By Michael Fowler
Aspiring and sitting members of local authorities and other boards have last week put themselves forward for election.
One hundred years ago, in 1919, the Napier mayoralty was a contest between sitting mayor Henry Hill (1849‒1933) and immediate past mayor, and current Member of Parliament (MP) for Napier, John Vigor Brown (1854‒1942).
In that period of local government, elections were held biannually, and Hill's two-year term was coming to an end in May 1919.
Brown, a successful Napier merchant trading under J Vigor Brown & Co, had first been elected in 1898 as a Napier Borough Councillor and later to the Napier Harbour Board.
He was elected mayor in 1907 and continued until 1917, when he was beaten by Henry Hill, an ex-school inspector, by a majority of 298. Brown was also defeated in the Harbour Board elections. These unexpected results apparently caused "a rare sensation for the folk of the town with the famous Marine Parade".
Brown was a distinguishable character around Napier, with his grey top hat and morning suit, which he always wore. He could be seen walking daily with friends Frank Moeller of the Masonic Hotel and saddler John McVay.
The items listed on the election hoarding in the caricature as energy, industry, business capacity, resolution, courage and personality, all could be said of him.
It is mentioned he has "tact", which some might have disagreed with. A contemporary described John as a man of "decided views" and he would argue in a flash in defence of them.
When the Napier Borough Council gave Brown an honorarium of £200 (2019: $34,000) in 1911, he announced none of his business activities had suffered from being mayor or MP of Napier, so he donated the money for a reading room in Ahuriri and children's swings for the beach.
Rugby league or Northern Union League, as it was known, had been established in Napier in 1911 and wanted to play games at McLean Park. The formation of rugby league was quite controversial, due to some defections from rugby union. However, due to the efforts of Brown, they were given one of the three fields to play on at McLean Park, and he even sponsored a trophy.
In the May 1919 local government elections, Brown, who was then the MP for Napier, would try to get the mayoral office back from Henry Hill.
Brown reminded ratepayers that when he was mayor, considerable infrastructural projects had been completed, including the Municipal Baths, theatre, drainage, a free library, and the position of Borough Destructor had been created, to assist with public health.
He pointed out that since Henry Hill took over as mayor, the Council's bank overdraft had gone up from £7300 to £19,372 (hence the candle snuffer extinguishing not only the overdraft, but also Henry Hill, in the caricature shown).
Interestingly, 100 years ago, Brown stated that "I look forward to hopefully the time when our local bodies as well as parliament are elected on a proportional basis, thus securing fair representation to minorities as well as majorities".
It would be a close mayoral contest – one of the main election issues was the town's half holiday, then decided by the Borough Council. The retail work week was six days, with a late night Friday with a half-holiday given. Sunday was the sabbath, with work forbidden. Brown said the half-holiday should be on Saturday afternoon (presently a Wednesday), and no Friday night trading "except for barbers and fruit and vegetable perishable shops".
Three votes separated the men, with Brown having the advantage before a recount. This resulted in the majority increasing to 16.
An Auckland paper rather unkindly suggested that Henry Hill, in reference to his scientific pursuits, could now devote his time to "searching after lost rivers or hunting among daisies and dandelions at Meeanee".
Henry Hill would do no such thing and decided to run for the 1919 general election seat of Napier, for which holder Brown was up for re-election.
Brown won by 54 votes from Frederick Evans, with Hill coming third, 401 votes behind Brown.
Not everyone was happy about Brown's many representations.
When he was elected as chair of the Napier Park Racing Club, the runner-up, Mr F G Smith said unhappily, "He holds all the positions ‒ Mayor, member of Parliament, and why he even got into the Harbour Board on a third class ticket!"
Brown replied that "He was sorry to see Mr Smith was so thin-skinned and could not take a beating without crying over it".
The business and political dominance that Brown had in Napier was told humorously by Free Lance magazine. A small child was curiously questioning his mother at intervals who owns various buildings in the town, to which she replied "Mr Brown". The child then asked, "Who owns the Marine Parade mother"? "That belongs to God" she replied. "But how did God get it from Mr Brown?" came back a question from the wondering child.
Brown would serve as mayor until 1921, when J B Andrew was elected.
In 1927, Brown was once again voted in as mayor.
His council handed to a two-man government appointed commissioner control after the 1931 Hawke's Bay earthquake, and he remained mayor, albeit with little civic powers, until 1933.
Charles Morse, who was a leading figure in the Napier Rehabilitation Committee, who reported to the commissioners, was well-liked for his post-earthquake work, and easily defeated Brown at the 1933 election by a considerable margin of 2300 votes, ending his local government involvement.
Four Napier Mayors have also been Napier Members of Parliament, so in addition to Brown (1908‒1922) there have been George Swan (1890‒1893), Samuel Carnell (1893‒1896) and Sir Peter Tait (1951‒1951).
Sir Peter Tait (1956‒1974) and John Vigor Brown have been the longest serving mayors of Napier at 18 years each, with Sir Peter having the longest continuous time in office.
* Signed copies of Michael Fowler's Historic Hawke's Bay book are
available from the Hastings Community Art Centre, Russell Street South, Hastings for $65.00.
* Michael Fowler FCA (email@example.com) is a chartered accountant, contract researcher and writer of Hawke's Bay's history.