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Diana, Lady Isaac

20 July 2023

Diana, Lady Isaac funded scholarships in geography at Lincoln and Canterbury Universities, established the Isaac Centre for Nature Conservation, and sponsored the Theatre Royal. She also rescued a dozen historic wooden buildings and recreated a village – a cultural museum. She was awarded the ONZM in 2009. Learn more about this local hero.


Cities need visionaries to rescue them from short-sighted development. Who does not give thanks for the New York dreamers of the 1850s who decided to create Central Park? Visions come when you detach yourself from conventional ways of thinking. So … in the hand of a visionary, a quarry does not have to be a scar on a landscape. Not when the landscape is a canvas.

I always had a feeling, when walking through Peacock Springs with Diana Isaac, that she saw two panoramas stretching out in front of us simultaneously: the one we were moving in (always with a devoted dog or two trotting nearby) and one in her mind that she was busy creating.

Diana lived to see those visions take on tangible form. And while most people slow down when they get older, Diana seemed to speed up.

She was blessed by a marriage to a man who never held her back. Neil Isaac clearly adored her… and cemented that devotion by setting Diana to work, side by side with him. Theirs was a true partnership. Underpinned by mutual respect, they set out to make unlikely, magnificent things together. Dams in the Indian jungle. Dams in Twizel. They dug out their first quarry pit by McLeans Island Road together… the Canterbury aquifers filled it, and he named it "Lake Diana".

They met in 1945, on board a ship. They were both in uniform, both in command. She was a Captain in the British Army, Women's Division, on her way to India. He was then a Lieutenant in the Royal Engineers on his way to join the British Army in Japan. Diana was a beauty in her old age. She must have cut a startling figure in epaulettes on the deck of that ship. Unsurprisingly, Lieutenant Isaac didn't get to Japan.

They were married in Delhi in 1946, and spent years in remote, drought-stricken Bihar, working on dams and canals, and riding out the political storms – Ghandi's assassination, Partition. They hung out with Maharajas and rode on elephants. Wild peacocks called from the trees in their garden.

When Neil eventually took her back to New Zealand with him, it was to a radically different reality. The arid conformity of 1950s Christchurch, and the endless, denuded plains of Canterbury. The wind, blowing from all directions, drove Diana to distraction, but she stayed on. She could be glimpsed, fleetingly, speeding by in her E-type Jag.

Tellingly, they found a place six miles outside of Christchurch to live in. They really just wanted each other… And a couple of fine projects, of course, to work on.

Slowly, organically, the visions started to be realised. When they dug deeply into the margins of the ancient glacial river beds surrounding their house, the holes filled with water and the excavation sheltered young plants from those relentless winds. A lush habitat began to grow back… and with it came the birds, and the fish.

Out of something as conventionally destructive as a chain of quarries, a landscape was reborn. I look at the clatter and dust clouds of Diana's diggers and grading machines now, as they continue their slow progress across the plains, I see something deeply creative.

So this young couple, both mysterious and dynamic, began to construct the highways and earthworks of Canterbury. And their reborn Eden around them became a wildlife sanctuary. None of this was ostentatious, a lot of it was very private. All of it was about looking far, far ahead. Neil Isaac was knighted in 1986. The honour was a shared one.

Then a year later, suddenly, and unexpectedly, tragically, Neil's heart stopped beating.

Diana's impetus was, for a time, halted. How do you get over the loss of a hero whose monuments are all around you? But it was in picking up their great project and moving it forward herself, that Diana found consolation and meaning. She saw it as keeping faith with their dreams. It took true courage and a deep love for her adopted country to carry on alone. She did it.

Usually unseen, Diana flowed into areas of Canterbury life like the underground rivers on her property. Funding scholarships in geography at Lincoln and Canterbury Universities, establishing the Isaac Centre for Nature Conservation, sponsoring the Theatre Royal, supporting the Art Gallery, offering land and waterways for sport and recreation. She was awarded the ONZM in 2009.

Latterly, seeing Christchurch change and grow in often thoughtless and short-term ways, she let it be known that she was in the market for unwanted old buildings, the precious, fragile remnants of Canterbury's pioneering past. She rescued a dozen historic wooden buildings and recreated a village – a cultural museum.

And always, she kept adding to the haven for the wildlife that is under so much presser and stress throughout New Zealand. She was the largest private breeder of endangered species in the country. These included tuatara, rare skinks, Canterbury mudfish, as well as endangered birds such as the blue duck, the black stilt, the orange-fronted parakeet.

Meanwhile, the solid yellow trucks and excavators bearing the ISAAC name trundled up and down Canterbury's roads – many of which she built. Her business was substantial and very private. Her workers stayed with her for decades. A pair of them got married in the bucket of an Isaac digger. She rarely featured on the business pages because she didn't need to. She answered not to her shareholders, but to her civic duty and to her conscience – and to the vision she and Neil conceived.

Most recently, she persuaded Christchurch to permit the Isaac charitable trusts to develop her 1200 hectares as a conservation park for the benefit in perpetuity of the people of Canterbury. She is remembered as much for what she saved from development, as for what she built. Her proposal to the Council, in her own words, still looked far, far ahead:

"The true purpose of the Park is for study and the breeding of all endangered species including the cultivation of endangered trees, plants and ground-cover. Predator proof aviaries and enclosures on the low levels are vital to the well-being of endangered species, birds, fish, and reptiles. I realised that it could and probably would take 50 to 100 years and the process would be very expensive but would serve the Department of Conservation as well as the city, Canterbury and New Zealand."

And still she lived modestly, in the house she and Neil restored, surrounded by a few discreet, loyal people. The trees she and Neil planted around the house 60 years ago, to screen it from the maddening winds, are very tall now.

Wild peacocks perch in the trees in that garden, their cries audible across the plains beyond.

By Anita McNaught (Copyright © March 2009 Local Heroes Trust)

Anita McNaught is a British-born, NZ-trained journalist working in international news. She worked for New Zealand TV for 10 years, BBC TV for seven years, CNN and Fox News for two years, and is now "roving" Middle East correspondent for Al Jazeera. She still has her house in Auckland and will come back one day, when the excitement of the world's most volatile region have worn off.

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