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The Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Wellington Provincial District]

Mr. William Hort Levin

Mr. William Hort Levin, who was a member of the House of Representatives from his election in 1879 till his resignation on the 24th of March, 1884, though hardly remembered as a politician, was a citizen of whom it would be difficult, if not impossible, to speak in terms of too high praise. Two years have passed since his sudden death threw all Wellington into deep and prolonged mourning, but two decades will make but little headway in effacing from the memory of true Wellingtoniaus the kindly face and kindlier deeds of “Willie Levin,” as he was affectionately and respectfully called in the common conversation of the townspeople. Not forgetting the gloom cast over the city by the passing away of such great men as Sir Harry Atkinson, the Hon. John Ballance, Mr. Justice Richmond, and others, it is safe to say that no man has ever been so generally mourned by all classes of the people of Wellington, as was Mr. W. H. Levin. Born and brought up in the city, he was in touch with the whole community. He lived then as he lives still, in the hearts of the people. Mr. Levin was born on the 7th of August, 1845, and received his earlier education at the school of the late Mr. Edward Toomtah, of Wellington. His father was at this time one of Wellington's prominent merchants, founding the firm of Messrs. Levin and Co., as early as 1852, in company with Mr. C. J. Pharazyn. In 1868, Mr. Levin, senior, retired, and his son, who had by that time exhibited unusual business capacity, was admitted to a partnership, the firm then consisting of himself, Mr. C. J. Pharazyn, and Mr. (now the Honourable) Walter Johnston. The success of the founders was continued until 1878, when the partnership ceased by effluxion of time. Mr. Pharazyn retired, Mr. Johnston joined his father and brother in the well-known firm of Messrs. Johnston and Co., and Mr. Levin continued the old business in Grey and Panama Streets. The firm's trade, which had always been vast, went on growing with the town; and in 1889, to meet the demands of the wonderfully increased business, a fresh partnership was arranged. Colonel Pearce, who had for many years conducted the large and flourishing business of Messrs. Edward Pearce and Co., joined the firm, bringing with him his vast mercantile connection, and Mr. John Duncan, who had had a large British and Indian experience, was also admitted to a partnership. Notwithstanding the innumerable acts of liberality for which Mr. Levin was so well known and so justly popular, his wealth increased with phenomenal rapidity. His firm enjoyed the highest reputation among all classes, and the wealth that was pouring into it was begrudged by none. Socially as commercially, Mr. Levin occupied the fore-rank. By his marriage, with Miss Fitzgerald, the eldest daughter of Mr. J. E. Fitzgerald, C.M.G., the Controller and Auditor-General, he added to his already illustrious connections and relations, among whom may be mentioned Mrs. George Beetham (his only sister), Sir Francis Dillon Bell, K.C.M.G., C.B., etc. (who married his mother's sister), Mr. H. D. Bell, M.H.R., and the Rev. E. Bell, of London (cousins). The first public demonstration of Mr. Levin's popularity was on the occasion of his election to the House of Representatives. He had no political career to help him: he was no flowery rhetorician, or a plausible promiser of all good but impossible advantages; but he page 265 Mr. William Hort Levin was Mr. Levin, the benevolent merchant, beloved by thousands and respected by all, and the electors of Thorndon were quite determined that he should neither suffer defeat, nor be closely run. He was returned at the head of the poll by a substantial majority. There was no position in the gift of the people of Wellington to which Mr. Levin could not have successfully aspired, That he was never mayor of the city was because he persistently declined the honour, to the disappointment again and again of the people. As chairman of the Harbour Board he felt that he was in reality serving the city more advantageously than he would have the opportunity of doing in the mayoral chair, which was very probably the case, for his usefulness in that onerous position was admitted in all quarters. It is to him mainly that the thanks of the community are due for the establishment of that honourable board. He used to call it his child, and he lived long enough to see that his parental care was not thrown away. Still, notwithstanding his phenomenal popularity, Mr. Levin cared little for public positions. He resigned his seat in the House, and devoted himself, perhaps too assiduously, to business. But he was never too closely wrapped up in his own affairs to give sympathetic attention to the concerns of others. Hundreds in Wellington remember with pleasure an encouraging tap on the shoulder, or a few kindly words of enquiry, showing that he had not forgotten their little troubles of months or years before. Hundreds more were the recipients of pecuniary aid, rendered so pleasantly that the kindness was infinitely more valued than the cash, even when the latter ran into double and treble figures, as was not infrequently the case. To enumerate all the societies of which Mr. Levin was and had been the respected and beloved president, would be impossible. Nothing was too good to be offered him, and nothing was too poor for him to accept if he believed he was thereby encouraging a worthy object without an undue tax on his time. Enshrined, therefore, as he most certainly was, on the hearts of all classes, what wonder that Wellington was stunned when, on the morning of Friday the 15th of September, 1893, the sad tidings were swiftly passed from one to another that Mr. Levin had died at eleven o'clock? What wonder that on Sunday the 17th, the house, the garden, St. Paul's Church, and the streets leading there and to the cemetery, were crowded with mourners and sympathizers? Had it been otherwise, Wellington would have exhibited base ingratitude towards one who had ever been her staunch friend. His contribution of £1000 as a nucleus of the funds of the Free Library gained that valuable institution for Wellington many years before it would otherwise have been provided. Yet that was a trifle in the whole sum of Wellington's indebtedness to Mr. Levin. Among the thousands that were anxious to pay respect to his memory, and for that purpose thronged the streets on that day, were poor widows whose little homes had been kept together through the kindness of Mr. and Mrs. Levin. Men of all ages were there who gratefully remembered his kind words of sympathy and ready pecuniary help in their times of trouble through the loss of a wife or a child; young men were there who had been helped into situations; business men were there whom he had helped over a crisis, telling them to repay him when convenient, and to add nothing for interest; some doubtless were there who had taken an undue and therefore mean advantage of the good man, and even their eyes were moist as they remembered how he had never upbraided them; Sunday School collectors (many of the Sunday Schools were closed in consequence of the sad event that was proceeding,) were there, whose lists Mr. Levin had started year after year with liberal donations; every charitable and philanthropic institution in the place was represented; Government House was represented; several of the Cabinet Ministers were in personal attendance, besides a strong muster of members of Parliament, the City Council, the Harbour Board, the councils of adjoining boroughs, etc.; every religious denomination was well represented, and all remembered gratefully the bazaars liberally opened, and the foundation stones laid by him whose ashes were being affectionately laid to rest. The wreaths were an exhibition of early spring flowers, in which the delicate Marshall Neill roses and lilies of the valley vied with the blue and white violets in their expressions of tender love and sympathy. Crosses, shields, hearts and harps of most beautiful manipulation, were sent in from all parts, turning the immediate surroundings into a land of odorous flowers. He whose life had been so suddenly cut off had been vice-president of the Horticultural Society. His love of flowers was proverbial; and to see them in such rich profusion at his obsequies must have touched the hearts of many a tottering old couple whose cottage had been brightened by floral and other contributions taken there by Mr. Levin on his way to business or church. Probably there was no brighter trait in his character than that of his gentle personal consideration of the aged. His donation of £250 towards the Home for the Aged Needy, though truly munificent, was in no way comparable to his private acts which kept so many from the necessity of going there. To enumerate all the expressions of sorrow and sympathy is impossible. Parliament adjourned, the City Council adjomned, the dinner at Government House was put off, musical and operatic performances were abandoned, schools were closed, a picnic and an exhibition of Fine Arts were postponed, the bells were tolled and the flags waved sadly at half-mast. Publicly and privately the people mourned. More than three pages of the New Zealand Mail were occupied in the description of the sad event. Letters of condolence poured in from everywhere. The City Council called meetings of the public to consider the question of a memorial, with the result that Mr. Levin's memory is to be perpetuated by the establishment of a cottage home for friendless little ones, to be called the Levin Home for Friendless Children. The portrait given herewith will be recognised by page 266 thousands as that of Wellington's greatest benefactor. Mrs. Levin and her four children are amply provided for, and it is satisfactory to know that the house of Levin still maintains a good name for genuine kindness and liberality. Even during Mr. Levin's lifetime, the kindly acts were by no means confined to himself. When the Rev. L. M. Isitt was working among the poor and distressed of Wellington, the writer remembers heaving him say that from none did he get such cheerful, ready, and frequent help as from Mrs. Levin.