The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 3 (June 1, 1936)
Famous New Zealanders — No. 39 — William Ferguson Massey
Mr. Massey, who will always be remembered as the Dominion's Prime Minster during the Great War period, was an embodiment of all the sturdy qualities needful in the making of a nation in a new and undeveloped land. Although he did not arrive in New Zealand until 1870, much of the country was still in its pioneering stage, and he shared in the breaking-in and buildingup process. He came of the excellent North of Ireland stock whose original source was the Scottish lowlands and who gave to New Zealand many of its most dependable and self-reliant settlers. He was a farmer first and a politician afterwards. When he became Prime Minister his legislation leaned strongly to the side of the man on the land; by every means in his power he encouraged the growth of a population of yeoman farmers owning their own holdings. He had his limitations; his views were strongly conservative, he was averse to the broadening and liberalising process demanded by the changing age. He was doubtless at times a brake on the wheels of progress. But in the Great War he rose to the needs of the hour and shrewdly and capably led the Dominion in that unexampled time of trial and sacrifice. He developed a spirit of Imperialism less flamboyant than Seddon's in an earlier day, and he earned the respect of the whole British Commonwealth of Nations for his hearty devotion to the cause of a united Empire.
The Lad from Limavady.
Mr. Massey'S parents, like thousands of other Ulster families, were of Scottish ancestry. Those Scots - Irish settlers came from Galloway, Kirkcudbrightshire, Ayrshire. Many were given land there as military farmers, a bulwark against the native Irish. Some others left Scotland to avoid the persecutions of Claverhouse towards the end of the Seventeenth Century. Many ultimately intermarried with the Irish folk; others wholly retained their Scottish racial connections. Dr. G. H. Scholefield, in his excellent short biography of W. F. Massey (published in 1925) says that the Masseys first belonged in Ireland to the county of Tyrone where the name is very wellknown. It is a Norman one and appears commonly in Normandy to-day as “Masse.” His father's mother was a Hamilton and his own mother bore the name of Ferguson. The original Masseys were two brothers whose descendants are widely scattered over Ulster to-day.
William Ferguson, the eldest son of John Massey, was born at the small market town of Limavady, in County Derry, on March 26th, 1856. The family were small farmers, the good, sturdy agricultural stock of the industrious and productive North. There were four in the family besides William, a son and three daughters. Education for the children was gained first at the National School at Limavady. William passed on to a private secondary school kept by a Mr. Brandon, and there received a solid grounding in English, Latin and mathematics.
His parents left him at school when they emigrated to New Zealand. That was at the end of the ‘Sixties. They sailed in the ship Indian Empire and landed at Auckland, and after looking round leased a farm at the Tamaki. There the boy William joined them in December of 1870; he was then fourteen years old. In those days the Government offered free land to settlers who paid their own passages out to the colony; adults received 40 acres of land and minors 20 acres each. In this way a good-sized family could secure a comfortable little farm, under what was known as the “forty-acre system.” Many British and Irish families were first attracted to New Zealand by the publicity given to this arrangement, which assured them of a property on arrival. They were often people in comfortable circumstances, owning farms of their own; but the old places did not give sufficient opportunity for growing families, and the broad new lands called. But the Masseys were disappointed with the place allotted them; it was up in the Kaipara bush, and they never occupied it.
The City of Auckland.
The fourteen-year-old boy coming out by himself around the curve of the world, to join his parents, was half a sailor by the time he landed after a voyage of 84 days. The ship which brought him was the City of Auckland, one of the finest of the clippers in the beautiful sailing fleets of that maritime era. The ship was a favourite with passengers in the London-New Zealand trade, and she carried in her day thousands of immigrants to these shores. Her commander was Captain Ashby, probably the best known of all the masters in that trade when sail was in its glory. The City of Auckland was a handsomely fitted ship somewhat after the type of the carefully appointed East Indiamen. At the break of the poop were page 18 page 19 carved these appropriate lines from Campbell's “Mariners of England”:
“Her march is o'er the mountain waves,
Her home is on the deep.”
Like many another young immigrant in those square-rig passage days, the boy Massey learned many a handy way aboard ship that stood him in use in after life on the land. He learned to put his weight on a rope, to tail on to the braces sometimes at a heavy job when passengers gave the sailormen a hand. Useful knots and bends learned from an obliging sailor were often of service to a pioneer farmer. Young Massey always remembered his sea home with affection. The ship left her bones on the New Zealand coast at last; she came to grief on a leeshore, the Otaki beach, and had to be abandoned.
Ploughman at Longbeach.
William Massey helped his father on the Tamaki plains farm until he was seventeen. Then he went to Canterbury to obtain a more thorough knowledge of work on the land, to qualify him to become a farmer on his own account. He entered the employ of Mr. John Grigg, the owner of the celebrated Longbeach estate, near Ashburton. His father and Mr. Grigg had been neighbours at the Tamaki.
At Longbeach Massey remained for over two years, chiefly as ploughman, and also for a time in charge of a threshing machine. Before he returned to the North, his father had bought a property at Mangere, the farm which was carried on by the family for many years. Presently he leased a small farm of his own, and he bought a steam threshing machine. a profitable investment at that period, sixty years ago, when wheat was grown by nearly every farmer.
The Mangere Farmer.
In 1882, being now in a comfortably prosperous way, he married a Mangere girl, Miss Christina Allen Paul. Now he began to interest himself in public affairs. By 1890 he was first president of the Mangere Farmers’ Club; and he was the first president also of the Auckland Provincial Agricultural Association, which developed into a strong and very useful show organisation.
In politics Mr. Massey, belonging to an individualist school of thought, became a leader in the Auckland branch of the National Association, a conservative body which was stoutly opposed to the newly-born Liberal spirit. Franklin was his electoral district, and the seat was hotly contested for many years by two veterans of the Maori Wars, Major Ebenezer Hamlin, a big and burly Waiuku settler, and Major Benjamin Harris, of Pukekohe. Well I remember those farmer-politicians, who detested each other heartily, for I had on several occasions to report their speeches. Presently it fell to my duty in the course of newspaper work to report Mr. Massey himself. He stood against Major Harris for Franklin in 1893— Major Hamlin having retired—and was defeated.
Elected for Waitemata.
In the following year there was a by-election for Waitemata, where the eloquent veteran Richard Monk had been unseated for bribery and corruption on the part of his agents. It was the comedy of the hour, that Waitemata election, as revealed when the case was tried. Mr. Monk was a teetotaller to the point of fierce hatred of the publichouse and all it contained, but his agents proceeded to assist his return by holding open house at Kumeu, a lively centre of the gumdigging business. The evidence conclusively showed that free beer flowed for all and sundry, and the convivial diggers voted as one man for “good old Dickey Monk.” He lost his seat, of course; it was hard on a rigid prohibitionist.
When the seat was declared vacant, Massey was called upon to contest it on behalf of the Conservative party.
At the Pitchfork Point.
It was February, 1894, that Massey was thus invited into the Waitemata fray. His opponent was Jackson Palmer, the debonair young Auckland lawyer whom Monk had defeated. The contest was hot and close; the Mangere farmer won by a narrow majority. So, at the age of 38, W. F. Massey entered the House of Representatives, in which he was to occupy, a place continuously for the rest of his life.
Early Days in Parliament.
Richard Seddon was firmly seated in the saddle of Government when Massey became a member, and he remained there for the next twelve years. During all that time the party of which the man from Mangere eventually became leader maintained a persistent criticism of the Government policies. It looked as if the Opposition would be there for life, so impregnable did the citadel of administrative power seem from the trenches of the attackers. But they kept up their fire steadily session after session, opposing a steady front to all the Liberal and experimental legislation brought forward. The story of that long and often very bitter fight page 20 page 21 is well told by Dr. Scholefield in his biography. After his first election for the Waitemata seat, Mr. Massey returned to his own district and was the chosen of Franklin at every election. Captain Russell was for many years the leader of the Opposition.
Leader of the Opposition.
It was in 1903 that Massey took his place; his sound knowledge of legislative methods and his native ability and strength of character well qualified him for the difficult post. It was soon after he assumed the leadership, as Dr. Scholefield narrates, that the Opposition adopted the phrase, “Reform Party” as its fighting title.
After Mr. Seddon's death in 1906, the strength of the Opposition steadily increased. Sir Joseph Ward did not possess the Seddonian touch of personal mana, and the farming population especially was solid for Reform. Freehold versus State leasehold was the great question of the day, and the never-slackening fight of the Opposition for freehold carried the Liberal walls at last.
Massey Becomes Premier.
After the death of Seddon a rift developed between the old Liberals headed by Ward and the Labour party, and the Reform faction gradually increased in activity and strength. Sir Joseph Ward resigned and gave place to Sir Thomas Mackenzie, whose regime was brief; he did not possess the qualities necessary in the leader of a strongly-attacked administration. The unsteady Government was defeated in 1912, and the Reform party entered into power for a long and momentous term of office. For eight years Mr. Massey had been leader of the Opposition, hitting hard all the way against the Liberals and the principles for which they stood. Now he had fairly earned his succession to the seat of the mighty. He retained it for thirteen years, until his death.
In his first Cabinet there were some very able men, chief of them the veteran Sir Francis Dillon Bell, who was accounted to be the principal motivating power in the Reform Party. He was a sage adviser, a very keen, experienced politician, indeed one of the great statesmen of the Empire. Another tower of strength was Sir James Allen, Minister of Defence, Education and Finance. The Hon. A. L. Herdman was the Minister for Justice. Other members of Cabinet were Sir William Herries, Sir William Fraser, Sir Heaton Rhodes, and Mr. F. M. B. Fisher. Sir Maui Pomare was the Maori member of the Executive.
There were many long-waiting items on the Masseyites’ legislative programme. One of the first was the land laws. Massey and his supporters were pledged to give the freehold to Crown tenants. The legislation now passed gave the right of obtaining the freehold to 13,175 Crown tenants, holding nearly three million acres of land. This was not altogether to the benefit of the country, for land values went up to an artificial value and there was a harvest for the speculator. Another branch of legislation was a new Labour Disputes measure. The Government passed an Act setting up machinery to investigate disputes and formulate proposals for settlement. A very disturbing question, the control of the Public Service, was next attended to. The Legislature removed the Service from the direct control of the Ministers and placed it under Public Service Commissioners, with very wide powers of appointment and control of State employees.
In the World War.
Mr. Massey and Sir Joseph Ward visited England and toured the war front. One of our illustrations shows the Prime Minister climbing out of one of the underground sandbagged shelters in the New Zealand lines in France towards the end of the War.
In the Councils of Empire.
Mr. Massey came before the eyes of the world at the memorable wartime gatherings of Imperial statesmen. He was a member of the Imperial War Cabinet set up in 1915. At the War Conference of 1917 the subject of Dominion status was discussed, and as the outcome of the great services of the overseas self-governing countries under the British flag they were definitely declared to be free, autonomous nations of the Imperial Commonwealth. They were in future to be consulted about foreign affairs. Mr. Massey seconded the resolution to this effect. In 1918, when the Treaty of Versailles was signed, Mr. Massey signed on behalf of New Zealand.
(Continued on page 41 ).