Wellington City Libraries

Te Matapihi Ki Te Ao Nui

Search options

Heritage > The Mervyn Kemp Oral History

Portrait of Mervyn Kemp

An oral history is an audio recording of a person reminiscing about their life and times. These recordings were made in 1995 when Mervyn Kemp was 82 years old.




larger image link

Tawa in 1932. (1.)

larger image link

Tawa in 1947. (2.)

larger image link

Tawa from a similar viewpoint in 2008. Note that compared to the earlier images, the white house in the foreground has been rotated 90° clockwise on its foundations - either to enable road-widening or for subdivision purposes. (3.)

Ernest Mervyn Hall Kemp, was Mayor of the Tawa Borough Council for 28 years - one of the longest serving mayors in New Zealand's history. During that time he played an instrumental role in helping Tawa develop from a semi-rural community to a vibrant urbanised township.

Born in Melbourne in 1912, Mervyn Kemp came to New Zealand in 1938 on a working holiday as a trainee accountant. When World War II broke out, Mervyn joined the New Zealand Army where he received a commission and spent the next two years training recruits before seeing combat himself in the Italian campaign. He returned to Wellington after the conflict but experienced the severe housing shortage which faced by many returning-servicemen. After spending some time living in a run-down flat in Mt Cook, he moved out to what was then known as Tawa Flat where he purchased his first home using a special low-interest loan which was being offered to returned soldiers.

At the time Tawa was a small community of less than 500 people. Services were limited to a post office, a primary school and a small selection of shops. There was no function sewerage system with households having to rely on long-drops or septic tanks. For most people the only available drinking water was rainwater collected from the roofs of their houses and stored in a tank. However things began to change in 1951 when the Tawa Town District was created as a separate constituency within the Makara County Council. Two years later Tawa achieved full municipal independence with the creation of the Tawa Borough Council 1953.

Mervyn Kemp developed a passion for community affairs and was voted first onto the new Town Board, and then onto the Borough Council. He was elected mayor of the Borough in 1955 and was re-elected at every local-body election until his retirement in 1983. From the beginning he had a vision to transform Tawa into a desirable, family-friendly satellite town of Wellington. He set in place a programme of road building, sewerage and water reticulation, the construction of community facilities and the sub-division of land to encourage property development. His drive and enthusiasm for the area played a large part in Tawa becoming what it is today - yet for most of the 32 years he was involved in Tawa's Local Government, he refused to accept a salary.

As well as his mayoral duties, he served for 25 years on the NZ Municipal Association Executive and on the Local Authorities Loans Board. He was also on the Board of Health, the Wellington District Roads Board, the Porirua Fire Board and the Wellington Regional Council which he chaired for six years. He also served more than 30 years as a member of the Wellington Free Ambulance Board.

For his services to the community he was awarded the CBE and the MBE. Locally he was honoured with the naming of Tawa's public library in 1974. Mervyn Kemp died on the 24th January 2003, aged 90.

About the recordings

The impetus for the original oral history project came from members of the Tawa Ratepayers and Progressive Association who recognised the story of Mervyn Kemp's incredible contribution to Tawa needed to be recorded while he was still alive. The project was organised by Con Coffey and the resulting tapes were published by the Historical Branch of the Department of Internal Affairs (now the Ministry of Culture and Heritage). The interviewer was the historian David Young who also wrote the original abstractions which accompany each interview session. The recordings were made over several days in late September 1995 by which time Kemp was living in a retirement home. It should be noted that he was 82 years old at the time and while he was experiencing some short-term memory loss, his early memories of Tawa and his time as Mayor remained very vivid.


Wellington City Libraries acknowledges the Tawa Ratepayers and Progressive Association and the Ministry of Culture and Heritage who kindly gave their permission for the Mervyn Kemp Oral History to be digitised and made available through our website. Also to the Alexander Turnbull Library for permission to use the two early images of Tawa Flat. Please do not copy or reproduce these recordings or images without permission.


  1. Used with the kind permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library. Not to be reproduced on copied without permission. Reference PAColl-7796-53. back
  2. Photograph by J.D. Buckley. Used with the kind permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library. Not to be reproduced on copied without permission. Reference PAColl-8163-40. back
  3. Photograph by G.J. Tóth. Note to be reproduced without permission. back

Heritage Links (Local History)