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Stephen Shayle-George, 1916 - 2009

By Richard Fowler

Stephen Shayle-George died in Lower Hutt on 3 July 2009 aged 92 years, bringing to an end a long and remarkable life.

For 42 years Stephen practised in the firm now known as DLA Phillips Fox but for many of those years and for some time afterwards it bore his name and was known as Phillips Shayle-George.

Steve was born in Christchurch on 29 September 1916 and educated there. He came to Wellington in 1935 and was admitted as a barrister and solicitor in March 1939. In January of 1940 he was employed by George Phillips but very shortly after that he was called up for military service.

He was initially sent to Canada for pilot training and then to Britain. Further training followed. He passed all the pilot's tests and exams with such high marks (especially in navigation) that although he began flying Mustangs he was then told that the RAF had something different in mind for him.

Shortly after that and for the rest of his war, Flight Lieutenant Shayle-George was a spy plane pilot who flew 30 reconnaissance missions out over occupied Europe, completely alone and equipped with just the plane's photographic gear and a pistol. 

He and a small group of others would fly out over the North Sea just above the waves to slip under the German radar and then once over the coastline as low as just 20 feet [6 metres] above the ground operating the cameras and collecting information. Apart from the Luftwaffe and German ground defences, spires, poles, trees and large bridge structures resulted in a dreadful attrition rate and Steve later said that one of his most searing experiences was to return other Kiwi mates' personal belongings to their parents when he came home.

Back in New Zealand George Phillips needed him urgently to recommence practice in the Petone office following the untimely death of Bill Coles. On his first day in the office he was required to conduct five defended hearings before the local magistrate.

Steve threw himself into practice in the Hutt Valley with the same gusto that he did everything else. In no sense an academic lawyer or someone who could be regarded as having a passionate interest in law as such, he nonetheless had superb legal skills, a complete understanding of the mechanics of the law, and most importantly, he was a shrewd judge of character and human instinct. He quickly built a large and thriving practice in the Hutt Valley.

Initially a litigator, he moved more and more into the commercial field. Typical of his endeavours was an early case he took for a Wairarapa farming family affected by effluent from the local meat company. Typically, Steve said "Let's sue the bastards" and brought successful proceedings for the family against the meat company. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the Wairarapa family remained life-long clients and a family member was at his funeral. More surprisingly, the meat company became a client and later a significantly important one by reason of its growing international links.

Steve had a formidable intellect and a photographic memory. Although he had a reputation for not suffering fools gladly he was fiercely loyal, kind and generous.

He took two attempts to retire. Having started to wind down to three days per week, following another untimely death of a Petone partner (this time Murray Hopkinson), he returned to full-time practice until 1982.

Outside of the law and continuing through his retirement he energetically applied himself to a range of pursuits: he was a champion camellia grower and an international flower judge; he was a Rotarian for over 50 years; he was an avid follower of Petone rugby, and he exercised his sharp mind and photographic memory every day by doing the DomPost codebreaker in a matter of minutes right up until a few days before his death - sometimes covering up the letters with one hand just to make it harder.

But his greatest passions were his family and his faith. His wife died in 1976 but he is survived by two children, four grandchildren and four great grandchildren. He was a loyal parishioner and regular worshipper at St James Anglican Church in Lower Hutt.

He retained his links with his old firm right to the end, attending every Christmas partners' function until he was 91. He was farewelled at St James on 7 July 2009 by a large congregation that included many current and former members of Wellington's legal profession.

This was first published on page 3 of the August 2009 issue of Council Brief, the monthly newsletter of the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Law Society.

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Last updated on the 19th July 2016