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Story: Mackley, Garnet Hercules

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Mackley, Garnet Hercules


Stationmaster, railway manager, businessman, politician

This biography, written by Alan Bellamy, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.

Garnet Hercules Mackley, who was to become an outstanding general manager of the New Zealand Railways, and later achieved prominence in private business and politics, was born in Port Chalmers on 9 December 1883 to English-born parents Esther Styles and her husband, John Charles Mackley. The eighth son in a family of nine boys and four girls, he was raised as a Presbyterian. His father, who had arrived in New Zealand in the mid nineteenth century, was reputed to be the first person to undertake the commercial manufacture of gunpowder in New Zealand, at Ōwaka in the early 1880s. He also supervised the first export consignment of frozen meat aboard the Dunedin in 1882, and was later works manager for the Southland Frozen Meat and Produce Export Company.

Garnet was educated principally at the Invercargill Middle School, and began work as a part-time errand boy. When he left school he was employed as a carrier, driving a horse and cart. His career in the railway service began in January 1900 when he was appointed a cadet at Ōtautau, Southland. As the construction of the Otago central line progressed, he was stationed successively at Omakau, Alexandra and Clyde. In 1907 he transferred to the Christchurch goods office and after a short stay went to Petone for a year, before returning south to the Invercargill goods office. When the railway to Tuatapere opened in 1909, Mackley was the first stationmaster. In 1913 he became stationmaster at Heriot. A fine sportsman, he played rugby for the Star Rugby Football Club in Invercargill and for Petone, and was a champion single sculler. He later regretted that he was not able to participate in sport as much as he would have liked because of his railway duties and transfers.

On 14 April 1914, at Glenkenich, he married Isabella (Isabel) Robertson; they were to have one son. Soon after, he was transferred to Kaikohe, Northland, as its first stationmaster. During the First World War Mackley organised a queen carnival at Kaikohe and raised £2,000 for the Red Cross. At the time there was considerable suspicion that the local Dalmatian residents, most of whom were gumdiggers, were disloyal. When a commission was appointed to inquire into the matter, Mackley championed their cause and helped to prove the charges baseless. Later the Dalmatian community presented him with a gold watch.

In 1916 he was appointed stationmaster at Onerahi, near Whangarei. Three years later he was transferred to head office in Wellington, where he qualified as a train-running officer. He then went to Ohakune as chief clerk to further his administrative experience, before transferring back to head office in 1928. As chief clerk to the general manager of New Zealand Railways, he dealt with correspondence with branch heads as well as the general public, giving him an extensive knowledge of the various branches of the railways.

Mackley was appointed assistant general manager on 1 December 1931. Two years later, when he learned he was to be bypassed for the position of general manager, he made a compelling presentation to the Government Railways Board outlining why he should be appointed. The board reviewed its decision and appointed Mackley general manager on 1 May 1933.

Although he took up the position during the depression, when substantial cuts were made to services and employees’ wages, Mackley worked hard to improve the standard and range of services provided by the railways. He won approval for the construction of an inspection car (built on a Leyland Cub chassis), in which he travelled the entire system inspecting stations and meeting staff. The car’s success encouraged him to order the construction of railcars that were to serve the railways for many years. He wanted to improve the comfort of passengers, and initiated a building programme in the local workshops that was to provide the basis of passenger carriage stock for decades. He also ordered, in 1939, 40 modern J-class locomotives, a decision that was to prove crucial to the ability of the railways to meet its essential transport commitments during the Second World War.

Garnet Mackley retired from the railways in January 1940 at the relatively young age of 56. He was considered by some to have been one of the most successful general managers in its history. A man of considerable management ability and experience, he now embarked on a successful career in private business. He started as a director of the Whakatāne Paper Mills, becoming managing director in 1942 and chairman of directors the following year. He supervised the reorganisation of the company as Whakatāne Board Mills, and later, in 1961, negotiated its merger with New Zealand Forest Products. He was also chairman of directors of the engineering firm A. & G. Price, and organised its merger with William Cable and Company in 1949. Other directorships included the chain store Macduffs, Te Kau Knitwear and Matahina Tramways.

Mackley also entered politics in the 1940s as a member of the New Zealand National Party. He served as MP for Masterton (1943–46) and then for Wairarapa (1946–49). In 1950 he was one of a large number of National members appointed to the Legislative Council in order to vote for its abolition.

Garnet Mackley was a self-confident, dynamic figure, who brought a flair for executive work and a fastidious attention to detail to every task he undertook. He was made CMG in 1938 and on his 80th birthday in 1963 he was presented with an illuminated address signed by 60 prominent politicians and business leaders, including three prime ministers. After his wife, Isabel, died in 1973, he went to live close to his son in Te Kuiti. He died there on 24 April 1986, at the age of 102; he was survived by his son.

How to cite this page:

Alan Bellamy. 'Mackley, Garnet Hercules', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5m21/mackley-garnet-hercules (accessed 4 June 2023)