Page 1: Biography
Corson, Thomas Allan Napier
Businessman, local politician
This biography, written by Iain Gillies, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Born in Napier on 25 February 1902, Thomas Allan Napier Corson was the second of six children of Mary Barbara Laura Waters and her husband, Thomas Corson. His father had established a successful business as a merchant and manufacturer’s agent in Napier in the late 1890s, and transferred his operations to Gisborne early in the new century. A keen student, Tan (as he was usually known) attended Gisborne Central School and then Gisborne High School, but his sights were always set on the business world. His father believed that the only way to learn was to start at the bottom, so he joined the family firm as an office boy in 1918.
Corson soon had a firm grasp of all aspects of the business, which by the early 1920s was selling oats and chaff, shipped from South Island ports, to farmers in Hawke’s Bay, Gisborne and the East Coast. When the company decided to branch into the motor industry, it secured the franchise for the Firestone Tyre and Rubber Company. Corson eagerly accepted the opportunity to train at Firestone’s headquarters in Akron, Ohio, and on his return to Gisborne he initiated developments which helped the company keep pace in the rapidly changing industry. In the late 1920s the Corsons also became associated with Caltex Oil, then trading in New Zealand as Texaco, and they operated the company’s Gisborne petrol outlet.
By 1930 the partnership had proved so successful that it was formed into a limited liability company, with the share capital held by Tan Corson and his father. On 14 March 1932 Tan married a schoolteacher, Jessie Buchan Thomson, at Motu, Waikohu County; their happy, 40-year union was to produce two daughters and two sons.
Thomas Corson and Son continued to expand, especially after Gisborne was linked with the national railway system in 1942. It became heavily involved in the region’s developing horticultural sector, and in the late 1940s and early 1950s Tan helped to establish produce markets and a grain and seed mill. Despite his busy business schedule and the demands of a growing family, he was able to devote time to his dream of developing a thriving Gisborne – East Coast district with diverse trading ties to the outside world. Realising that the maintenance and development of harbour facilities was important to ensure that ships continued to call, in November 1947 he stood for and was elected to the Gisborne Harbour Board; he served until 1953.
Corson’s business acumen and determination to see Gisborne’s essential services improved enabled him to make a valuable contribution in other areas of local government. He served on the Cook Hospital Board from 1950 to 1953, and helped to establish the Chelsea Private Hospital, chairing its trust board for 21 years. In November 1950 he was elected to the Gisborne Borough (later City) Council on the conservative Citizens’ Committee ticket, describing himself as a ‘proved experienced businessman’ who would ‘get things done’; he served until 1953. He was also president of the local chamber of commerce, the New Zealand Fruit and Produce Merchants’ and Auctioneers’ Federation and the Eastern Co-operative Building Society.
Despite his apparently parochial focus, Corson was a firm believer in overseas travel and fostering international links, not only to maintain his company’s contacts in England, America and Australia, but also to keep up with business innovations overseas. A staunch Presbyterian, he was an active member of the Rotary Club of Gisborne and the Abercorn Masonic Lodge for many years. In his spare time he enjoyed tennis, golf and trout fishing. Tan Corson died at Chelsea Private Hospital, Gisborne, on 30 April 1972, survived by his wife and children. A practical businessman who built his fortune locally, he was a passionate and determined advocate for the economic development of the Gisborne – East Coast region.