Page 1: Biography
Myers, Arthur Mielziner
Businessman, politician, philanthropist
This biography, written by R. C. J. Stone, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 3, 1996.
The beginning of the extensive business interests of the Myers family today go back to the late 1850s when two German Jewish brothers, Louis and Bernard Ehrenfried, left their farm near Hamburg for the Victorian goldfields. By 1862 they and their sister Catherine had moved to Otago, New Zealand. In December of that year Catherine married, in Dunedin, another German Jewish immigrant, Louis Myers. The couple went to Ballarat in Victoria where Myers became a trader and pawnbroker near the goldfields. Their third child, Arthur Mielziner, was born there on 19 May 1867.
In 1868 Bernard and Louis Ehrenfried settled in Thames, where they began brewing a German-style beer with great success. Bernard died in 1869, but the brewery continued under the style of Ehrenfried Brothers. At Catherine's request, Louis Ehrenfried found for her somewhat hapless husband a job as a travelling jewellery salesman, which enabled the couple to return to New Zealand. The following year Myers was drowned during a business visit to Fiji, leaving Catherine to provide for five children under the age of eight.
Although unhappily married himself, Louis Ehrenfried had strong family feelings. He assumed responsibility for his nephews and niece, sending them with their mother to Wellington where the children could get good schooling. In 1883, when Arthur was 16, Ehrenfried withdrew him from Wellington College and put him to work in the family business, first in Thames, then in Auckland, where Ehrenfried had transferred the whole of his brewing operations in 1885. He progressively passed over more and more responsibilities to his favourite nephew, who, by the age of 20, showed exceptional business talent. Already Ehrenfried had decided to make him his successor in the firm.
In 1895 Ehrenfried Brothers was given the chance to merge with Brown, Campbell and Company, a leading liquor business in the Auckland province, whose sole proprietor was John Logan Campbell. Ehrenfried died on the eve of the amalgamation, which was completed in April 1897. In his will he bequeathed the greater part of his holding in the newly formed Campbell and Ehrenfried Company to Arthur Myers in the expectation (justified in the event) that his nephew would regard the legacy as a family trust. Myers became the managing director of, and real guiding force behind, the new firm. Although only 30, he had become a wealthy and powerful man.
In April 1903 Myers left for London to marry a woman whom he had met there two years earlier, Vera Anita Levy, daughter of Benjamin Levy, one of two proprietors of a large British company with extensive business interests in Australia. The couple were married in London on 22 October 1903 at the St Petersburg Place Synagogue. They then went on an extended honeymoon in Europe.
On his return to Auckland after a year away, Myers was disappointed to find that the new house he had commissioned for his wife was not yet ready. On completion, Cintra – an impressive rather than architecturally distinguished residence – became a centre for entertainment in Auckland. Vera Myers was an accomplished hostess and a woman of culture: she spoke four European languages and played the piano and violin. According to family tradition, it was she who urged Arthur to put his administrative skills at the disposal of the wider Auckland community.
Out of this arose his election as mayor of the city in April 1905, as an exponent of the concept of 'Greater Auckland'. But his scheme for the amalgamation of the multiplicity of local councils and boards on the Tamaki isthmus was killed by their particularism. Elsewhere he was able to bring about significant change, if need be by raising loans. He rationalised municipal services, and improved the water supply, drainage, generation of electricity and much else. He was the driving force behind the building of the handsome new town hall, with its striking facade of Oamaru stone. He also inspired the building of a large single-span concrete bridge across Grafton Gully, thereby angering small-minded opponents who derided it as 'Myers' Folly'. But by the time Myers died in 1926 there was no-one in Auckland who dared say it had been a mistake.
Arthur Myers also gained popularity for his attitude on defence and imperial matters. He was a supporter of the volunteer movement, serving as major in the 1st Battalion Auckland Infantry Volunteers and as commanding officer, with the rank of lieutenant colonel, of the New Zealand Forces Motor Service Corps. In August 1908 he chaired the committee which organised hospitality for the 16,000 men of the visiting American fleet. When he resigned the mayoralty in February 1909 to go on a world tour, 10,000 citizens gathered in Albert Park to bid him farewell. His mayoralty had marked a new phase in Auckland's administration. He was an innovator with the vision and the skills to cope with the problems thrown up by the largest and most rapidly growing city in New Zealand. Later reforming mayors such as C. J. Parr and J. H. Gunson followed where he had led.
In May 1910, shortly after his return from abroad, Myers stood as an independent for the Auckland East parliamentary seat, left vacant by the resignation of his cousin F. E. Baume; he won comfortably. From the 1911 general election until he resigned the seat in October 1921 he was an avowed Liberal. Significantly, one of his first moves in Parliament was to promote what could be regarded as the dominion's first town-planning bill. In the short-lived Mackenzie administration of 1912 he held three important portfolios. When a coalition wartime ministry was formed in August 1915 he was brought in as minister of customs. While Sir Joseph Ward was absent abroad on wartime business, Myers filled in as minister of finance. But it was as minister in charge of munitions and supplies that he particularly shone, showing an efficiency and absence of scandal possibly not exceeded anywhere else in the empire.
Shortly after the war's end Myers lost his appetite for politics. He had been affronted by what he thought was a blatant appeal for a sympathy vote by his blinded soldier opponent, Clutha Mackenzie, during the December 1919 election campaign. And he was shrewd enough to sense that a prolonged period of Reform Party domination was at hand: he could never fulfil himself, he knew, as a long-term opposition MP. Nor was there a need for him to return to the helm of Campbell and Ehrenfried, now under the capable direction of its managing director, Alfred S. Bankart.
At the time of his marriage Arthur Myers had promised his wife that should there be a time when he no longer needed to live in New Zealand, they would return to England, where Vera had passed most of her youth. By 1920 he decided that that time had come. He went with Vera and their three children (two daughters and a son) to London, and bought a house in Mayfair, returning to New Zealand only to see out the 1921 sitting of Parliament. He then resigned his seat to go back to England permanently. The Auckland public regarded the departure of one with so much to offer and at the height of his powers as 'a calamity'.
In 1924 Myers was knighted for services to his country. He had served Auckland and the young dominion well in government and business alike. An enthusiastic athlete in his youth, he had continued to support sports administration in his later years. His work on a number of trusts, such as Cornwall Park and the Campbell estate, had been invaluable. He had been a generous benefactor, perhaps best remembered for his gift of six acres of slum land lying between Grey Street (Greys Avenue) and Queen Street, which he bought and gifted to the city in 1913 to be developed as an inner-city park. On the margin of this open land, called Myers Park in his honour, he built with his own money a free kindergarten. While living in London he donated £5,000 towards the erection of a Karitane hospital in Auckland. He was responsible for numerous other benefactions.
In London Myers lived a semi-retired existence. He went onto the London board of the National Bank of New Zealand and also continued to carry out a number of semi-public responsibilities. He also took up golf – maybe too strenuously, for it was on a golf course that he had his first heart attack. After a series of such attacks he died in his London house on 9 October 1926. He was survived by his children and his wife, who lived on in England until her death in 1965.
Arthur Myers was a man of immense talent and industry, whose ability led him to make the most of his advantageous family connections. He inherited and built up what was to become, under his son, Kenneth, and grandson, Douglas, one of New Zealand's leading business groups, and also made a lasting contribution to civic affairs in Auckland.