Story: Isitt, Leonard Monk

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Isitt, Leonard Monk

1855–1937

Methodist minister, prohibition campaigner, politician

This biography was written by Allan K. Davidson and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 3, 1996

Leonard Monk Isitt was for many years the most prominent prohibition campaigner in New Zealand. He was born in Bedford, England, on 4 January 1855, the son of James Isitt, a butcher, and his wife, Rebecca Catherine Cole. His father died when he was two and his mother when he was 12. Brought up a Methodist, he attended Clevedon Methodist College in Northampton and was apprenticed to the soft-goods trade.

Isitt's brother Frank came out to New Zealand in 1870 as a Methodist minister and Leonard joined him in 1875. After working in a Dunedin warehouse, Leonard undertook Methodist home mission work in Lawrence in 1877. He was accepted as probationary minister in 1879 and admitted as full minister in 1883. Between 1879 and 1892 he served in Waiuku–Pukekohe, Tuakau, Parnell, Masterton, Wellington and Christchurch. He married Agnes Martha Caverhill at New Plymouth on 14 May 1881; they were to have two sons and a daughter.

Experience of the extent of drunkenness in some communities made Isitt a committed prohibitionist. He was elected a foundation vice president of the New Zealand Alliance in 1886 and served as president in 1894. Frank Isitt was secretary of the Alliance from 1900 to 1909 and editor of its paper, the Prohibitionist, renamed the Vanguard in 1906. The Prohibitionist was started in Christchurch in 1890 by Leonard Isitt and Tommy Taylor. By 1891 they were publishing 25,000 copies, the largest circulation of any newspaper in the country. In 1892 Leonard Isitt was found guilty of libelling Henry Drummond, publican of the Waltham Arms. Isitt had called him an unscrupulous liar and accused him of selling liquor with indifference to the suffering it caused. Isitt was ordered to pay only 40 shillings in damages and the Prohibitionist's publishers a farthing.

The Prohibitionist was caught up in the campaign to support the cancelling of licences for public houses. Sydenham, where Isitt was minister from 1888 to 1891, became a test case. He was president of the Sydenham Prohibition League in 1890, was elected to the local licensing committee and became its chairman. When the committee refused to renew hotel licences, the case was taken to the Supreme Court which found against the committee. On appeal to the Privy Council the adverse judgement was confirmed with costs of some £700. Isitt, released from active ministry in 1893, became a full-time prohibition campaigner.

It was as a platform speaker that Isitt had his greatest influence and he was regarded as perhaps the greatest orator in New Zealand. He conducted prohibition missions throughout the country and during four successful visits to Britain. His incessant campaigning reputedly ruined a fine singing voice. His pressure on the government to pass strict licensing legislation contributed to the Alcoholic Liquors Sale Control Act 1893, which allowed individual electorates to ban the sale of alcohol. The introduction of this local option was Isitt's greatest achievement in public life.

In 1908 Isitt retired from the Methodist ministry and established himself as a bookseller and stationer in Christchurch, stocking theological books and Sunday school supplies and publishing some school texts. He succeeded his close friend, Tommy Taylor, as member of Parliament for Christchurch North in 1911, holding the seat until 1925 when he was appointed to the Legislative Council. Originally an independent, he later aligned himself with the Liberals.

Although he gave leadership to the prohibition and Bible in schools campaigns in Parliament he was not a single-issue politician. He was to the forefront of debates supporting alternative service for conscientious objectors, and he spoke out against further alienation of Maori land. He was no religious bigot, favouring the exemption of Marist teaching brothers from conscription in 1917, and was distressed by Howard Elliott and the Protestant Political Association's campaign against Catholics: 'It makes one ashamed to be a Protestant'.

Isitt was a member of the first Dominion Council of the Boy Scouts' Association and warmly commended the movement to ministers in his own church. He was a keen cricketer and follower of the game. In 1922 he was elected vice president of the Methodist Church of New Zealand in its centenary year. He also served as a member of the Canterbury College board of governors.

Leonard Isitt was passionately committed to the moral reform of New Zealand society through prohibition, Bible in schools and anti-gambling campaigns. Although he was usually on the losing side he was not vindictive and his genial personality and fund of humour balanced his biting sarcasm and persistent advocacy of the causes in which he believed. He died in Christchurch on 29 July 1937, survived by his wife, a son and a daughter. One son, Willard, had died of wounds in France in 1916. The other son, Leonard, became chief of the air staff of the Royal New Zealand Air Force and air vice marshal.