Harry Heaton Barker, one of eight children of John Heaton Barker, an accountant, and his wife, Martha Annie Johns, was born in Nelson on 18 July 1898. The family had moved to Wellington by 1902 and then to Auckland by 1912. John Barker eventually founded the Four Square grocery organisation. Harry was sent to board at New Plymouth Boys’ High School at 14, and left at the end of the year with a recognised ability in literature and elocution. The New Zealand Herald first accepted his verse when he was 16.
To enlist for the First World War, Harry lied about his age. Quickly discovered, he returned home and as a protest slept under canvas until he was able to re-enlist, in October 1917. In the meantime he was a cadet reporter for the New Zealand Herald. Towards the end of his army service, which was spent in New Zealand, Harry succumbed to influenza in the 1918 epidemic. He was transferred to home service and when discharged in December became the sole reporter for a Te Awamutu newspaper. However, still weak from his illness, he moved to a job on a South Auckland farm to improve his health. Subsequently, he worked briefly for a Pukekohe newspaper.
In 1920 Barker joined the Gisborne Times as a reporter. At his father’s request he returned to Auckland in 1923, but soon moved back to Gisborne and became a reporter with the Poverty Bay Herald. He was to live there for the rest of his life.
In 1922 Barker was on the first direct flight from Gisborne to Auckland. Anticipating that air travel would be critical in lessening Gisborne’s geographical isolation, he launched a campaign that resulted in the borough council buying land for an airport.
Barker became editor of the Poverty Bay Herald in 1935, and left what was by then the Gisborne Herald in 1943 for a life in public affairs. He failed in attempts in 1943 and 1946 to enter Parliament for the New Zealand National Party and during this time freelanced as a journalist.
In 1950 Harry Barker became mayor of Gisborne. He held the office for nine successive terms and was reputedly the longest continuously serving mayor in New Zealand. Each term he stood as an independent and never had an election committee. His 1950 majority was 1,200 votes; he won his second campaign by 4,500. He was unopposed in three campaigns and only one resulted in a close call.
His first priority upon election was to instigate a programme of permanent works. During his nine mayoral terms Gisborne’s basic amenities, including streets, bridges, water-storage capacity, water reticulation, storm-water drains, and a unique marine sewerage outfall, and facilities, such as pensioner flats and a swimming pool, were developed. He was criticised for being self-opinionated, autocratic, and acting unilaterally on occasions. He could keep debate to an absolute minimum and bulldoze the council if it was questioning a project he was determined to see realised. Nevertheless, Harry Barker was acclaimed, even by his critics, for his vision, optimism, relentless efforts to advance the region and formidable oratorical skills. Renowned for his scrupulous preparation for meetings and his firm chairmanship of them, he had speeches stored in his mind for any unexpected occasion, and always said something appropriate in public. He got on well with council staff and his mayoral door was always open. He had no social life other than civic events: Gisborne was his life.
Barker stood in awe of no one, and he had friends in high places. Ministers and prime ministers, especially Keith Holyoake, respected his managerial skills, including his control of the budget. And he remembered under-secretaries’ wives’ or children’s names. He believed the district should receive as many government subsidies as possible, he lobbied for them relentlessly in Wellington, and he was usually successful in gaining them.
A major achievement for Harry Barker and the council was the government’s decision that Gisborne should host the nation’s celebrations for the 1969 bicentenary of the arrival of James Cook in New Zealand. Thousands of national and international visitors went to Gisborne, as did nine ships from five navies. During Barker’s 27 years in office six governors general went to the city, and Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip visited three times. Harry Barker sat on many local bodies, including the Gisborne District Roads Council and the Cook Hospital Board. He was also involved with national councils and organisations relating to youth and provincial concerns.
On 18 February 1926 Harry Barker had married Anita Pearle Greaves at Gisborne. Anita was an unfailingly charming and popular mayoress. The couple had no children, and she worked hard for Gisborne, reviving the local branches of the National Council of Women of New Zealand and the Business and Professional Women’s Club of the YWCA and forming the local branch of the free kindergarten association. The couple’s dedication to Gisborne was recognised when Harry was made an OBE in 1964, CBE in 1972 and KBE in 1977, and Anita an MBE in 1974.
Harry Barker was never voted out of office. When he retired in 1977 the city’s population had increased by 50 per cent to 30,000 and debt was less than when he assumed office. Gisborne had been transformed. Sir Harry and Lady Barker are remembered for regularly visiting hospital patients, a habit of many decades. Their own failing health eventually halted them. Sir Harry maintained his interest in journalism, writing his final article at the age of 90.
Lady Barker predeceased her husband by one year, in May 1993. Aged 95, Sir Harry Heaton Barker died on 18 May 1994. He was buried alongside his wife at Taruheru cemetery, near Gisborne. As a reflection of his lifelong interest in young people, the Gisborne YMCA received the bulk of his large estate. Smaller, but significant, amounts went to several other organisations.