Story: Underwood, Harold Jack

Page 1: Biography

Underwood, Harold Jack

1908–1979

Clerk, farmer, toy-maker, manufacturer

This biography, written by Barry G. B. Young, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.

Harold Jack Underwood, known as Jack, was born in Wellington on 24 January 1908, the son of Sydney Houghton Underwood, a builder, and his wife, Louise Maude Batley. After attending St Mark’s Church School and Wellington College, he transferred to Wellington Technical College to take an engineering course. In 1925 he won a gold medal in the college’s annual hobbies competition for a working model of an aeroplane. The aeroplane had a four-foot six-inch wingspread. On leaving school he worked as a land agent, and was later a sub-agent for an importing agency and a sales representative.

On 6 August 1930, in Wellington, Underwood married Daisy Donaldson Vickers; they would have five children. For a time the family lived in a house he had built. Two or three years after his marriage, Jack and a brother decided to go dairy farming and bought a farm near Otaki. Concerned about the economic and social problems of the day, he read extensively, especially socialist literature. As a result he joined the New Zealand Labour Party and remained a staunch supporter for the rest of his life. During the 1938 election campaign Underwood was chairman of the electoral committee for Catherine Stewart, the Labour Party candidate for Wellington West. At the election in October, Stewart defeated the sitting MP, R. A. Wright, who stood as an independent.

By 1935 the family had moved to Karori, and Underwood had a clerical position in the Department of Labour. About this time he obtained some imported moulds for lead toys. Mastering the technique of pouring, he began slush-moulding toys in his basement. His inventive spirit was stirred, and in May 1936 he designed and began producing the first child-restraint apparatus for use in motor cars in New Zealand. Called the Kidi-Safeti-Seat, it became a market leader for over 25 years.

Underwood was classified medically unfit for armed service in the Second World War, but became a member of the Home Guard. In 1939, encouraged by the success of the Kidi-Safeti-Seat, he decided to set up in business as a manufacturer. He soon had one full-time and two part-time employees making lead toys in his basement. The trade mark ‘Fun Ho!’ was designed for the toys by the artist Mervyn Taylor and registered in July 1940. That year the basement became too small for the expanding business and Underwood purchased a small non-ferrous foundry in Newtown. Operating as Houghton’s Foundry Company Limited, the business also provided components for firms involved in war production. In 1941 Underwood began making cast-aluminium toys.

In 1945 he established two firms in New Plymouth: the Fun Ho! Toy Company (registered in October) and US Metal Products (NZ) Limited. The latter firm manufactured prams, bassinets and tubular furniture; it was later called U-Met-Pro (NZ) Limited. Production soon ceased at the Wellington foundry and a new foundry was started in New Plymouth.

Jack and Daisy Underwood were divorced on 6 November 1945, and the following day, in New Plymouth, he married Nancy Carruthers Nicholson, a company director; there were three children of the marriage. Underwood’s enterprises suffered a severe setback after the war when material supplied from overseas proved faulty and the government began granting toy import licences. In an attempt to salvage his business, Underwood sold the New Plymouth properties and began operating from Inglewood in 1949. Before long Fun Ho! consolidated with a new company, the Underwood Engineering Company Limited.

By the mid 1950s the business was once again flourishing. During the 1960s it diversified its range of products to include outdoor furniture, paddling pools and miniature replicas of various vehicles. Large export orders were also sent to Europe, the United States and Australia. By 1970 Underwoods had a staff of 66 working at the factory. In January 1979 the firm purchased Tri-Ang Pedigree (NZ) Limited, of Auckland, enlarging the factory to accommodate the extra equipment.

Never a man to seek popularity, Jack Underwood was nevertheless highly respected. A quiet, family man, he enjoyed a casual game of billiards or snooker and was interested in boating and golf. In later years he spent much of his time reading and gardening. He was a member of the Wellington Commercial Travellers’ and Warehousemen’s club for 38 years and a foundation member of the toy manufacturers’ division of the New Zealand Manufacturers’ Federation. Although he had no formal engineering qualifications, he acquired a wide range of skills in this field. Inventive and innovative, he had considerable business acumen and was quick to take advantage of any opportunities that came his way. Jack Underwood died in New Plymouth on 8 July 1979, survived by his wife and seven children.

How to cite this page:

Barry G. B. Young. 'Underwood, Harold Jack', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5u1/underwood-harold-jack (accessed 23 November 2019)