Story: Marks, Rowland Oswald Colin

Page 1 - Biography

Marks, Rowland Oswald Colin

1893–1977

Teacher, political activist

This biography was written by Bruce Hamilton and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

Rowland Oswald Colin Marks was born in Newton, Auckland, on 4 February 1893, the son of John Marks, a marine engineer, and his wife, Letitia Cleary, a teacher. Usually known as Roly, he attended Auckland Grammar School from 1906 to 1911. Studies at Auckland University College were interrupted by the First World War, during which he served as a sergeant, and later second lieutenant, in the New Zealand Rifle Brigade; he won the DCM during the battle of the Somme. His war experiences left their mark: nightmares recurred for many years, and heavy drinking affected his early career.

Marks completed a BA in French and Latin at Auckland University College in 1919, and graduated MA in 1922. He then taught at Hamilton High School, Mount Albert Grammar School, New Plymouth Boys' High School and Scots College, Wellington, before being appointed language teacher at Wanganui Collegiate School in 1928. On 3 September 1929, at Okato, Taranaki, he married Catherine Dorothy Fox, a schoolteacher. She later recalled, 'When we married I had £100 and a piano, Roly had nothing'. They were to have four daughters and two sons.

The depression of the 1930s convinced Roly Marks that, in a country where there was terrible poverty in the midst of plenty, the monetary system was flawed. Major C. H. Douglas's theories on the gap between the value of goods produced and the people's purchasing power, and the consequent need for cheap credit, were a revelation, and Marks became active in the social credit movement. At the 1943 general election he stood as Wanganui candidate for the Real Democracy Movement, polling a commendable 1,722 votes. He advocated monetary reform and a stronger emphasis on local issues rather than party allegiances.

When the New Zealand Social Credit Political League was established in 1953, it faced difficulties expanding policies from monetary reform to the wider platform expected of a political party. None the less, in the 1954 election the League won 11 per cent of the total vote, with its strength in rural and small-town New Zealand (especially Northland, where Vernon Cracknell was to become its first MP in 1966). Roly Marks polled 3,554 votes in Wanganui, 1,500 behind the sitting New Zealand Labour Party MP, J. B. F. Cotterill. In 1957, when the League made a poor showing nationally, Marks polled the highest Social Credit vote. He had developed a strong personal following, but his campaign was also assisted by his controversial dismissal from Wanganui Collegiate School.

By 1957 a clause in the schoolmaster's contract stated that if a teacher stood for Parliament he must resign. Marks informed the board that he intended to stand; he was asked to resign, refused, and was dismissed. He was only a term short of the retiring age of 65, and he had given 30 years of service to the school. He had commanded the cadet corps, coached the rowing crew and First XV (he himself played rugby for Taranaki, and was a good oarsman), was a day-boy housemaster and debating coach. His increasing eccentricity, however, had diminished his effectiveness as a teacher and stretched the tolerance of his colleagues: 'He never knew when to stop talking about Social Credit'. Marks stood again for Wanganui in 1960, and as a last-minute replacement for Wairarapa in 1966. For many years he had served on the national committee of the League and in 1968 he was made a life member.

Marks fought for a range of other causes: he formed a successful local lobby group, the Wanganui Electors' Association; he supported trolley-buses and then a private bus company in Wanganui; he opposed the addition of fluoride to drinking water and the use of the pesticide DDT; and he encouraged his friend Ulric Williams in his unorthodox medical practice. He became a justice of the peace in 1961 and wrote tirelessly to newspaper editors. As a campaign speaker Marks drew large crowds in an era when people attended political meetings partly for entertainment; he spoke forcefully and lucidly, and was able to hold his audience's attention. He became a Wanganui identity, often seen striding down Victoria Avenue, his head thrusting forward, tall and spare, the half-smile on his face seeming to welcome anyone who wished to exchange ideas.

Marks died in Wanganui on 12 November 1977, survived by his wife and children. By that time his son Oliver had become a prominent Social Credit administrator and candidate, and had been elected for the first of five terms on the Wanganui City Council. Roly Marks was a man of principle and integrity, with the courage of his convictions. Impulsive, energetic, and driven by a missionary zeal, he had almost single-handedly established Social Credit as a political force in Wanganui.