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Charles Luney

20 July 2023

Charles Seymour Luney was dubbed 'the Master Builder of New Zealand' by Sir Miles Warren. By the turn of the 21st century, the company he founded had changed the appearance of Christchurch. He was awarded the Queens Service Order in 1982, and in 1997 he was made Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit. Learn more about this local hero.


Charles Seymour Luney, the first of seven brothers and sisters born to Canadian immigrant Charles Hill Luney and his wife Anne Luney, entered the world in Lyttleton on June 28, 1905. Descended from a long line of Cornish stonemasons who had emigrated to Canada and established a constructive company in British Columbia, the infant had, so to speak, building in his blood.

Charles Luney would live into his 102nd year, running Chas. S Luney Ltd, the company he founded in 1926, from then until the dawn of the 21st century. Luneys dominated the building industry in Canterbury undertaking large projects in and beyond the province, and through creativity and innovation, influencing the progress of the industry throughout the country. The skyline of Christchurch today is a record of the remarkable energy and generalship of Charles Seymour Luney.

As a small boy he watched with fascination as a group of prisoners constructed a band rotunda near his house. This and his father's stories of his bricklaying exploits captured his imagination. The family's visit to Canada where he was enthralled by the bustling activities of Luney Construction confirmed a growing ambition to be a builder.

Early experiences taught him lessons, which became fundamental to his character, business, and management philosophy. Punishment by distraught parents, when he was five years old, for failing to stop his three-year-old brother Melville consuming pills found in the parent's bedroom, resulting in the child's death, left Charles with a profound sense of responsibility for his family and, by extension, his employees. His mother's insistence on absolute honesty and the family's penury instilled in him a rigorous personal integrity, a drive to achieve financial independence and a sharp awareness of the necessity of nursing and utilising resources responsibly.

In 1928 his fledgling company constructed the Repertory Theatre, employing his father as a bricklayer on the project. He had also hired as a secretary Ena Butler, a young woman he was courting. The two were married in 1930.

The Great Depression struck New Zealand a short time after the Wall Street crash of 1929. As Charles and Ena entered their married life, credit began to dry up, firms went broke and men lost their jobs. Charles kept his company going by undertaking any small home maintenance tasks that householders could afford. The firm persisted through hard months and years until Charles' reputation for dependability won more-substantial contracts.

Four daughters followed and as his family grew, so did the business. Contracts of increasing size came – a hospital wing at Nelson, a bridge for the Roads Board. Charles relished the challenges of the large industrial buildings, freezing works, school buildings and major office blocks the company tackled. He expanded his workforce, taking on staff he judged to be capable, enthusiastic and motivated. He was seldom wrong. As Charles came up with ingenious solutions to tricky construction difficulties, he encouraged similar creativity in his staff. Soon the company became known for its problem-solving wizardry.

When in 1951 Luneys won the Princess Margaret Hospital contract Charles and his staff devised a system of plywood, tight fitting shutters that obviated the time consuming and wasteful construction of conventional boxing. The shutters could be demounted and re-erected on the next floor ready for a pour of concrete in a fraction of the time established building practices could accomplish.

Charles' energy was prodigious. During World War 2, Luneys constructed the Public Hospital Nurses' Home and a massive aircraft hangar at Wigram, and set up a production line manufacturing military huts while continuing to construct a series of major projects. At the same time Charles was serving as President of the New Zealand Federation of Builders and Contractors and attending weekly meetings in Wellington of the Defence Committee, a key group that met to review and prioritise the list of war-time defence projects and allocate scarce resources.

He thrived on a work schedule and responsibilities that would have crippled most men. A man for whom family was of prime importance, he always made time to spend with his wife Ena and his four daughters Lois, Lesley, Loma, and Lyndsey. For recreation the entertaining shenanigans of the Christchurch Savage Club provided relaxed companionship, pleasure, and an escape, if only briefly, from day-to-day business responsibilities.

Throughout his many years in command of his company – years that saw apprentices become foremen and retire, others form their own companies, Charles' vision and energy never flagged.  

By the turn of the 21st century, the company Charles Luney founded had totally changed the appearance of Christchurch. The buildings are numerous and distinguished. The Christchurch Town Hall, the Canterbury Building Society office, University of Canterbury faculty buildings and Library, the Christchurch College Halls of Residence, the Canterbury Public Library, Canterbury Trust Bank, the Christchurch Convention Centre and the Westpac Sports and Entertainment Centre are a few of many Luney-built structures.

As well as the material heritage Charles Luney left behind there was a less visible but enormously valuable contribution. That is the solid values, rigorous standards and willingness to innovate that exists among all those who were Luney employees and all in the building industry who admired the man whom Sir Miles Warren dubbed "the Master Builder of New Zealand".

Charles Luney was awarded the Queens Service Order in 1982, and in 1997, at 92, he was made Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit. As he placed the loop of ribbon bearing the insignia over Charles head, Governor General Sir David Beattie softly quoted Christopher Wren's epitaph – "If you seek his monument, look about you!" Then added an emphatic "Well done!"

By John Coley (Copyright © March 2009 Local Heroes Trust)

John Coley, for many years director of the Robert McDougall Art Gallery, has been an art columnist for the Christchurch Press and a well-known Canterbury teacher and artist. He is the author of biographies of the painter Jane Evans and of the legendary Christchurch builder Charles Luney.

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