Story: Mead, William Perrett

Page 1 - Mead, William Perrett

Mead, William Perrett

1889–1980

Engineer, skier, tramper, ranger, writer

This biography was written by Arthur P. Bates and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

William (Bill) Perrett Mead is best known for his role in the development of the Tongariro National Park and Whanganui River recreational areas. He was born at Scarrotts station, near Dargaville, on 7 December 1889. His father, Arthur David Mead, a farmer, was drowned in the Wairoa River in 1892, and Bill was brought up by his mother, Elizabeth Jane Thompson Mead (née Walker), at Maungakaramea, where he attended primary school. His childhood was filled with boats and tramping, interests that would dominate his later life.

From Whangarei High School he trained as an engineer with New Zealand Railways, and in 1910 he went to Ohakune as an engineering cadet. He soon visited Taumarunui to see the boats on the Whanganui River and started exploring routes in the mountains of Tongariro National Park. Because the trips were often frustrated by deep snow, Mead and his friend Bernard Drake ordered two pairs of skis from Switzerland and a book on skiing by E. C. Richardson.

In 1913 they went to Waihohonu Hut near the Desert Road by coach and buggy, via Waiouru. They tried their skis on the south side of Tama ridge, eventually reaching the Tama lakes, which were frozen over. The highlight was 'a glorious run down for a mile to the hut'. They also reconnoitred the area across to the Whakapapa valley and decided that it would make a good approach route to the upper Mt Ruapehu area for both tramping and skiing.

Delighted with their new sport, on 31 July 1913 the two men put a notice on the Waihohonu Hut wall announcing the formation of the Ruapehu Ski Club, and invited others who were interested to contact them. This was to be New Zealand's first ski club. They planned the first major get-together during the summer. An early recruit was Bill's brother, Arthur, who made his own skis out of kauri; he later found southern beech was better. Although Arthur lived in Auckland and by now Bill was employed as a draughtsman by the Raglan County Council at Ngaruawahia, they both became deeply involved in the area. Meads Wall, the well-known skiing slope on Mt Ruapehu, is named for them. In December 1913 the first ski party reached the Crater Lake on the mountain. They held the first annual meeting in the Waihohonu Hut in August 1914, although the outbreak of the First World War meant that only five attended. Of these, the Mead brothers and William Salt would become presidents. Much ski exploring was done by this very active group, and Bill left some excellent photographs of these expeditions, showing skiers using a single stick and usually carrying ice axes.

Plans were interrupted when Bill Mead enlisted as a private in November 1915. He left for France in April 1916 with the 2nd Battalion, Auckland Infantry Regiment. He was discharged in May 1917 after contracting tuberculosis and later developing diabetes, and was granted a war pension as his ability to work had been permanently impaired.

He returned to Ohakune and on 25 March 1918 at Hunterville married Isabel Young, a schoolteacher. She died in 1920. There were no children of the marriage. Mead had resumed his outdoor interests and he assisted Salt and T. A. Blyth, an Ohakune schoolteacher, to build the popular 22-bunk Blyth Hut, which was important in opening up the Ohakune slopes of Mt Ruapehu. In 1921 he was appointed by the Department of Tourist and Health Resorts as the first paid ranger and caretaker of Tongariro National Park at an annual salary of £80. However, ill health forced him to give up in 1922. Later, he voluntarily worked in surveying, opening tracks, building huts and helping tourists. With Arthur he produced maps and guide books to the mountains. He also helped choose the site of the Chateau Tongariro. Greatly interested in photography and ornithology, he took some remarkable photographs of kokako.

On 18 February 1927, at Auckland, Bill Mead married his second cousin, Leura Marion Osborne. They were to have three children. The family moved to Raetihi in 1933 and to Wanganui in 1945. He continued with his outdoor pursuits, and in June 1953 he produced a typewritten 'Canoeist's guide to the Wanganui River', which proved so popular that several editions were published subsequently. He helped form the Wanganui River Scenic Board in 1958 (replacing the Wanganui River Trust, which had been disbanded in 1940), and was one of its first honorary river rangers. After the death of his wife, Leura, in 1974 he continued to explore, talk about and record the history of the region. In 1979 Mead published his book, Memories of a mountain and a river, illustrated with many of his photographs. He died at Outram, Otago, on 5 August 1980, survived by two sons and a daughter.