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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

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ATKINSON, Sir Harry Albert, K.C.M.G.


Premier of New Zealand.

A new biography of Atkinson, Harry Albert appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Harry Albert Atkinson was born in Broxton, Cheshire, on 1 November 1831. His father, John, was an architect and engineer, whose work took him first to Hurworth, Durham, and then Friendsbury, Kent. It was in the latter county that Harry received his education at Rochester School and Blackheath. At the age of 19 he spent some time studying history, public administration, theology, and colonial affairs. This, combined with the acquisition of a number of trade skills, provided him with a wide background of knowledge for colonial life. In company with the Richmond family, Harry and his brother, Arthur, followed their elder brother, William, to New Zealand and arrived at Auckland on the Sir Edward Paget in May 1853. From there they sailed down the coast to New Plymouth in the cutter Three Brothers during August of the same year in order to join their relatives on a thousand acres of farm land. Here, a few miles outside New Plymouth, Atkinson built his homestead–named “Hurworth”–on the Carrington Road. The next few years he spent in clearing the bush from his property, fencing it, and farming the land.

Atkinson maintained his interest in politics while he broke in his land; those years in Taranaki were suited to anyone with such interests. Disputes with the Maori tribes over land titles in the province had been increasing, and the settlers began training in preparation for war. In May 1857 Atkinson was elected to the Taranaki Provincial Council for the Grey and Bell district. Toward the end of the following year his military career began when he was elected to a commission in the Taranaki Rifle Volunteer Company. His appointment to the command of No. 2 Company soon after the outbreak of the Taranaki War in 1860 was justified in the series of engagements during that year. The volunteers fought at the Battle of Waireka, a few miles south of New Plymouth, on 23 March 1860 and withdrew in good order after a hard struggle. They fought in August of the same year, and again in November when Atkinson's company joined the regulars of the 65th Regiment. All these battles confirmed Atkinson's qualities as an excellent guerilla leader. In 1863 he took command of the newly formed Forest Rangers, a corps of 150 men skilled in the techniques of bush fighting. Under him the rangers served with distinction at Potokou in October 1863, Kaitake in March 1864, Ahuahu and Sentry Hill in April 1864, and Manutahi and Matai-tawa in September of the same year.

In November 1864 Atkinson turned his attention wholly to national politics. He had been elected unopposed in June 1861 to represent Grey and Bell in the House of Representatives, and arrived in Auckland to take his seat on the day that the Stafford Government was defeated. He withdrew from provincial politics in 1864 after serving three terms as Deputy Superintendent of Taranaki. In the same year he joined the Weld Ministry as Minister of Defence, advocating a policy of self-reliance in the conduct of the war. It was this spirit of self-reliance, applied in other spheres, that was to be so characteristic of his political career in latter years.

After the defeat of the Weld Ministry Atkinson resigned from Parliament in January 1866, but returned to the Assembly in 1867 when elected unopposed for the town of New Plymouth seat. His close interest in military and native affairs led to his being considered, with Whitmore, as possible commander-in-chief of the forces against Titokowaru and Te Kooti, but Atkinson left the colony for a three-year visit to Great Britain at this time. When he returned in 1871 the Maori wars were virtually over, and Atkinson now concentrated wholly on politics, both national and provincial–although, coming from a poor and isolated province, he was in favour either of amalgamation or, preferably, of abolition of the provincial political structure. In 1871 he defeated Moorhouse to represent the Egmont constituency in Parliament. Within the province he contested the Superintendency against Carrington and Brown in November 1873, and came second to Carrington. Later in the same month he was elected to the Provincial Council for Grey and Bell and became Provincial Secretary in May 1874. Four months later he withdrew for the last time from active participation in provincial politics to join Vogel's Ministry. Although Vogel remained nominally in charge of the Government until September 1876–with Pollen taking over for a few months in 1875–76–it was Atkinson who gradually assumed real leadership. It was he who pushed through the Bill abolishing the provinces in 1875–76, and who took the enormous borrowing scheme of 1870, rid it of its worst extravagances, and converted it into a prudent policy for economic expansion. Atkinson was defeated in October 1877 by a coalition of “Provincialists” under Grey and Macandrew, who, despite their name, showed themselves to be more interested in reintroducing Vogel's bold scheme to gain capital for their own localities.

Depression struck the colony in 1879, however, and Atkinson returned to the Treasury benches as Colonial Treasurer, first under Hall from 1879 to 1882, and then under Whitaker, 1882–83, before resuming the Premiership for a year in 1883–84. His sound and cautious financial policies, however, were no match for Vogel's promises in the 1884 election, and for three years he sat in opposition to the Stout-Vogel Ministry. In those three years the Government's policy of expansion based on borrowed money foundered under the impact of a growing depression. In October 1887 Atkinson was recalled to head a ministry whose task was to restore the colony to a state of sound finance and, as far as possible, self-dependence. It took him three years, in his capacity as Colonial Treasurer, to cut Government loan expenditures from the 1887 total of £2,064,000 to 273,000 in 1890. At the same time exports per head each year increased from £11 in 1887 to 15 4s. in 1890, while imports fell from £10 9s. to 10.

Towards the end of the three-year term of Parliament Atkinson's health began to fail. He travelled to Tasmania to rest and recuperate, but this had little effect. In the 1890 session he had become so ill that he took little or no part in the day-to-day work of the Assembly. Although he had prepared it himself, his last budget was presented in the House by Mitchelson, his Minister of Public Works. The election of 1890 brought narrow defeat for Atkinson and his Government in the adverse vote of January 1891. Shortly after, he resigned from the House of Representatives to become Speaker of the Legislative Council. Later in the year he visited Australia as a New Zealand delegate to the Federal Conference and, with Grey, supported the principle of one man one vote.

He is, perhaps, the least known and most underestimated of New Zealand's leading Premiers. This is partly because of his personality and partly the result of his policies. He had neither the eloquence of Grey–although his mastery of the facts as well as his doggedness made him a powerful opponent in debate–nor the popular appeal of Seddon, and for many years was the exponent of many economically wise but politically unpopular policies.

Atkinson has been described in the past as a Conservative and one of the last of the landed oligarchy to hold political power in New Zealand. Apart from the fact that Atkinson himself had only a relatively small holding in a province where farming up to the nineties was essentially on a subsistence level, recent research has shown that the real division in New Zealand politics in the seventies and eighties was not between “Liberals” and “Conservatives”. The important split was brought about by the attitudes of politicians towards Sir Julius Vogel's 1870 borrowing scheme. Almost immediately after its enunciation, the House of Representatives–and the colony as a whole–divided into those who supported it unconditionally and those who wanted a more prudent application of it to the country's needs. The former supported wholeheartedly–usually for parochial reasons–the expenditure of loan money with little thought for other financial considerations. The cautious group, however, while approving the principle of borrowing, insisted that the scheme should be carefully administered, that it must not cause inflation or speculation, and that it must not affect the country's trading position.

Atkinson was only one of the leaders of the group–among others were Stafford, Hall, and Rolleston–but he was the most determined and capable of them. He had advocated military self-reliance during the Maori wars of the sixties, and this policy he adapted to finance and economics in the seventies and eighties. Unfortunately, his ideas were heeded only in times of depression. Often he and his followers found themselves forced to enact stringent and unpopular financial measures to restore the stability which had been upset by preceding “bold” borrowing ministries. Atkinson was not “cautious” in a solely negative way. He agreed with moderate borrowing combined with careful administration of the loan capital. But when, in 1887, it became obvious that the colony could not afford to borrow further, it was Atkinson and his Ministry who reorientated New Zealand's economy along the lines of self-sufficiency. While enforcing retrenchment, he also endeavoured with increasing success to build up colonial industry (which he protected by the tariff of 1888), and to settle more small farmers on the new dairy lands of the North Island.

The years from 1887 to 1890 did not represent a sudden change in his beliefs. He had been moving steadily towards the position of economic self-reliance as far back as 1883. In his financial statement of that year he laid down the alternatives for the colony: the country must choose between more borrowing merely to continue paying for imports at the past rate, and a concentration on increasing local production to supply internal demands. Atkinson had taken the first significant step away from the prevailing belief that borrowing was the only means for economic growth, and thereby had moved towards his own principle of self-sufficient development through expanded land settlement and encouragement of local industry. It was on the basis of Atkinson's work in the years 1887–90 that the Liberal Government carried out its policies of the nineties. In the period after 1891 the policy of self-reliance may have been carried out with greater speed, but there was little change in its scope. The significant year of change was 1887 when Atkinson finally discarded the outworn theories of 1870 and replaced them with his own.

Atkinson has also been described as a Conservative because of an alleged resistance to social change. Yet he solidly supported Bowen's Education Bill in 1877, and it was only the defeat of the Government that allowed Grey to enact the legislation in the name of the “Liberals”. It was with Atkinson's continued support that land legislation was enacted to protect the small farmer. Although he had believed in freehold tenure in his early life, his ideas had changed and it was while he was either Premier or Colonial Treasurer that Donald Reid and Rolleston had developed the system of deferred payments and perpetual lease to encourage small-scale land tenure.

Atkinson had himself proposed a scheme of national insurance which was nearly 20 years earlier and more comprehensive than Seddon's Act. It was the bitter opposition of Grey and others on both sides of the House which led to the defeat of the Bill. Hall always had Atkinson's support in his campaign to give women the vote, and Atkinson was a firm believer in the principle of one man one vote. The labour legislation of the nineties had its roots in the 1888 tariff which created employment possibilities by assuring a large portion of the colony's market to the new and struggling small industries. The Minister had brought forward proposals for labour laws in the 1890 session, but these were defeated again by a coalition of Conservatives on both sides of the House.

In three amazingly productive but exhausting years, Atkinson had managed to force legislation through Parliament to settle small farmers on the land, to encourage local industries behind a protective tariff, and to restore strength and stability to the colony's finances. By 1890, however, when conditions had begun to improve a little, time had run out for Atkinson and his Ministry. Although defeated in the elections of that year, he lived long enough to see the essence of his economic policies continued by Ballance and the Liberal Government of 1891.

In appearance Atkinson was very much the “colonial” of his day, bearded and powerful, with the look of a man on the land or–as he himself preferred to put it–a yeoman. Although not a great orator in the House, he was a pugnacious debater and constantly disconcerted his opponents by his irritating laugh or sneer. As Premier he ruled his supporters with a heavy hand and would, as George Fisher picturesquely put it, “do a regular war dance before the caucus” if ministerial policies were questioned. During his final period as Premier, Atkinson's Government was twice defeated in the House and, on another occasion, faced a revolt among its supporters. On that occasion he had to rely upon the Opposition's support to force his Tariff Bill through the House, and he gained a reputation for political intrigue. Nevertheless, in spite of his shortcomings Atkinson is one of the few political leaders in New Zealand history who, after having led a ministry, could serve later in a subordinate ministerial position.

On 25 March 1856 Atkinson married Amelia Jane Skinner, who died in 1865. He married, secondly, on 13 June 1866, Annie Smith; he had five sons and two daughters. Atkinson died in Parliament Buildings, Wellington, on 28 June 1892, at the start of the new parliamentary session.

by Warwick Robert Armstrong, M.A., M.SC.ECON.(LOND.), Lecturer, Geography Department, Victoria University of Wellington.

  • The Richmond-Atkinson Papers (2 vols), Scholefield, G. H. (ed.) (1960)
  • Notable New Zealand Statesmen, Scholefield, G. H. (1946).


Warwick Robert Armstrong, M.A., M.SC.ECON.(LOND.), Lecturer, Geography Department, Victoria University of Wellington.