Page 1: Biography
Taylor, Henry Gordon
Anglican priest, military chaplain
This biography, written by Ian McGibbon, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Born at Foster, Victoria, Australia, on 12 March 1908, Henry Gordon Taylor was the son of William Taylor, a farmer, and his wife, Isabella Elizabeth Oliver Bremner. When Henry was 11 he and his family emigrated to New Zealand. From 1925 to 1928 he studied at Victoria University College. Shifting to Auckland, he attended St John’s College and in 1931 graduated BA at Auckland University College. The following year he passed the Board of Theological Studies grade three examination. He was ordained a priest in the Anglican church in 1933. After serving at St Barnabas’ Church, Mount Eden, from 1932 to 1934, he was vicar of Bombay and chaplain to St Stephen’s School. In 1938 he became vicar of Kaitaia.
Taylor was appointed as a chaplain in the Territorial Force in 1935. He volunteered for the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force, entered camp at Papakura in September 1940, and left New Zealand with the 4th Reinforcements in November 1940. Exuberant by nature, he possessed a natural charm and friendliness, as well as renowned courage under fire, which appealed to even the most hard-bitten soldiers. He established a reputation as one of the 2nd New Zealand Division’s most respected chaplains. Attached to the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry from 1941 to 1944, he so endeared himself to the men that they soon decided he was ‘too good a joker to have been just a Vicar’ and that he should have been made a bishop. Declaring his pre-war parish to be an honorary see, they dubbed him ‘Harry Kaitaia’, leading some to assume that the regiment had a Maori padre.
Taylor was with the regiment during the ill-fated campaigns in Greece and Crete, and in the ensuing fighting in North Africa. In his dubiously acquired bren-gun carrier, he could always be found close to the action, boosting morale by his presence and his ability to have with him just what the men needed – sugar, or other precious items about whose provenance few questions were asked. At dawn he would be with the forward troops, taking prayers or celebrating communion. On 15 December 1942, during the pursuit of the enemy forces across North Africa, he went through heavy shell-fire to attend some wounded and conduct a burial service. Three months later, at Tebaga Gap, an exploding shell killed his driver; although painfully wounded himself, Taylor conducted a burial service for the latter under fire before having his wounds attended to, and showed great determination to remain in a position to visit the men, despite being ordered to the rear by the regimental commander. He arrived at one of the forward sectors ‘with half his pants torn off’, and enjoined them to keep his presence secret. His inspirational conduct was recognised by his immediate appointment as a DSO.
So high was the esteem in which Taylor was held by his charges that they reacted with great resentment when, during the Italian campaign, he finally left them in August 1944 shortly before the last of the 4th Reinforcements returned to New Zealand on furlough. Some even greeted his successor with hostility.
Taylor was then one of six chaplains sent to the reception camp in the United Kingdom to which liberated New Zealand prisoners of war from the continent were brought, many of them suffering from the effects of years of privation and stress. From October 1945 to January 1946 he was senior chaplain for 2NZEF. He embarked for New Zealand in May 1946, but his hopes of returning to Britain to join the British Army’s chaplain’s department came to nothing. In February 1947 he was appointed as senior chaplain for Jayforce, New Zealand’s contribution to the occupation forces in Japan, a position he held until December 1948.
Taylor joined the Royal New Zealand Navy in January 1949, and was appointed squadron chaplain on the Bellona. In August 1951 he embarked on the Wahine , which was carrying a draft of New Zealand troops to Korea for service with the United Nations Command. After the Wahine foundered on a reef off Masela Island in Indonesia on 15 August, he eventually completed his journey by air, and joined the Rotoiti , one of the two New Zealand frigates deployed in Korean waters. He later served in Hawea , Taupo and Kaniere , not returning to New Zealand until November 1953. When the ships occasionally came under fire from communist shore batteries, Taylor was again conspicuous for his bravery in action. His exploits were legendary among the New Zealand sailors. On one occasion he led a group of them on an adventurous overland trip from the Han (Hangang) River, where his ship was operating, to visit New Zealand’s troops at the front. His service was rewarded with his appointment as an OBE in the New Year’s honours list in 1954.
In February 1954 Taylor became the navy’s senior chaplain. He served in the Royalist from 1958 to 1966, and made several visits to Antarctica aboard the Endeavour. After retiring in 1968 he went to live in Carterton. He never married. Moving to Auckland, he was for a time a teacher at St Stephen’s School. He later lived in Mount Maunganui and in Patea, where he served in the parish. After his death from acute leukaemia at Auckland on 18 November 1987, his ashes were scattered on Waitemata Harbour by the navy.