FELS, Willi, C.M.G.
Merchant and collector.
A new biography of Fels, Willi appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Willi Fels was born at Halle on the Weser on 17 April 1858, the eldest of four children of Heinemann Wilhelm Fels and his wife Kätchen, an elder sister of Bendix Hallenstein. In 1870 he was sent to a Jewish school run by Dr Albert Fels, a cousin of his father, where he embraced Judaism with conviction, but later he attended a school in Hildesheim where, influenced by a gifted headmaster who taught physics, he gave up his religious convictions. Fels hoped to study history at a university, but obeyed his father's wishes and entered the family shoddy mill at Neuhaus near Paderborn. In 1881 his uncle, Bendix Hallenstein, arrived from New Zealand with his wife and four daughters to visit his sister's family, and in November of that year Fels married the eldest daughter Sara. For the next six years the Fels lived at Neuhaus. In 1888 they arrived in Dunedin where Fels joined his father-in-law in business, becoming a director and eventually managing director of the firms of Hallenstein Brothers and the D.I.C. Ltd. Methodical, industrious, and a shrewd business man, he was a valued member of the two firms, for which he travelled frequently throughout New Zealand. He also held other directorships.
At school Fels had shown ability and enjoyment in the study of languages, particularly the classics, and he retained this interest throughout his life. Cultivated and discriminating in his tastes, he had been a collector from boyhood, with an interest in stamps and coins. Soon after his arrival in New Zealand he was attracted to Maori culture and began collecting Maori and Pacific ethnographic material. With characteristic thoroughness he learnt the technique of surface collecting on the Otago beaches. He also amassed a splendid collection of European glass and ceramics, including a group of 300 pieces of early Wedgwood, and also items from Persia, India, Burma, Malaya, Japan, and Tibet. Later he disposed of his stamp collection and concentrated on his coin collection, widening the scope from Greek and Roman coins to include Papal and English coins and medals, as well as plaques and medals by contemporary European diemakers. On his visits to Europe he was a regular visitor to the European galleries, museums, and art dealers.
After his only son Harold was killed at the Battle of Broodseinde, while serving with the New Zealand Artillery in the First World War, Fels decided to present his collection to the community. He commenced his association with the Otago Museum and was responsible for the creation of a Department of Anthropology, paying half the salary of the keeper from 1919 to 1923. He began the systematic transfer of his own collections to the museum, beginning with his ethnographic material, and established a fund for a new wing of the museum to provide further display galleries. His initial contribution of £5,000 was made in 1922 and the Willi Fels Wing was officially opened on 15 October 1930. At his death his benefactions to the museum included over 80,000 pieces, including 5,400 coins and 1,800 ethnological pieces and gifts of money estimated at more than £25,000.
Fels had hoped to become a professional historian. He read widely and built up a good working library, predominantly historical, but including many works on art and literature, and translations of the classics. He also had a good small collection of early printed books, some in fine bindings. Shortly before his death he presented some 400 of his most valuable books to the library of the University of Otago.
Fels became a naturalised British subject in 1890. Although he took no part in public affairs, he was a liberal in politics and an enthusiastic member of the League of Nations Union. He was a member of the Classical Association, the Royal Society, and the Dunedin Naturalists' Field Club. Short and sturdy in build, Fels was fond of walking and spent many holidays in West Otago in the Manapouri, Te Anau, and Wakatipu districts. The Helena Falls in Doubtful Sound were named after one of his daughters, the first woman to see them, and the Emily Pass after another daughter, a member of the party which discovered and first crossed it. He was an enthusiastic and gifted gardener, bringing home plants from Europe to enrich his New Zealand collection.
In 1936 he was awarded the C.M.G. for his services to the community. He died on 29 June 1946.
by Gloria Margaret Strathern, B.A., DIP.N.Z.L.S. formerly Librarian, Hocken Library, Dunedin.
- Willi Fels, C.M.G., Skinner, H. D. (1946)
- Otago Daily Times, 1 Jul 1946 (Obit).