Les Wright – West Coast historian and conservationist

Les Wright explaining some of the mining relics uncovered from excavations around the opencast mine near Reefton

Les Wright explaining some of the mining relics uncovered from excavations around the opencast mine near Reefton

It was a terrible shock to hear of the recent death of Les Wright in Pureora Forest. Les was an adopted West Coaster, and since his arrival there in 1973 he made an enormous contribution to heritage conservation through his broadcasting, writing and dedicated work behind the scenes.

When I was asked to write the regional entry on the West Coast for Te Ara about five years ago, a visit to Les was high on my priority list. I have happy memories of an afternoon spent in his home near Punakaiki as Les generously shared his experiences and answered questions while I scribbled notes.

When I asked him about distinctive West Coast artists he mentioned a number of contemporary names, then added that he had always had a soft spot for an almost unknown Czech photographer called Joseph Divis, who recorded life in mining towns in the early 20th century. I was enthralled by the images he showed me, and this was the start of a temporary obsession that was to dominate my life for about 18 months. I chased up Divis images and archives from Dunedin to Waihi. Throughout this period Les was constantly supportive through regular emails and long phone calls. When a book was eventually ready for publication Les declined to be included as a co-author, saying that he hadn’t written the text – but he had certainly provided much of the inspiration and background. We reached a compromise, with his name on the title page.

Les always had an interest in people and communities, especially mining towns. He was an excellent listener and oral historian, gathering memories from older residents who were overlooked by others. His books include accounts of the Rewanui settlement, the Powells of Charleston, the Big River quartz mine and most recently the short-lived mining settlement of Brighton. He also co-authored a history of cave exploration in New Zealand, which was an important resource for the Te Ara story on Caving.

Although Les had wide interests, the abandoned gold-mining town of Waiuta was particularly close to his heart, and he worked on different aspects of its history and conservation for over 30 years. He was a long-term supporter of the Friends of Waiuta, and had edited their newsletter since it started in 1985.

One of his recently published books, Our own fun: childhood memories of Waiuta is a delightful gem, and I know that it was a source of great satisfaction to him. It collects together memories of people who grew up in Waiuta and presents a composite view of childhood in an isolated mining town. Many of the contributors have now died, and their memories would have disappeared if Les had not painstakingly recorded their oral histories.

Les played an important role in the preservation of the West Coast’s mining heritage, but much of his work was behind the scenes. Among other things, he was a long-standing member of the West Coast Conservation Board and local file-keeper for site records for the Archaeological Association. For several years he produced West of the Alps, a local monthly tourist newspaper. In recent months he had been working on a mining heritage trail in the Nine Mile area north of Greymouth. His name was on many heritage or conservation plans for sites all over the West Coast as author, contributor or reviewer.

Les was often consulted about mining relicts uncovered during excavation of an opencast mine near Reefton. The mining company established a central site where relicts were deposited – nicknamed ‘Les’ Ironmongery’ – and he delighted in identifying and cataloguing pieces of rusty machinery. The photograph at the top of this post was taken while Les was showing a group some of the relicts that fascinated him.

Les Wright is mourned by his family and a wide circle of friends and colleagues. We remember someone with a passion for conservation and history who did so much to preserve and document the mining heritage of the West Coast.

4 comments have been added so far

  1. Comment made by Deborah Carden || May 21st, 2013

    Thank you Simon – this is a lovely tribute to Les. His love of historic heritage brought to life the stories of the past, touching the hearts and minds of ‘coasters’ up and down the region. Kia Ora koe, Deborah Carden

  2. Comment made by Phil Campbell || May 25th, 2013

    I knew Les when he worked briefly at the Marlborough Express in Benheim, where he was predominantly a sports journalist. By then, ex Marlborough Express, I was established at The Dominion, meeting Les on regular return visits to my home town. Les had a gentle but sharp wit and light touches with the pen endeared him to Marlburians. Several years I ago I was approached to pen a few words about Les in ‘Marlborough – celebrating 150 years’. Pleasingly, the few pity words one was able to muster in tribute from memories of the mid 1970s stood the test of time. He was also fondly remembered over the years by the late Mick Jellyman, a regular contributor of sports articles to the Express, of whom I also wrote, who would draw on recall Les’s dry wit and observations. I knew in those days, too, Les’s heart lay in West Coast history. RIP to one of life’s true gentlefolk. Condolences to his family.
    Phil Campbell

  3. Comment made by Elaine Bolitho || May 29th, 2013

    It was with great sadness that I learned of Les’s death and thank you Simon for your warm and accurate comments. As the Friends of Waiuta editor, Les edited my book ‘Reefton School of Mines – stories of Jim Bolitho’ back in 1998-99, and it was brilliant to work with someone with such a heart for West Coast mining stories.I will really miss his wonderful Friends of Waiuta newsletters with news of people, discoveries and developments. Rest in peace.

  4. Comment made by Martin Steffen || June 23rd, 2013

    I was very sorry to learn today that Les Wright had died in the Pureora Forest on the West Coast of New Zealand. He is missed by many and a good deal of local history is now lost with him. I will always be grateful to Les for all the help he provided to me and my research around the gold mining near Callaghans Creek back in 1993. We corresponded around gold mining and west coast history during the following few years since I live in Sweden. I will never forget watching the sun set over the Tasman Sea from the top floor of Les “tree house” just north of Punakaiki. The 360-degree view from the guest room reaching up through the dense blanket of tree tops was truly stunning. My thoughts goes to his family and friends.

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