The Gillies family played a major role in Oamaru’s development from the 1920s, and the passing of Bernard Gillies marks the end of an era. Judith Gillies pens an obituary in her father’s memory.
Anyone who knew Bernard Gillies would say he had a life of adventure, starting as a baby when his older brothers sent him off in his pram down the steep part of Oamaru’s Tyne St, outside the family home, for a bit of fun.
While the pram incident ended with a spill on the kerb and a lifelong scar, it never dented his love of adventure throughout his long life as the youngest member of one of Oamaru’s prominent business families.
His death this year marks the end of an era of the Gillies family and businesses, which were finally wound up in 2018.
Andrew Bernard Gillies, always known as Bernard – or to those close to him, Bernie – died in Dunedin Hospital on August 14.
Born in Oamaru on February 2, 1925, he was the youngest child of the late George Thomas (G.T.) and Annie Gillies and brother of the late George, David, Bruce, Edgar and Juene.
While school days at Oamaru South and Waitaki Boys’ High School helped forge his inquisitive mind, he also cherished a love of the outdoors and adventure.
Early days with the family were spent camping at Moeraki and later holidaying at the large old villa his father purchased there for the family.
Other tramping adventures followed, into the high country around Lake Ohau and beyond with his older brothers and, late in his teens, a summer of adventure in Martins Bay, Fiordland.
The trip gave Bernard such a taste for the wilderness that he subsequently took his wife, Joan Robertson, for an adventurous trip to Martins Bay the year after they were married in 1952.
Prior to their marriage, Bernard studied engineering at Canterbury University, before working at Gillies Foundry and Engineering Company in Tyne St, which his father bought in 1943 as the North Otago Engineering Company.
To further his foundry expertise, Bernard earned his passage to England after the war in the engine room of a ship to work at various engineering and foundry enterprises in the United Kingdom.
Returning to Oamaru, and Gillies Foundry, he gradually took on the role of technical specialist, helping his father steer the foundry through the many innovative periods in its development.
When G.T. Gillies purchased hundreds of GMC ex-World War 2 American army trucks that had been put up for tender in Wellington by the New Zealand government, many needed repairs that could be supplied only by manufacturing parts at the family foundry in Oamaru.
While the post-war demand for the GMC trucks proved to be a major financial coup for the company through on-sales to farmers and forestry companies nationwide, Gillies Foundry moved into casting not only fire hydrants but also water valves and fittings, which were supplied to all New Zealand municipalities.
An extra boost in production at the foundry, which at its peak in the 1970s and ’80s employed more than 200 staff, came in 1975 with the installation of the clean air electromagnetic furnaces, still used at the foundry.
Bernard later bought the intellectual property from UK company Blakeborough to manufacture innovative soft-faced water valves, securing the family company’s future in the water valve industry.
During his lifetime at the foundry, first before G.T. Gillies died in 1984, and afterwards, Bernard oversaw the introduction of more and more automation in moulding and casting production, seizing opportunities to buy second-hand equipment from other foundries around New Zealand that were forced to close because of changes in global manufacturing.
His renowned skills and foundry knowledge earned him a special award from the Australasian Foundry Association before he retired in 2006, when Gillies Foundry was sold to Hynds.
While he loved the foundry and cast iron industry, he also loved his family life in Otago and beyond.
All his life he returned to Moeraki and Omarama, where he and Joan had a crib for more than 60 years.
He loving fishing out of Oamaru on the family fishing boat Pontiac, his annual duck shooting at the family farm in Stonewall Rd, Awamoa, annual fishing trips with his mates up the Ahuriri and Ohau valleys, his annual – but not very successful – whitebaiting trips to Haast with his close friends, and adventurous travel overseas on foundry business.
On various foundry trips he went all over Australia and visited Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, Easter Island, the Chatham Islands, Mexico, Chile and Tonga. While he enjoyed the adventure of such travel, it was the people he met he so loved.
He continued to embrace technology all his life, taking to the internet with great enthusiasm in his ’80s and ’90s, to keep up with family, particularly his granddaughters overseas.
When Joan died in 2012 he remained in his home in Tyne St, the street where he had lived and worked all his life, except for a very happy last few months at Observatory Village Lifecare, Oamaru.
He is survived by his daughter Judith, granddaughters Lucy and Georgia, son Anders and sister-in-law Shirley Gillies, widow of his late brother Bruce – the last remaining member of Bernard’s generation of the Gillies family.