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Thursday, 3 September 2015

The introduction to a travel guide by which New Zealand photographer begins, “The wish for mine enemy to write a book not having eventuated, I have written one myself”?

Charles Spencer (1854-1933)


It may have been a tongue-in-cheek remark, but as a high profile Tauranga businessman Charles Spencer was no doubt sensitive to the petty jealousies of local politics, and the introduction to “Spencer’s Illustrated Guide to the Hot Springs” can be read as a comment on the town’s lively public affairs.

Charles was the eldest son of Thomas Spencer of Parawai who, as one half of Spencer and Hall, ran a lucrative pharmacy and gold-broking business in Grahamstown, Thames. The pair also owned a local stamper-battery. By 1876, doubtless with his father’s financial backing, Charles reputedly paid £1000 for a stake in the Dunedin photographic partnership Clifford and Morris. In 1878, however, he and his brother George were in the employ of Burton Brothers, climbing and photographing in the Southern Alps when they reportedly discovered gold at Waihoa Flat, at the base of Mount Cook. The find was apparently sufficient to induce the brothers to abandon their expedition in favour of further prospecting, if only temporarily.

By April 1879 Charles was in Tauranga, where he opened a photographic studio in a tent next door to Wrigley’s Brewery on Willow Street. Within weeks the enterprise was put in jeopardy when a stove Charles had installed ignited the canvas and reduced his premises to ashes. But the setback proved fleeting, and in September 1879 Charles purchased H C Hoyte’s chemist’s shop on The Strand. By installing a manager, he was able to continue to work as a photographer in a studio he erected at rear of the building. He satisfied his thirst for adventure with photographic excursions to the South Island, occasional visits to the rumbling White Island, and regular trips to the Hot Lakes, one of which provided the basis for his 1885 guide book. Undaunted by the danger, he was also one of first photographers to reach Rotomahana after the eruption of Mt Tarawera in 1886.

An irrepressible entrepreneur, Charles was probably instrumental in his father’s chartering of the steamer Vivid (under the captaincy of his brother, George) on the route between Tauranga and Te Puke; he experimented with the cultivation of silkworms, and as a director of the short-lived New Zealand Manure & Chemical Company promoted the exploitation of White Island’s sulphur deposits. He was a skilled roller skater, and the first person in Tauranga to own a velocipede (much to the amusement of the locals). He immersed himself in local politics, becoming a borough councillor in 1887, but failed in an attempt to be elected mayor. In 1890 he moved to Auckland to promote a photo-lithographic printing process, collaborating with his brother Percy to publish views of Auckland and Thames.

Tragedy struck in 1894 when Charles’s father, Thomas, drowned in the wreck of the Wairarapa at Great Barrier Island. Charles was a witness at inquest where he criticised the inaction of the Union Steam Ship Co.

He continued to live in Auckland, working as a photographer with the Government Survey Department, and later as chemist with a sideline in landscape photography. He died in 1933.
This photograph of the Whanganui River at Pipiriki was taken by Charles Spencer after his relocation to Auckland in 1890. It is one of at least 9 original Spencer plates in the Richardson Collection at the Auckland Central Library. (Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries. 4-3554)


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