Story: Ongley, Montague
Geologist, scientific administrator
This biography was written by Alan Mason and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000
Montague Ongley was born in Oamaru on 10 December 1888, the 10th in the large family of Frederick Ongley, a gardener, and his wife, Mary Ann Mullin. His father was born in England and his mother in Ireland. Several members of the family would distinguish themselves scholastically and at sport. Mont attended Waitaki Boys’ High School, becoming equal dux in 1905 and dux in 1906 and 1907. He was introduced to geology at Waitaki, where the rector, J. R. Don, pioneered the teaching of the subject in New Zealand schools. Ongley continued studying geology at the University of Otago under Patrick Marshall, completing an MA in the subject and in Latin and English in 1911. As well as gaining a triple blue in rugby, hockey and boxing, he was in the New Zealand Universities rugby team that played in Sydney in 1908. He was nominated for a Rhodes Scholarship in 1910 and 1911, but was not selected.
After a period teaching at Timaru Boys’ High School and Dannevirke High School, Ongley joined the Geological Survey Branch of the Mines Department in Wellington in 1914. The director was P. G. Morgan, an advocate of energetic field work and clear, concise reporting: Ongley’s training made him suited to this regime and he would follow it throughout his career. Initially, he was field assistant to John Henderson, the mining geologist, who later succeeded Morgan as director. Another field associate was E. O. Macpherson, one of the few close friends Ongley ever had. The two men were both bachelors and good field geologists, and they had similar temperaments.
In 1916, after studying extramurally, Ongley gained a BSc and in 1922 passed the law professional qualification. During the First World War he was conscripted, entering camp in August 1917 as a second lieutenant in an officers’ training course. He was granted leave from January 1918 to work with the Geological Survey and in May was informed he was to be posted overseas as a sergeant, unless a vacancy occurred for him to be an officer. Ongley protested, claiming it was illegal not to be posted as an officer: he was on sick leave when the war ended in November and was then demobilised.
Between the wars Ongley’s surveys centred on areas with coal and oil potential. However, it is for his mapping of the general geology of these areas, rather than his economic findings, and for his later stratigraphical and structural investigations that he is best remembered. In the late 1930s he spent two years working for an oil company in New Guinea and on his return in 1939 he was drawn into the Geological Survey’s wartime concentration on economic geology, specialising in water supplies and oil. In 1945 he succeeded Henderson as director, despite the determined opposition of Ernest Marsden, the secretary of the DSIR, who considered Ongley to be unfitted for the position.
Unhindered as director by the restrictions that had been imposed during the depression and the Second World War, Ongley instituted a vigorous programme of diversification and expansion, trebling staff and introducing new research fields such as palynology (the study of pollen grains and plant spores), volcanology, and geothermal energy. He was supportive of his staff: as well as establishing district offices that enabled them to live with their families throughout the year, he held annual conferences to foster co-operation and the interchange of ideas. He maintained mapping programmes despite the post-war pressure from authorities for specific economic investigations.
Although highly regarded as a field geologist, he was not efficient in day-to-day paper work, nor did he publish much original work. Apart from five Geological Survey bulletins, Ongley’s 67 publications are all short notes, two-thirds being merely annual reports on his activities. His contribution to New Zealand geology was not in his published research, but in the personal influence he had on other geologists, particularly the younger ones. A strong supporter of the Royal Society of New Zealand, he was elected a fellow in 1948.
Mont Ongley has been described as a ‘simple complex man’. He never married, and during his later working life lived simply, even primitively, in two huts at Waiwhetu, Lower Hutt: one hut for himself and the other for his books. His lunchtimes were spent browsing in Wellington bookshops. He was the most widely qualified of all the Geological Survey directors and his reading matched his education, even to works in French, Latin and German.
Irish Catholic by descent and practice, Ongley had all the loyalties and antagonisms implicit in the term. Behind an outwardly cheerful nature, he had a propensity for controversy, which often upset both colleagues and superiors. His argument with his old teacher, Patrick Marshall, in the mid 1930s became a cause célèbre in the Wellington Philosophical Society. Uncompromising in matters of honesty, accuracy and humbug, he was respected by his staff, but his dealings with the DSIR administration were characterised by ongoing conflict. Tales of his eccentricities are numerous. His stocky physique and love of sport and field work kept him fit well into middle age. Of shy disposition, particularly with women, most of his friendships were with single men.
After retiring in 1952, Ongley led a hermit-like existence and, unlike most of his contemporaries, did no further geology. He worked as a night-watchman because he could ‘read all night and get paid for it’. Severely disabled by a stroke in February 1970, he continued to live alone, supported by voluntary helpers, until his death in Wellington on 6 March 1976. He is remembered as one of the most colourful figures in twentieth century New Zealand geology.