Page 1: Biography
Allum, John Andrew Charles
Electrical engineer, local politician, employers’ representative
This biography, written by Graham W. A. Bush, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000. It was updated in February, 2006.
At the time the longest-serving mayor in the city’s history, Jack Allum dominated Auckland’s local political life in the 1940s and 1950s. In particular, his name was to become indelibly associated with the construction of the Auckland Harbour Bridge. He was born John Andrew Charles Allum in Rotherhithe, London, on 27 January 1889, the son of Clara Martha Merry and her husband, John Allum, a porter at the General Post Office. As a 19-year-old clerk he married Annie Attwood at Lewisham on 5 March 1908; they were to have three daughters and two sons. The following year, together with their infant daughter, they emigrated to New Zealand.
Allum was seeking a country where ‘hard work would count’. After a brief spell in Auckland he spent four years working in Dunedin. In 1914 he returned to Auckland, intending his stay to be temporary, but he never again lived anywhere else. In 1922 he founded the Allum Electrical Company, remaining its managing director for several decades before handing it over to his son, Robert.
In 1919 Allum was elected to the council of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce. At a 1920 by-election he won a seat on the Auckland City Council, which he retained as a Progressive Citizens’ representative until his defeat at the 1929 election. The Auckland tramway system had come under municipal control in 1919 and Allum was a vigorous chairman of the council’s transport committee from 1925. With ratepayers demanding the curtailment of unprofitable outlying bus services, and suburban boroughs hostile to city council control of the profitable tramways, the council was relieved when a royal commission in 1928 recommended the creation of an elected Auckland Transport Board. Allum was appointed its founding chairman, a position he was to retain until 1943.
During and immediately following the depression of the 1930s Allum expanded his involvement in public affairs. He had already served a six-year term as president of the Auckland Manufacturers’ Association from 1922 and was again elected in 1933; later he became national president. His contribution to employers’ affairs was even greater: from 1938 he was president of the Auckland Provincial Employers’ Association continuously for nearly 30 years, and he twice held the presidency of the New Zealand Employers’ Federation. A deep concern with technical education saw him appointed as an employers’ association representative on the Seddon Memorial Technical College board of governors, which he chaired in the 1930s. His presidency of the Auckland Kindergarten Association, begun in the mid 1930s, was to extend for 33 years. He served as honorary consul for Switzerland for several years.
Allum returned to the city council in 1938 on the Auckland Citizens’ and Ratepayers’ Association ticket, and was immediately appointed deputy mayor to Sir Ernest Davis. On the latter’s retirement in 1941, Allum was his obvious successor: he won narrowly but consolidated his position with comfortable victories in 1944 and 1947. The beginning of his mayoralty coincided with Japan’s entry into the Second World War and for several years he ‘almost lived’ at the town hall. He was chairman of the National Patriotic Fund Board and patron of various wartime support organisations. In 1944, aghast at the critical housing shortage, he conceived the idea of converting United States Army buildings into transit camps. His appointment as a CBE in 1946 was both expected and deserved.
In 1941 Allum had assumed the chairmanship of the Auckland and Suburban (later Metropolitan) Drainage Board, a position he retained for 12 years. The board laboured during this period over a controversial new sewerage scheme at Browns Island, and he had to defend the policy against sustained criticism from a group headed by Dove-Myer Robinson, a future mayor. In 1948 Allum was sued by Robinson for defamation: the suit failed but Allum, suffering from nervous exhaustion, took nine months’ leave in England to recuperate. The Browns Island scheme was eventually rejected in favour of an alternative promoted by Robinson.
After the war Allum’s already diverse interests blossomed even further. He served as inaugural chairman of the New Zealand Ballet Trust and as president of the Auckland Amateur Operatic Society. In 1952 he chaired a major royal commission on the condition of New Zealand railways. In the mid 1950s the Allums shifted to the North Shore, and when nearby Rangitoto College was opened in 1956 he became the first chairman of its board of governors.
The year 1950 was pivotal for Allum. Knighted, and then dropped as the Citizens’ and Ratepayers’ mayoral candidate for supposedly having crossed its power-brokers, he stood as an independent and trounced the field. From the mid 1940s he had carefully cultivated the idea of spanning the Waitemata Harbour and in 1950 the Auckland Harbour Bridge Authority was constituted. Allum was the universal choice as chairman: he held office throughout the period of construction, the opening of the bridge (1959) and the addition of extensions (1969). He eventually relinquished the chairmanship in 1971, at the age of 82, although he remained a member of the authority until his death. His close association with ‘Jack Allum’s Bridge’, as it became known, helped compensate for his rebuff in the 1953 mayoral election: he was the first sitting Auckland mayor to be dumped in the twentieth century.
Allum’s final years were punctuated by testimonial dinners, anniversaries and celebrations. He died in Takapuna on 16 September 1972, survived by his wife, two daughters and a son. The sitting mayor, Robinson, described him as the greatest of Auckland’s mayors. Over a 50-year span he had been an active office-holder in up to 60 organisations. His ability to juggle numerous positions was prodigious, aided by his willingness to follow the recommendations of professional advisers. His wartime leadership of Auckland was shrewd and assured, and his mayoral pronouncements usually accorded with popular sentiment. No motion he put to the city council during his mayoralty was defeated. Decisive and absolutely tireless as a lobbyist for Auckland projects, Allum was known in Parliament as ‘His Imperial Highness’. At the town hall he was regarded as a martinet, impatient of opposition, but his battered countenance, Cheshire-cat grin and bristly moustache made him beloved of political cartoonists.
Although often hailed for his visionary promotion of Auckland, Jack Allum left no papers, and his personal and political convictions were rather elusive. Perhaps reflecting his Presbyterian faith, he set high value on both hard work and a good reputation in business. According to former prime minister Jack Marshall, with Allum’s steely will went ‘a soul as well as a dynamo’.