Dunedin's Buried History
Charles Speight was born in Dunedin on 30 July 1865, the third child and first son of six surviving children born to James and Mary Jane Speight who had migrated from Yorkshire in 1861. The parents and at least two sisters of James joined the family before Charles's birth. His mother was a family member of the Moray Place Congregational Church established in 1863. The children were brought up strictly. For merely leaving a door open a child was called home from school to rectify the matter.
The family residence was on a site which, by co-incidence was later occupied by part of Speight's Brewery. It was Charles's father James (in partnership with Charles Greenslade and William Dawson) who founded the brewery, in 1876. Before that James had had a variety of office and travelling jobs, none of them as lucrative as owning a brewery. Indicative of the rise in his fortunes is the fact the younger son Walter, who became a successful Dunedin merchant, was given a secondary education, whereas Charles went straight from the Normal School in Moray Place into a brewing apprenticeship at his father's brewery. His tutor was co-founder Dawson.
Home, school, church and work were all within three blocks of the Octagon but young Charles's activities were not entirely confined to the inner city, the family spending holidays in a tree-fern hut on a bush-clad beach-front property at Purakanui. Charles developed lifelong passions for boats and for sports of all kinds but successful participation in some sports was precluded by an extremely bandy leg, believed to have been the result of a badly set broken bone. He did, however, compete in cycle races and was a trophy winner at rifle-shooting. Later in life he enjoyed bowls, golf and billiards. Another interest was military training, as a member of B Battery in the Volunteers. In this, as in many other things, he was following in the footsteps of his father.
He didn't immediately succeed his father, however, when the latter died in 1887, the vacancy in the Speight & Co partnership being filled by Charles's mother. But Charles's responsibilities were beginning to increase. His brewing mentor, William Dawson, already a city councillor, became Mayor of Dunedin in 1887 and entered Parliament in 1890. In his absence young Speight, though not long out of his apprenticeship, became acting head brewer.
An event which helped shape Charles Speight's later life was the Dunedin and South Seas Exhibition of 1889-90. Speight & Co exhibited, won a number of prizes and, when it was all over, bought one of the Exhibition buildings which was re-erected on the site of the Speight family's former home to become the brewery's stable. By that time the family had moved to Forbury Road.
On the death of his mother in 1896 Charles inherited three eighths of her share of Speight & Co. The following year Speight's became a limited liability company with share capital of 60,000 of which Charles's portion was 9,930. He was now on the board, and, as works manager as well, effectively in charge of the brewery.Features of his administration were concern for staff welfare, insistence on quality, and development of a highly efficient distribution system throughout New Zealand and Australia. Speight's was already the biggest brewery in the country when he joined the board. Under his directorship sales quadrupled.
In 1898 he married Jessie McCulloch Brown, daughter of a deceased grocer. For the first years of their marriage the couple lived in Andersons (now Alison) Crescent, Roslyn, but in 1900 they had a large slate roofed house built at the top end of York Place (now no. 382).
Charles's first public service of note was as a member of the Organising Committee set up to raise and equip contingents for the Boer War. After the War he devoted a great deal of time and energy to the rehabilitation and welfare of the returned men.
Qualities exhibited in this work led to invitations to join numerous organisations. Speight accepted most of them, becoming a member of the' Chamber of Commerce, Manufacturers' Association, Lodge St Andrew, Caledonian Society, Otago, Fernhill and Commercial Travellers' Clubs, Otago Bowling Club, and, after his children had reached school age, the Arthur Street School Committee. At one time or another he was chairman of many of these organisations.
His business interests also began to expand. He was one of the original directors of the Waipori Fails Electric Power Co which was formed in 1902 to generate electricity for Dunedin. In 1909 the Peninsula Ferry Co was incorporated, with Charles Speight as managing director and holder of 25% of the shares. Soon afterwards Mrs Speight launched a new vessel, the Dunedin-built Waikana, for the company. Speight's participation was not for financial gain - the company never paid a dividend - but to ensure continuation of a service that was vital to residents of the Otago Peninsula. The Speights themselves made good use of the ferries, having a large holiday home built on what is now Waikana St, Broad Bay, then a fashionable resort for rich and famous residents of Dunedin. Celebrated lawyer Alfred Hanlon and businessmen Hudson, Begg and Nees all had retreats there. Most were yachtsmen and Broad Bay became known as the "Yachtsman's Paradise". Speight was as keen on sailing as any of them but his first boat was a motor launch "Kiwi". His enthusiasm for boating led to an appointment as a lieutenant in the Naval Reserve.
By 1910 Charles was in need of more of a rest than a week or two at Broad Bay. Probably because of overwork, his health had deteriorated and, on medical advice, he took a two-month Pacific cruise - the only time he ever left New Zealand.
In 1915 his well known house Haeata was built at what is now 273 York Place. Bearing a striking resemblance to Dunedin's stately home Olveston, it was designed by John Brown, an architect who conveniently lived right next door. A fascinating feature was a priesthole, a secret room in which a safe was kept.
The Great War 1914/18 was a testing time for Speight was a brewer. In 1915 beer duty was increased and Most of the brewers in New Zealand intended, initially, to counter this by reducing the strength of their brews. It is a measure of Speight's standing in the industry that he was able to persuade them to change their minds by pointing out that such a response would probably result in a further increase in duty.
Six-o'clock closing, introduced in 1917, had a demoralising effect on many people dependent on the liquor trade. Barley growers wanted to switch to other crops but Speight induced them to carry on by giving a guarantee to buy all they grew.
His powers of persuasion owed nothing to personal charisma. Despite red hair and moustache his appearance was unimpressive while his manner was reserved to the point of reticence. Mumbled diction made him a poor public speaker. But these shortcomings were outweighed by his wisdom energy and administrative skills. His nickname among the brewery women was 'Ginger' and he gave the same name to his chestnut horse.
On the death of Charles Greenslade in October 1917 he became managing Oirector of Speight's but he was already regarded as New Zealand's leading brewer. Polititions beat a path to his door - Harry Atmore with an idea for counteracting the growing threat of Prohibition, Robert Semple to inform him of a forthcoming meeting at which the inclusion of a State Control option on the licensing poll ballot paper would be called for. Speight recommended to the Brewers' Association that something be done to educate the public on this question to enable the people to form their own opinion.
The War saw Speight once again to the fore in looking after the interests of the servicemen. As a member of the Otago Patriotic Society he organised carnivals and other fund raising activities their benefit. He was also deputy chairman of the Soldiers' and Dependants' Welfare Committee which attended to the needs of the returned men and dependants of those that didn't return. A particular interest was the Montecillo Home for war veterans. Because of his compassion, generosity and personal interest in the welfare of each individual, he was revered by the ex-serviceman of Otago.
The brewery demanded as much attention as ever. Inadequate coastal shipping - a legacy of the War - continued to be a problem until 1921 when Speight, and a few other Dunedin manufacturers established their own shipping line - the Dunedin-Wanganui Shipping Co. Speight & Co, and Charles Speight as an individual, had substantial share-holdings, and Charles was one of the directors. The company's vessel "Hoimdale", with its wee" consignment of Speight's beer, became known as the "Mercy Ship".
A much smaller vessel, but equally famous in its day, was the 14 ft yacht "Winifred", owned by Charles Speight, built under his supervision and named after his daughter. In 1923 and 1927 it represented Otago in the Sanders cup competition.
The year 1923 was a momentous one for the brewing industry. Twice in 1919, and again in the 1922 licensing poll, Prohibition had almost been carried. As a means of defence, an amalgamation of the largest brewing companies was proposed, mainly with a view to mounting a concerted progaganda campaign in favour of Continuance. An important aspect of the scheme would be the availability of shares to the general public so that the industry could no longer be portrayed as one in which the only beneficiaries were a handful of greedy beer barons. Further, with the big breweries no longer in competition, the necessity for tied houses would be removed and customers would be able to buy the beverage of their choice.
Eight brewing companies quickly agreed to the proposed merger but, without Speight's, easily the biggest brewery in the country, the scheme would not have worked. Of Speight & Co's three directors, William Dawson was old and sick and not particularly interested, while R.W.M. Greenslade (son of Charles) was initially opposed. Speight, had been involved in the negotiations since the inception of the proposal and was strongly in favour. Eventually Greenslade was persuaded to change his mind and, on 1 July 1923, New Zealand Breweries Ltd came into being. Thus Charles Speight was a pivotal figure in the establishment of the company that was to become Lion Nathan, the biggest beverage manufacturer in Australasia, and his brewery was the cornerstone on which it was built. He was a director of NZ13 until his death.
Speight's last notable achievement was in connection with the Dunedin and South Seas Exhibition held in 1925-26. As one of the few businessmen still active who had been involved in the Exhiiton of 1889-90, he was associated with the enterprise from the outset and was one of the directors elected in 1923, later becoming chairman of the finance committee and vice-chairman of the board. When the chairman, fell ill, Speight took over the leadership. The Exhibition was a colossal undertaking. The reclamation of Lake Logan to form Logan Park (site of the Exhibition) and demolition of slum housing to make way for Anzac Avenue (the route to Logari Park) changed the face of Dunedin forever. Huge buildings housed the latest marvels of science and technology as well as amusements of all descriptions. Speight took particular interest in the welfare of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders military band which had been brought out from Britain to give daily performances. The success of the Exhibition may be gauged from the fact that over 3,000,000 tickets were sold. The benefit to Dunedin was immense. Charles Speight's contribution was recognised in the King's Birthday Honours of 1926 when he was awarded the CBE.
He continued to work as a brewer till the end of his days, taking it upon himself to check fermenter temperatures and malt floors at nights and on Sunday mornings. He owned a car but never drove it himself, and usually walked to and from work. It was while he was walking, on the morning of Sunday, 19 February 1928, that he suffered a dizzy spell.
His son Hugh drove him home where he retired to bed with a book. A few hours later he died in his sleep at the age of 62.
The Otago Daily Times, in an editorial, described him as a "kindly, warm-hearted, unaffected gentleman .... the most modest of men" .... but with "a capacity for organisation amounting practically to genius".
Tributes to his unostentatious generosity came from many quarters including the Dunedin Philharmonic Society which had been given rent-free rehearsal rooms in the brewery and the St John's Ambulance Association, most of whose accessories had been paid for personally by Speight.
In accordance with his wishes his funeral service was held in his home Haeata rather than a church. (He was not irreligious but found church buildings impersonal). The cortege was one of the largest in Dunedin's history.
Speight was survived by his widow Jessie, four sons and a daughter. Jessie lived another 30 years -a pillar of First Church and of the Red Cross Society of which she was a life member. The eldest son, Norman, a surgeon, was awarded the CBE and MC for distinguished service as a medical officer during World War 11 in which he attained the rank of colonel. After the war he continued his career as a surgeon in Dunedin and also became chairman of the Trustees Executors Co. The third son Hugh succeeded his father as director of New Zealand Breweries and was the longest-serving board member (1928-69) in the history of the company. From 1940-69 he was manager of the Speight branch. For services to the Crippled Children's Society he was awarded the OBE in 1956. Another descendant, Charles Herbert Speight, son of Norman, was awarded the OBE in 1984. He was managing director of the Shipping Corporation of New Zealand from 1973-78.
The Monumental Inscription for this person is not yet available.See the contacts page to make a contribution