Page 1: Biography
Mulgrew, Peter David
Naval officer, radio engineer, adventurer, businessman
This biography, written by Graham Langton, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Peter David Mulgrew was born on 21 November 1927 at Lower Hutt, the elder son of Edith Matthews, a woollen industry worker, and her husband, William John Mulgrew, a boilermaker. He attended Petone West School and Epuni School, where he did well, but he was unsettled at Hutt Valley Memorial Technical College and was asked to leave at the end of 1942. For two years Mulgrew worked for the Post and Telegraph Department, but he had already developed an interest in the outdoors, tramping and hunting deer in the Tararua Ranges. Though of only average height and slightly built, he was developing the stamina that would carry him through many future adventures.
Mulgrew joined the Royal New Zealand Navy on 2 May 1945. He trained as a radio mechanic in Auckland, then served on the Achilles , which sailed to Britain in 1946. He did further training in England and by early 1947 had qualified in all aspects of naval radar and radio communications.
During periods of leave he showed an increasing interest in outdoor adventure, climbing in Switzerland and Scotland and joining the Alpine Club in Britain. He also completed a course with the Royal Geographical Society in surveying, mapping, field astronomy and instrument adjustment and was elected a fellow of the society on 3 February 1947. He met prominent climbers and explorers, and began to be involved in expeditions.
After returning to New Zealand in February 1947 Mulgrew served as a petty officer radio mechanic at the training establishment Philomel in Auckland and then on the cruiser Bellona. He was accepted as a member of the 1948 British–Norwegian expedition to Antarctica as ionosphere observer, but was not released from the navy, where his skills were needed. After a spell at Irirangi , the naval communications centre in Waiouru, Mulgrew joined the frigate Pukaki on 3 May 1950. He had some months of active service in Korea as a radio engineer and was reappointed to Philomel in February 1951. On 16 June 1952 he was promoted to chief petty officer radio engineer–electrician. He married June Martha Anderson in Wellington on 20 September 1952; they were to have two daughters.
In 1953 Mulgrew was chief radio engineer on the Black Prince , which sailed to England for the coronation celebrations. He was appointed chief radio electrician at Irirangi in 1954. After successfully applying for a position on the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1955, he was transferred to the Navy Office in Wellington in February 1956 and seconded to the Ross Sea Committee and Wellington Post Office (Radio Section).
For two years (1956–58) Mulgrew was radio operator for the New Zealand section of the transantarctic expedition. This involved undergoing training in New Zealand and then more than a year in Antarctica, where he developed a warm friendship with Edmund Hillary. Mulgrew’s competence, loyalty, determination and sense of humour made him an ideal expedition companion. He was Hillary’s strongest supporter in the party of five who drove modified Massey Ferguson tractors to make the first overland vehicular journey to the South Pole, arriving there on 4 January 1958. While in Antarctica he sat and passed the final examination he needed to qualify for promotion to electrical sub-lieutenant, though he was somewhat ambivalent about a move to commissioned officer rank. After his return to New Zealand in January 1958 Mulgrew was seconded to the Post and Telegraph Department for a month, on request of the Ross Sea Committee, to prepare a special report on radio experience in Antarctic conditions. Later in the same year he was selected for further training in the United Kingdom.
Mulgrew and his family left New Zealand for England on 25 August 1958 and on 24 September he was promoted to acting electrical sub-lieutenant. A year in the south of England in a variety of Royal Navy establishments gave him excellent experience, skills and qualifications. He flew back to New Zealand in September 1959 and served on the cruisers Royalist and Black Prince. His rank as sub-lieutenant was confirmed in March 1960. While in England Mulgrew had received the British Empire Medal for his naval service and Antarctic exploits, and the Polar Medal.
In August 1960 he left New Zealand to be radio operator and a climber in the Himalayan Scientific and Mountaineering Expedition with Hillary. While seeking to reach the summit of Mt Makalu on 18 May 1961 Mulgrew suffered a pulmonary embolism, which led to an extremely difficult descent during which he suffered severe frostbite. After his return to New Zealand both lower legs and the tips of some fingers were amputated and he had to overcome an addiction to pethidine.
He became something of a hero to New Zealanders who, from the prime minister down, took an interest in him and his progress towards restored health. He officially resumed naval duties at Philomel in April 1962. That month he travelled to the United States to be fitted with artificial legs and to receive corrective surgery on his hands; he also gave lectures on his experiences. He returned to New Zealand in July and on 1 April 1963 was promoted to lieutenant and reappointed to Philomel.
In the last few months of 1964 Mulgrew took part in Hillary’s Himalayan Schoolhouse Expedition. He walked some way into the mountains, and worked as a cameraman, shooting some 13,000 feet of film, but the trip made it clear that, no matter how hard he worked, he could not climb properly again.
He had already been thinking of leaving the navy, and various businessmen were making approaches to him. It was a continuing frustration that the navy would not let him go to sea, and he was also aware that the longer he stayed in the navy, the more difficult it might be to develop an alternative career. In the end the navy retired him on 3 May 1965, so that his 20 years’ service gave him a reasonable pension.
Very quickly Mulgrew made a name for himself in business as an enthusiastic manager and leader. As manager for Pye Telecommunications Division he helped produce New Zealand’s first fully transistorised marine mobile radio. He spent about 10 years as general manager of Fisher Industries, and was then responsible for new ventures for Alex Harvey Industries. One project close to his heart was the development of the Turoa ski field on Mt Ruapehu from 1976. He was also a director of many companies, including Comalco New Zealand.
Mulgrew took up yachting in the 1960s, with his brother Ken as navigator and starboard hand, and soon wanted to compete. The purchase of the one-tonner Moonlight in 1969 gave the opportunity for racing in the Hauraki Gulf, and in 1972, on Young Nick , he was part of the New Zealand team that won the One Ton Cup out of Sydney. In 1973 he organised a sailing expedition to Cape Horn. About 1977 he acquired the Lexia , a gaff-rigged cutter built very early in the century, which needed extensive restoration.
Other expeditionary possibilities suggested themselves to Mulgrew. In 1976 he considered driving Land Rovers through China to Lhasa in Tibet, and in 1977 he began making flights over Antarctica as a commentator for Air New Zealand. His last proposal for an expedition was to fly to Churchill in Hudson Bay, Canada, and try for the North West Passage.
Mulgrew belonged to and contributed to a variety of organisations, including alpine clubs in both Britain and New Zealand as well as the Royal Geographical Society. He was an associate member of the British Institute of Radio Engineers, and was active as a ham-radio operator. In the 1960s he was a director of Abilities Incorporated, which employed disabled people to assemble radios. Towards the end of his life he was a member of the Himalayan Trust Board and the Spirit of Adventure Trust Board.
In 1978 Mulgrew went on a Harvard University business course in Switzerland. By this time he and June had drifted apart. In early 1979 Mulgrew moved to Wellington to be managing director for W. R. Grace, a packaging subsidiary of a large American company. Although he was beginning to have more trouble with his legs, he had an immediate and positive effect on the new company. But on 28 November he made his fourth trip as commentator to Antarctica, and he died, aged 52, when Air New Zealand Flight 901 crashed on Mt Erebus.