The “Wanganui Incident”

The Duigan Building at 23 Ridgway Street is the site of the Mayor Mackay saga

“Murder! Murder!”

23 Ridgeway Street is the longtime home of Meteor Office Products but, as the Duidan building in 1920, was the location of Mayor Charles Mckay’s legal offices and scene of the “Wanganui Incident”.

In this office above the old town’s main street in 1920, Mayor Charles Mackay shot young returned soldier D’Arcy Cresswell. But there’s so much more to the story – blackmail, NZ’s first recorded self-admitted homosexual, conversion therapy, subterfuge and more…


In a nutshell – a timeline


1907-1912 Mackay elected mayor each year.

1912 Henry Sarjeant bequest to build an art gallery “for the inspiration of ourselves and those who come after us”.

1913 Mackay leaves mayoralty for unclear reasons.

1915 Mackay re-enters the Mayoral race and wins Mayoralty back from Tom Williams of RSA (who went on to chair unsuccessful challenges in 1917 and 1919 becoming Mayor again after Mackay’s arrest). Back in the Mayoralty, Mackay champions the funding and design of the Sargeant Gallery.

1917 The Sarjeant’s Foundation Stone (from which Mayor Mackay’s name was later chiselled off) also wrongly names Edward Ashcombe as the architect (it was Donald Hosie, who died at Paschendale on 12 October 1917).

1919 The Sarjeant Gallery opens on 6th September, 1919.


One Month in 1920

3rd MayRoyalty

In what should have been the pinnacle of his career, Mackay as Mayor hosts the future King, Edward the Prince of Wales. The event goes poorly with the Prince also attending a competing RSA reception.

10th May – Honeytrap

Cresswell arrives in Whanganui and arranges to meet Mackay, who invites him to dinner that same night. The next day, the 11th, Cresswell goes to Hawera, staying overnight and returning on the 12th.

13th May – Ensnared

Mackay and Cresswell have dinner.

14th May – Trap sprung

Mackay and Cresswell lunch at Wanganui Club, then Mackay takes Creswell to private viewing of the sculpture “The Wrestlers”. They then make a second visit to Mackay’s office in the “Duigan Building” at 23 Ridgway St, where Mackay seemingly tries to seduce Cresswell. Cresswell instantly demands Mackay resign.

15th May – Downfall

The two meet in Mackay’s office for negotiations then go back to the Wanganui club for a cup of tea, finally returning to Mackay’s office for a fourth time. Mackay shoots Cresswell who raises an alarm and Mackay is arrested.

17th May – Court

Mackay (a lawyer) is in the dock and is remanded in custody to ascertain Creswell’s recovery.

27th May – Trial

No evidence for the defence, Mackay pleads guilty and is convicted.

28th May – Sentencing

In mitigation, Mackay pleads he suffers from an “affliction” of “homo-sexual monomania” (broadly madness or partial insanity) which he blames for the shooting. This makes him the first publically self-declared homosexual in NZ. He also reveals that in 1914 he’d had hypnotherapy in an attempt at a cure. This makes him the first recorded victim of conversion practices to change sexuality (finally banned in NZ in 2022). Mackay receives a harsh sentence of 15 years of hard labour. He is never able to see or correspond with his children.

3rd June – Prison

Exactly one month after welcoming HRH Edward the Prince of Wales to Whanganui, Mackay enters Mount Eden Prison.


Released in 1926 on condition of leaving New Zealand, Mackay moves to London and then to Berlin. On 3rd May 1929, Mackay is shot and killed by Berlin police putting down May Day riots (the Blutmai or “Bloody May” riots that were part of the rise to power of the NAZI party). Mackay was buried in Berlin in a since-lost grave.


Who was Mayor Mackay and why do some say he was Whanganui’s most visionary and effective Mayor?

Charles Ewing Mackay was born in Nelson, New Zealand, on 29 June 1875. He was the son of Joseph Mackay and his wife, Jessie Wilkie. Joseph taught mathematics at Nelson College and from 1881 to 1891 was headmaster of Wellington College. Charles was a pupil there from 1883 to 1890, then studied at Canterbury College on a Junior Scholarship. A brilliant student, he graduated with a BA in 1895 and LLB in 1900. He was called to the Bar in New Plymouth in 1901, and the following year established his own law firm in Whanganui. There on 20 January 1904, he married Isobel Mary Agnes Duncan, who was from a prominent Whanganui family; the couple had two daughters and a son, who died as a child.

Mackay entered local politics in 1904, serving first on the Mataongaonga Road Board and gaining election to the Wanganui Borough Council in November 1905. In April 1906 he successfully contested the mayoralty, holding office until 1913, and again from 1915 until 1920. He stood for Parliament as an independent candidate for Whanganui in the 1908 and 1911 elections; though unsuccessful, he remained popular in local affairs.

Mackay was a controversial and energetic mayor who was responsible for much of the growth and development of Whanganui in the years between 1906 and 1920. His projects were frequently expensive but always farsighted. He advocated the building of an electric tramway system for Whanganui, improved the town’s roading, water supply and fire services, and was instrumental in having the Dublin Street Bridge erected. He ensured the incorporation of the outlying areas of Aramoho and Wanganui East within the borough boundaries and worked continuously to encourage the development of the port and local industry.

His principal project from 1915 was the construction of an art gallery for Whanganui, using the bequest of Henry Sarjeant. He instigated a competition for the building’s design (which was won by the Dunedin firm of Edmund Anscombe), promoted a purchasing policy for the gallery, wrote tirelessly to galleries and collectors abroad soliciting works and reproductions, and confronted the Department of Education over the acquisition of land for the site. He later persuaded the military authorities to defer the posting overseas of the architect, Donald Hosie, until the gallery’s working drawings had been completed. Hosie was killed at Passchendaele (Passendale) in October 1917, three weeks after the foundation stone for the Sarjeant Gallery was laid. Mackay’s interests led to the Sarjeant’s photographic collection years before most institutions recognised photography’s value.

During the First World War, Mackay’s popularity suffered in some quarters. He did not serve in the military forces, and the conservative Wanganui Returned Soldiers’ Association were practically sworn enemies, to the extent that in preparations for the visit in 1920 of the Prince of Wales the RSA held their own reception for the Prince in competition with the official civic Mayoral reception. Ignoring his detractors, Mackay turned his attention to promoting the construction of a library and museum to complement the gallery (both were completed in the 1930s and together with the later War Memorial Centre fulfil Mackay’s vision of a civic hub for Whanganui).

An earlier “Charles Mackay” a Scottish author and poet put it thus…

“You have no enemies, you say? Alas, my friend, the boast is poor. He who has mingled in the fray of duty that the brave endure, must have made foes. If you have none, small is the work that you have done. You’ve hit no traitor on the hip. You’ve dashed no cup from perjured lip. You’ve never turned the wrong to right. You’ve been a coward in the fight.”

Mackay maintained two separate offices – his Mayoral office and his personal law office which by 1919 was located upstairs in the Duigan Building at 23 Ridgway Street. It was here that the key events of his downfall unfolded on 15 May 1920.

The events of May 1920: the “Wanganui Incident”

The Prince of Wales didn’t think much of the RSA vs Mayoral competition but seemed primarily disgusted by his accommodation as on 4 May, the Prince writes to a mistress Freda Dudley Wardfrom from Imperial Hotel, Wanganui (at 1.00 am): “such a pompous address beloved, but it’s really a miserable hole; no electric light & the hotel boilers elected to burst before dinner so no baths & a vewy nasty dinner!! But we are all pretty peeved tonight as we’ve really had a desperately twying day…” National and international press joined in lampooning the Wanganui Royal visit as a debacle.

But it was the arrival of returned soldier and (banal) poet Walter D’Arcy Cresswell on 10 May, 1920 that was to change Mackay’s future prospects dramatically.

Meeting (how is unknown) and dining together the same night, Mackay wined and dined the ex-soldier with the two spending time together viewing naked male wrestler sculptures alone in the Sarjeant and Mackay’s porn collection in his Duigan Building offices.

As described by Cresswell in his statement to the police, “I purposely encouraged him to display his qualities in his nature which I expected, he also showed me several photographs of nude women. On making that discovery I told him that I had led him on, on purpose, to make sure of his dirty intentions, and I told him also amongst a lot of other candid things that he must resign the Mayorality [sic] at once.”

At a meeting two days later in the Duigan Building offices to negotiate over the blackmail, Mackay produced a gun and shot Creswell in the chest, he then put the gun in Creswell’s hand intending to fake a suicide. Cresswell however revived, fired off the remaining bullets and threw a chair through the Duigan building window yelling “murder, murder”. This was finally enough to get the attention of the public and a policeman who was just across the road. Mackay was promptly arrested and Cresswell was hospitalised, where he recovered.

Mackay was remanded in custody with the trial commencing (after a delay to allow Cresswell recovery time) on 27th May at 3pm. The trial was held at the Wanganui courthouse – at the end of the block, within sight of Duigan’s Building, and three times more people turned up than could fit in the packed public gallery. Cresswell’s statement (which had already been published in newspapers) was read and signed as substantially correct by Mackay, who offered no evidence or defence saying only “I plead guilty”.

At sentencing the next day, Mackay stated he suffered from “homosexual monomania” and had attempted a cure with hypnotherapy “AG Mackay” (no relation) a taxi driver-turned-metaphysician. This makes him both NZ’s first recorded self-admitted homosexual and first victim of “Conversion Therapy” (finally banned in Aotearoa 2022). The attempt to recast what was then viewed as a detestable perversion as medical aberration doesn’t seem to have helped Mackay who was convicted of Cresswell’s attempted murder and sentenced to 15 years hard labour.

Aftermath & Mackay shot to death in Berlin

His name was chiselled from the foundation stone of the Sarjeant, Mackay Street was renamed Jellicoe Street, his portrait and pictures removed from Council and so pervasive was the will that the scandal not be mentioned that the current Whanganui District Council listing of 23 Ridgway Street manages to cover other tenants but completely omit anything about Mackay or the “Wanganui Incident” of May 1920! (Interestingly, the historian did write an unpublished draft including Mackay and the scandal).

His wife divorced him and his family changed their surname to Duncan. Perhaps most tragically, despite his writing to them, he never saw his children again.

After six years, in 1928, he was released on the condition he leave the country. Reinventing himself as a correspondent for NZ papers (published usually as “Our Correspondent in London/Berlin or under assumed bylines), he lived in London (forming a relationship with a British Guardsman), then Berlin (in the pre-NAZI 1920’s a haven of gay life), where he combined writing with teaching English.

Mackay was mistakenly shot dead by a policeman in a 1929 Communist/NAZI Berlin May Day riot.

Heritage NZ Listing

HeritageNZ (Pouhere Taonga) is in the process of listing the Duigan Building (the original name for 23 Ridgway Street) as a Category One Historic Place.

As well as a Category One listing, Mayor Mackay’s offices are the first new addition to the Rainbow List (identifying the places key to the often hidden and intergenerationally lost history of LGBTQI+ New Zealanders).


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