Story: Meltzer, Jacob

Page 1 - Biography

Meltzer, Jacob

1898–1976

Lawyer, unionist, coroner, community leader

This biography was written by Sherwood Young and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Jacob (Jack) Meltzer was born at Newcastle upon Tyne, England, on 21 October 1898, to Jewish parents Naphtali Meltzer, a travelling draper, and his wife, Deborah Peisachson. He was one of seven boys and two girls, and was educated at the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle before his family emigrated to New Zealand in 1912. Jack attended Auckland Grammar School and Auckland University College, where he gained a boxing blue. In 1916 he was the champion shot in the Auckland Military District. After working as a clerk in the Customs Department until 1920, Jack shifted to Wellington, where he studied law at Victoria University College. He commenced legal practice in 1923, quickly becoming one of the city’s top criminal lawyers. On 29 December 1926 he and London-born Annie Rose Garshook were married at the synagogue on The Terrace in Wellington.

In early 1940 Jack Meltzer was provisionally selected from 49 applicants as the general secretary and legal adviser to the New Zealand Police Association. As the newly formed association’s activities were closely scrutinised and sometimes strenuously resisted by Commissioner D. J. Cummings, a close rapport between the president, Chief Detective J. B. Young, and the general secretary was essential. The two men, who both belonged to the Thorndon Bowling Club, soon developed a sound working relationship. Meltzer’s appointment was confirmed at the September annual conference after he had visited North Island police districts. He toured those in the South Island in November. Having taken over the editorship of the New Zealand Police Journal from his predecessor, I. D. Campbell, Meltzer proceeded to make it a vital organ of communication between members of the association.

Over the next two years Meltzer and Cummings increasingly disagreed over the role of the Police Association. Their protracted battle came to a head in March 1943 when the commissioner refused to see Meltzer, believing he had undermined the discipline and prestige of the force. On 24 March 1944 Meltzer arranged a meeting, but their differences remained unresolved. Two major aims of the association were retirement at 60 or after 35 years’ service, and a 40-hour week. Intent on thwarting this latter campaign before he retired in October, Cummings made a South Island tour, maintaining that the association’s bid for a shorter week was impractical because of its effect on efficiency.

Meltzer was in the forefront of other major issues in the 1950s, a decade which saw the early retirement of Commissioner E. H. Compton as a result of several matters in which Meltzer was a persistent advocate for his members. In 1955 Compton was replaced by the secretary for justice, S. T. Barnett, who also became controller general of the police. Meltzer continued in legal practice until 1956, when he took up full-time duties with the Police Association. That year the New Zealand Police Training School opened in Trentham, with recruits competing for an award in weapons training. In 1964 this was named the Meltzer Trophy.

The Police Act 1958 finally provided for retirement at 60 for male police officers, and a five-day week was achieved in 1959. Both of these were causes Meltzer had advocated since assuming his position in 1940. In 1965 he was instrumental in achieving legislative recognition that police had special conditions of service. By now Meltzer was working with association members from another generation and the reform-minded commissioner, C. L. Spencer, yet his commitment to gaining improved conditions for those he represented was unwavering.

In 1961 Jack Meltzer visited Scotland Yard in London, International Criminal Police Organisation (Interpol) headquarters in Paris, the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington, and the Danish ombudsman (the first New Zealander to do so). He was interested in the possibility of becoming the first ombudsman in New Zealand, but he was not appointed. In 1963 he, Spencer and two others represented New Zealand at a United Nations human rights seminar in Canberra.

Membership of the Police Association had grown from 1,400 when Meltzer assumed office to 2,700 when he retired in 1966. On 12 October at his farewell, Prime Minister Keith Holyoake, Minister in Charge of Police Percy Allen, and Minister of Justice Ralph Hanan all paid tribute to him. In 1960 the government had accepted Meltzer’s offer to write a history of policing. He prepared to do so as a retirement project, but in 1968 he withdrew due to failing eyesight. His efforts were of considerable assistance, though, when others took up the task in the 1970s.

After leaving the Police Association Jack Meltzer became the Wellington coroner. He conducted the inquests into the deaths which resulted from the sinking of the Wahine in 1968 and the Gear Meat Company and Edith Sprott House fires, the shooting of Bruce Glensor by a policeman in 1970, and a drowning incident involving the ship Waikato during Queen Elizabeth II’s visit in 1970. He was known for his kindness and consideration towards people involved in such events. He described his role as a ‘sort of public nanny’ who worried aloud in the interests of the public.

Jack Meltzer was very active in Jewish, sporting and community affairs. He was chairman of the Wellington Jewish Social Club (1932–36), the first president of the Wellington branch of the Friends of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1948, and president of the Wellington Hebrew Congregation (1960–68). Continuing an early interest in sport, he was president of the New Zealand Football Association in 1962–63, manager of the New Zealand British Empire and Commonwealth Games team at Cardiff in 1958, and an executive member of the New Zealand Olympic and British Empire Games Association. He was awarded a Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Medal in 1953, and was made an MBE in 1957 and an OBE in 1966. He was secretary of the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Crippled Children Society and a founder of the Wellington Youth Orchestra.

Jack Meltzer was a small, neat man known for his shrewd and feisty personality. He died on 16 December 1976 aged 78 at the Kelburn bowling green in Wellington. He was survived by his wife and their daughter.