Early in 1914 a deputation of citizens called on Timaru businessman Edwin Guinness urging him to stand as a candidate for the town’s mayoralty in the upcoming local body elections.
Guinness (56), a descendant of the famous Dublin brewers, was prospering in Timaru.
The stock and station company in which he was a partner, Guinness and Le Cren, was one of the region’s leading businesses and family life with wife Florence and five grown-up children was going well.
Realising he had something to contribute to the town, Guinness agreed to the deputation’s request and was duly elected as mayor.
He was installed in May 1914.
Only three months later, however, the ordinary everyday activities of a small town mayor took on an entirely new aspect when the country was plunged into war.
At once Guinness and his family’s lives were turned upside down.
Guinness and his partners immediately donated £1000 to the war effort while Florence formed the Timaru Patriotic Society, becoming its first president.
All four Guinness sons — Ben, Jack, Grattan and Rowland — enlisted to serve while their sister Naumai joined Florence working on the home front.
During the next two and a half years Edwin Guinness took on an enormous workload.
He farewelled 27 out of 28 drafts of troops leaving South Canterbury for the war.
When those lucky enough to come home returned, he would be at the Timaru Railway Station to welcome them back.
When news came of sons being killed, Guinness would call on the parents to extend his sympathy and that of the town’s.
In one year, while juggling his own business affairs, he attended 24 full council meetings and 184 committee and emergency meetings.
Florence, meanwhile, basing herself at the Timaru council office, was just as busy leading the patriotic society, working with 21 guilds and various societies and schools to support the war effort.
Up to January 1915 the society fitted out the first 400 soldiers to leave Timaru for the war.
From August 1914 until the end of March 1917 they handed out gift parcels to every soldier leaving Timaru, averaging 98 per week.
They supplied South Canterbury men on transports 46 cases of general supplies together with 72 cases of Christmas cakes for men on active service, 12 cases for men in camp in New Zealand, 1000 Christmas parcels to men on active service (two years), 2592 gift parcels and 80 cases of warm clothing — and the list went on.
Florence Guinness was described as working “heart and soul for the war” and praised as a woman widely loved for her Christian qualities and kindness to all in need.
While doing all this, she and her husband had to endure the pain of losing one of their sons early in the war.
In August 1915 Lt Ben Guinness (24), a former chorister at St Mary’s in Timaru, and a clerk at Guinness and Le Cren, was killed charging with other South Canterbury Mounted troops against Turkish positions lined with machineguns at Hill 60 on Gallipoli.
Official records stated Ben Guinness died of wounds several days afterwards on a hospital ship but that was not how his twin brother Jack, also at Gallipoli, revealed in a letter to his parents.
He wrote:“The order came for Ben to lead his men in a charge and by God’s will he was called away. But he did his duty and died the noblest of deaths fighting not only for King and Country, but for your future existence of the rising generations in our sunny little Isle of New Zealand.’’
By 1917 the stress and pressures of war were taking their toll.
Early that year Edwin Guinness was publicly criticised for speaking out in support of the government in its handling of the war.
A letter writer to a local paper came to his defence: “No man is held in greater respect
by the boys who have gone to the Front and the boys who have come back from it.’’
By March 1917, however, Guinness was in hot water again after he criticised Smithfield freezing workers taking a day off work to allegedly attend a race meeting in Waimate, at a time when thousands of sheep and lambs were waiting to be slaughtered.
He claimed the work had been held over so the butchers could attend the race meeting, an action in a time of war he considered “sinful’’.
He wrote to the Minister for Internal Affairs urging the government to suspend or cut back on race meetings because of the war crisis.
A Smithfield slaughtermen’s delegate said workers were both disgusted and amused by Guinness’ comments.
The holiday, he said, was a statutory holiday known as Picnic Day and had the approval of their employers with few workers attending the races.
The strain of the war could have been getting to Guinness.
Soon after he announced he would not seek re-election as mayor in the soon-to-be-held election, citing business pressures.
Seven months later, he and his family had to contend with another tragedy.
Their son Lt Grattan Guinness (27), who also worked for Guinness and Le Cren, was killed at Passchendaele serving with the NZ Rifle Brigade.
While Edwin stepped back from public life, although still playing a part, Florence continued her exhausting work with the patriotic society.
When peace came in 1918 she was awarded an MBE for her devotion to the people of Timaru.
It was some small compensation for the tragic toll war had inflicted on her family.
* In 2000 Chris Tobin wrote a book on South Canterbury soldiers who served at Gallipoli – Gone to Gallipoli: Small town NZ goes to war.