Colourful First Lady's legacy endures

17:55, Nov 25 2012
Diana, Lady Isaac
Diana, Lady Isaac at work on a dam project in India

The peacocks are crying at McLeans Island. Not just their normal call, but a plaintiff wail that shrills across the plains. The colourful birds are mourning the death last Friday of a colourful character, Diana, Lady Isaac.

As news spread that the prominent businesswoman, conservationist, philanthropist and patron of the arts had died, Canterbury joined her much-loved peacocks in their grieving.

For Isaac would aptly bear the title First Lady of Canterbury. Her contribution to the province over 60 of her 91 years was immense. Asked what drove her to give so generously, she told me that, as she and her husband, Sir Neil Isaac, had no children, they decided long ago to leave everything they had to the people.

That broke the ice for a reporter sent to interview her 18 years ago about an environmental award. I had heard she was very private and feared she would be a snob. She was neither.

With eyes sparkling she disarmed me with the offer of tea and biscuits and we chatted for ages.

On her wall was a photograph of a stunning young woman. Yes, she admitted proudly, it was her: Diana Gilbert, the English rose who captured the heart of a bluff Kiwi army engineer en route to India with the British Occupation Force in 1945.


She added, without vanity, that she had captured quite a few officers' hearts on board that ship.

"The main problem I had was that everyone wanted to marry me," she said.

She had dates arranged for every evening of the voyage. She cancelled them for the man who declared New Zealanders did not stand in queues. Thus began a true and enduring love story.

The Isaacs married at Delhi in 1946 and were a devoted couple until his death in 1987.

Devonshire-born Isaac was a strong-willed young woman, by her own admission. She argued with her father and left home to join the British Army's Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), in World War II. The army sent her to Cambridge University to study psychology, in preparation for service in personnel selection. She was commissioned as an officer and reached the rank of captain.

Neil Isaac had done earthmoving contract work in his native South Canterbury and went to India to build irrigation dams in the northern jungle area of Murzipur. There, the couple enjoyed the trappings of a privileged life. They became fond of peacocks, with which they would later stock their Peacock Springs property at McLeans Island, north-west of Christchurch.

The political turmoil around India's move to independence persuaded them to leave. They came to New Zealand in 1950 and established the firm Isaac Construction, at Geraldine.

The company made a false start, as the 1951 waterfront dispute blocked delivery of heavy machinery Neil Isaac had imported. He had to drive a bulldozer, for wages, building the new runway at Christchurch Airport. When the company's machinery arrived, he took two fellow workers with him and launched Isaac Construction on its first contract - building stopbanks beside South Canterbury rivers.

From that time, Diana Isaac worked as hard as any male and "roughed it" with the men. She ran the firm's administration and cooked the meals, often while living in a caravan on site.

"I could stand around and talk quarrying and construction and machinery," she said.

Reconstruction of the State Highway from Domett through Cheviot to Parnassus required the Isaacs to sell their Geraldine house and live in a cabin in the works camp.

Isaac showed courageous commitment to bland 1950s Canterbury, for she missed the trees, birdlife and colour of India. So, when they began quarrying gravel at McLeans Island, to build Christchurch's Memorial Avenue, a vision came to her. The pits they dug could become ponds for fish and waterbirds. They could plant and irrigate trees, shrubs and gardens. They could create their Eden, with springs. It would become a wildlife sanctuary, with peacocks.

They worked on this project whenever they could. Neil Isaac marked the filling of the first pond by naming it Lake Diana.

His death was a huge blow to Diana Isaac. She considered returning to England. But Peacock Springs was their shared vision - she would play her part to the end and bring it to reality.

She worked tirelessly. Into her late 80s, she still went to her office each day to ensure the giant company she and her husband had developed was going well and to join the managers in decision-making.

As a woman, she had to battle bureaucracy at times but men respected her for knowing what she was talking about.

"I never rammed feminism down men's throats. It's not necessary. I never think of being a woman in a man's world. I know my job and just do it," she said.

The fruits of her work were bountiful. Isaac ploughed much of the profit into Peacock Springs and into nature conservation on a wider front. Her legacy is a list several pages long of funding to environmental projects.

She seemed slightly ambivalent about public recognition. She remained shy of having her contributions acknowledged, claiming she sought no glory. And yet, when acknowledgement came, her face would glow and her eyes twinkle just a little more than usual.

She was often asked how much she, as a music lover, donated towards restoration of the Theatre Royal, seven years ago. She refused to answer, but when the figure of $1 million was bandied about, she did not deny it. She told me she fought against having her name attached to the theatre - unsuccessfully, as it became the Isaac Theatre Royal.

Other projects, too numerous to name, ranged from university scholarships to recovery programmes for endangered natural species. Honours she attracted include Queen's Service Medal in 1989 and Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2009.

Diana, Lady Isaac (nee Gilbert), born Devonshire, England, 1921; died Christchurch, November 23, 2012.

The Press