Dictionary of New Zealand Bography logo

Story: Hay, James Lawrence

Page 1: Biography

Hay, James Lawrence


Advertising manager, Presbyterian layman, welfare worker, retailer, businessman, local politician, philanthropist

This biography, written by Geoffrey W. Rice, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.

James Lawrence Hay was born at Lawrence, Otago, on 17 May 1888, the son of Scottish parents Isabella McLean and her husband, William Hay, a blacksmith. His father was accidentally killed when James was seven. He was educated at Lawrence District High School, but left at 13 to support his family. He worked in drapery stores in Lawrence, Milton and then Ashburton, where he became involved in the Presbyterian Bible class movement. In 1909 he joined the staff of J. Ballantyne and Company, the leading Christchurch department store, and later became advertising manager for the drapers J. Beath and Company.

As president of the Presbyterian Bible Class Union, Hay became well known for his leadership and organising ability. After the outbreak of war in 1914 he was offered the post of senior YMCA secretary to the New Zealand Division, and spent four years in Egypt, France and England organising welfare services. In France he had the task of distributing comforts to over 20,000 troops, and organising recreational and educational activities close to the battlefields. Ormond Burton later recalled that Hay displayed ‘immense energy, initiative, and a very great deal of imagination, plus much practical ability…. A battalion coming out from a frozen front line was almost sure to be met at some point with biscuits and hot cocoa’. In 1918, on the recommendation of Major General Sir Andrew Russell, he was appointed an MBE, and then an OBE.

On 5 December 1917, at Epping, Essex, Hay married Davidina Mertel Gunn, a Christchurch-born staff nurse who served in Egypt and England with the New Zealand Army Nursing Service. They were to have two daughters and identical twin sons. He was appointed general secretary of the New Zealand YMCA in Wellington in 1919, then returned to Christchurch in 1925 as advertising manager and staff controller of Ballantynes.

Hay was impressed by post-war changes in retailing overseas, but saw little scope for developing these trends at Ballantynes. In 1929 he welcomed a proposal to open a retail outlet for the large Auckland manufacturing and wholesale firm of Macky, Logan, Caldwell. A private company was formed, with Hay a minority shareholder, and a new store built in Gloucester Street, north of Cathedral Square, then considered a retail backwater. The early years were a struggle, but Hay’s department store soon became famous for innovative window displays and promotions. When a circus came to town in 1933, its elephants were hired to advertise a sale. People came to expect the unusual at Hay’s, and were rarely disappointed.

During the 1930s depression Hay was active in relief work, including efforts to find jobs for young people. However, in 1933 Macky, Logan, Caldwell went into liquidation. Hay’s continued as one of its more profitable subsidiaries, but in November that year the receiver gave Hay just 24 hours to buy the business or close. Lacking capital of his own, he persuaded a prominent Christchurch businessman, W. H. E. Flint, to become chairman, and successfully floated a new public company with support from shareholders throughout the South Island.

Over the next 30 years Hay’s grew to become one of the South Island’s leading department stores, adopting the slogan ‘the friendly store’. Customer loyalty was fostered through a popular cash-discount stamp scheme, a birthday club and a junior league under Edna Neville (‘Aunt Haysl’), who organised activities for children on the store’s rooftop playground. In 1948 Hay initiated an annual Christmas parade with floats depicting familiar nursery rhymes. The playground and parade became essential features of the holiday seasons for generations of Christchurch children. Hay’s love of children was reflected in his role as a radio broadcaster (‘Uncle Hamish’) during the 1930s. From its modest start in Gloucester Street, the store steadily expanded until it took over most of the block. Branches were later established in Greymouth, Ashburton, Oamaru and Dunedin. In 1960 Hay’s opened Christchurch’s first suburban shopping centre at Upper Riccarton. Further land purchases in Papanui led to the opening of the Northlands shopping centre in 1967.

James Hay held the strong personal conviction that a business which derived its success from the support of its local community should give something back. During the Second World War the store’s window displays were often used to promote war loans and patriotic fund appeals. He was president of the New Zealand Retailers’ Federation (1940) and of the Canterbury branch of the New Zealand Institute of Management, of which he became an honorary fellow. Throughout his adult life he was a prominent member of the Presbyterian church, and its ethic of hard work, service and self-discipline was a dominant influence. He was an elder of Knox Church for over 40 years, a respected Bible class leader and a long-serving member of the Presbyterian Church Property Trustees.

From his early years in Lawrence as a cornet player in the local brass band, Hay developed a great love of music. He was chairman of the Christchurch Civic Music Council (1944–63), and patron or president of the Royal Christchurch Musical Society, the Christchurch Civic Orchestra Foundation, and the Addington Railway Workshops and Woolston brass bands. He was made an honorary FTCL in 1968. He was also awarded the silver medal of the Canterbury Society of Arts for his support of the arts in general and his role in establishing Hay’s Art Competition.

Elected to the Christchurch City Council in 1944, Hay twice topped the poll and served until 1953, when he was defeated in an ill-timed bid for the mayoralty. (His son Hamish was later mayor of Christchurch for 15 years.) He was the first chairman of the Canterbury Museum Trust Board (1948–54) and played a key role in persuading Canterbury’s local bodies to extend the museum in 1950, putting a great deal of personal effort into fund-raising. In 1959 he established the J. L. Hay Charitable Trust, and for 18 years he chaired a committee formed by the combined churches to raise funds for children’s homes.

In 1958 Hay turned his fund-raising skills to the building of a new town hall in Christchurch. His objective was to provide a first-class concert hall and a venue for conferences and community events. He became the driving force behind the project, doing more than any other individual to generate public support for it. He lived to see the Victoria Square site chosen and construction well advanced, but died before the building was opened in 1972. His significant contribution was recognised in the naming of the James Hay Theatre adjacent to the main auditorium.

Knighted in 1961 for his services to the community, he retired as managing director of Hay’s two years later, but continued as chairman until 1967. He was then appointed president of the company, an office he retained until his death. He supported the 1968 merger with Wright Stephenson and Company to form Haywrights, New Zealand’s second-largest department store chain, but in the late 1970s a complicated round of takeovers led to the acquisition of most of its stores by Farmers’ Trading Company of Auckland. Davidina Hay had died in 1969, and on 22 April 1970 James married Olive Musgrove (née Cowie) in Christchurch. He died at his Christchurch home on 26 March 1971, survived by Olive, his daughters Helen Louisson and Laurie Salas, and his twin sons David and Hamish.

How to cite this page:

Geoffrey W. Rice. 'Hay, James Lawrence', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5h11/hay-james-lawrence (accessed 22 July 2024)