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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.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.


MASSEY, William Ferguson


Statesman, Prime Minister, and Reform Party leader.

A new biography of Massey, William Ferguson appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

W. F. Massey was born at Limavady, County Londonderry, Ireland, on 26 March 1856. He was the elder son (in a family of five) of John Massey, a tenant farmer, who also owned a small freehold property, and of Marianne, née Ferguson. Though the Masseys were a long-established Ulster family, W. F. Massey was himself predominantly Scots through his mother and paternal grandmother. He was educated at the local National school and at a private secondary school. Massey was making good progress in a curriculum of the classical type when his formal education was cut short by his father's decision to emigrate to New Zealand, the attraction being the Auckland Provincial Government's offer of land to emigrants who paid their own passages. His disillusionment when confronted with his Kaipara bush section probably contributed in large measure to his son's distaste for “Liberal” land schemes. The elder Massey took up, instead, a leasehold farm at Tamaki. William Massey had remained at school in Ireland, but at the age of 14 he followed the family, arriving in the colony on 11 December 1870. He gained farming experience with his father and with John Grigg at Longbeach in Canterbury. By the end of the 1880s he had set himself up as a small farmer and threshing-mill contractor. About this time he may have briefly been interested in the Knights of Labour.

In 1894, when he was first elected to Parliament, Massey had behind him several years of service in local and provincial affairs. Small farmers were becoming a considerable force in Auckland politics, and Massey's vigour and organising ability carried him steadily upward among his fellows, as far as can be judged, without any spur of political ambition. When political opportunity came, he had a thorough understanding of Auckland rural interests, and much experience in advocating them. In 1890 the Mangere Farmers' Club, of which he was president, took steps to revive the Auckland Agricultural Association, and Massey then became provincial leader. As such, he had his introduction to politics. To counter Ballance's Liberal Ministry, allegedly southern and radical, Auckland conservative interests formed the National Association in September 1891. Massey, as head of the only farmers' provincial organisation, was invited to take part, and was elected vice-president. Thus, unlike many “farmers' advocates”, he began his political career in close cooperation with city business men. The National Association attempted, with conspicuous lack of success, to rouse the electorate against the “socialism” of the Liberals, and to put forward Opposition candidates. Massey stood for Franklin at the general election of 1893. He polled well in his own district, but was defeated by Benjamin Harris.

His provincial, and not merely local standing, brought him nomination for the Waitemata seat, vacant in 1894 as a result of the unseating of Richard Monk on petition. His task was merely to hold the seat for Monk till 1896 when he stood again for Franklin, this time successfully. He continued to represent the constituency till his death. From 1894 until 1912 Massey journeyed with the Opposition through the political wilderness. He followed his leaders loyally, and was appointed Opposition Whip in 1896. His experience in holding together a rather loose group of “independent conservatives” taught him valuable lessons in political diplomacy, and gave him decided views on what to avoid in party organisation. He steadily consolidated his reputation as farmers' spokesman and as Auckland advocate, particularly of the Main Trunk railway. Under Sir William Russell (1894–1900), the Opposition denounced Government Legislation as contravening the “true Liberalism” of Herbert Spencer, and accused Seddon of corruption and “Tammanyism”. Massey's leaders could not adjust themselves to the new scope and pace of Seddonian politics. The best they could do by 1899 was to promise rather grudgingly not to upset Liberal legislation. By the turn of the century, Seddon had largely succeeded in his attempt to create an electoral image of a “Conservative Party” allied to a “National Ass”, and the friend of the “fat man” and the squatter. In 1900 the Opposition dissolved, partly because they could find no suitable leader in place of Russell, and partly to entice dissident Liberals from Seddon's crowded ranks. The manoeuvre was a complete failure, but Massey as unofficial whip continued to provide such coordination as there was, presiding over at least some meetings.

By 1903 it was clear that normal party warfare must be resumed, and a leader chosen. The names of Russell, Herries, Duthie, and Allen – men senior to Massey – were canvassed, but all were in some degree disqualified by past associations or by insufficient dedication to politics. Massey was de facto parliamentary manager, and probably by then had the best claim as electoral organiser. Allen was his chief rival, but he lacked Massey's geniality and Seddon-like application to party work. Massey was unanimously elected Leader of the Opposition on 9 September 1903. The mere choice of leader could not efface the unfavourable image created by the party's own narrow policies and by Seddon's propaganda, nor could Massey change in a short space the Opposition's habits of thought. His 1905 campaign was therefore a gallant one-man tilting at Seddonian windmills. It was further frustrated by the ill-starred “New Liberal” campaign against the Premier. After the election débâcle, there was apparently an abortive attempt to depose Massey in favour of Herries. Liberal ascendancy remained after the death of Seddon in June 1906, and Massey had to content himself with calling for a stronger Opposition. In default of a positive appeal, he could only conduct a holding operation, and wait for the electorate to drift away from the Liberals. The turn of the tide came more quickly than many expected. Both rural and urban property owners became alarmed from about 1908 at the advance of militant Labour, and Massey won an increasing audience as a defender of the freehold, as a denouncer of “extreme Labour”, and as a critic of Ward's stratagems to hold his party together, particularly on the land-tenure question. The election of 1908 was an electoral triumph for the Liberals, but paradoxically gave the Opposition more seats for fewer votes, and a boost of confidence badly needed. In February 1909 Massey announced that he would henceforth lead the “Reform Party”, borrowing the name from the rather haphazardly-formed Political Reform League. Thus the Opposition came forward again as an alternative government. In these years Massey blossomed out as perhaps the most effective (if not spectacular) platform politician in New Zealand, in spite of his harsh voice, his homespun appearance, and his limited range of policy points and illustrations. His massive frame, his conviction and sincerity, and his developing gift of repartee marked him out more and more in the public eye as a match for Ward. In 1911 he shaved off the beard which seemed to tie him to the older school of political gentry, and emerged as “Bill Massey”, the twentieth-century farmer-politician. At the crucial election of 1911, Massey possessed the independent support of the Farmers' Union on the freehold issue, and his electoral organisation, though far from complete, was superior to Ward's. His party made its chief gains in rural Auckland and Taranaki, but there were some significant urban gains also. Once again, the electoral system (and country quota) favoured Massey, giving him 36 seats to the Liberal's 30. The party situation was rather like a reverse image of 1890–91, though there was even more uncertainty in 1911–12.

Again the political decision had to be made in Parliament. Massey was confident of narrow victory at the special session of February 1912, but he was temporarily frustrated by Ward's political conjuring, and by the decision of three Labour M.P.s, elected with Reform votes, to vote with the Liberals. Massey's hopes dissolved into unmeasured fury, and he became involved in unwise accusations and an inconclusive libel case . He soon recovered his composure, and awaited the inevitable disintegration of the stopgap Mackenzie Ministry, formed on Ward's calculated resignation. Some freehold Independent Liberals, including J. G. Coates, crossed the floor, and early in the morning of 6 July 1912, Massey led his party to victory by 41 votes to 33. In his hour of triumph, Massey showed both mastery of his party and a statesmanlike courtesy to his opponents. He had spent so long in the wilderness that he seemed to many almost a “professional Oppositionist”, but, as with Seddon and Fraser, the demands of office called out new resources in him. His first Cabinet consisted of James Allen, W. H. Herries, William Fraser, A. L. Herdman, F. H. D. Bell, R. H. Rhodes, F. M. B. Fisher, and Maui Pomare. It was as able a ministry as any in New Zealand history, though perhaps not as vigorous a group as it would have been in, say, 1905. Six of its nine members were university graduates, but Massey took his place at the head of the Cabinet table with a natural dignity, with the full loyalty of his colleagues, and certainly with no sense of inferiority.

Massey's judgment of men was never better shown than in his appointment of his old benchmate of 1894–96, F. H. D. Bell, to lead the Legislative Council. In a real sense this was to be a Massey-Bell Ministry, for the two men worked closely together to produce a unique combination of political judgment and administrative wisdom. Yet the Reform Party was rightly regarded as Massey's handiwork, and he received a great ovation when, as Prime Minister and leader, he stood before the Political Reform League's first national conference in August 1912. His long years of organisation and his new status gave him a party predominance approaching that of Seddon. Though he possessed no firm majority, he had built up the first really disciplined parliamentary party in New Zealand, and he was assisted by the grievous divisions of the Liberals. Hence, he was able to brush aside their challenges with ease. His 1911 programme did not remotely amount to a “conservative revolution”, being an undertaking to administer existing policies better, to clean up administration, and to resist radical aggression. Massey's most formidable task in 1912–13 was the settling of the worst industrial disputes New Zealand has known. They form a dark episode in our history, and many accounts have criticised Massey for his unsympathetic handling of the strikers' demands, for his refusal to accept offers of negotiation, and for his use of special constables. It is easy to be wise after the events. Massey could perhaps be fairly accused of employing more force than was necessary, and of conniving at the use of private force which was barely legal or plainly illegal. On balance, and in the short run, he gained more public support than he lost by his crushing of militant Labour. He was under threat of personal violence for some time, but bore himself with his customary firmness and courage. The 1914 election promised to revive on the political field all the bitterness of 1912–13, but Massey faced the prospect confident in the electorate's approval and in a vigorous Reform League. The coming of the First World War in August 1914 cut short his party's promising campaign, but Massey was nevertheless accused of making a “khaki election” in December. The Reform vote was substantially increased, yet the electoral lottery returned Massey only 40 seats, to his great disappointment. The resulting political deadlock continued into the session of 1915, as Massey and Ward manoeuvred to prevent each other from gaining party advantage. The British National Government of May 1915 provided a compelling example of party cooperation in crisis, but there was marked personal antipathy between Massey the Ulsterman and Ward the Roman Catholic. Further, backbenchers in both parties, but particularly Reform, did not relish the prospect of frontbenchers monopolising office in a coalition ministry. Massey therefore negotiated with Ward in July-August 1915 in a spirit of wariness and hard bargaining. He should have begun with more generous terms as head of State, but he was conscious that Ward would work to enlarge every offered concession. In the end, the Liberal leader gained parity in all matters except the title of Prime Minister. He took his place alongside Massey as de facto joint leader, and insisted on unanimity in cabinet decisions – an almost insurmountable barrier to much necessary domestic legislation. Further, Ward regained the portfolio of finance, while Allen continued to shoulder the unpopular and burdensome Defence Department.

The period of the National Government (1915–19) was one of political frustration for Massey. Ward was able to direct with considerable freedom many important aspects of internal policy, while he accompanied Massey to Europe for the two meetings of the Imperial War Cabinet, and for various conferences, including the Peace Conference of 1919. The Prime Minister's strong imperialism was strengthened by his active part in the direction of war strategy in London. He became a firm believer in the Imperial War Cabinet and hoped it would develop into a permanent institution. His imperialism had, however, a distinctly New Zealand bias, like Seddon's. In October 1914 he had a sharp encounter with the British Government on naval convoys for our troops. At the conference of 1917 he spoke of “a partnership of nations”, and claimed the right of the Dominions to be consulted in foreign policy. But there was also a “British” element in his views. He did not consider himself as signing the treaty of 1919 as a representative of an independent State, but of a partner in the Empire. He regarded the post-war movement for fuller and freer Dominion status as a falling away from a fine and fruitful partnership. He came to feel that the Empire itself was threatened, and, in his own mind, he loosely linked this constitutional “radicalism” with the political upheavals in Europe. Hence his imperialism became more British and conservative than before. Meanwhile political troubles mounted at home. A civilian-minded country chafed at the sacrifices and burdens of war, most of which were necessary, though some arose from the inefficiency of government. Labour speakers who blamed the men in office found a wide audience, and in 1918 Labour won three by-elections, to Massey's disgust and alarm.

A general election, when it came, might well be used to punish the National Government. Ward found occasion to withdraw in July 1919; clearly he desired to evade unpopularity, and to head off the swift rise of Labour. The two leaders then engaged in recrimination about their commitments and responsibilities; Massey came out better, for Ward was regarded as repeating his over-cleverness of 1912. The 1919 election was widely considered a personal triumph for Massey, rewarding his perseverance and courage in running the country's war effort. Massey also had to contend with a “revolt” among his backbenchers in 1918–19. Several of them thirsted for office, but their leader seemed to be too preoccupied with Imperial matters to be interested in his party. The incident of the “Progressive Reformers” was not completely closed by the entry of three of their number – C. J. Parr, E. P. Lee, and G. J. Anderson – into the Reform ministry. It demonstrated Massey's hold over his party, but showed that he had not the same touch with his supporters as in 1912–14. Though the 1919 election gave Massey his first (and only) safe majority, the country was running into economic difficulties which threatened its wartime prosperity in farming. Politicians of the period have been dismissed as mediocre and lacking in vision, but it was selfishness and sectionalism in the electorate, and the reaction from wartime restraints, that dominated politics. The party stalemate further militated against firm leadership. Massey, the laissez-faire advocate of the 1890s, reconciled himself to the increasing power of the State, and set up public export control boards. Through these and other measures he largely succeeded in holding the farming vote, though threatened by a Country Party. The political centre of gravity was, however, shifting to the cities, and Massey was beset by industrial upheavals, which sapped the urban strength of his party. He himself at least gained the respect of Labour deputations for his straightforward dealings and his sympathy with actual hardship. Yet in the House and on the platform, he infuriated Labour leaders by labelling them as “Bolsheviks”, and by accusing them of subversive activities. Sometimes he spoke as if the Reform Party had the monopoly of patriotism.

The 1922 election registered the growth of discontent, particularly in the cities, with Reform administration, and left Massey dependent on the support of three Independents. Even his country supporters were restive, and Massey was forced to make concessions to rural sectionalism and localism that went against his better judgment. He more and more saw himself as holding the pass against the advance of “Bolshevism”, and he subordinated other considerations to that end. By 1923 his health was breaking under the manifold strains imposed upon him, and it was clear that the onset of internal cancer limited his future. Nevertheless, he continued to battle on under great political difficulties. It is not hard to understand why he became more irascible and domineering. Yet the latter stages of the 1923–25 Parliament seemed at long last to promise a political Indian summer for him. Ward had been defeated in 1919, and the Liberal Party seemed to be drifting into fusion with Reform. Massey was in the stronger position, and could afford to wait and raise his terms. The upswing of 1924–25 gave promise that he would face a general election under better auspices. Yet his failing health prevented him from grasping these opportunities, to which Coates fell heir. By late 1924 he was frequently prostrated, and his expectation of life was now only a matter of months. He died at Wellington on 10 May 1925 and was buried at Point Halswell, where a memorial has been erected. The sculpture was executed by F. A. Shurrock.

Massey deserves, and awaits, a full-scale biography. In the meantime, he may be regarded as standing second only to Seddon as head of Government and party. His political attitudes and beliefs were a combination of his short Irish and long New Zealand experience. His loyalties in politics were in some ways sectarian and clannish. Genial and expansive among political friends, he could show a face of flint across the House. Though he admitted to being not a strict Presbyterian, his Scottish-Ulster upbringing, reinforced by his British Israelism, endowed him with a tremendous knowledge of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, and his command of chapter and verse made a great impression in the House and elsewhere. His vigilance against Roman Catholic influence was reinforced by his membership of Orange, Oddfellow, and Masonic lodges. He was grand master of the last-named order in 1924. When sectarian conflict in New Zealand rose to a peak in the post-war years, Massey was accused of encouraging the Protestant Political Association, a militant body, whose views in the main clearly coincided with his own. The P.P.A.'s sectarian campaign became also an anti-Labour vendetta, the success of which could only benefit Reform. Massey's emphatic denials of any connection with the P.P.A. were not entirely convincing. Imperialism was Massey's first article of political faith. His favourite author was Kipling, from whom he quoted freely. By about 1917, he had adopted British Israelism, a private interest which he shared with Lord Jellicoe, and developed an almost mystical belief in the permanency of the Empire. Yet Massey tried conscientiously to keep his private views out of politics. “I am Prime Minister, and my duties as Prime Minister come first,” he said when taxed with yielding to sectarian pressure. As a politician, Massey added to New Zealand conservative experience, if not tradition. He confirmed Atkinson's pragmatism, and appropriated Seddon's imperialism. He was not a “Conservative”, calling himself a “true Liberal”. He was conservative in his dislike of appeals to class hatred or envy against men of property, but he used the same kind of emotional appeal against the Labour Party. Though, in 1925, he was acclaimed as an imperialist, his more important contributions were as administrative head, Leader of the House, and party chief. In the unprecedented, harassing days of 1914–19, his power of decision, his political judgment, and his grasp of detail were invaluable to his country. Confronted with practical situations, he could show fairness, balance, and sympathy. He was an astute parliamentary manager, ranking with Seddon, but working under far more difficult circumstances. Massey outshone the latter as head of Cabinet, at least in his early years of power. Massey was not an orator, but developed a Seddonian skill in debate and repartee. With considerable justice, the Reform Party was described as the “Massey Party”. As has been seen, he earned his pre-eminence for leadership before the First World War. From 1919, however, his habits of self-reliance positively stood in the way of necessary party reorganisation. He preferred to work through ad hoc committees, and virtually kept the reins of power in his hands. With the help of a small group of devoted followers, such as Sir Walter Buchanan, E. F. Hemingway, H. H. D. Wily, and the party secretary, E. A. James, he ran Reform largely by personal control. The result was a dangerous decline in local initiative and in contact between centre and branches. There was no Reform conference in the period from 1914 to Massey's death.

Massey has not achieved the status of “father figure” accorded by posterity to Seddon and Savage, though in fact he stands within the same tradition of pragmatic humanitarianism. Of his great “causes”, imperialism was hardly to survive him, while the “freehold” after 1912 could not remain as a creed. In any case, it would commit New Zealanders to less State assistance than they are accustomed to receive. Massey's industry, integrity, and commonsense in government were admirable, but they are overshadowed by the tragedy of the Great War, while his party's reputation was killed by the Great Depression. New Zealanders look back to governments more directly associated with welfare policies, and with the passing of grim crises – namely, the Liberals of the 1890s and the Labour Party of the 1930s. As a conservative politician, Massey first showed that the drift to the Left could be checked, and that, in fact, the conservatism of small property owners, and their demand for security, are the chief ingredients of New Zealand politics.

In 1882, at Auckland, Massey married Christina Allen Paul (died 1932), by whom he had three sons and two daughters. Two of his sons had political careers: John Norman Massey represented Franklin from 1928 to 1935, and from 1938 to 1957, while Walter William Massey represented Hauraki from 1931 to 1935. Dame Christina Massey, C.B.E. (1918), G.B.E. (1926), was prominent in women's and patriotic organisations.

by William James Gardner, M.A., Senior Lecturer, History Department, University of Canterbury.

  • N.Z.P.D., Vol. 206 (1925) (Obit)
  • Sir Francis Bell, His Life and Times, Stewart, W. D. (1937)
  • Rise of the Reform Party, Webb, L. C. (1928)
  • Political Science, Vol. 13, Nos. 1 and 2 (1961), “The Rise of W. F. Massey, 1891–1912”, and “W. F. Massey in Power, 1912–25”, Gardner, W. J.


William James Gardner, M.A., Senior Lecturer, History Department, University of Canterbury.