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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 4 (July 2, 1934.)

Famous New Zealanders — No. 16 William Pember Reeves — Writer and Lawmaker

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Famous New Zealanders
No. 16 William Pember Reeves
Writer and Lawmaker

William Pember Reeves.

William Pember Reeves.

Mr. W. P. Reeves, who died in London in 1932 at the age of seventy-five years, was the first native-born New Zealander to rise to eminence in the fields of literature and statesmanship. He was a pioneer in advanced industrial legislation, and was the first Minister of Labour in the New Zealand Cabinet. He has been described as the foremost writer this country has produced; his reputation rests chiefly on his book “The Long White Cloud.” Nearly half of his life was spent in England, many years of it as High Commissioner for New Zealand.

To be born clever, though poor; that is a good thing. To be born clever and with the proverbial silver spoon in mouth; that is better. For the spoon, or what it symbolises, permits to natural ability the educational advantages and varnish of the schools. If a young man is not only clever but possesses what, in the vernacular, is called 'the gift of gab'; if he possesses a tongue not only voluble but quick to answer back, and waspish in the answering, added to a disposition with more aloes than honey in it, who shall say where, nowadays, that young man is going to stop?”

That rather tart prologue to a character sketch is from “Political Portraits,” by “Quiz,” a pamphlet in which many New Zealand Parliamentary figures of over forty years ago were described, often in unflattering and sarcastic fashion. “Quiz” was Joseph Eyison, a journalist of the day in Wellington, who plied a skilful and mordant pen. The young man was the Hon. William Pember Reeves, Minister for Justice, and soon to be first Minister of the Department of Labour. He had been five years in Parliament when “Political Portraits” appeared, and had given his fellow-members such a taste of his quality that “Quiz” had adequate warrant for his wonder where so clever a young man was likely to stop. Indeed, Mr. Reeves, who was then thirty-five, went far since his early years in Parliament, and achieved even greater fame than the writer of 1892 was destined to hear. Politics absorbed all his energies then; it was later that he took pains to develop a literary style and an historical sense that brought him a wider celebrity than a lifetime of Parliamentary warfare would have won.

In Journalism.

William Pember Reeves was born at Lyttelton in 1857. His father was the Hon. W. Reeves, who was Minister of Public Works in the Fox-Vogel Government of 1873, so it may be considered natural that he should develop a bent for argument and the arena of party contention. He was a clever lad at Christ's College, where he gained five scholarships, but he did not follow this up with a University course. He did, indeed, go to England with the intention of graduating at Oxford, but ill-health compelled a return to New Zealand. He studied law and qualified as a barrister, but the attractions of newspaper writing, where he had the opportunity of expressing himself on all manner of topics from day to day, far outweighed those of a law office. He became a contributor to the “Lyttelton Times”—now the “Christchurch Times”—and after editing the weekly “Canterbury Times” for a time he became, in 1889, editor of the daily. There he had the fullest scope for his pen, which was now beginning to be described with truth as brilliant. He was a young editor of ideas and ideals; he had his own conceptions of the duties and rights of democracy, and he was ambitious to lead the way in the establishment of a reformed social order which should replace the old conservative methods of government and life that were becoming intolerable. Inevitably all this led on to an entry into politics; in fact two years before he became editor of the “Lyttelton Times” he had found his way into Parliament as M.H.R. for St. Albans, Christchurch.

The Labour Reformer.

Mr. Reeves was only three years in Parliament before he became a Minister. His vigorous opposition to the old order of things clearly marked him out for Cabinet rank when the Liberal Party, of which Ballance and Seddon and John Mackenzie were the chief stalwarts, secured victory over the diehards of the Conservative army. Reeves' first portfolio was that of Education. In this capacity he initiated a number of improvements in the school syllabus and the general management of the education system. A little later he was Minister of Justice. Then, when the Department of Labour was established, with Mr. Edward Tregear as its first Secretary, he was the first Minister, and he threw all his talent and his enthusiasm into the legislation that focussed on New Zealand the attention of industrial and social reformers all over the world. Here was something new, an unknown little country at the back of beyond putting into practice new and quite daring methods of securing better terms for the working classes and means for page 18 settling industrial disputes. The measures initiated by Mr. Reeves and his Department and passed by the Seddon administration included the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act, the Factories Act, Shops and Shop Assistants' Act, and the Employers' Liability Act. These laws, now so familiar a part of our industrial life, marked the beginning of the new order, the breaking into a new trail of social betterment.

A Candid Portrait.

Here it is appropriate to continue the sketch—one would not call it altogether an appreciation—of the young Liberal crusader in Joseph Evison's “Political Portraits,” the little book of 1892. “Mr. Reeves” (says “Quiz”) “was born clever and under such a lucky star that his natural cleverness has been polished, or at least sharpened, in the schools. Moreover, he is the possessor of that great political pearl beyond price—the power of facile expression. In his disposition and conversation are no undue proportions of the saccharine that cloys. So equipped, to what political height may he not rise? He has alrèady risen—in political life—with a certain startling rapidity. It seems but yesterday since he was a profoundly nervous, blushing and distressing selfconscious parliamentary neophyte, who coyly disburdened himself of shrinking little sarcasms in the House and blushed to find them heard. So may the briefless but ambitious barrister, whose down is not all come upon him, practice small, meek jocosities in presence of an unoccupied woolsack. But we have changed all that, and now when the Hon. W. P. Reeves bursts eloquence upon the House it is with a sarcasm meteor-like in its brilliance and the self-confidence of a hoary leader of men. We tremble, we reiterate, to think to what altitudes—political altitudes—he may soar before he stops.

“Had England agreed with Mr. Reeves, or had Mr. Reeves agreed with England, he might have stayed there. Staying there, it is more likely that his peculiar bent of mind would have drawn him into the vortex of politics, and that the associations and circumstances among which he then dwelt would have made him a Conservative—a fine old crusted Tory of Tories. In time, for with his talents he must have made his mark, he might have even assumed the mantle which Benjamin Disraeli, the erstwhile red-hot Radical, left behind him when he went to—to somewhere where mantles are not needed. Who knows but, had Mr. Reeves remained in England, that fifty years hence the English people might have been decorating his statue with flowers—buttercups and daisies and other floral emblems of innocence. It was not to be, however, and so, instead of the good old English gentleman, one of the olden time, drinking port and swearing fealty to Church and State, we have the fiery Radical, the red-hot Socialist, the perspiring dreamer of very magnificent but perfectly Utopian dreams! Of course we ask the pardon of Mr. Reeves for presuming to draw any comparison between him and Earl Beaconsfield. We were, however, pressed for an analogy.”

The keenly critical “Quiz” went on to say that “as far as fluency and quickness of repartee went there was probably no one in the House, except Mr. R. W. J. Reeves, who can touch W. P. But their methods, if not their names, are utterly different. The repartee of 'Dick' Reeves redounds with fun and geniality, while that of his Ministerial namesake is redolent of sulphur and vinegar. Mr. W. P. Reeves does not shine so brilliantly in his longer essays, being too anxious to sacrifice solidity to effect. So anxious—some might say—to maintain the reputation of an infant phenomenon. Of his genuine cleverness, his capacity for hard and sustained intellectual toil none can have the slightest doubt. In all that regards education he is head and shoulders above his fellow Ministers. He has the brain to conceive, the energy and knowledge necessary to carry out difficult affairs, and he has some pluck. But he has no tact, and he does not inspire affection or even personal enthusiasm. Those most closely associated with him in politics admire his head, but do not praise his heart. It may be that the knowledge of this fact has had a malign influence upon him and has—as in the case of many another able man—made him bitter. His sole idea of politics seems to be that they are a war of tongues, and that he who can say the nastiest thing in the nastiest manner must inevitably win. Time, however, working on material so plastic, cannot fail to mellow and round the clever young man. As he mellows, as he gets more real experience of men and affairs, he will inevitably see the folly of many of the wild political doctrines he now appears to believe in.”

That Mr. Reeves mellowed in time we know, though he did not repent of the “wild political doctrines” that Mr. Evison scarified. The things that seemed so wild and revolutionary to some people in 1892 are mild and commonplace indeed in 1934.

His Career in London.

Although Reeves delighted in the fray of party politics and in the opportunity which gave full play to his Socialistic ideals, it must have been in the nature of a relief to him to turn his steps into a new and wonderful path, the way to London. He left the Cabinet to become Agent-General (later High Commissioner) for the colony in England. That position, in which he did much to advance the credit and renown of his country in London, he held for twelve years. When he left it, it was not to return to New Zealand but to become Director of the London School of Economics. He remained Director until 1919, and he was also for many years a member of the Senate of the University of London. Meanwhile his interests had carried him into the world of finance, and he became Chairman of Directors of the National Bank of New Zealand, a position he retained up to a little while before his death. When he revisited New Zealand in 1925 it was chiefly for the purpose of surveying the affairs of the Dominion in the interests of the Bank and of making a careful economic study of the development and prospects of the country which he had not seen for very nearly thirty years.

His Books and Poems.

Opinions may differ as to the quality of statesmanship displayed by W. P. Reeves, but when we turn to his literary side there can be one view of his work by which he is chiefly remembered. In his poems he shows us the best of his nature; they reveal a sympathy and a depth and tenderness of feeling which seem strangely at variance with the often acidulated utterances of his political life. In his great book, “The Long White Cloud,” his descriptive history of New Zealand, his literary quality is at his highest. In “New Zealand,” a book beautifully illustrated in colour with many paintings by Frank and Walter Wright, of Auckland, he reveals himself as a landscape artist in words and as a wholehearted lover of all that makes the New Zealand scene, the noble mountains, the cool and fragrant forest, the glories of fiord and canyon and lake. He described colonial political progress in his “State Experiments in Australia and New Zealand,” published in 1902. But it is on two or three of his poems that his name and fame most securely rest.

“The Passing of the Forest” is a poem that has done more than any other work of pen or tongue to turn the people's attention to the need for saving the remnants of the New Zealand bush from destruction. It is a tangi for the vanished glory of the most lovely forest in the world, a glory that can still in part be saved by the joint efforts of State and people. With the forests there perish, too, the birds:

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“Gone are the forest birds, arboreal things,
Eaters of honey, honey-sweet of song,
The tui, and the bellbird—he who sings
That brief, rich music we would fain prolong.
Gone the wood-pigeon's sudden whirr of wings;
The daring robin, all unused to wrong.
Wild, harmless hamadryad creatures, they
Lived with their trees, and died, and passed away.

“Gone are the forest tracks, where oft we rode
Under the silver fern fronds climbing slow,
In cool green tunnels, though fierce noontide glowed
And glittered on the tree-tops far below.
There, 'mid the stillness of the mountain road,
We just could hear the valley river flow,
Whose voice through many a windless summer day
Haunted the silent woods, now passed away.”

The ruined beauty “wasted in a night,” the blackened hills—the places where the waterfalls sprayed “dense plumes of fragile ferns, now scorched away”—these seemed to the poet a bitter price to pay for what the colonist calls progress.

The other most notable poem from the pen of a man who greatly loved the land from which, by a curious run of circumstances, he absented himself for nearly half his life, has long become a New Zealand school anthem:

“God girt her about with the surges
And winds of the masterless deep,
Whose tumult uprouses and urges
Quick billows to sparkle and leap.
He filled from the life of their motion
Her nostrils with breath of the sea,
And gave her afar in the ocean
A citadel free.”

The last two verses of “New Zealand” express the poet legislator's faith that this country's lawmaking will be a beacon to the less enlightened nations—

“A light as of wrongs at length righted.
Of hope to the world.”

Perhaps we are not all so confident as Mr. Reeves was that we are a bright and shining light to illumine the darkness of less progressive peoples. We are disposed to be more restrained in our opinion of ourselves. Nevertheless, Reeves' “New Zealand” remains as a noble poem, an anthem of the free. If he had written nothing more than “The Passing of the Forest” and “New Zealand” he would still have earned a very high place in the country's literature, for these poems breathe the truly national spirit.

Praise for the Railways

In an interview at Greymouth, Mr. W. J. Lowe, who is connected with the administration of the Queensland railway system, spoke of his impressions of the Dominion, with particular reference to the railways. First of all, Mr. Lowe said he would like to pay a tribute to the modern equipment used in the New Zealand railways. The system provided excellent service, both for passengers and goods, and at rates and fares which compared favourably with those of any country he had visited. The passenger carriages and sleeping carriages were exceptionally modern, and in type were most comfortable to ride in. The trip by the Limited Express from Auckland to Wellington had been most impressive. The complete absence of noise and the exceedingly good riding surface of the permanent way had made the trip more comfortable still. The railways of New Zealand compared more than favourably with those of many countries possessing much larger populations. He did not think any country with a similar population could claim to be so well served. Mr. Lowe added that he had been equally impressed with the feeling of goodwill that existed between the officers and employees of the Department throughout the country.

New Zealand's mountain grandeur. A view from the Ball Glacier, Mt. Cook, shewing Caroline Glacier on the left and the Tasman Glacier in the background.

New Zealand's mountain grandeur. A view from the Ball Glacier, Mt. Cook, shewing Caroline Glacier on the left and the Tasman Glacier in the background.

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