Story: Appleton, William
Telegraph messenger, accountant, advertising agent, local politician, company director
This biography was written by Allison Buchan and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998
William Appleton, the eldest of nine children, was born to Yorkshireman Edwin Appleton and his young Scots wife, Margaret Bruce, on 3 September 1889. They were living at Alexandra South (present-day Alexandra) in Central Otago. Edwin, a sailor turned goldminer, fashioned his firstborn's cradle from a gin-case.
Except on Sundays, when there was no escaping a knickerbocker suit and black stockings, young Will wore practical moleskin shorts and galatea blouses. Adventures included sneaking off to observe an attack on the Chinese quarter, and his first visit to Dunedin was memorable for a startling encounter with the hitherto unknown flush lavatory. His father encouraged him to save the pocket money gained by doing family chores, but trapping rabbits and selling the skins provided some independent earnings. At the local primary school, Will passed the proficiency examination in 1901 and then completed a standard seven year, there being no high school.
After working briefly as an office boy, in April 1904 Will accompanied his family on a soon-regretted move to Gisborne. There he became a telegraph messenger, but by 1905 the Appletons were back in Alexandra South. Left in sole charge of the post office by a fishing postmaster, Will issued many miners' rights (though a minor himself) but drew the line at marriage licences. He also did bookkeeping for local businesses; when he defended this as accountancy studies his superiors were sufficiently impressed with his initiative to appoint him in October 1906 as a cadet in the Accountant's Branch of the General Post Office at Wellington.
Having taken evening classes at Wellington Technical College, in 1909 Appleton passed his final senior civil service examination and the examination for associateship of the Incorporated Institute of Accountants of New Zealand. He joined the Charles Haines Advertising Agency as a bookkeeper and was active in the Wellington Accountant Students' Society, winning its inaugural Ernest Hunt Public Speaking Competition in 1912. He also became an associate of the New Zealand Society of Accountants. By 1913 he was manager for Haines.
At the Kent Terrace Presbyterian Church, Appleton was leader of the Junior Christian Endeavour Society. Mary Helen (Nell) Munro was on the society's committee and on 31 March 1913 the couple married in Wellington. They settled in Onslow, where in 1915 Will was elected to the borough council. He campaigned for amalgamation with Wellington to obtain an integrated water and drainage system.
In August 1918 Will Appleton became junior partner and managing director in Haines. However, in November Nell died in the influenza epidemic, leaving Will with sons aged five and three. When Onslow's amalgamation with Wellington was achieved in 1919, he received a seat on the Wellington City Council. He declined candidature in the imminent municipal election, citing business reasons, but his domestic situation was probably a contributory factor. On 8 December 1919 he wed Rose Hellewell in Christchurch. Two sons and a daughter were born of this marriage.
The Appletons had moved to Oriental Bay by 1921. Haines expanded into a nationwide business in which Will became one of the major shareholders. He re-entered local politics on the Citizens' (Wellington Civic League) ticket and served on the Wellington Hospital Board (1923–29). He was also editing the accountants' section of the Mercantile Gazette of New Zealand and in 1926 was raised to fellow of the Incorporated Institute of Accountants. When Charles Haines died in 1929 Appleton purchased his share of the agency, becoming principal owner. However, in 1931 he was elected to the Wellington City Council and in mid 1932 announced that he had sold out to his partners and would devote more time to public affairs. He later accepted directorships in numerous other companies, including New Zealand Guarantee Corporation, Griffin and Sons, and Bond's Hosiery Mills (NZ).
Appleton was an effective and popular city councillor who served on a wide range of committees and boards. From 1935 to 1950 he chaired the Works Committee and helped to introduce a system of refuse disposal which converted gullies into sports grounds such as Appleton Park. He was a member of the harbour board from 1938. In the late 1930s he was a director of the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition Company and heavily involved in planning the event. He became mayor of Wellington in 1944 by nearly 10,000 votes and retired undefeated in 1950, the year he was knighted. He was also president (1948–51) of the Municipal Association of New Zealand.
Appleton stood unsuccessfully for Parliament several times, on the last three occasions contesting the Labour stronghold of Wellington Central for the New Zealand National Party. During the 1950s he chaired the Wellington Harbour Board (1954–57) and served on the Local Government Loans Board and a 1954 board of inquiry which investigated the Tangiwai rail disaster.
Appleton had been promoted to fellow by the New Zealand Society of Accountants in 1932. He edited its Accountants' Journal from then until 1944 and was honoured with life membership in 1946. He was several times president of the Incorporated Institute of Accountants of New Zealand, and was directly involved with the establishment of institute scholarships and the selection of scholars. In July 1933 he represented both society and institute in London at the fourth International Congress on Accounting. Later the London Association of Certified Accountants made him a fellow and in 1938 appointed him its local representative in New Zealand.
Community organisations in which Appleton participated ranged from the Titahi Bay Progressive Association (he owned a holiday house in the area) to the Wellington branch of the British Sailors' Society. A recreational bowls player and keen rugby supporter, he was president of the Wellington Rugby Football League from 1940 to 1958 and presented its premier championship trophy, the Appleton Shield. He and Rose made the first of several trips abroad in 1929–30.
An advocate of moral re-armament, for over 20 years Will Appleton was a deacon of Kent Terrace Presbyterian Church. As a member of the Order of St John he served the Priory in New Zealand as treasurer (later receiver general) and chancellor. He was made a Knight of Grace of the Order of St John in 1952. When cancer began to take its toll, his courage and indomitable spirit won admiration. He died in Bowen Hospital, Wellington, on 22 October 1958. Rose Appleton died in 1980. She had shared in her husband's community service and was made an MBE in 1946 and a Commander of the Order of St John in 1958.
A plump rounded face (emphasised by round glasses), pink complexion and warm smile gave Will Appleton a somewhat cherubic appearance. Friendly and approachable, with a 'chuckling sense of humour' and a multiplicity of interests, he mixed easily with people from all walks of life. In matters of principle he was reputedly uncompromising, but his directness and honesty were generally appreciated even by opponents. Enthusiastic in all he did, Appleton 'gave all there was of himself with a boyish delight that was irresistibly attractive.'