.

He was also kept busy reproducing the works of a number of Masterton cartoonists, most famously Edward Wyllie.

He was also active socially and politically, being a prominent moment of the Masonic Lodge, and serving on the Masterton Borough Council from 1881-1884.

Perhaps his most interesting cause was that of faith healer Milner Stephen, who visited Masterton in January 1883.

Price wanted the council to pass a "hearty vote of thanks" for the good work Stephen had done among the poor and was upset when his fellow councillors seemed to treat his proposal as a joke, with a great deal of good-natured banter around the table before the vote was taken. Price was the solitary councillor to plump for the vote of thanks.

Things were a lot less cheery in 1885, when Price was the subject of an affiliation order. He was sued for the maintenance of Mary Adams' illegitimate baby.

In evidence, Mary (the daughter of William Adams and Emma Dixon, the first Pakeha couple married in Masterton) swore that she had met Price at the Scottish church, and he had sometimes walked her home as far as the Waipoua bridge.

She said he had also kissed her in his shop in Queen St, and that she had gone out into his studio alone with him on a number of times, when intimacy had taken place. She said that Price had sworn he would stand by her if she became pregnant.

Her sister and brother gave corroborating evidence, as did two other witnesses, but Price, when called by the prosecution, denied that he had ever walked out with her.

He said he had taken her likeness, but that nothing improper ever passed between them, and he had never given her any reason to think he would marry her.

The judge said it was a difficult case, but he felt Mary had not proven the case, and accordingly it was dismissed.

That was not the end of the matter. The Adams family brought it back to the Magistrates Court in March, arguing that Price had perjured himself by saying he had not walked out with Mary.

The magistrate found there was a case to answer and it went to the Wellington Supreme Court, where after a lot of evidence already covered in the Masterton affiliation case was reheard. It was to no avail. Price was found not guilty of perjury, and released from bail.

He returned to Masterton and continued with his photography business. In 1894, he married Ann Meers, the daughter of William Denne Meers of Christchurch.

The families seem to have common interests. Meers was a well-known businessman in the garden city, but equally remembered for his active promotion of spiritualism, and Ann's brother Robert was a photographer in Timaru.

There she had learned the art of retouching photographs and colouring them, so she became an important part of Price's business.

In 1897, Price sold his Masterton studio to Joseph Minnis, a better-qualified but less gifted photographer who did not last long in Masterton.

One of Price's assistants, Denman Wilton later purchased Price's glass plate negatives, and continued to produce his photographs until a severe reaction to the chemicals used in the process caused him to give the business away. The old Price plates are reputedly buried under a house in Michael St.

Price shifted to Tauranga, where he ran a flourishing photography business, with a branch in Waihi. He stood, unsuccessfully, for the Tauranga mayoralty in 1898, and was also a JP. At his death in 1928, it was reported that he was one of the longest-serving members of the Masonic Order in New Zealand. His photographs are found in ethnological collections across the globe.

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