Sir Dove-Myer Robinson was the longest-serving mayor of Auckland city, holding office for 18 years between 1959 and 1980, an achievement made all the more impressive by the fact that he came to the position as a largely self-educated Jewish man.
“Robbie” was born Mayer Dove Robinson on 15 June 1901 in Sheffield, England, the sixth of eight children of Ida Brown and her husband, Moss Robinson, a furniture salesman and, upon the family’s arrival to Auckland in 1914, a pawnbroker.
The slight, bespectacled boy left Devonport School at 14 to become a messenger. Later he achieved some success as a travelling salesman. During this period he inverted his first names. More significantly for the grandson of a rabbi, and no doubt to the abiding sorrow of his devout mother, he rejected Judaism in favour of atheism.
Jewish civic values continued to inform Robinson’s life, as much so as schoolyard instances of schoolyard anti-Semitism back in England made an indelible mark on his early experience. Nor, as he possibly might have hoped, was his Jewish identity lost on his opponents. One of his later political foes, Reg Savoury, one-time city councillor and later chairman of the Auckland Harbour Board, would sometimes refer to him behind his back as “Jew boy.”
Aided by his considerable energy and booming voice he entered municipal politics as an opponent of a local sewage scheme, first by winning a byelection in 1952 and then by moving with the party he formed, the United Independents, to take control of Auckland Metropolitan Drainage Board, which on his watch would implement a sewerage scheme drawing on American know-how.
He first became mayor in 1959, serving for six years before again successfully seeking the position in 1968, which he held until 1980.
A clean Waitemata has been described as Robinson’s greatest legacy. But so, too, was the knack he had for making the bringing the personal touch to municipal politics—even while politics brought its unfortunate touch to his own personal life. He was married four times, once to a woman 20 years his junior, and at least one of his divorces appears to have been a publicly messy business.
Robinson was also an early advocate of a Greater Auckland, which led to the forming, and his chairing, of the Auckland Regional Authority.
As others have noted, for better or worse Dove-Myer Robinson was a figure out of his time: a political independent, environmentally aware, an early advocate of a super-city, martially dysfunctional and media-savvy. He probably would have been as at home in the Auckland of the 2010s as his statue still is in the central Aotea Square, the public area that he opened in 1979.
Image above header: Photograph reproduced here with the permission of Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries. Ref: 7-A14470