Local Hero, War Hero, National Hero: Joseph Gordon Coates
To commemorate the Centenary of WW1 in 2014, the Kauri Museum will open an exhibition dedicated to Matakohe’s most famous soldier, Joseph Gordon Coates. The exhibition entitled “The Man from Matakohe” re-tells Coates’s amazing story for a new generation of New Zealanders so they can understand the significant and important
part he played in local, national and international events of his day.
Historians often lament that “knowledge of the past is key to understanding the present”. Many of Coates’s decisions, hidden between the pages of our history books, remain relevant and continue to impact on our way of life, seventy years after his death.
A resident of greater Matakohe, Councillor and Chairman of Otamatea County Council and then Member of Parliament for the Kaipara electorate, Joseph Gordon Coates was known and recognized wherever he went.
Born at the Coates Family home Ruatuna in 1878, Gordon (as he became known) was educated at Matakohe School and by private tutor. Gordon showed leadership qualities at an early age with family stories of him masterminding childhood escapades. The Coates siblings remained close, with Gordon and his brother Rodney forming a farming partnership which endured for the remainder of their lives.
Gordon Coates won the parliamentary seat of Kaipara on the 14 December 1911, a position he held until his untimely death in 1943.
Coates had learned patriotism at his father’s knee and was always interested in military and defense issues. He registered for service at the end of 1914 but was still needed for political duties. It was November 1916 before he was finally released from Parliament. Coates embarked with the 19th Reinforcements on 15th November, taking with him a Colt-45 Pistol, a farewell gift from locals.
Gordon was posted to the Auckland Infantry Battalion with the rank of Captain, and served on the Western Front in France and Belgium. He was awarded the Military Cross twice for conspicuous bravery and arrived back in New Zealand in May 1919 with the rank of Major.
An election was held the year the war hero returned and Major Coates was appointed to several cabinet posts; Minister of Justice, Postmaster General and Minister in charge of the Public Trust.
Whether revered and idolized or hated and reviled, Gordon Coates was always respected for his courage, compassion and dedication to putting his country first. He was responsible for many innovative achievements that we now take for granted: Hydroelectricity and the national grid, completion of the main trunk rail and road systems, the establishment of the first Maori Trust Boards and the introduction of the Reserve Bank and monetary policy.
Although now largely forgotten, Gordon Coates was at the forefront of New Zealand politics during the formative years of the twentieth century. He has been recognized in a list of “Makers of New Zealand”.
This is a unique story of a local farm boy and a confirmed patriot, who served in World War One and went on to become the Prime Minister of New Zealand. Whilst called “The “Man from Matakohe” by parliamentary colleagues he was also referred to as “the Man who gets things done” by the voting public.
The “Man from Matakohe” exhibition opens at The Kauri Museum on Friday 17th October 2014. The exhibition will be showcasing memorabilia from The Kauri Museum’s own collection, as well as artefacts on loan from the Ruatuna Collection, property of Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga.