Markey (Mark) Wallace was born on 5 November 1893 in the Waiho Ferry House to Irish parents Catherine Markey and her husband, James Wallace, a ferryman and goldminer. The family lived in considerable hardship in an isolated home on the southern side of one of the most dangerous rivers in south Westland. The ferry earned them £50 a year, but the black sands yielded little gold. The 13 surviving children were educated and taught subsistence skills by their mother, who was widowed when Markey was two years old. Like all others in south Westland, they often had to do without supplies such as sugar and flour when Okarito’s unreliable river bar prevented coastal steamers from landing.
The Wallaces remained at the ferry until 1902, then moved to Swedes’ Mill Settlement (Ruru), inland from Greymouth, where Catherine established a boarding house, store and bakery. This burnt down around 1904 and she moved her family to Kokatahi, near Hokitika, where she leased a dairy farm. A keen rugby player, Mark attended high school in Hokitika until he was 15, when he started work as an assistant at the Arahura Butter Factory. He left Hokitika and moved to Cardiff and then Ngaere, in Taranaki, where he worked as a whey butter maker, cheesemaker and engine driver.
A member of the 11th Regiment (Taranaki Rifles), he enlisted with the 8th (Southland) Company of the Otago Infantry Regiment at the outbreak of the First World War and fought as a sniper in the Gallipoli campaign. He was considered the best shot in his company. Invalided back to New Zealand in August 1915, he moved from Ngaere to the Hauraki Plains, where he became manager of a cheese factory. The tragic loss of four brothers in a few years took Wallace back to Westland in 1919 to manage his mother’s farm at Kokatahi. On 1 June 1921 he married Amy Dimmick at Kowhitirangi.
He was elected a director of the Kokatahi Co-operative Dairy Factory Company in the mid 1920s, and a decade later led a campaign in the Kokatahi and Kowhitirangi districts for a larger co-operative. The Westland Co-operative Dairy Company, which was to become one of the West Coast’s leading industries, was formed in 1937, with Wallace as founding director. He served as chairman of directors until 1975.
Wallace was involved with various farming and community organisations, such as the West Coast branch of the Federated Farmers of New Zealand, of which he was president and life member, and the Westland Land Sales Committee. For 37 years he was a member of the Hokitika (later Westland) trustee savings bank board and of the Westland County Council, serving as chairman for 13 years. He was a life member of the South Island Local Bodies’ Association. During his 24 years on the District Highways Council he campaigned for the construction of the Haast Pass highway, and he played a key role in the development of the West Coast’s abattoir complex at Kokiri. For his long service to the people of the West Coast, Mark Wallace earned the nickname ‘Mr Westland’.
Years lobbying government on the West Coast’s behalf culminated in his standing (unsuccessfully) as an independent candidate for Westland in 1954. Although Westland was a safe Labour seat and he was a keen Labour supporter, he wanted to put Westland first, not to become a ‘party hack’. In 1965 he was made an MBE and in 1977 a CBE.
Wallace drew inspiration from his mother, Catherine, who had fought the elements to carve out a living for her large family. He was known as a battler with a flair for a telling riposte, and, like many other West Coasters who had lived through pioneer hardship, he saw development as the key to the region’s future. Although he admired Westland’s scenery, he was more interested in tourist developments in national parks than he was in conservation. He was keen for a road to be built to the hot springs on the Copland Pass track and supported proposals for hotels and other facilities in Westland National Park. However, late in life he began questioning the cost of development, especially the devastation of land caused by the milling of rimu forests. Mark Wallace died in Greymouth on 20 May 1984, survived by his wife, Amy, and two sons.