ISITT, Leonard Monk
Methodist minister, temperance leader, politician.
A new biography of Isitt, Leonard Monk appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Leonard Monk Isitt was born in a Methodist home in Bedford, England; his father died when he was two and his mother when he was 12. He was educated at Clevedon Methodist College, Northampton, and, afterwards, at the age of 15, joined a drapery firm. He came out to New Zealand to get experience and also to join his brother Francis Whitmore who was a Methodist minister at Balclutha. Isitt worked in the warehouse of Ross and Glendining at Dunedin, but the urge to enter the Methodist ministry became stronger, and he was sent to a Home Mission Station at Lawrence. Here occurred an incident which influenced his subsequent career. Called upon to conduct the burial service of a man who had died of alcoholic poisoning, whose body was hurried by a drunken driver to a grave left half-dug by a drunken gravedigger, Isitt scathingly denounced the publicans present at the funeral and set his whole energies to fight the drink evil.
Isitt became a minister in 1876 and was ordained in 1881. He was stationed successively at Auckland, Masterton, Wellington, Christchurch and, finally, in 1889 at Sydenham, where the drink evil was seen in its most sordid aspect. It was largely a working-class district, with grimy little cottages jammed into the smallest possible sections, many of them blackened with smoke from the railway yards. He met T. E. Taylor, a kindred spirit, and together they determined to fight for legislative prohibition. The campaign followed two chief lines of attack. One was propaganda spread by means of a paper, The Prohibitionist, which, although started for local consumption, was soon circulated throughout New Zealand under the name of the Vanguard. His brother Francis edited the paper. This propaganda was aided by one of the most powerful speaking campaigns ever carried out in New Zealand. Isitt had a natural eloquence which, fed by his burning enthusiasm for his cause, made him an orator of a type probably unequalled in New Zealand. He ruined a good singing voice by his efforts. Dr C. F. Aked described him in these words: “When did we hear such speaking as his? Clear pure Saxon, not a word misplaced, not a sentence which could be improved; every phrase a point; every point sent home; massive sentences falling like the strokes of a sledgehammer”. The Methodist Conference released him from his usual work to concentrate on his campaign.
Isitt's second line of attack was to gain control of the Licensing Committee and refuse licences to all Sydenham hotels. The first attempt in 1890 failed, but the next election resulted in all five members elected being Prohibitionists. The publicans, however, took a test case to Court and Judge Denniston ruled that the Licensing Committee had acted beyond its powers, which should be used in a judicial and impartial manner, not as an instrument of a campaign. The Court of Appeal unanimously upheld him.
Isitt made four speaking tours in England at the invitation of the United Kingdom Alliance. When T. E. Taylor died in 1911, he succeeded him as member of Parliament for Sydenham, and held the seat until 1925 when he was appointed to the Legislative Council. He worked hard to get the Local Option Bill through Parliament and was successful. Bible in Schools was another cause he worked for and he was prominent in the Boy Scout movement. He was a governor of Canterbury College and was vice-president of the Methodist Centenary Conference in 1922. He founded the firm of L. M. Isitt and Co., booksellers (Christ-church), and was its managing director.
In 1881 he married Agnes, daughter of John Scott Caverhill. One son, Sir Leonard Isitt, was head of the New Zealand Air Staff and another was killed in the 1914–18 war.
Isitt died at Lewisham Hospital on 29 July 1937, aged 83.
by George Ranald Macdonald, Retired Farmer, Kaiapoi R.D.
- Methodist Archives, Christchurch Connexional Office
- Weekly Press (Christchurch), 26 Jul 1894
- Press (Christchurch), 30 Jul 1937 (Obit)
- N.Z. Methodist Times, 14 Aug 1937 (Obit)
- Evening Post, 29 Jul 1937 (Obit).