Remembering Charles Mackay | Sarjeant Gallery Whanganui
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Sarjeant Happenings: Remembering Whanganui’s ‘sensation’, infamous mayor Charles Mackay

Sarjeant Happenings: Remembering Whanganui’s ‘sensation’, infamous mayor Charles Mackay

Paul Diamond looking for bullet holes in Charles Mackay’s former office in Ridgway St Whanganui, 2012. Photo Leigh Mitchell-Anyon

Author, historian, curator and broadcaster Paul Diamond has done what so many of us long to do. He’s searched for bullet holes in the Meteor building on Ridgway St.

The building once housed the office of mayor Charles Mackay and was the scene of what was once known as “the Wanganui Sensation” – the shooting by Mackay of the poet and returned serviceman D’Arcy Cresswell in 1920.

Whanganui mayor Charles Mackay shot Cresswell, who threatened to reveal the mayor’s homosexuality. Cresswell grabbed the gun, fired off the rest of the bullets and threw a chair out of the window.

Fortunately Cresswell didn’t die of his wounds but Mackay was sentenced to 15 years’ hard labour in Mt Eden Prison in Auckland (and four other prisons) for attempted murder. He was released early in 1926 on condition he leave New Zealand.

Mackay went to London and then Berlin, where he was shot and killed by a police officer in 1929 while reporting for a British newspaper on the street fighting between communist protesters and police.

This fighting became known as the May Day riots and if you’ve seen Babylon Berlin on Netflix, the first series is all about these riots.

Paul Diamond says: “Writing a book about the ‘Wanganui Sensation’ has been a quest, a Spürensuche (search for traces). This quest has become part of the story of what happened to Charles and D’Arcy. I’ve followed the footsteps of both men, to Whanganui, and Berlin, where I was most recently this year as part of the Creative NZ Berlin Writer’s Residency.”

In Berlin, Diamond retraced Mackay’s steps and investigated leads about his life there. On an earlier trip he had the chance to undertake research in London and follow up new leads about Mackay’s career at an advertising agency there.

Diamond returned to New Zealand in late March because of the pandemic, but has been able to continue writing as he’d completed the bulk of his research.

“I’m pleased to report that the quest, which has seemed like a saga at times, is nearing its end,” says Diamond.

Paul Diamond stands at Hermannstraße, Neukölln, 2020. Charles Mackay was shot just behind where this photo was taken. Photo Markus Stein

Mackay’s story is certainly one of Whanganui’s most dramatic and Diamond’s book on the saga is eagerly anticipated. While Mackay was so thoroughly expunged from Whanganui’s history in the early 20th century, much has been done to rehabilitate him in recent years and it is fitting that his efforts on Whanganui’s behalf are recognised.

In 2013, as part of an Ann Shelton exhibition at the Sarjeant, Mackay’s name and title were gilded on the gallery’s foundation stone, as per the original specifications, which were discovered by Shelton in the archives.

After the 1920 shooting Mackay’s name had been erased from the stone, but put back in 1985 thanks to the efforts of Paul Rayner and Des Bovey. The gilding restored the name in the way it was intended.

Paul Diamond says: “It’s very exciting that construction of the new wing of the Sarjeant Art Gallery is under way. Charles Mackay had a lot to do with the creation of this gallery, which is a national treasure.”

By: Jaki Arthur, Sarjeant Gallery relationships officer

This article orginally appeared in the Whanganui Chronicle and NZ Herald online on 21 May 2020