To celebrate Auckland’s 175th anniversary, its demisemiseptcentennial, the Weekend Herald continues its series celebrating the growth of the city with a look at people who shaped Auckland. Today, Suzanne McFadden looks at the mayor who left the biggest modern mark.

In association with
ASB Tamaki Paenga Hira - Auckland War Memorial Museum

A 45-year-old postcard with a London postmark and an obscure address goes some way to defining the charismatic, egotistical side of Sir Dove-Myer Robinson.

When Auckland's longest-serving mayor handed over his entire collection of memorabilia - 139 boxes to be safely stored in the Auckland Library in 1988 - he proudly spun out the story of the "Robbie" postcard.

In 1970, the year he was knighted for his services to the city, he visited London and studied the underground rail system, a rail service he desperately wanted for Auckland. He met with Lord and Lady Auckland, who were intrigued as to why, even as a Sir, he insisted on being called Robbie.

"Because I don't like all that official jargon," he apparently told them. "Everyone knows me as Robbie."

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To prove it, he bet the British baron and his wife that he could send a postcard simply labelled "Robbie, New Zealand" and it would reach him. Lo and behold, the postcard arrived at his desk in his new mayoral office in Aotea Square not long after his return. When he asked Auckland's chief postal sorter how he knew where to deliver it, he supposedly replied: "Because everyone knows who Robbie is - don't they?"

That was part of the famous Robbie charm - he was cocky yet popular; a man of small stature but big ego, who thrived in the media spotlight and drew political enemies as quickly as he pulled in votes. In fact, he reckoned the name Robbie was worth "a few thousand votes any day of the week". Few could argue, as Sir Dove-Myer Robinson was elected Auckland's mayor six times, wearing the chains of office for 18 years.

The bespectacled, forward-thinking greenie - who campaigned for clean water, compost and fewer cars - knew how to magnetise and polarise his constituents. Not everyone was impressed when he sometimes walked topless from his home in Remuera to the Town Hall.

Politically, he's best remembered for two major victories - saving Auckland's waters from becoming putrid sewers and bringing regional government to New Zealand; he's also recalled for one scheme he failed to deliver - rapid rail - and the sentence, "If we'd only listened to Robbie ... " crops up time and again when Auckland's vexed transport system is debated.

He gave his all to the city he "fell in love with" as a 13-year-old immigrant but that devotion to Auckland often reflected in a messy personal life.

He had four failed marriages, numerous affairs and a strained relationship with most of his six children.

"I think he did much better in his relationship with the public than in his private relationships," his niece, Dame Barbara Goodman, told the Herald on his death.

Born Meyer Dove Robinson in Sheffield, England, in 1901, his childhood created a battler. He was the target of anti-Semitic bullies in the schoolyard until his family moved to New Zealand in 1914.

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Sir Dove-Myer Robinson as Aucklanders remember him. File Photo / NZ Herald
Sir Dove-Myer Robinson as Aucklanders remember him. File Photo / NZ Herald

He changed his name to Dove-Myer after leaving school at 14. While working as a commercial traveller, he met the first of his four wives, Adele. He began selling, and racing, motorcycles - his racing injuries excusing him from war service. After two unsuccessful marriages, he focused on building a prosperous clothes manufacturing business, Childswear Ltd, with his third wife, Bettine.

When Robinson bought a home in Glendowie overlooking the Waitemata Harbour, he was incensed to learn the waters around Browns Island (Motukorea) were slated to become the city's sewage and slaughterhouse dumping grounds.

For 10 years he battled bureaucracy to save the Waitemata, fighting to introduce a revolutionary oxidation system that was better for the environment. The struggle gave him a voracious appetite for local politics.

As an outraged resident, Robinson joined the Auckland and Suburban Drainage League, which opposed the idea of pouring raw excrement into the harbour. A two-man clash developed - between Robinson and Sir John Allum, then mayor of Auckland and chairman of the Auckland Drainage Board. Robinson took a 43,000-signature petition to Parliament but lost the initial battle.

Undeterred, he won a by-election for a spot on the city council in 1952 and earned a seat on the drainage board. He formed his own party, the United Independents and, in the following year's election, Allum was tipped out; Robinson assumed chairmanship of the very board he'd wrestled with.

Sir Dove-Myer Robinson with television presenter Alan Whicker in 1973. File Photo / NZ Herald
Sir Dove-Myer Robinson with television presenter Alan Whicker in 1973. File Photo / NZ Herald

He stopped the sordid Browns Island plant - Motukorea instead became a public reserve - and by installing innovative oxidation treatment ponds at Mangere, earned a reputation as a visionary.

But the stress of his crusade was a factor in the breakdown of his third marriage. In 1959, he married his fourth wife, Thelma and he campaigned as "Robbie" to become the Mayor of Auckland.

In his first two terms, he tried to create a unified regional government, bringing together greater Auckland's 32 city, borough and county councils; but he battled to get universal agreement. He managed to spearhead the creation of the Auckland Regional Authority (ARA) in 1963 to manage authorities like water supply, town planning, sewerage and buses - the first of its kind in New Zealand.

The year of 1965 was calamitous for Robinson, who lost the mayoral campaign, after a very public break-up with Thelma, who'd always wanted only two terms as mayoress. But he won back the hearts of Aucklanders with a sweeping victory in the 1968 election - beginning another 12 years as mayor. His niece, Dame Barbara Goodman, was his mayoress for the rest of his reign.

Despite his love of luxury cars, Robbie began promoting rapid rail. In his Urban Legend biography, historian John Edgar wrote that the mayor foresaw a future Auckland clogged with traffic but pushed "a bold plan to improve the attractiveness of public transportation, get more people out of cars, reduce pollution, congestion and eventually reduce motorway development. It was a prescription for improving the urban environment and the quality of life in Auckland."

Robinson laid out in the Herald his Auckland bus-rail rapid transit plan "to provide fast, modern electrified railways through the main traffic corridors of the region". There were passenger trains running every three minutes from an underground subway in the heart of the city, with tracks to Howick, the airport at Mangere and an under-harbour tunnel to the North Shore.

But the ARA would not support such an expensive scheme - by 1973, an estimated $273 million - and he failed to get the Government to pay for rapid rail. Now, 47 years later, the city's $2.4 billion underground rail loop is finally gathering speed.

Loud and flamboyant, Robbie continued to be adored by Aucklanders at the polls. He survived a heart attack and two hip operations but, at 79, lost the mayoralty to Colin Kay. The love affair had faded but he was loath to retire, trying twice more, in his 80s, to re-enter politics.

While his health allowed, he made fleeting public appearances - he'd been patron of around 200 community organisations and president of Auckland Rugby League for 24 years until he was 86. Robbie lived out his years in a retirement village until his death in 1989, when the civic funeral he'd requested was held at his beloved Town Hall.

Sir Dove-Myer Robinson in a pose reminiscent of his statue in Aotea Square. File Photo / NZ Herald
Sir Dove-Myer Robinson in a pose reminiscent of his statue in Aotea Square. File Photo / NZ Herald

A bronze statue of Robbie - controversial, of course - was designed by sculptor Toby Twiss and still stands in Aotea Square. His name is also immortalised in a park, formerly the Parnell Rose Gardens, where another famous mayor, Sir John Logan Campbell, once lived.

The long and the short of our mayors

Elizabeth Yates. File Photo / NZ Herald
Elizabeth Yates. File Photo / NZ Herald

The first female mayor in the British Empire, Elizabeth Yates, was elected mayor of Onehunga borough in 1894. When her husband, Michael, retired as mayor through ill health, she ran in his place and won. A champion of women's suffrage, she faced hard-core opposition from within the council; her term lasted less than a year. There have been two female mayors of Auckland - Catherine Tizard, 1983-90 (who also became New Zealand's first woman Governor-General) and Christine Fletcher, 1998-2001.

Sir John Logan Campbell. File Photo / NZ Herald
Sir John Logan Campbell. File Photo / NZ Herald

A 3000-signature petition helped convince Sir John Logan Campbell to become Auckland's mayor for just 78 days. The city's shortest-serving mayor was encouraged by fellow councillors to take on the job during the Royal Tour of 1901, after being presented with the petition signed by 3000 in just two days. "The workers at the timber mills had signed just as readily as the business people in the city," the Auckland Star reported. Campbell, then 83, took the opportunity during his mayoralty to gift Cornwall Park to the people of Auckland. The scarlet robes of office he wore during the visit were Auckland's first set of mayoral robes.

Sir Barry Curtis. Photo / Amos Chapple
Sir Barry Curtis. Photo / Amos Chapple

When he resigned in 2007, Sir Barry Curtis was New Zealand's longest-serving mayor. From his first election in 1983, he served eight terms over 24 years as the mayor of Manukau. Curtis, who became a councillor in 1968, had a passion for social justice and opportunity for all. His record has since been surpassed by Tim Shadbolt, a two-term mayor of Waitemata City (infamous for towing a concrete mixer behind the mayoral Daimler and twice losing the mayoral chains) before heading south. First elected as mayor of Invercargill in 1993, he is now in his seventh term with 25 mayoral years behind him.

• For more Auckland Stories please visit aucklandmuseum.com

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