Page 1: Biography
Lysnar, William Douglas
Lawyer, landowner, politician
This biography, written by Michael Chrisp, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
William Douglas Lysnar was born at Onehunga, Auckland, New Zealand, on 30 April 1867, the fourth of twelve children of William Dean Lysnar, a schoolmaster, and his wife, Frances Sarah Brewer. Douglas (as he was known) received his formal education from his father, who took up various teaching positions in the North Island. One of these was at Ōmāhu, Hawke's Bay, where from 1875 to 1877 William was headmaster of a Māori school. During this time Douglas began to acquire a working knowledge of the Māori language, which was later to prove useful to him.
In 1879 the family settled permanently in Gisborne where William established a private school, supporting his large family with some difficulty. At the age of 12 Douglas acquired a pony and began carrying mail from Gisborne to Manutuke. In his early teens he left town to work on back-country stations around Gisborne. After returning to town and spending some years working for a barrister named Edward Ward, he joined the legal firm of Sievwright and de Lautour in 1887. He was admitted to the Bar in 1891 and by 1892 he was practising on his own account. His facility with the Māori language gave him an edge in land dealings and he soon developed a busy practice. He earned a reputation as a relentless opponent.
On 8 February 1893 at Taradale Douglas Lysnar married Ida Eleanor Tiffen, the daughter of a wealthy Hawke's Bay sheepfarmer. They were to have two children, one of whom died in infancy. With earnings from his law practice and financial help from his father-in-law, Lysnar purchased several properties within the borough of Gisborne. His purchases later extended to farms and by 1901 he was operating a dairy farm at Makorori, a few miles north of Gisborne, and a butter factory at Okitu nearby.
Not content with his legal and farming interests, Lysnar turned his attention to local body politics. He was elected to the Gisborne Harbour Board in 1905 and as mayor of Gisborne in 1908. A new era in borough politics now began: many new projects were investigated and meetings were frequent, often lasting through the night. At his insistence, proposals were adopted in 1909 to raise a substantial loan for sewerage, electric power, street improvement and a tram system. After receiving a much debated council grant of £800, Lysnar travelled to London in 1910 to raise the necessary loan. On the way home, in the United States he took Thomas Edison's advice to purchase two battery powered trams. Although this venture was short-lived and, in retrospect, imprudent, it boosted the morale of the district briefly and in many ways typified Lysnar's belief in its future and his desire to advance its interests. However, his drive caused controversy. When, for health reasons, he resigned as mayor in August 1911, the valedictory motion adopted by the council acknowledged that differences of opinion had frequently arisen between mayor and councillors and it was not carried unanimously.
During the years that followed his retirement from municipal affairs, Lysnar pursued his farming interests with vigour, acquiring a large station inland from Gisborne. At the same time he became deeply concerned about the influence of overseas trusts and combines in the emerging freezing industry. With a group of local farmers, in June 1915 he formed the Poverty Bay Farmers' Meat Company and became its first chairman. The company erected a freezing works at Waipāoa, near Gisborne, which was commissioned on 7 February 1916; Lysnar's wife, Ida, formally cut the ribbon. In line with their anti-trust philosophy, the directors purchased the Admiral Codrington, a vessel of 6,629 tons, and equipped her with refrigerating machinery for trade with the United Kingdom. By 1923 the company was insolvent. The National Bank of New Zealand forced the sale of the works and the Bank of Scotland took possession of the ship.
Lysnar turned again to politics. He campaigned as an independent for the Gisborne parliamentary seat and was elected in 1919, defeating Sir James Carroll. Although in principle he supported the Reform government, in practice his stance was ambiguous. He was an erratic, obstreperous member and a passionate advocate against trusts and monopolies. Following the collapse of the Poverty Bay Farmers' Meat Company, he made charges in the House of Representatives that the producers were being sold out to the trusts by the government and the New Zealand Meat-producers Board, but in 1925 a royal commission found these claims to be groundless. In its view, Lysnar had 'displayed very great optimism, amounting at times to either very poor judgement or want of prudence'. Lysnar maintained great confidence in the productive capacity of New Zealand farmland, especially that of Poverty Bay whose interests he promoted at every opportunity. In 1930 his strong advocacy in Parliament of an inland rail route from Wairoa to Gisborne to serve the farming community proved unsuccessful. Lysnar held the seat until 1931, when he was defeated by the Labour candidate, D. W. Coleman.
During the 1930s he acted as legal counsel in several major cases. One of two Hall v. Guardian, Trust, and Executors Company cases attracted a Bar of prominent New Zealand counsel and was said to have been the longest running case in New Zealand legal history at that time. Although his legal practice continued to flourish, with heavy investment in farming Lysnar did not escape the financial difficulties of the depression years, and was sued for £50,000 by the National Bank in one of the celebrated cases of the decade. Lysnar lost the case in the Court of Appeal but, with his usual determination, pursued the matter to the Privy Council, appearing in person and arguing successfully for the overturn of the judgement.
Douglas Lysnar died at Gisborne on 12 October 1942, his wife having predeceased him on 3 December 1939. Their daughter, Winifred Frances Lysnar, left her substantial estate to charitable purposes in the Gisborne district. Before her death in 1974 she added an area of prime coastal land to a public reserve at Wainui Beach, endowed by her father. The Douglas Lysnar Reserve now marks the life of a significant contributor to the development of Poverty Bay.