Alfred William Gallagher was born at Hamilton on 17 May 1911, the first of six children of Alfred John Gallagher and his wife, Sarah Matilda Clow. Known as Willie, and later Bill, he spent his early years on the family dairy farm at Horotiu, north of Hamilton. He started at Te Kōwhai School in 1916, but in 1920 moved with his family to Papamoa in the Bay of Plenty, where his father and a neighbour had bought a larger farm. Willie attended Papamoa School, then Te Puke District High School until he was 15, when he began working full time on the farm.
By 1927 Alf Gallagher was technically insolvent, and after a breakdown in his health, he divorced his wife and emigrated to Australia in 1929. Bill and his brother Henry now became responsible for the farm. Sarah Gallagher suffered a severe stroke in 1933, and three years later the family returned to Waikato. Bill’s share from the sale of the Bay of Plenty property provided the deposit for 98 acres at Horsham Downs, near Horotiu. He had met Millicent May Murray through church activities at Te Puke, and they were married there on 29 April 1936. Despite contracting poliomyelitis in 1939, Millie raised the couple’s three daughters and two sons.
Bill and Henry Gallagher, who had invented farming devices since the 1920s, realised the potential for controlling animals using electricity while working on Henry’s motorcycle: when a horse wandered into the shed and brushed against their car, Bill connected the motorcycle’s magneto to a triggering device, which electrified the car and gave the horse a shock. About 1937 he made his first electric fence (using mains power) as a cheap, practical alternative to standard post, wire and batten fencing. He developed a battery-powered design because it was then illegal to use mains supply. By 1938 a proven market existed for the prototypes, which he had been selling locally, and two years later the family moved to Hamilton East, where Bill briefly produced electric fences and ‘gas-producers’ (for gas-powered motor vehicles) with his friend Bill O’Brien and his other brother, Vivian.
During a 1940 visit to Wellington, Bill Gallagher and O’Brien were offered a short-lived job making gas-producers and electric fences. On returning to Hamilton in 1942, Bill was manpowered to work for the Colonial Ammunition Company and subsequently for a farm-machinery repair business. After the war he expanded from the garage at his Seddon Road residence into a workshop on a rear section. With six employees he successfully made gas-producers and converted old cars into tractors. His two brothers worked with him until 1950 and together they designed a spinning top-dresser. The firm undertook general repair work, manufactured the popular battery-powered electric-fence units, and also made cow bails, hay barns and cattle-stops.
In the 1950s Bill Gallagher was heavily involved with boat-building and commercial fishing. After two years’ construction, the 50-foot motor vessel Seddon Park was launched in December 1951. Gallagher operated a commercial fishing venture from Raglan in 1957, but found that trawling did not pay. The 88-foot Hamutana, which he built in 1957–58, sailed to Brisbane on hospitality trips for the Boys’ Brigade and Bible class in 1959–60, and served as a mother ship for the 1964 Auckland–Noumea yacht race. A committed Christian, Bill also hosted several church mission voyages to Pacific islands.
Gallagher Engineering was formally established as a limited liability company in 1963 with £3,000 capital. His sons, John and Bill junior, took an increasingly prominent role, phasing out top-dressers and developing other agricultural machinery. The electric-fence unit became the most successful product once the use of mains power was permitted in 1961. In 1966 the firm marketed a model made by Precision Electronics, but Gallagher worked with electrician Jack Page to produce their own mains-powered model in 1969. Gallagher Electronics was established as a separate company in 1974.
Bill Gallagher’s responsiveness to farmers’ needs, frontline salesmanship and emphasis on quality control, combined with his sons’ creative thinking and marketing, ensured further success in the early 1970s. He continued his interest in electronic research at a new Kahikatea Drive factory from 1976. He had initially been sceptical about exporting the company’s products, but after Bill junior had some success in Australia in 1967, Bill and Millie Gallagher travelled extensively in Britain promoting electric fences. Known in his later years as the ‘Admiral’, he reduced his direct involvement during the early 1980s, but continued as a director until 1989. By that time the firm was facing hard times because of the removal of farm and export subsidies.
In retirement Gallagher invented a hoist for transferring hospital patients between bed, bath and wheelchair. At Assisi Home and Hospital in Matangi he repaired wheelchairs, redesigned the boiler system, advised on a gas system and installed emergency lighting. He served on the board of managers at First Presbyterian Church in Frankton (1954–86), was a justice of the peace and a member of the Masonic lodge. In 1980 he became a Paul Harris fellow for his international community service with the Rotary Club of Frankton, and in 1990 he was appointed an MBE.
Gallagher exhibited a lively sense of humour and enjoyed clever jokes, despite his strict Christian beliefs. He disapproved of alcohol and swearing in the workplace. A slightly built man, he led a modest and unassuming lifestyle. He earned a reputation for satisfying his customers and for fairness as a boss. By the early 1990s the original Gallagher engineering company had become uneconomic and was sold. However, the power fences he had developed were being used in over 100 countries for such diverse purposes as elephant control in Malaysia and the protection of Canadian beehives from bears.
Bill Gallagher died from cancer at Waikato Hospital, Hamilton, on 8 August 1990, and was buried at Hamilton Park cemetery, Newstead. He was survived by his wife and children.