LEYS, Thomson Wilson
Journalist, newspaper proprietor, and public benefactor.
A new biography of Leys, Thomson Wilson appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Thomson Wilson Leys, the son of William Leys, a Scottish excise officer, and Hannah, née Wilson, was born at Nottingham in 1850, and educated at the People's College, Nottingham. At an extraordinarily tender age, he developed a social conscience which was to colour his whole life and find expression in his latter years in a constant flow of benefactions to the community of Auckland, where he finally settled, and to the Dominion as a whole. At the age of 12, as an entirely voluntary effort, he taught in the Ragged Schools of his day, and as he progressed through his teens he developed a lively interest in social work generally. His work for his less fortunate fellows in England, however, was cut short almost as soon as it started, as his father, about 1862, became enthusiastically involved in the idea of a Nonconformist colony at Albertland in New Zealand. When, however, the family landed in Auckland in 1863, the father had had enough of travel and decided to settle. His son entered upon a three-year apprenticeship with the Southern Cross, and finally became subeditor of that journal. After a period of freelance writing, following a breakdown in health, young Leys joined the Auckland Star as a subeditor in 1872. He was appointed editor in 1876, and held that position for 45 years. As a journalist he was a prodigious worker, but not even printer's ink could keep him away from the social service interests he had espoused at home. He took part in various community movements and at the same time was acting as a kind of public relations officer for Auckland. He compiled the Auckland Provincial Almanac and Handbook, and the Auckland section of Vogel's Handbook of New Zealand, as well as editing a history of New Zealand by Sherrin and Wallace which was published by Brett. In 1889 he was admitted to partnership in the Auckland Star, the New Zealand Graphic, and the New Zealand Farmer, of which publications he became managing director in 1894, a position he held until his death.
Leys became a notable figure in the world of journalism on a national scale. He was chairman of the meeting in Wellington which formed the press agency that later grew into the United Press Association of the present day, and in 1920 he led the New Zealand delegation to the Empire Press Conference in Canada. It was at this time that he was granted the honorary degree of LL.D. of McGill University.
As became a man of early acquired humanistic instincts, Leys was a Liberal in politics, and over a considerable period of years used his not inconsiderable influence in support, first, of Sir George Grey, and, later, of Ballance and Seddon. When he was offered a seat in the Legislative Council, he declined on the grounds that journalists, working or otherwise, should not dabble in such things. In his latter years Leys found more and more time to devote to the public service on the social level which had engaged his attention all his life. The Leys Institute in Ponsonby, founded by his brother, was one of his special interests, and he provided the funds for half the cost of the building and furnishings. Also as president of the Ponsonby Boys' Brigade he was a notable benefactor to that organisation. Free libraries comprised another of his hobbies and he was president of the first library conference in Dunedin. The Boy Scouts' Association enjoyed his ardent and practical support, as did the Mechanics' Institute of Auckland. He was a member of the McKelvie Trust Board, the Auckland Art Gallery Society, to which he presented valuable works of art, the Auckland War Memorial Museum Board, and the Workers' Educational Association; and he was for many years chairman of the Council of Auckland University College. Trust funds in varying amounts still contribute to the work of most of the organisations which Leys adopted in his lifetime. He died in Auckland on 27 September 1924.
Leys married twice; first, in 1875 in Auckland, to Charlotte Oxley, by whom he had one son and two daughters, and, secondly, in 1913, also in Auckland, to Avice Mason Williams.
by Ronald Jones, Journalist and Script Writer, New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, Wellington.
New Zealand Herald, 29 Sep 1924 (Obit).