George Hamish Ormond Wilson was born in Bulls on 18 November 1907, the eldest son of George Hamish Wilson, a farmer, and his wife, Ada Mary Ormond. His grandfathers, J. G. Wilson and J. D. Ormond, had taken up land in Rangitikei and Hawke’s Bay respectively, and both had played prominent roles in public life, national and local. As a young child brought up in the country, Ormond was educated at home, first by parents and then by governess or tutor. In two other ways his childhood was unusual: his mother, aunt and grandmother were all profoundly deaf and his own health was affected by violent attacks of hayfever. To lessen their severity he was sent every early summer to a hostel on Mt Egmont where he learned to delight in mountain climbing.
At 12 Wilson went with his family to London for six months. (The boy earned his first half guinea as a journalist by sending an account of this cultural exposure to the editor of the Christchurch Press.) After the family’s return to New Zealand, Wilson was sent as a boarder to Christ’s College, Christchurch. He was removed after his fifth-form year and sent directly to a ‘crammer’ in Surrey to prepare himself for Oxford University, where in 1926 he was admitted to Lincoln College. He made a variety of close friends, including socialists, trade unionists and aristocrats from the Toc H Society, all dedicated to good works. He studied politics, economics and philosophy and graduated in 1930. His study of Kant led him to spend vacations in Germany and Austria, walking and climbing, learning the language, and listening to opera.
Wilson returned to Bulls in 1930 to find that he had inherited Mount Lees, a 1,000-acre property, from his Wilson grandfather. He had no interest in the judgement and handling of stock, but came to understand the land, and through that, to develop an interest in landscape gardening.
In 1931 he became interested in prison reform and politics generally, and in 1935 offered himself as a candidate to the New Zealand Labour Party. He was chosen to stand for a stronghold of conservatism, Rangitikei; he was elected and became the youngest MP in the 1935–38 Labour government. Wilson came to like and respect both the minister of finance, Walter Nash, and Nash’s chief antagonist, John A. Lee, and to agree that monetary policy and guaranteed prices to farmers were the most significant issues confronting caucus in its first year. His experience in government convinced him of the importance of caucus in the parliamentary system as the only forum for free discussion. He concluded that Nash’s planning of social security and Peter Fraser’s support for educational reform ‘must remain two great land-marks of those years’.
Ormond Wilson stood again for Labour in the 1938 election. Boundary changes lost the Rangitikei seat its Wanganui urban component and it became a wholly rural electorate. The contest was close, and Wilson’s conservative opponent won by only 300 votes.
His defeat released Wilson to travel and to see first-hand the state of affairs in Europe. In March 1939 he sailed to the United States, where he was cordially received as an ex-member of the Labour government. In the three days he spent in Washington he talked with senators and congressmen as well as labour leaders and officials. He sent back reports of these meetings to the Christchurch journal Tomorrow. In London he called on the political journalists Kingsley Martin and Dick Crossman at the office of the New Statesman.
Membership of the Empire Parliamentary Association gave Wilson admission to the gallery of the House of Commons, where he met leaders of the British Labour Party and was invited to attend their Southport conference as a guest. He obtained a visa to the USSR, where he travelled via Scandinavia, visiting adult education schools and meeting trade unionists. In Moscow he experienced bureaucratic officiousness and intrusiveness. His casual tourist photograph of a picturesque building led to his film being exposed after an hour spent ‘in and out of the office of several GPU officials … [which] implied a paranoia far exceeding normal precautions against espionage’.
After leaving Russia, Wilson spent four days in Berlin and returned to London on 26 August 1939. He prepared an informative broadcast on his travels for the BBC and accepted an invitation to join the staff of the talks section of Empire Service (later the Overseas Services) directed by Margery Wace. Wilson was drawn to her ‘dark beauty, her perceptiveness and sympathetic understanding’, and on 29 September 1940 they married at Ardingley, Sussex. They both continued with their demanding work under the stress of wartime conditions.
Margery died in 1944, shortly after the birth and death of the couple’s second child. Wilson took the risk of travelling by sea to New Zealand with their young daughter. Soon after his return, he and his daughter visited relatives in Hawke’s Bay. There he met again his first love, Rosamond Rolleston, whose husband, John Russell, had been killed in action in September 1942. She was left with a son and two daughters, living on a station inland from Napier. They corresponded over the next year and were married at Napier on 8 January 1946.
Wilson was a member of Massey Agricultural College’s board of governors from 1945 to 1950. In 1946 he wrote a pamphlet What’s wrong with broadcasting? A plan for radio in New Zealand, in which he argued for separate networks, each geared to a particular audience. He considered that New Zealand radio programmes suffered from a fear of recognisable personalities: a talk required the speaker’s personality to shine through.
That same year (1946) Wilson was elected as the Labour MP for Palmerston North. During the 1946–49 term, Wilson introduced a private member’s bill against advertising hoardings in public places, and advocated a second chamber in Parliament, elected on occupational rather than geographical criteria, believing its debates would lead to better consideration of legislation. He lost his seat with the defeat of the Labour Party in 1949. In the 1950s his political interests centred on foreign affairs. He was opposed to New Zealand joining the ANZUS alliance, and in 1956 he led a party of academics, artists and others on a visit to the People’s Republic of China.
From 1951 Wilson was again working the land at Mount Lees. He fenced off a bush gully from stock; cleared undergrowth to uncover tall trunks of totara, kahikatea, titoki and pukatea; and introduced trees, both native and exotic, and a ground cover of tall yellow water iris and other plants.
Much of the next 20 years was dedicated to family and a wide circle of friends, who were welcome at Mount Lees; he also made two journeys with his wife to Europe. In 1958 Wilson was appointed chairman of the National Historic Places Trust and his attention was absorbed by the preservation of historic buildings. In this work he was greatly helped by two able trust secretaries, John Pascoe and Bob Burnett, and by the scholarship, taste and discrimination of his fellow member, J. C. Beaglehole, of whom he wrote, ‘I presided over the Trust but he guided it’. As chairman, Wilson travelled the country and developed a deep concern for Maori as his historical understanding deepened.
The trust’s first major task of preservation and restoration was the Waimate mission house, a joint project with the government architect and the Ministry of Works. It was a harmonious and productive collaboration which, after a 10-year battle, also saved Old St Paul’s in Wellington from demolition. Wilson was himself responsible for the clearing and restoration of Te Porere, the redoubt built by Te Kooti in 1869 on the northern slopes of Mt Tongariro. He negotiated a proposal for its preservation with Ngati Tuwharetoa tribal elders in November 1958. The actual redoubt was covered in manuka, flax and gorse. To preserve and restore it became Wilson’s ‘summer job’ over the next dozen years. He took over a former sawmill’s empty houses and co-opted a work-force of students, campers and casually met trampers, who were captivated and educated by his historical knowledge and practical enthusiasm into using spades and shovels and painstaking care. His pamphlet War in the tussock: Te Kooti and the battle of Te Porere was published in 1961.
In 1972 the Wilsons gave their homestead and 30 hectares of bush garden to the Crown and moved to Wellington. Rosamond had already published a biography of her grandparents, Mary and William Rolleston, and was working on another of J. D. Ormond; both were able to follow their own areas of research at the Alexander Turnbull Library. Ormond was chairman of the Board of Trustees of the National Art Gallery and Dominion Museum and National War Memorial from 1975 to 1979 and, from 1977 to 1979, chaired the Council of the National Art Gallery. Under his chairmanship, the Gallery acquired its first important Colin McCahon painting, the ‘Northland panels’. He was also in those years a member of the Environmental Council, and the New Zealand National Commission for UNESCO, a trustee of the Alexander Turnbull Library and of the New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties, and an inaugural member of the New Zealand Literary Fund Advisory Committee. His work was recognised by his being appointed a CMG in 1979.
After Rosamond Wilson was killed in a road accident late in 1980, Ormond spent even more time writing. In 1982 his autobiography, An outsider looks back, was published and in 1985 two publications appeared: From Hongi Hika to Hone Heke and The story of Mount Lees Reserve. In John Harris: a memoir, he celebrated a long-time friendship. When he was not engaged in writing up the results of his historical questioning, Ormond Wilson generously helped many friends with their gardens. He suffered a stroke in his home in Thorndon in 1988 and died at Bowen Hospital on 17 April. A scholarship in his name was set up at Victoria University of Wellington in 1994.
A spare, energetic man with a robust voice, Ormond Wilson brought his blend of enthusiasm and scholarly scepticism to a life of active civic responsibility.