Mills, Ian Leslie Interview

I’m with Mr Ian Mills, interviewing him today [1st August 2018] on his life in various organisations. He was one of the instigators of the Napier Aquarium, he’s been in shoe retailing, he’s a painter of some note as well.

Ian, good afternoon, and welcome.

Welcome to my home, Jim.

I’d like you just to tell us about when you first came to Hawke’s Bay and perhaps your parents, when they came …

We came to Hawke’s Bay in 1938 in December, just after the Eskdale floods. It had knocked out the Nuhaka railway bridge on the Wairoa road. And people don’t believe me but we took a little car, we went over that viaduct at Nuhaka [Mohaka] in 1938 in December. But we’d come up from Invercargill via Timaru for six weeks in Gisborne for my father to negotiate with Mike Stephenson to buy into a shoe shop in Napier. That’s what brought us here. My father had the option to buy into a shoe shop from Invercargill up to here – better climate – 1938.

But my father was an Englishman, a Londoner and proud of it, and he formed the Londoners’ Club here in Napier. It doesn’t exist any more, but it was a very bright and happy little club in those days, 1938 to 1940.

What was his full name?

Leslie Edward Fortune Mills, and each of his sons have got one of those names. I’m Ian Leslie, Graeme’s Graeme Edward, Rex was Rex Fortune, which is our father’s name. And the Fortune part had the main hotel in Whakatane would you believe, in those days. Harry Fortune had a hotel, but I never knew him of course.

Okay. My mother was born in Cambridge; lived most of her life in Whakatane. Her parents, my grandparents … well, my grandfather worked for Boone, Sullivan & somebody or other, who were builders and glaziers – my grandfather was a glazier on windows for many years. He retired and he settled in Havelock North, at Anglican Rest Home in Havelock North … Andy Shaw.

My father had three sisters and two brothers, all of which came out with their mother. Their father had died, and his mother said “come on, we’re going to New Zealand”. [Chuckle] I don’t really know why, but the oldest brother took a look at New Zealand briefly and went back to England. One of the sisters died about six months later in New Zealand.

So my father’s brother, Uncle Mick – he had a ninetieth birthday, and my brother Graeme and I thought that was very important – rather an important moment. We went up to Helensville to join Uncle Mick with his ninetieth birthday. Well, boot’s on t’other foot now – there’s going to be a gathering here in seven weeks for my ninetieth birthday. That’s just how things work out.

Other branches of my father’s family are scattered around the Auckland area. Incidentally I am the oldest survivor of my father’s clan. All the brothers and sisters of my father and their family – I am the oldest of the progeny, and all the first generation are long dead. So I don’t know whether to be proud of that. [Chuckle]

What was the name of the ship that your father came out from England in?

I do have that, but not handy … we’ll give you that shortly. I may not find it – I’ve got a photograph. I’ll try and find it, but Graeme’ll give us this.

So my grandfather from Whakatane … the window glazier … he was born in South America. His mother and father were coming out on a boat to New Zealand, and she was a little bit pregnant and she gave birth to my grandfather in the port of …


But he’s a … we think of him as a New Zealander. So … my brother Graeme had this DNA test just quite recently, and it was fairly basic – I was hoping for something more exotic. [Chuckle] But what’s good for Graeme is good for me – we are brothers – nothing to get excited about.

Okay. Family life in Hawke’s Bay … well at the age of eighty-nine and eleven months, I am world famous in Napier and I just recently met a man who is world famous in Hastings, Michael Fowler, because we both have written history books on our local … ‘cause it’s amazing, I knew of him and he knew of me, but we’d never met. But we did meet ‘bout six or eight weeks ago, and I seemed to know him very well. [Chuckle] Our lives and interests sort of … they balance out, and so Michael is world famous in Hastings, and with the career I’ve had here … it’s hard to be modest. [Chuckle] My mother-in-law always used to have me on about this – “Ian, it’s hard to be modest” – and it is. But you’re here to find out who I am and what I am – I’ll have to tell you one or two things.

So – I’ve got sidetracked here. Well, I went through the Boys’ High – we came here in ’38, went to Nelson Park School for two years, the Intermediate in Jull Street for two years, and then the Boys’ High School for four years, and that was 1943 to 1946 at the Boys’ High School. And at the end of that time my father was doing the fatherly thing, and he sorted me out a job [chuckle] with a fellow he was drinking with in the Masonic Hotel. His name was Mr Coull. Now that won’t mean much to you, but you’ve got Whitcoulls the printers, across the road, and in those days there was [were] two big printing firms – Whitcombe & Tombs [and] the other big one was Coull, Somerville & Wilkie, which was Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington, Palmerston and Auckland. And Dad was having a beer in the Masonic Hotel with the publican, Mr Nichol, and who should be there but Mr Coull Senior. He’d come up from Dunedin to do business with the National Tobacco Company – Coull, Somerville & Wilkie did all the printing for the National Tobacco Company, and once a year Mr Coull came up to sort things out. And Dad was having a beer with him, and he said he had a son blah, blah, blah – you know what fathers are like. “Oh”, he said, “I could give him a job in Christchurch”. And so Dad came home that night and said “you’re going to Christchurch”.

So I was shot off to Christchurch to Coull, Somerville & Wilkie to the art department. There were three other guys, and I spent two years with Coull, Somerville & Wilkie in their art department drawing Weetbix cards, letterheads, labels – all sorts of things – until after two years I went to see Mr Coull’s son who was manager of Christchurch … Mr Coull Junior … and said “Mr Coull, I’m leaving – I’m going back to my father’s shoe business”. Mr Coull sat in his chair and he said “I think you’re wise”. [Chuckle] So there you are.

I have a reasonable track record in the art world here locally, but I don’t think of myself as an artist – I am an illustrator. I never started to paint these pictures that you see until I was about fifty … age fifty. Prior to that, all I was painting was little pictures – little bit bigger than a pack of cards, for Weetbix – you buy your Weetbix, and you’ve collected fifty different coloured pictures – well, the art department I was in was doing those, and that’s where I learnt I could paint and draw. That’s why I ended up there. But I wasn’t an artist by any means – I was just painting little individual ‘one-of’. And after I had had a rather eventful life one way and another, I started to paint bigger pictures, and surprisingly had rather good success [chuckle] for a new chum. Okay, I don’t want to go on about that one.

The most I’ve had for a painting was $900. Any of my work I sell for $250 to $350, but I’m not a prolific artist either. We figured out the other day I probably have done eighty-two paintings from the age of fifty. I’ve only got twenty-four in the house, or records for twenty-four. What happens to the other fifty-odd pictures, they’re … England, America, all over the place. But I have a very good friend who is trying to compile a dossier on me.

I’ve had a very interesting life, [chuckle] and I’m the “nearly” man. The “nearly man” – nearly made it [chuckle] in various aspects of my life; never quite made it anywhere. Did you ever see that film?

I did.

Yes – the “nearly” man, that’s me. [Chuckle] But I’ve enjoyed doing it.

Sport and other skills … well, well, well. I hear people say “oh, I can’t do anything.” Everybody’s got a talent, I don’t care who you are. Some people can play the piano and I happen to be able to paint pictures and write books. I get fed up with people saying, “oh, I can’t do …” Everybody has a talent of some sort – I have to drum this into their head. And I have been a little bit lucky … yes.

So I did mention to you that my son was drowned at Mahia. He’d been to England with his girlfriend – three years in England driving hay balers and harvesting wheat and stuff in Sussex and round about. And he walked into the house – not this house, we were in another house – he walked in and says “Hi, Dad.” I said “what are you doing here?” And he says “we’ve just come home.” [Chuckle] And three weeks later he was dead. So he wanted … we had that bach at Mahia …

What year was this?

And he’d been in England … the cold winters … And he has a mate here and he asked his mate if he’d like to go up to Mahia and get some crayfish, which is what they did, the two of them. And they drank a bit of beer and they put the boat out. It was very rough, they should never have gone out. And they were tipped out, and he was drowned. His mate got picked up and taken ashore, and we never ever got Chris’s body.

But my daughter is still with us, thank goodness. She is sixty-one. Her husband is sixty-three, and he was a farmer. His parents were very wealthy, had a big farm, and I think they sunk Neville, their son, into a farm. But anyhow, Neville was quite a good farmer, but the bottom fell out of the sheep trade some fifteen … twenty years ago, and he said “not for me”, and he sold up. And he went down to Otago University and became a pharmacist. And he came back here, and he did a two-year stint with Peter Dunkerley, which – Peter Dunkerley did this normally for these new chum chemists.

He’s our chairman.

Yeah, well he did two years with Mr Dunkerley and then bought into a business.

He’s the chairman of the Knowledge Bank.

Oh, is he? Oh, well, he might like this little bit of comment. [Chuckle]

My son-in-law bought an old run-down chemist shop in Foxton, and I thought, ‘what the hell – who wants to live in Foxton?’ Well anyhow, he’s very shrewd, and the hinterland was halfway to Levin and up to Himatangi, and back inland to Shannon. Although it was run-down, Neville was much younger and he set about building the business up. He bought an old run-down building and started to rebuild a brand new chemist shop. And the County says “you can’t build that there here – you pull it down”. And so they had to pull the building down and start again with a brand new building, which they did. And that’s five years ago, and it’s got a staff of about ten or twelve … very large chemist shop by any standard. It’s not as big as that one in Marewa; it’s far bigger than the one at Maadi Road.

But just over a year ago two Arabs, I would think … two people walked in out of the blue and said to him, “ever thought of selling your business?” And Neville said “no, it’s not for sale.” They said “would you sell it?” And he said “it would have to be a silly price”, and off they went. They came back the following day with this silly price. [Chuckle] Now my son-in-law and my daughter trip around the world. In the last eighteen months they’ve been everywhere, any place worth seeing. They’ve been to see the gorillas in the jungle, they’ve been up to Machu Pichu in the Andes, and they’ve just come back from Canada. I don’t know what a silly price is, [chuckle] but it’s more than one million; it’s probably more than two million. A silly price would be three million. I was never told, but that’s my daughter. She’s throwing a ninetieth birthday party for me.

Now you took an interest in the Aquarium, didn’t you in Napier, and got that going?

Oh! Oh, oh yes. Well yeah – my life breaks into four bits actually … books, painting, retailing and the Aquarium. No, that’s not quite right … and Stonehenge.

When I came back to Napier my father wanted … I came back when they sold the building in Emerson Street to McKenzie’s who had been in Hastings Street for many years, and they wanted to get into Emerson Street. They bought the building my father was in, which they owned – Dad and his partner owned the building. That split Mills’ Shoe Company up, and so Dad took off on his own without his partner in new premises underneath the Masonic Hotel. I did show you a picture – that picture is underneath the Masonic Hotel facing Emerson Street, just by the bank … the ANZ Bank … it was right alongside it. So I came back – I’d been a window dresser in Wellington for two years after getting out of Coulls, Somerville & Wilkie. I didn’t come home to my father’s business, I got a job in a big shoe store in Wellington as their window dresser. They had seventeen windows and I spent two years dressing up their windows.

When Dad wanted to re-establish Mills’ Shoe Company I came home to help. My brother Rex was already working for Dad, so he had his two sons to help him re-establish in Hastings Street. And right from the word go Dad insisted that he wanted a fish tank in the Children’s Shoe Department. That photo that I showed you is the Children’s Shoe Department and there’s a pillar in the middle of it and a fish tank built alongside it. So Dad got his fish tank – it was his idea to put the fish tank in the Children’s Shoe Department – and we filled it up with goldfish. And oh, probably a year … something like that it had goldfish in it, until the wife of a prominent doctor came in and bought some shoes from my father. Dad’s nattering away to her, and she says “oh”, she said, “you don’t want goldfish in that tank – you want tropical fish”. He said “tropical fish – what are they?” [Chuckle] And that’s where it all began. She said, “the doctor and I, we kept tropical fish before we came out to New Zealand”, and they’d been here a few months. She said “I’ll bring you in the doctor’s book”. Now Peter [Michael] … the author in Hastings …


… yeah. You know who I mean. She said “I’ll bring you in the doctor’s book”. So she brought in a book the following day which is even today considered to be the bible of tropical fish. And there’s this book on tropical fish, very well known amongst the hobbyists. And the Aquarium library has three copies. They have the copy that Mrs Russell brought in – we never did return it and that was … well, it’s sixty years ago. I went up to the Aquarium library – I was the librarian at the Aquarium for fifteen or twenty years – and I went back there with the … Peter … oh, never mind – I said “I can find this book in here”, and we found it. I said “here it is”, and he took a picture of me with this book. He’s over there, and I’m sitting here, and two or three days later he’s put it onto the you know, email thing …

Oh yeah …

Who the hell are they?

On computer?

Facebook. He put it onto Facebook. And so Dad said – once we’d scanned this book, my father said “I think you’d better go to Wellington and find some tropical fish.” So he gave me £20, put me on a rail car and sent me to Wellington and I came back with £20 worth of tropical fish. We threw out the goldfish, and they were the first tropical fish in Hawke’s Bay, or – anyhow, the first ones in Napier. I believe there was a few in Hastings. They wouldn’t have been up to much. So I had brought the first tropical fish into the district, and for the best part of a year we had the only tropical fish in the district. And Dad and I wasted hours talking to customers about tropical fish. Dad was also a keen member of the Thirty Thousand Club, which is no longer working – they were like an early Lions Club or Rotary – they did many good things around the Parade. And at a Thirty Thousand Club meeting Dad was silly enough to suggest at the meeting that the basement of the War Memorial Hall, which was about to open – it wasn’t open, it was just being finished off and it had a big empty basement under it. And Dad said “it’d be a great place to put an aquarium”. And the Thirty Thousand Club turned round and said “righto, Les – here’s £500 – you put an aquarium there.” That’s true, too. That’s slipped up in the history – I’ve got that there.

So Dad made out a little ad and gave it to me and said “take that over to the Daily Telegraph”. And I took it over to the Daily Telegraph – this is very important – and the following night this ad’s in the paper inviting anyone interested in helping to establish an aquarium in Napier, to attend a meeting the following night at eight o’clock in the Thirty Thousand Club rooms. So we go to this meeting which Dad had set up – Dad chaired the meeting. And there was twenty-eight people present, and twelve of them were members of the aquarium at the Water Garden Society. We’d never heard of them, didn’t know who the hell they were, but they were a bit frightened or concerned about what Dad was talking about, quite obviously, looking back now. And so Dad said to them, “look, you fellows – you go over to that room over there, make up your mind – do you want to join us or don’t you?” Five … ten minutes later they came back, and they said “we will join you”. This wording is very important because I was with my mate – who’s writing in Hastings – he’s writing a history of the Aquarium. I took him round to Barbara Dine’s home. Barbara is the widow of the curator, Gordon Dine.

The people who started the Aquarium was [were] myself, Russ Spiller and Gordon Dine, thanks to Dad we could say. Dad never got his hands wet but he was the reason it all started and so I really should be kind to my father [chuckle] and say my father, myself, Gordon Dine and Russ Spiller. But that was a very tight little group that negotiated it’s way with the City Council, the Mayor, the Town Clerk and various people for permission to occupy the basement and put an aquarium in there. And the Council said okay – they made it possible, and we got the basement rent free, thanks to Pat Ryan and Peter Tait, the Mayor and Town Clerk.

But currently at the moment this is a sore point with me, because I’ve lived to be almost ninety without taking this view. I am modest, and when the subject came up over the last sixty years I always gave credit to Gordon Dine and myself, not to Dad, who founded … Gordon Dine, myself and my father, and Dad was dead by this time. Dad was only in that position for ten months, he died of lung cancer. But the issue is now – when we went to Barbara Dine’s place recently, with … is it Peter? Who the hell am I talking about? His uncle was the Mayor of Wellington.

Michael Fowler?

Yeah, that’s right … Michael Fowler! When I took Michael Fowler to Barbara Dine’s place, I knew Gordon had a whole heap of paper clippings, sixty years of newspapers – pictures of Gordon and pictures of me – we were often seen together. So I took him to Barbara’s, and she brought out this big heap of stuff. And what does she produce, but an advert – exactly the ad that Dad gave me to put in the paper. But above our ad, a repeat advert, across the top ‘Hawke’s Bay Aquarium and Water Garden Society’. This is a mystery, and now in recent times, I’ve had to live with this. The little yellow book I’m going to give you to take away, I – as an author you’ve got to be honest and not act as a sensor – and I’d come across two letters in the minute book from Mrs Logan – what a lot of crap! [Chuckle] And you can quote me on this, [chuckle] because she goes on and on about the Water Garden Society and how their Chairman did this, and blah, blah, blah – and this is Dad she’s talking about – we never knew they existed! Had no idea there was such an organisation!

So you can see it’s a bit of a … but up until just recently, within the last couple of months would I speak like this because there is nobody left but me – I am the last person. I cannot find anybody of that generation that’s still alive, other than myself. But I’d like … I did suggest to the current curator of the Aquarium yesterday, I said “you might like to come and join me at one o’clock today.” I said “I don’t want you to be interviewed, I don’t want you … I just want you to be aware of what I say”, you know – some of what I’ve said could bounce back on me. I’m quite confident about what I’ve been talking about but I would have liked Kerry Hewitt, the present curator, to be present. He would know – although he was quite young and he came probably ten years after the Aquarium was started – he knew full well how it had started, and what it was all about.

What year did the Aquarium start?

1957. And the history I have there – you could get a copy of that history, I can’t give you that one but I can get you a copy – that takes you step by step right through, until the day it was … Marineland was closed down. And then they filleted the second aquarium and cleaned it out. Those little pictures there are part of – as I say, I did about four hundred and fifty, maybe five hundred of those. Each was an individual label. So that was … oh, my lifetime.

Where was the first position of the Aquarium?

In the basement of the War Memorial. We were there for nineteen years – we were twelve years in the basement of the War Memorial …

So it was at the bottom of the War Memorial, and then it moved from there ..?

Yeah, well we were twelve years in the basement, and the Council joined us. They wanted to build a Dolphin Pool, and so for the next seven years there was the Aquarium in the basement … we were nineteen years before we got into a new building. But the Council joined us and formed the Board, the Marineland Board, which is that certificate over there, that framed certificate. That worked for twelve years, and then the Council scrubbed that and created Destination Napier, which took us over.

For the first nine years the Aquarium was built, organised and run by Gordon Dine, Russ Spiller, myself, the Aquarium Society. The members of the Aquarium Society were in charge of the Aquarium. We actually had … the Council had nothing to do with us. They gave us [the] basement rent free, but other than that … That’s not quite right, the Council had a finger in it. They helped us considerably – without the Council’s backing and help there would be no Aquarium – I’m the first to say that. But they weren’t active members, but they made everything possible for us for nine years. Then they formed a board – the Marineland Board – that created a Dolphin Pool and put dolphins in it. And that Board consisted of five City Council members and four Aquarium Society members, of which I was one – for twelve years I was a Board member. The first twelve years of the Dolphin Pool.

Then, well somewhere during the latter twelve years, not quite at the end, the Council … didn’t throw us out – the thing had got so big, so successful by this time. We had a two-storey concrete building on the Parade, and it was run by nine people – five Councillors and four fish people. The Council then took it over holus bolus, with our consent. We agreed to move it off the stage and leave to them. It had got so big and so successful, it needed finance advice and things that we weren’t capable of doing. It was no hardship to give it up, just that we couldn’t run it, we weren’t equipped to run it, and we acknowledged that. So we sort of bowed out at that stage.

Now the Aquarium Society has absolutely nothing. It doesn’t own the Aquarium – it used to, but it doesn’t now. And I – in my writings there – stated that we are very, very good friends of the Aquarium, and that’s all it is. And now the Council is toughening up on us – they don’t want us in the building. We have monthly meetings there – you know, you wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for us!

But we’ve got a library, but now they think the library’s theirs. I pointed out the other day, “hey, this – it doesn’t belong to you people, it’s the Aquarium Society’s library.” Now I know that because I ran it for fifteen years. But it’s not a grizzle, it’s just success. Now I’m very proud of the success, so I’m not grizzling when I tell you these things.

Well that’s interesting how things start off in cities. But we often see Councils take it over when they think it’s starting to be a bit profitable.

[Chuckle] Oh, that’s a good – can I just interrupt you? Talking of profits, for twelve years all the profit from the Aquarium, which was always profitable – not in huge sums – but for twelve years any profit coming from the Aquarium was used to build up the Dolphin Pool. Well, it doesn’t say, but we couldn’t do any improvements – we couldn’t grow in the building we were in for starters – but we couldn’t do anything about that because they were taking our revenue and putting it into the Dolphin Pool for twelve years. And we used to hound Peter Tait and grizzle and groan, until finally he had the City Architect design that round concrete building – the two storey one, which is still there – it’s the basis of [the] one that’s now on the Parade, but it’s hidden away. But Len Spate did this with the Council as instructed, and we had a Board meeting at which I was present, and Gordon Dine was ex officio – as curator of the Aquarium he attended all the meetings. And Peter Tait tabled these plans and he turned round to Gordon and I … always remember this … he turned round to Gordon and I and he said “are you boys happy?” And I said “what if we fail?” He says “you’ll still have the building.” [Chuckle] So that was Peter Tait, so … we didn’t fail. They were talking of money that I’m not used to, three million dollars [chuckle] … frightened the hell out of me. This current one that we have now – theoretically it was $8.6 million, but that’s not quite true. It was $9 million something – it would be a lot more now.

They play with figures, don’t they?

That’s why as the Aquarium Society, a group of little fish keepers, we weren’t really equipped to deal with those sort of figures.

But I have no regrets and much pleasure, and I insist now that I am the only one left [chuckle] … no, let’s say that I’m brave enough now to say what I believe to be the truth. My father is – I know it started in Mills’ Shoe Company, but if … Water Garden Society have got other thoughts. Well you take that little yellow book and read it, you’ll see what upsets me. It’s just utter rubbish, what she’s writing.

Okay. So from there you must have taken on something else after that – is that when you started painting, when you got to fifty?

Yes. I suppose I did work at some stage, but the sixty years … it was ‘57, and it’s now 2017 – that’s sixty years. Well those sixty years … it’s like you playing golf …you know, you work all … for a week and then you go out on the weekend and you have a round of golf. It’s fun. So for sixty years my game of golf, or pleasure, was painting these little pictures and labelling them, dressing up the tanks and what-have-you at the Aquarium – it was never work.

War Service – I was too young to be involved in the war.

Organisations and Clubs – well the Aquarium was the one big deal in my life really.

Travel in New Zealand …

Were you a tourist? Did you have time for it?

Yeah, Australia … I haven’t really travelled a hell of a lot – oh, I’ve been to England and back, by the way. My wife won a Golden Kiwi in 1967, and the first prize was £12,000, she and a girlfriend won it, so they got £6,000 each. That took my wife and I around the world and I saw ten major aquariums throughout the world.

And during that time … just a couple of months before we took off, I’d seen a BBC programme on the TV, on Stonehenge. So I was travelling the world looking at aquariums on my wife’s money, [chuckle] and while we were in England I thought ‘well I’ll pop in and see Stonehenge’, so we did. We hired a car and we went out for two or three days, and when we got to Stonehenge my wife said “I’m not going in there”, and she just sat in the car – wouldn’t go. There was no fence around it or anything like that in those days you could just walk in. So I left her sitting in the car and I spent ten minutes at Stonehenge and I gave my camera to a guy, looked like a bus conductor and I said “would you take my picture?” “Yes, certainly sir. So I stood in the middle of Stonehenge and had my picture taken with my camera, and ultimately we came back to New Zealand. But I wasn’t there for more than ten minutes, but from that point onwards I’ve been trying to figure out what Stonehenge was all about, and I have. That’s a totally different story … it’s not what you’re here for. And I’m warning you – and I’m serious about this, very serious – that if and when I get Stonehenge published, please come and interview me, because you’ll get a free copy – and I’ve tried for sixty years to get it published and they don’t want to know me. Every village has it’s idiot, and perhaps that’s the category I fit, but I don’t think so.

Now, having said that I’ll show you something, right beside you. That is a copy of ‘Stonehenge’ which I sent to Thames & Hudson Publishers in 13 Bloomsbury Street London, and it’s come back ‘Return to Sender’. I sent it on the 24th of November last year, and it came back on the 1st of March this year, unopened. Inside there is £15 sterling, the return postage. But I tried very hard on this one, but I’m not opening this until it’s published.

I’ll just end this interview, and thank you Ian for a very interesting talk. Thank you very much.

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Interviewer:  Jim Newbigin

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