Harold Temple White was born in Laceby, Lincolnshire, England, on 24 December 1881, the son of Emma Jane Wales and her husband, John Hobson White, a grocer. The family were ardent Methodists (John White was to become a minister at Kimbolton) and Harold's religious upbringing strongly influenced his later activities and personal life.
The family arrived in New Zealand on the Rimutaka in 1893 as part of an emigration scheme organised by John White. They settled in New Plymouth and Harold won a scholarship to New Plymouth High School. He then trained as a schoolteacher and taught at Rahotu, Omata and Eltham Road schools before establishing himself as a professional music teacher. He had received his first piano lessons from his mother but was otherwise self-taught.
He married Marguerite Amy Tichbon on 31 March 1904 at Stratford. There were three sons of the marriage, two of whom survived to adulthood. In August 1904 the couple moved to Feilding where Temple White, as he was always known, conducted the Feilding Choral Society and was organist and choirmaster at the Methodist church. His choir had considerable success in provincial competitions, and as conductor he 'set a new standard in this form of singing – in delicacy, precision, phrasing, and modulation'.
His reputation grew and in 1913 he secured an appointment as organist and choirmaster to the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Taranaki Street, Wellington. He was to hold this position for 46 years. His wife was in continuous poor health and soon after the shift to Wellington took her own life. On 11 September 1916 at Palmerston North Harold Temple White married Edna Lucie Crabb. Three sons and two daughters were born to them, one daughter dying in infancy.
Temple White soon became a central figure in Wellington's musical life. Under his direction the Wesleyan Methodist Church choir achieved high standards and he was soon involved in other choral activities. In 1914 he established the Wellington Harmonic Society and was its conductor until 1957. In 1918 he became conductor of the Wellington Commercial Travellers' Male Voice Choir, a position he held until 1930, and in 1919 was appointed conductor of the Royal Wellington Choral Union.
In spite of his innate gentleness, there was underneath a firm fibre of determination, and when roused he could support his strongly held beliefs in fearless exchange. His eight-year association with the choral union, which was then Wellington's major choir, came to an abrupt end in 1927 when he resigned on a matter of principle. One source of disagreement was his salary, but he was also unhappy about lack of consultation over the selection of soloists and repertoire. On this occasion his views did not prevail with the choir committee, but such was his popularity with ordinary choir members that they presented him with a grandfather clock.
When the radio station 2YA began broadcasting in Wellington in 1927, Temple White was appointed music adviser and the scope of his musical activities broadened. He played the organ for regular community singing in the town hall during the 1930s, gave organ recitals and conducted carol services at Christmas. In 1939 his old friend Aunt Daisy (Maud Basham) enlisted his help in establishing Easter dawn services.
In the 1930s Temple White formed new choirs: the Wellington Apollo Singers, the Wellington Boys' Choir, and the Wellington Girls' junior and senior choirs, all of which he led until 1947. He also conducted the Tudor Singers from 1936 until 1941. The highlight of these years was his association with the composer Percy Grainger, who visited New Zealand in 1935. Temple White had the challenging task of welding together two separate choirs, the Harmonic Society and the Apollo Singers, to perform Grainger's programme in the Wellington Town Hall. Grainger later wrote, 'I don't know that I can recall any choral programme of my works, in any city of the world, in which every item was rendered with the unvarying perfection attained on November 23'.
Besides giving private music lessons in piano, organ and singing, Temple White taught singing at Rongotai College from 1940 until 1945. During school holidays he was in demand throughout New Zealand as a judge for regional music competitions, and he adjudicated at the City of Sydney Eisteddfod in 1936. He also composed works, mainly choral, that reflected his intense religious and patriotic feelings. During the 1953–54 royal visit he conducted a choir of 13,000 children in a performance of his own work, 'Aotearoa'. The singing was accompanied by six strategically placed brass bands. That year he was made an OBE for services to music.
Temple White served on the Music Teachers' Registration Board of New Zealand, the Music Teachers' Association of New Zealand, the Department of Internal Affairs Music Bursary Selection Committee, the New Zealand Church Music Society and the Wellington Organists' Association. He was appointed honorary city organist in 1961. When he resigned in 1966 the council conferred on him the title honorary city organist emeritus. A bust of Temple White was placed outside the Ilott Concert Chamber in the Wellington Town Hall.
Instantly recognisable by his neatly clipped beard and erect elegant figure, Harold Temple White walked from his Brooklyn home to the city every day, even when he was past 80. He was an avid reader and loved reading aloud; chess was another interest. He was unfailingly courteous and won many friends. After his wife's death in 1950 he and his daughter stayed on in the family home until frailty necessitated his care in Woburn Presbyterian Home and Hospital, Lower Hutt. He died there on 8 September 1972 in his 91st year.