The History of the Dilworth Trust Board

Dilworth's Death - the Trust becomes a Reality

The Dilworth Trust Board was established on 23rd December 1894, following the death of James Dilworth, the pioneer settler who left his wealth to found a unique school. When the Will was read, it was the first public knowledge of the Founder’s intention to leave almost his entire fortune, to establish a school. The early Trustees had to wrestle with a number of restrictions imposed by the Will, among them the interpretation of the terminology applying to the financial situation of parents (their ‘straitened circumstances’) and their ‘good character’. Trustees down to the present day have had to adjust their thinking on these requirements, in accordance with changing social standards and economic conditions, over the last 100 years.

Trustees also had to conform to the geographical restriction, that boys come from the old Auckland Provincial District, and had to make the School available to boys from Ulster. Three instructions in the Will, which have caused no dissension, are the requirement for the school to be for boys only, the charge that boys should be brought up in the tenets of the Church of the Province of New Zealand (the Anglican Church) and that they should be ‘educated and maintained to become good and useful members of society’. But, before a school could be opened, the Trustees had to meet to examine the detail of the Will, make an assessment of the assets and start planning for the implementation of the testamentary instructions.


Inaugural Meeting

The first meeting of the Dilworth Trust Board took place on 29th December 1894. Those present were four of the five Trustees appointed in terms of the Will: Sir Maurice O’Rorke (Speaker of the House of Representatives), Robert Hall (farmer and Isabella Dilworth’s brother), the Reverend William Beatty (Vicar of St Mark’s, Remuera) and the Reverend George MacMurray (Vicar of St Mary’s, Parnell). The remaining Trustee, Isabella Dilworth, a widow for less than a week, excused herself from attendance at this historic first board meeting. Also present was William Gardner (farmer-settler), appointed an executor of the Will, but not a Trustee. All the Trustees and the executor, Gardner, were from Ulster. MacMurray had first met the Dilworths in the 1880s, on a voyage back from England. He had obviously impressed James Dilworth, because the latter entrusted to MacMurray’s care the fulfilment of his dream for a school in New Zealand.

The business conducted included the election of Robert Hall as Chairman, the appointment of James Dilworth’s private secretary, Gerald O’Halloran Snr, as secretary to the Board and the opening of a Trust Board account at the Bank of New Zealand. O’Halloran was eventually followed as secretary by his son, Gerald O’Halloran Jnr. Those first Trustees soon discovered that their task, in establishing and opening a school, was to be a difficult challenge. The country was just emerging from a depression and, while the assets were valuable, there was a lack of cash to spend on the necessary requirements of a new school. To make matters worse, the Trustees were facing death duties of about £15,000. Their bank account registered a positive balance of just £2,700-00, and there were still a number of bequests to be paid out, as well as various debts accumulated by the farm and other businesses. The Will dictated that the school was to be known as the Dilworth Ulster Institute (DUI) and must be sited on the south-western slopes of Mt Hobson. It also required boys admitted to the DUI to be between the ages of 3 and 5, which would effectively have made it a nursery school. Nor could they easily sell off some of their Auckland land, because the Will prohibited the sale of any land within 30 miles of the Chief Post Office.


Charitable Status is achieved

For the next 12 years, the Trustees fought a running battle with the government over their charitable status; some of the skirmishes taking place at the Privy Council in London. Late in 1905, the Trustees finally won their court case with the government and were granted full, charitable, tax-free status. Another Parliamentary decision allowed the Trustees to use the homestead buildings and Remuera farm as a temporary school, to extend the entry age of admission of boys to 10, and to allow boys to remain at the DUI, while pursuing their secondary studies elsewhere. The School opened its doors to just eight small boys on 12th March 1906, and gradually more boys entered, until, at the end of the first year, the roll numbered 18 boys and one teacher, Mrs Marion Ashton-Bruce. Two of the boys had made the long journey from Ulster, leaving family and friends behind, for good. Colonel Arthur Plugge was appointed in 1909, as the first resident Headmaster. The tiny school flourished under Plugge’s unique style and the Trustees felt able to leave the education of the boys to him, while they turned their attention to other matters, and notably the need to find a suitable location, for a permanent new school.


Isabella Dilworth passes away

Isabella Dilworth died in 1910, having experienced the joy of seeing her husband’s wishes implemented, even if it was on a somewhat temporary basis. The other significant event of 1910 was the purchase of the Papatoetoe farm, where it was proposed to establish the permanent school. In 1912, a private member’s bill granted the Trustees permission to use the valuable Mt Hobson land for leasehold residential properties, and they could now plan to build the school on the Papatoetoe farm. But nothing further was achieved. The first in a series of major twentieth century global calamities was about to begin, with far-reaching consequences both for New Zealand and the Dilworth Trust Board.


The Great War

James Tibbs, Headmaster of Auckland Grammar School, was elected a Trustee in 1913. He was an experienced educator and would prove an asset to the Board. When war was declared against Germany in August 1914, all thoughts of a new school were put aside. To make matters worse, Colonel Plugge resigned, to join the war effort, as Commander of the Auckland Regiment. He was replaced by Noel Gibson, a young man who had served under Tibbs at Auckland Grammar, and who was to remain at the Dilworth helm for the next 30 years. The war brought serious shortages of manpower and materials, and the government froze all mortgages, so that the Board’s income shrunk to dangerously low levels. It was all the Trustees could do just to keep their little school running, without even thinking about expansion or a new school. After small extensions were made in 1916, nothing further was added for the next 15 years. They did, however, manage to go ahead with the development of a farm school at Papatoetoe (in the area now known as Otara), which opened in 1916 under the somewhat ostentatious title of the Dilworth Ulster Institute School of Agriculture. Only 16 boys ever experienced this facility, because it closed its doors after just three years in existence.

Trustee Sir Maurice O’Rorke died in August 1916. His vast experience of government and education made him a particular asset to the Board, especially in view of the fact that he had been the personal friend and colleague of James Dilworth, and was well aware of how his mind worked. His position was filled by Henry Morton, who became chairman a year later. When another original Trustee, Robert Hall, retired from the Board early in 1917, Professor Algernon Thomas was invited to become a Trustee, in his place. A distinguished academic, with an international reputation as a botanist, Professor Thomas had held a position on the board of Auckland Grammar School since 1899 and eventually became its chairman. By this time, the Trustees comprised two clergymen, two academics, a farmer and a merchant; a composition which is far removed from today’s Board make-up. In May 1917, the Trust Board Secretary Gerald O’Halloran Jnr retired. His departure marked the end of a 23-year dynasty of father and son. By July, the Trustees had confirmed the appointment of Frederick Nawton as the new Board Secretary.


Effects of WWI continue

With the signing of the Armistice on 11 November 1918, the long and ruinous war finally came to an end. John Edward Makgill, another farmer of considerable experience who was also a Director of the Auckland Farmers’ Freezing Company, joined the Board in 1918. In the 20 years that he was to serve as a Trustee, Makgill was of particular value as an advisor to the Board on its farming ventures. But the financial cost of the war continued to affect the Dilworth Trust Board. Galloping inflation, increased school running costs and the rising number of eligible parents applying for places for their boys all contributed to the difficulties. There were also problems at the School of Agriculture caused by the fragile economy and extravagant mismanagement on the part of the director. Reluctantly, the Trustees closed it down at the end of 1918. It had been an expensive and short-lived failure. The entire stock and most of the land were sold in 1919; just 37 acres and buildings being retained.

The government moratorium on mortgages was still in place and the level of land and building rentals was scarcely moving. As these were the main source of the Board’s income, the Trustees were forced to continue their policy of applying operational economies in their own business and imposing them on the management of the DUI. Conversely, land values were soaring, out of proportion to the income being derived from it by the Board. To make matters worse, inflation was rampant. The long-term leases, imposed on the Board by legislation, were proving to be a millstone round the neck of the Trustees. With the sale of the Papatoetoe farm, the Board was left without a suitable site for the eventual new school, and the Trustees therefore began inspecting various properties in South Auckland. It was a 172-acre farm in Manurewa, in the area now known as Wiri, which caught the attention of the Trustees, and during 1929 and 1930, they made moves to secure it, for the future school.

The uncertain economy of the 1920s thus made it virtually impossible for the Trustees to predict their future income position, in order to determine when they might be able to embark on the long-awaited new school. In consequence, the plans for a permanent new school were put on hold for an indefinite period. Frederick Nawton’s brief term as Board Secretary ended suddenly in June 1919 and the Trustees made a much wiser choice in his successor, Robert Insull, who was appointed in July and served for thirty years. In the same year, the Trustees confirmed their intention to resume the admission of Ulster boys; recruitment having been postponed in 1916, until the end of hostilities. Two more Ulster brothers arrived in November that year, the last to be sent until 1932. For a variety of reasons, the Board was simply unable to find suitable applicants.

In June 1921, Henry Morton resigned as Chairman and was replaced by Archdeacon George MacMurray, whose hold on the chair was to last until 1941; those two decades corresponding to significant growth and development, although continually thwarted by world political and economic conditions. Although MacMurray was clearly James Dilworth’s designated and trusted agent for the implementation of his grand plan, it took 27 years for him to become Chairman. The sudden death in 1924 of James Tibbs was a serious blow to the Trustees, who had looked to him for the wise, educational advice he had provided. The two Trustees who followed Tibbs enjoyed only short terms on the Board.


Changes in central Auckland

For more than half a century, two major buildings at the entry to Queen Street, on the corner of Customs Street East and Customs Street West, had been the symbol of Dilworth wealth and commercial status. But now the Thames Hotel and Tyrone Building on the east side, and the Waitemata Hotel on the west side, were beginning to show their age. The decision of the Trustees was to restore the Waitemata, but to demolish Tyrone Building and replace it with a modern eight-storey office block. The cost was to be a very significant £113,717; approximately the total probated value of the Dilworth estate in 1894. The magnitude of this expenditure may have seemed extravagant, but the Trustees remembered that James Dilworth had invested wisely in this prime real estate and they could do no better than confirm his confidence, by adding to the capital value of the precious site.


Dilworth's "Coming of Age"

The year 1927 marked the 21st anniversary of the opening of the School. A “coming-of-age” party was held later in the year, to coincide with the Old Boys’ Association annual reunion. It was also the year in which the Trust Board completed and opened Dilworth Building, planned for the implementation of secondary instruction, and initiated the addition of temporary secondary classrooms and more temporary accommodation. Finally, the Trustees made promising advances in their investments and in their planning for the new school, gradually accumulating assets in the Reserve Building Fund, to cover the cost of future development. Resolutions were passed, urging that the building of the permanent Institute should still be undertaken, at the earliest possible time. Although this clearly indicated that the Board was still committed to building a new school, the majority opinion believed that it was still a distant prospect. Events were to prove them right.

Original Trustee Canon William Beatty died in 1928. George MacMurray was now the ‘sole surviving original Trustee’, as he was often in the habit of reminding people. At their meeting in June 1928 the Trustees agreed to invite another clergyman, Archdeacon John Simkin, to replace Beatty on the Board. Simkin’s appointment to the Board was one of the most fascinating and controversial ever made, yet he was a Trustee for 32 years and Chairman for eight. In due course, he became Bishop of Auckland, a promotion, which placed his position on the Board in question, and led to an expensive legal inquiry, to determine his status.


The School is renamed

Despite the dramatic events following the Wall Street share market crash in October 1929, makeshift construction continued at the School. The temporary extensions to the teaching block were completed by the start of the 1929 school year, and a group of third formers was being taught on site for the first time in that year. The new structure, with its classrooms, dormitories and staff room, became virtually the heart and soul of the School for the next 30 years. At this time, the Trustees decided to change the name of the School. “Dilworth Ulster Institute” tended to give the wrong message about the nature of the place, associating the School with institutions for the orphaned, disabled, destitute and insane. The School was likewise hardly an Ulster organisation, in spite of the Irish roots of its Founders. The Trustees agreed to drop “Ulster Institute” and rename their enterprise simply “Dilworth School”, the title, which has endured to the present day.

Roland Perceval Towle, a leading Auckland barrister, joined the Board in 1929. He was to remain a Trustee for 37 years, and have a significant influence on the Trust and the School, as chairman, for 18 years. Later in the same year the Board lost yet another valued member, when Henry Morton died. Morton had served the Board since 1916, guiding the fortunes of the School and the Trust as Chairman, from 1917 to 1921. The surviving Trustees replaced him with Hugh William Segar, Professor of Mathematics at Auckland University College.


The Great Depression

By now, the effects of the disastrous Great Depression were beginning to be felt throughout the world. Yet, in August 1931, a representative group of boys and staff was given a ray of hope regarding the reality of a new school, when they travelled en masse to Wiri, to plant trees on the new site. They were accompanied by Trust Board Chairman, George MacMurray and Trustee, Professor Thomas. A competition was held to produce plans and, by the time it closed in November 1930, the Board had fifty sets of plans to study. The winning entry, submitted by H.E. White, captured the essential requirements of the Trustees, including the proviso that the buildings should be modest and conservative. But the effects of the Depression ensured that the project would remain dormant for a further entire generation. In spite of the urgings of their architects, that it was a good time to build, the Trustees concluded, after a careful report from MacMurray, that their financial position was not secure enough in the present economic climate, to guarantee the completion of a new school and the on-going cost of running it. MacMurray was especially concerned that the Trustees should not make such a major financial commitment, at a time when the New Zealand economy was so fragile. Later generations of Trustees, parents and their boys can be grateful to MacMurray, for applying the brakes at a crucial moment, painful though this must have been for him, and disappointing for Headmaster Gibson and all those at the School.

Recently knighted, Professor Thomas died late in 1937 having served the Trust for 21 years. Early the following year Norman Duthie was elected to replace Thomas. Duthie was already well known to them as the Board’s auditor. Just a year after losing Professor Thomas, the Trustees lost their colleague John Makgill. William Walters joined the Board in his place in 1938. A farmer from Karaka, Walters was associated with the Auckland Anglican Diocese, as a member of its General Trust Board, and had acted in an advisory capacity to the Dilworth Trust Board for its farming properties. He was to remain on the Dilworth Board for 25 years.