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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.


TREGEAR, Edward, I.S.O.


Public servant and scholar.

A new biography of Tregear, Edward Robert appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Edward Tregear was born in Southampton on 1 May 1846. His father, Captain W.J. Tregear, was descended from an old Cornish family. Tregear was educated in English private schools and trained as a civil engineer. In June 1863 he arrived in Auckland and found employment as a surveyor. His work brought him into close contact with the Maoris whose language and culture he studied. He saw active service in the Maori Wars in the Tauranga area and was decorated with the New Zealand War Medal. After the war Tregear engaged in a variety of occupations in many parts of the North Island – gold mining, engineering, saw milling, but mostly surveying in the Government service. He continued his studies of Maori anthropology, writing frequent articles for scholarly journals overseas, and was honoured by fellowships of the Royal Geographical, Historical, Anthropological and other learned societies.

A freethinker and socialist, Tregear was a personal friend of Ballance and Reeves. In 1891, when the Liberal Party took power, he was chosen to head the new Bureau of Industries, later renamed the Department of Labour. In close partnership with Reeves as Minister, Tregear was responsible for the prodigious amount of advanced labour legislation which was passed in the nineties. As editor of the Journal of the Department of Labour and in contributions to overseas journals, he explained and praised the social experiments of the Liberal era, sometimes in terms which embarrassed his political superiors for their frankness.

In 1891 Tregear published his most outstanding contribution to scholarship, the Maori-Polynesian Comparative Dictionary, and in the following year helped to found the Polynesian Society of which he became first joint secretary. He edited the society's journal and published several vocabularies of Polynesian dialects and a comprehensive work The Maori Race (1904). When a Civil Service Association was formed in 1907, Tregear was elected president and held this office while he remained in the Government service. He served as chairman of Royal Commissions in 1897, 1898, and 1912 and, on his retirement as Secretary of Labour in 1911, he was honoured with the Imperial Service Order.

Ballance had vainly urged Tregear to stand for Parliament. After his retirement, however, Tregear took an active part in politics. In 1913, the “Grand Old Man of New Zealand Labour” was elected to the Wellington City Council and, that same year, he accepted the presidency of the new militant Social Democratic Party (with Peter Fraser as secretary-treasurer). Early in 1914, disheartened by the defeat of the waterfront strike and troubled by failing eyesight, Tregear resigned all offices and retired to Picton where he died on 28 October 1931. He was survived by his wife and only daughter.

Tregear was a prolific writer in many fields –satire, poetry, and children's fairy stories, besides anthropology and sociology. His theories of the Aryan origin of the Maori people have not been widely accepted, but the body of his linguistic work has retained its value to the present day. As Secretary of Labour, Tregear was a scholar rather than an administrator. He left office routines to his subordinates while he concentrated on drafting and enlisting support for social legislation. He was absolutely sincere, genial, and kindly in manner, yet a man of very firm convictions which he expressed vigorously in his writings and speeches. He deserves to rank as one of the architects of the Liberal era of advanced social reforms which drew world-wide attention to New Zealand.

by Herbert Otto Roth, B.A., DIP.N.Z.L.S., Deputy Librarian, University of Auckland.

  • Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol. 40, Dec 1931 (Cbit)
  • Fair Play (Wellington) Vol. 1, No. 13 (1894)
  • New Zealand Railways Magazine, Vol. 9, No. 1 (1934), article by J. Cowan.


Herbert Otto Roth, B.A., DIP.N.Z.L.S., Deputy Librarian, University of Auckland.