A mayor of early 1900s Whanganui was a brilliant and energetic man whose contribution has been suppressed due to a scandal over his homosexuality, Derek Schulz says.

That mayor was Charles Mackay. In 1920 he shot at a man blackmailing him and was arrested, exiled from New Zealand and written out of Whanganui history.

"I think only Whanganui people can understand the depths of the trauma involved," Schulz said.

Schulz worked for the Sarjeant Gallery in the early 1980s, and his "first short history" of the gallery helped rehabilitate Mr Mackay's image.

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Sargeant Gallery. Photo/Paul Brooks
Sargeant Gallery. Photo/Paul Brooks

The gallery's early history is entwined with Mayor Mackay. Schulz researched it, using council archives and the help of students. He discovered Mackay's letters, which "had real literary fizz".

To get the history published Mr Schulz had to run it past Mackay's daughter, Jo Duncan. By that time she had been hardened by spending years threatening the writers of "lurid" stories about her father with legal action.

Charles Mackay was mayor of Whanganui for 13 years between 1906 and 1920. They were years when the town was growing and changing fast. World War I hit particularly hard.

Electricity and trams were introduced, and the city received a bequest to build an art gallery. Mayor Mackay grouped the town's cultural institutions in Queen's Park, and took a special interest in the gallery.

"It was Mackay who was responsible for steering it into a major institution. He began collections that have increased in aesthetic value from his time, then inspired talented people around him," Schulz said.

A controversial figure, Mackay had his enemies. Poet D'Arcy Cresswell threatened to expose his homosexuality if he did not resign as mayor.

During an encounter in his upstairs office in Ridgway St, Mackay shot at his blackmailer, wounding him. He was arrested and charged with attempted murder.

He was sentenced to 15 years' hard labour, served six and was released on condition he leave the country. He went to London, then Berlin, and in 1929 was accidentally shot by Berlin police while reporting on a riot.

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His court case caused massive shock waves in 1920s New Zealand. Mackay's name was sanded off the foundation stone of the Sarjeant Gallery, his portrait was removed from the council chamber and Mackay St was renamed Jellicoe St.

A portrait of Charles Mackay (centre) has been restored to the Whanganui District Council chambers. Photo/ file
A portrait of Charles Mackay (centre) has been restored to the Whanganui District Council chambers. Photo/ file

His wife divorced him, and she and her three daughters resumed her maiden name of Duncan.

So when Schulz came to write a history of the gallery he found all kinds of rumour surrounding it.

"The major unresolved issue we faced at every turn was the tragedy surrounding Mayor C.E. Mackay, who emerged as a major force behind the establishment of the gallery."

Impressed by what Mackay had done, Schulz wrote his history and in 1981 handed it over Mackay's daughter Jo Duncan with trepidation.

She invited him for afternoon tea in her Guyton St apartment full of treasures, and they talked about her father. She was only 3 when the shooting happened.

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She was as intelligent and forthright as her father, with "the social conscience of an old fashioned Whig". The two got on well.

"She didn't appear to know the detail of her father's early involvement in the design and construction [of the Sarjeant] and this seemed a pleasant surprise for her, not only the achievement, but being able to talk openly about it," Schulz remembers.

Duncan and Schulz did not continue to meet, but her acceptance of the history began the rehabilitation of her father's name. There were calls in the 1980s to reform homosexual law, and Whanganui activists Paul Rayner and Des Bovey lobbied for Mackay's name to be restored to the gallery's foundation stone.

In 1985 that was finally done, but without any publicity. Mackay's portrait was later restored to the Whanganui council chamber by Mayor Michael Laws. More could be done, for example Jellicoe St could revert to Mackay St.

Schulz would like Mackay's letters edited and published, and his "extraordinary contribution acknowledged and explored in the writing of the town's history".

The mayor's story has intrigued many people. It was part of an exhibition by artist Ann Shelton, and a play by David Charteris. Paul Diamond made a radio broadcast about it, and it's a podcast in the Revisited series, titled Ridgway St Sensation.

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Diamond has still to write a book and possibly make a film about it. Frank Sargeson inspired a young person to write about it and Whanganui journalist Derek Round was writing about it at the time of his murder.