Revising history, for worse, and better

The apology to gay men who were convicted of historic crimes in the era prior to the Homosexual Law Reform Act of 1986 was made this week by MP Amy Adams, as she introduced to parliament a bill to wipe clean the criminal histories of those men so unfairly stigmatised by New Zealand’s anti-gay legislation.  Many men were hounded and imprisioned, and lost their careers and families, and even, as MP Grant Roberston said in parliament, their lives: ‘Hundreds, possibly thousands of lives have been lost because men could not bear the shame, the stigma and the hurt caused by this Parliament and the way that society viewed them as criminals. It is for all of that, that we must apologise’.  Speaking directly to all those men and women who lived through this era he said ‘The fact that I as a gay man can be out and proud and a member of Parliament is but a small tribute to you. But more so than that, next year [my partner] Alf and I will celebrate 20 years of being together and early the next year 10 years of our civil union, and next week we’ll get to look after our grandchildren in the school holidays – all things that would have been unimaginable to you’.

The heritage building that most symbolises for me the hurt and harm that this legislation brought about (although there will be many others of course) is the Sarjeant Gallery in Whanganui.  The Mayor of Whanganui from 1906 until 1913, and again from 1915 until 1920 was Charles Mackay, a brilliant lawyer who did a tremendous amount for the town; as his biographer says he was a ‘controversial and energetic mayor who was responsible for much of the growth and development of Wanganui in the years between 1906 and 1920. His projects were frequently expensive but always farsighted’; his most notable achievement was the construction of the town’s beautiful Sarjeant Gallery, pictured below.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAUnfortunately Mackay fell foul of some people in town and in 1920 they set him up in a honey trap.  Mackay was married with children, but also gay (apparently he had spent years trying to find a ‘cure’, including hypnotism).  A young poet from Canterbury,  D’Arcy Cresswell, related to some of the malcontents in Whanganui, was sent in to create a situation in which Mackay could be blackmailed into resigning.  Mackay took Cresswell to see his pride and joy, the Sarjeant Gallery, and later at his office, something occurred and the blackmail took place.  Mackay begged for mercy and then for more time to tell his family, but Cresswell wouldn’t relent.  Then, stressed and distressed at the idea of losing his family and career, Mackay shot Creswell.

screen-shot-2017-07-12-at-11-51-40-am.pngThe reportage by The Truth newspaper of the trial, 1920; classy as ever

After the subsequent trial, Mackay lost everything; his wife and children never saw him again, and he was sentenced to 15 years’ hard labour and served six.  Not only that, but his town deliberatly chose to forget him: his name was removed from all the histories of the Whanganui Council for the next 50 years, and his name was even scrubbed from the Sarjeant Gallery’s foundation stone.  Mackay left New Zealand and never returned, and was shot in a riot in Berlin where he was working as a journalist.

Historian and Maori curator at the Alexander Turnbull Library, Paul Diamond, is currently writing a book about this story.  He has said that Mackay’s case and subsequent treatment deeply disturbed the gay men of New Zealand, and many left the country as a consequence. Paul has just has received news that he has received the Creative New Zealand’s Berlin Writer’s Residency, to allow him to go to Berlin to further his research in Mackay’s life in Berlin, and his mysterious death. See more about his work here.

In good news – the name of the mayor was added back onto the Sarjeant Gallery’s foundation stone in the 1980s, in gold lettering, as can be seen in the main image for this story, and his image was put back into the town’s council chamber.  Paul’s book will be yet another way in which his memory can be honoured; I’m looking forward to reading it.

Screen Shot 2017-07-12 at 12.00.35 PM

On the Sarjeant Gallery itself: the gallery is now considered to be one of the best provincial galleries in New Zealand, and reflects the new ideas about displaying and lighting art current at the time of its design.  It was designed by a young architect Donald Hosie, who died in France at only 21, not long after he won the design competition for ths building, at the battle of Passchendaele in 1917 – a century ago this year. After he left the country, the construction was supervised by well-known architect Edmund Anscombe, and the building was constructed from 1917 to 1919.  It is now listed as a Category 1 historic place by Heritage New Zealand.

Sources: Wanganui Chronicle article 10 July 2017;  W. S. Broughton. ‘Mackay, Charles Ewing’, first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol. 3, 1996. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 12 July 2017); W. S. Broughton. ‘Cresswell, Walter D’Arcy’, first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol. 4, 1998. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 12 July 2017); Heritage New Zealand listing:; Queer History New Zealand:

Images: Sarjeant Gallery image, Henry Burrows, Flikr, 2015; Some rights reserved

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