Of the five Jewish mayors to have served the city of Auckland, Philip Philips enjoys pride of place for having been first, not only among Jewish municipal leaders but among all mayoral aspirants.
But some accounts, he also rates among the best—although a glance of the local newspaper correspondence columns of the time suggest the “overzealous” leader was not lacking for critics. Philips, who was born in Brighton, England, in 1831, held office from 1871-1874, before going on to serve as town clerk for a further 27 years.
Like many Jewish emigres of his generation, Philips dabbled in journalism, as a correspondent for several newspapers in England and Australia, spurring a lifelong passion for social change—and the occasional barb from his opponents. (“It appears,” sniffed one, “that P.A. Philips has an ‘itch’ for writing, and delights in seeing his name in print.”)
He was, firstly, a local magistrate for about four years, before being elected a member of the Board of Education by the provincial council, and then for many years president of the Mechanics' Institute. Parlaying his love of words and the law, he helped usher in the Free Libraries Act—a labour of legislative love that whetted his appetite for civic leadership.
He also loved the Jewish life, serving the local Hebrew congregation at various times over a quarter-century as president, treasurer and secretary.
Throughout all this Philips was a highly visible contributor to the Auckland press, advocating for (and inveighing against) matters of public concern, while also tapping out books, including Reminiscences of Early Days and Memories of the Past, which enjoyed brisk sales. He also wrote for a number of Jewish publications, including England’s Jewish Chronicle, for which he wrote about the consecration of the Auckland synagogue, in 1851, while urging fellow Jews who remained in Britain to take the plunge and try a new life in the Colonies.
Failing eyesight put paid to most of his public activities, including his work as town clerk. His hard-working reputation, however, handsomely survived him. At a service honouring his public service, it was noted that, during his first 20 years in civic leadership, Philip Philips had only had about three months' holiday. He died in Sydney in 1919.
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