James George Barnes was born in Dunedin on 24 September 1908, the younger of twins. In a long lifetime in the city, he began as a telegraph delivery boy and finished as an MP and mayor, knighted for his community service and honoured for his wartime bravery. His father, Richard Rodwell Barnes, was a Londoner who married Sarah Ellen Valentine, an Australian, in Dunedin in 1907, and was at various times an engineer, a hotelkeeper and a window cleaner.
Jim Barnes attended Andersons Bay School and King Edward Technical College. He worked delivering telegrams, then gained a place with New Zealand Railways as a stores clerk. He spent periods at the workshops in Petone and Addington, then worked as a clerk at the Hillside railway workshops in Dunedin. He took up running, and with grit and hard work was able to improve an unexceptional talent sufficiently to win some 300 first, second and third places between 1926 and 1940. His most notable achievements were winning the New Zealand mile championship in 1932 and the New Zealand cross-country title the following year. Such was his desire to win that he sometimes cried tears of disappointment and frustration when he failed to achieve his goals.
Barnes married Elsie Mabel Clark at Dunedin on 13 April 1938; they were to have one daughter. In 1940 he signed on to train with the Royal New Zealand Air Force in Canada. He qualified as a navigator and bomb aimer, joined No 75 (New Zealand) Squadron and flew a number of sorties before being shot down over France in 1942. During his three years in prison camps Barnes helped to organise escapes, put pressure on German guards and, in the words of a fellow inmate, became ‘a pain in the arse to the Germans’ as he battled for the rights of prisoners.
As a result Barnes was shifted from camp to camp, suffered solitary confinement on several occasions, and was once sentenced to be shot by firing squad. This was in March 1944, soon after a mass break-out by RAF prisoners. The heavy casualties suffered from German retribution drew a hostile reaction from Winston Churchill and the British government. Barnes believed that this had resulted in an easing in the brutality in German policy towards prisoners, and had thus saved his life. He was made an MBE (military division) for his prison camp activities and leadership.
Back in Dunedin, Barnes briefly returned to Hillside workshops, but soon began to put into practice the leadership abilities he had developed in prisoner-of-war camps, winning a seat on the Dunedin City Council in 1947 and becoming deputy mayor. In 1951 he was elected New Zealand National Party MP for St Kilda. He was defeated six years later after serving the Holland government as junior whip. He resumed his council career in 1959, and from 1968 to 1977 he was a popular mayor. He was knighted in 1976.
Barnes’s public duties would for most have been a full-time career, for he served on numerous boards and committees and earned an enviable reputation for his active participation: ‘If he joined up, he turned up’. However, in 1959 he qualified as a sharebroker, and the following year joined N. & E. S. Paterson. He acted as company secretary in 1969–70, finally retiring in 1988, at the age of 80. He maintained his sharebroking business by being at his desk around 6 a.m., before meeting his civic obligations.
Barnes continued his sporting interests as athletics manager of the 1950 British Empire Games team, and assistant team manager with the 1956 New Zealand Olympic Games team at Melbourne. He was a life member and patron of numerous athletics bodies and of trotting and racing clubs, and served as president and executive member of the New Zealand Trotting Conference.
Barnes was a long-standing member of many local organisations. He served four terms as president during his 25 years as a trustee of the Otago Savings Bank, and spent a decade on the Council of the University of Otago, 15 years on the St Hilda’s Collegiate school board, over 28 years on the Ocean Beach Domain board, and chaired the Bayfield High School board. Nationally, he served with the Tourist Hotel Corporation of New Zealand, the local state housing allocation committee, the Municipal Association of New Zealand, the Water Resources Council, the New Zealand Racing Authority and the Totalisator Agency Board.
Jim Barnes was a man of remarkable energy, enthusiasm and charm. He was known in his early career as ‘Battling Jim’ and in later years as ‘Gentleman Jim’. Affable and genial, he was unable to hold a kerbside conversation without constant interruption from passers-by; he raised his hat to each one and greeted them as if he knew them personally. In his later years he was a congenial, cheerful and appalling golfer, a keen bowler and a man who enjoyed his family of two grandchildren and one great-grandchild. He died at Dunedin on 6 June 1995, survived by his wife and daughter. He left an indelible imprint on the affairs of Dunedin as a ‘fiercely loyal servant of the city’.