Joseph Angus Mackay was born on 9 September 1882 in Invercargill to Emma Elizabeth Wood and her husband, William Gair Mackay, a grocer. One of twelve children, he left school young, attended night school, and while labouring taught himself shorthand.
Mackay joined the staff of the Southland Daily News in 1897. He was appointed chief law reporter to the newly founded Dominion in Wellington in 1907 and then became the paper’s parliamentary reporter. He was appointed managing editor of the Gisborne Times in 1910, taking up the position in 1911. He married Josephina Elizabeth Devery, from Feilding, on 3 April 1911 in Palmerston North. A daughter and a son were subsequently born to them.
Mackay threw himself into the life of his adopted town. He was a member of the Rotary Club of Gisborne and a boxing referee, and joined the Emergency Precautions Service during the Second World War. But his chief contribution to public life lay in the high quality of his editorial comment and the news content in the Gisborne Times , and his burgeoning interest in local history.
The Gisborne borough and Cook county reached their first 50 years in 1927. Mackay interviewed the oldest local inhabitants or persuaded them to write their own reminiscences of Gisborne’s first years. These accounts and other early material were published as an illustrated commemorative supplement to the Gisborne Times. So great was the popular demand for this issue that the newspaper published it as a book, Life in early Poverty Bay .
By now Mackay had amassed much original material and was corresponding with historians and libraries elsewhere in New Zealand and Australia. When the Gisborne Times was sold to R. J. Kerridge in 1937, Mackay retired from newspaper work. A committee was formed to publish a history on behalf of the Poverty Bay – East Coast Centennial Council for the 1940 centennial. Mackay was elected chairman of the local committee and an associate member of the National Centennial Historical Committee. However, the worsening of the war situation in June 1940 caused the deferral of local commemorative celebrations, including the publication of the history.
The project was reviewed in 1946. Mackay offered to write the local history for a modest sum, but he found that everything that was now required of him – writing, editing, proofreading and publishing, more or less single-handed – had become a monumental task. The book was not finally released until May 1950, when it appeared in a limited edition of 830 copies. It was titled Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast.
Mackay continued his research. His own heavily annotated copy of the book indicates that a revised edition was planned in order to remedy the book’s inadequacies as a reference work, there being no bibliography, no references after 1850 and an unsatisfactory index. This was partly because he was a newspaper man with a reporter’s fascination for detail which threatened at times to overwhelm him. In spite of the book’s shortcomings, it has not been surpassed as a tool for local historians.
Joseph Mackay died on 30 September 1952 in Gisborne, survived by his wife and children. To his neighbours he seemed a big, stern man who talked to himself as he walked to and from his office, pockets stuffed with galley proofs, at the odd hours demanded of a morning newspaper editor. But to those who were close to him he was kind and generous, impatient of fools, but endlessly patient in pursuit of the stories that have illuminated Gisborne’s history.