Visionary became motorists' friend

ARTHUR FRYER
Last updated 10:07 12/01/2013

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Taranaki has been connected with petroleum since 1865 when gunsmith Edward Smith collected samples of the oil that could be found among the rocks of New Plymouth's Ngamotu Beach.

From that day many people have drilled or dug wells in the hope of striking a bonanza, a well that would put the Moturoa oil field on the world map.

The wells did produce petroleum, though not on a scale to make the owners very rich.

The last locally refined oil was sold in New Plymouth as Peak Petrol in the 1950s.

While all this was happening Taranaki residents became enthusiastic motorcar owners with an ever-increasing need for petroleum to power their cars, trucks and tractors.

Because the bulk of the petrol sold at the local petrol stations came from abroad, its price was controlled by a small number of overseas companies. Locals fuelled the idea to have a competitive importer capable of bringing down the prices at the pumps.

The answer came from an organisation of car owners, the North Island Motor Union, a body formed from the many local Automobile Associations throughout the North Island.

It not only provided insurance for car owners but lobbied councils for improved and safer roads, and each association erected road signs and provided support for their members.

In the late 1920s William O'Callaghan, a Hawera accountant and motorcar dealer, became president of the union and recruited William Gaston Walkley, a young Hawera accountant, as its secretary.

Walkley was a bustling gregarious man who was born at Otaki in 1896 and grew up in the Manawatu. He served in the New Zealand Army from 1917 in England and returned with the rank of warrant officer.

He was made an associate of the New Zealand Society of Accountants in 1922 and set up a practice in Hawera the same year.

He was elected to the Hawera Borough Council in 1925 and was a councillor for 10 years.

When the South Taranaki Automobile Association was revived in 1924, with O'Callaghan as a vice-president, Walkley became its secretary and soon recruited more local motorists as members.

As office holders in the North Island union, the pair responded to members complaining that foreign companies Texaco, Plume, Shell and Atlantic were setting the price of petrol. In 1931 O'Callaghan, Walkley and others, including Charles Todd of Dunedin, the New Zealand Farmers' Union and the regional Automobile Associations, formed the Associated Motorists Petrol Company Ltd.

They set up pumps at petrol stations throughout the country and sold cheap imported petrol from the Soviet Union under the name Europa, a brand that was well supported by the New Zealand motoring public until 1989 when it was bought by BP New Zealand.

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Walkley remained in Hawera at his accountancy practice selling shares in Europa to his clients and their friends.

(The dividends provided income for many South Taranaki residents for more than 30 years).

Having succeeded so well in New Zealand, the two Hawera men, O'Callaghan and Walkley with George Hutchison of Automobile Association (Auckland) and the backing of well known businessmen, offered to repeat the New Zealand success for the National Roads and Motorists Association of Sydney.

The NRMA decided not to sponsor the company officially but its president, Chris Watson, and senior officials sought investors for a new company, the Australian Motorists Petroleum Co Ltd.

During 1935-36 Walkley sold his accountancy practice in Hawera and moved to Sydney where he organised storage facilities, petrol pumps and office space for the new venture at White Bay. Here he sold shares, organised staff and he brought the new venture to life.

The first tanker from the American Richfield Oil Corporation arrived with oil in December 1937 and his dream to have cheap petrol for Australian motorists began.

World War II brought new opportunities for Walkley.

He served on the Oil Advisory Committee which brought him into contact with federal and state politicians, and he made fresh arrangements to get cheap Middle East oil through California Texas Oil Co, Ltd. He became more aware of the need for Australia to have its own oil fields because until the 1960s the country was entirely dependent on imports.

Walkley, with the assistance of the Western Australia Government, obtained prospecting licences for the Exmouth Gulf area and a consortium eventually found a rich strike at Rough Range next to the Exmouth Gulf in 1953.

His company, now known as AMPOL, named its first oil tanker that transported crude oil to its refinery the MV William G Walkley after its founder.

Undoubtedly his drive and imagination built his reputation and fortune but much of his success was due to his private secretary, later his wife, Theresa Stevens, nee Fisher.

They were married in 1945 and everywhere they travelled Tessa's stenographer's pad and typewriter accompanied them, taking cabled messages, answering requests, and taking business reports, even as William slept.

There were no children of the marriage but Walkley spent large sums of money supporting the Royal New South Wales Institution for Deaf and Blind Children and lobbying for them in every state.

His passion for golf led him to bring the rich Canada Cup tournament to Melbourne in 1959.

An interest in yachting saw him share with Sir Frank Packer the attempt by Gretel to take the America's Cup in 1962.

Between 1961 and 1970 he was president of the Australian Soccer Federation and became the first president of the Oceania Football Confederation.

In 1956, Walkley founded the Walkley Awards for Excellence in Australian journalism, a reflection of the warm and loyal relationship he had with journalists throughout his business life.

There have been many Taranaki people who have crossed the Tasman to succeed in Australia but perhaps none as prominently as Sir William Walkley CBE (1967).

It was a long way from the Hawera Borough Council to the boardrooms of Sydney and Melbourne.

- Taranaki Daily News

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