Twenty-five years ago in 1996, Sir Peter Tait, former Napier National MP and long-serving mayor, passed away aged 80.
He was born in Wellington in 1915 and was schooled there.
Tait had failed a medical examination to serve during World War II when it was discovered he had tuberculosis, and he then spent two years recovering at the Pukeora Sanatorium in Waipukurau. He had hoped to become a Baptist minister.
After his time at the Pukeora Sanatorium he settled in Napier in 1942, and with his brother opened a shoe store in Napier, with the retail business expanding to Hastings, Dannevirke, Waipukurau and Gisborne.
He eventually sold his shoe stores and became an investment adviser and sharebroker.
When the National Government called a snap election for September 1951, Tait stood against AE Armstrong, the incumbent Labour MP. It was a narrow win for Tait by 44 votes.
He would lose the 1954 contest, and having a taste for politics, turned his attention to local government and stood for the Napier mayoralty in 1956.
Campaigning on a platform of improving municipal services and recreational amenities, increasing pensioner housing and tourist promotion, he was elected as mayor over ER (Ron) Spriggs by a majority of 1120 votes. Ron and his council had laid the foundations for Napier’s progress.
Tait pursued his election promises with missionary zeal and never stopped looking for opportunities for Napier during his long stint as mayor.
The editor of the Hawke’s Bay Herald-Tribune described him as a “dynamo”. His style however may have been felt as dictatorial by some of his councillors, but he pursued his promises with the “strong leadership, youth and energy, action and more progress” he had promised.
Both the Aquarium and Marineland were major projects of his. (It’s important to realise there was little, if any opposition, to these well-loved Napier icons more than 50 years ago.) Tait was sold on the idea of an aquarium for Napier when seeing some fish tanks in the foyer of the newly opened War Memorial Hall in 1957 and reportedly said, “Who would pay a shilling or sixpence to see fish in a glass jar?”
Soon convinced of the merits of an aquarium, his enthusiasm for a purpose-built aquarium gave way to his idea of a marineland featuring dolphins as a major tourist attraction. This would open in 1965 (closed 2008). The aquarium, with many years of Peter chairing its board, opened in 1976.
Other projects completed during his 18 years as mayor of Napier included building more pensioner housing, stage one of cleaning up the inner Ahuriri harbour by shifting the sewerage outfall to Awatoto from Perfume Point, and a new Civic Centre. His council was also instrumental in freeing up land for housing between 1957 and 1961.
As Napier mayor, he pursued his projects with energy and followed through on his ideas, and dropped the ones he could see weren’t supported. He wasn’t immune to some controversy, and not all of his schemes – such as a boating marina in the Ahuriri inner lagoon opposite Humber St, came to fruition. Getting the airport at the Beacons designated as the main airport for Hawke’s Bay in 1964 was a major achievement, although this probably frustrated and alienated most people in Hastings.
Tait took numerous overseas trips, during which he would gain ideas to be used in Napier, such as the Sunken Gardens, Centennial gardens, Putt Putt golf, Marineland, Aquarium, and the Carillon at Clive Square.
One of his overseas trips provided an opportunity for Hastings City councillor Hugh Baird to slip one past Tait. The Government was relinquishing its control of the milk supply to be divided up between the milk producer boards and local government.
Baird, as he told the story, convinced Hastings City Council to pay £35,000 for the shares, which he said would be a “goldmine”. When Tait returned from overseas he tried to get Napier in as a shareholder, but Hastings had sown it up and refused to let Napier in. It was, perhaps, the only way they could outsmart him.
The Napier City Council, at Tait’s behest, was contemplating knocking down the Sound Shell on Marine Pde to build the aquarium there. A former Council Park and Reserves employees told me that while in Greece, looking at its centuries-old buildings, Tait backtracked and sent a telegram to the council saying Napier should preserve its heritage architecture.
In 1972 he visited Chicago, Detroit and St Louis. When he returned to Napier, he stunned many when he said Napier should not exceed a population of 100,000 as the city would then suffer crime, pollution and other undesirable effects he had witnessed in these cities. This was a complete reversal of his “momentum of change” of making Napier a bigger and better place and avoiding stagnation.
During his term as mayor from 1956 to 1974, Napier’s population went from 22,000 to 45,000 and from 1290ha
when he retired (Taradale was added to Napier in 1968).
Tait surprised many when he retired from mayor in 1974 by saying, “Regionalism is on the way, and we must not turn away from it. It is easy to say ‘wait and see’ and miss out on the establishment of desirable regional projects.” Parochial politics, as many of us know, plagued Hawke’s Bay for decades, and Peter was a strong advocate for Napier’s interests.
During his 18 years as mayor, Tait was ably supported by deputy mayor Peter Cox and town clerk LP Ryan.
Tait was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1967 and knighted in 1975 for his civic work.
His involvement with community organisations are too numerous to list, but revealed a caring side in assisting the community outside his civic duties.
Tait was also an amateur magician. Having been blessed with a good memory, I can remember seeing him perform when I was aged 9 at a large family reunion for the children.
My younger brother by some years, Pete, who cannot remember the incident, pointed out in a rather large voice (showing the early signs of being the investigative journalist he was to become), that the magician had stuffed the white handkerchief up his sleeve in making it disappear into thin air. Rather than dismiss the child and carry on, he got my brother up on the stage and went through how the trick was supposed to work and congratulated him on his eyes being quick to spot it.
He along with three other high profile Christian business men unsuccessfully fought hard against the 1985 Homosexual Law Reform Act.
He sold Tait Associates Limited to Advisorcorp, which would later gave him much emotional and financial grief, as it did the many who had invested with him for years, when the company failed in 1988.
Although he was not prosecuted for suspected corporate fraud when it collapsed, he had to fight to clear his name from allegations. He said of the experience, “I can quite fully understand how some of our clients are angry and may even think that they have been deceived, but I did not deceive them. My business conscience is clear, my mind is not.” Two principals in the company, were however, prosecuted.
Two gifts from Tait to Napier were the Tait Fountain, given in 1995 to commemorate Victory in Europe Day, and the Lilliput model miniature railway.
Defining a mayor and councillors’ place in history can be problematic as they each can have unique internal and external circumstances, favourable and unfavourable, working for and against them during their terms.
Sir Peter Tait’s term of 18 continuous years is matched only by GH Swan, a Napier mayor he drew inspiration from in developing Marine Pde. Few, I believe, could fault his love for Napier, his leadership abilities and relentless energy in getting stuff done.
Thanks to Alison Price of Napier Public Library for her expert assistance with finding material for this article.
• Michael Fowler (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a contract researcher and commercial business writer of Hawke’s Bay history. Follow him on facebook.com/michaelfowlerhistory