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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.


WARD, Sir Joseph George, P.C., G.C.M.G., Bart.


Prime Minister.

A new biography of Ward, Joseph George appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Joseph Ward was born on 26 April 1856 at Emerald Hill, Melbourne, Victoria, and was the son of William Thomas Ward, a merchant, and of Hannah, née Dorney. For a brief time he attended a private school in Melbourne, but, after 1860, when his parents emigrated to New Zealand, he continued his education at the Campbelltown (Bluff) State School. In 1869 he joined the New Zealand Post and Telegraph Department as a telegraph messenger, but resigned a few years later in order to enter a merchant's office. He joined the Railways Department in 1876, but left in the following year to enter business – in the grain trade – on his own account.

Ward began his long public career in February 1878 when he was elected to the first Campbelltown Borough Council. He was Mayor from November 1881 until 1886 and again in 1897–98. He was chairman of the Bluff Harbour Board from 1883 until 1888, again in 1893–94, and served on the Board, with one short interval, from 1889 until he became Prime Minister. Between these business and local body interests Ward found time for an active sporting life and captained the local cricket, football, and rowing teams. He also took part in the local defence organisations and rose to be a captain in the Volunteers.

Ward entered national politics as member for Awarua at the 1887 General Election. In Parliament he gravitated to the group known as the Young New Zealand Party, where he became a close associate of such figures as W. P. Reeves, John McKenzie, and James Mills. During his first Parliament Ward spoke often, generally on transport and communications questions, and quickly earned a reputation for his fluency as a speaker. In January 1891 Ballance brought him into the Liberal Ministry as Minister without portfolio; however, he was soon entrusted with the portfolios of Postmaster-General and Commissioner of Telegraphs. As one of his first acts as Minister, Ward introduced a classification system among the permanent staff of his Departments and also inaugurated the first staff-superannuation scheme. His speech in support of the 1892 Budget drew members' attention to his grasp of the intricacies of public finance and it thus occasioned little surprise when Seddon made him Colonial Treasurer in the following year.

In 1894 a commission sat to inquire into the affairs of the Bank of New Zealand. On 29 June of that year, when the commission presented its report, Ward introduced the urgent legislation by which the Government guaranteed £2 million to enable the bank to continue its immediate transactions. A few months later it was found that the Ward Farmers' Association was in serious financial difficulties. A parliamentary investigation found no reason to blame Ward personally for his firm's condition; nevertheless, the Colonial Treasurer resigned his portfolios. He returned to the ministry after the 1899 General Election when he resumed his Post and Telegraph portfolios and also that of Industries and Commerce. In 1901 he established penny postage in New Zealand and, shortly afterwards, reorganised the New Zealand Railways' accounting system and goods charges. Ward was acting Premier in 1902 during Seddon's absence in the Liberal Party, as Seddon's lieutenant. He was at a postal conference in London when his chief died and Hall-Jones assumed the Premiership pending his return to New Zealand.

Ward took office on 6 August 1906. His six years as Prime Minister were marked by several notable events in imperial affairs, but, on the whole, his Government's domestic policies were singularly uninspiring. While attending the Universal Postal Union Congress at Rome in 1906 he succeeded in obtaining a separate vote for New Zealand on that body. At the 1907 Imperial Conference he secured a confidential assurance from the Home authorities that New Zealand would be granted Dominion status should Parliament desire it. In 1909 he offered to provide Britain with a new battle cruiser (HMS New Zealand) in addition to New Zealand's normal naval defence commitments. At the Imperial Conference in 1911 Ward came to prominence as an advocate of greater Empire unity in defence and foreign affairs. His views did not gain acceptance, however, because the other Prime Ministers preferred the Secretary of State's assurance that the Dominions would be fully consulted upon these matters in the future. Notwithstanding the failure of his plea, Ward's views remained influential in New Zealand until the Second World War. In this period his two major contributions in New Zealand politics were the establishment of the National Provident Fund (1910) and the Defence Act of 1910. At the 1911 General Election Ward's Government was returned with a majority of one seat in the House of Representatives. Shortly afterwards the Prime Minister resigned in an effort to retrieve his party's fortunes but his successor, Thomas Mackenzie, failed to win the confidence of the House and Massey was called upon to form a ministry.

When Mackenzie resigned from Parliament a few months later Ward resumed the party's leadership. In 1915 he brought the Liberals into Massey's wartime coalition Ministry, he himself taking the portfolios of Finance, Post Office, and Telegraphs. During the war he accompanied Massey to several international conferences. In August 1919 the coalition broke up when Ward and his colleagues withdrew after differences of opinion about returned servicemen's claims. He was defeated at the ensuing General Election and failed to be returned at the Tauranga by-election in 1923. In 1925 he was returned for Invercargill and, two years later, accepted leadership of the newly formed United Party. At the 1928 General Election he went to the country with a proposal to borrow £70 million from abroad. Of this sum £60 million was to be used to revitalise the policies introduced in the early Liberal era – lands for settlement, advances to settlers, workers' homes, and so forth – while the remaining £10 million was to develop unfinished railway lines. On 10 December 1928 Ward became Prime Minister for the second time and assumed the portfolios of Finance, Stamp Duties, External Affairs, Post Office, and Telegraphs. Early in 1930 he suffered a severe breakdown in health and resigned on 28 May of that year. He was appointed Member of the Executive Council without portfolio in the succeeding Forbes Ministry. Ward died at the ministerial residence in Molesworth Street, Wellington, on 8 July 1930.

In the course of his long public life Ward received many honours. He was created K.C.M.G. in 1901 for his advocacy of penny postage; and in 1907 he became a Privy Councillor. At the Coronation in 1911 he was created Baronet – the second such title to be bestowed upon a New Zealander – and in the New Year Honours of 1930 he was promoted to G.C.M.G.

On 4 December 1883, at Bluff, Ward married Teresa Dorothea, daughter of Henry J. De Smidt, a Campbelltown hotelkeeper. She died on 7 February 1927. By her he had four sons and one daughter. On his own death, Sir Joseph was succeeded in the title by his eldest son, Sir Cyril Rupert Joseph Ward (1884–1940).

During his lifetime Sir Joseph Ward was principally known for his ability as a finance minister. In Seddon's Cabinet it was his task to find the money necessary to implement the Liberal policy measures. To achieve this Ward followed Sir Julius Vogel's precedent of the 1870s and floated many overseas loans to finance New Zealand development schemes. In this respect his proposals at the 1928 elections are a return to pre-Liberal “Vogelism”. Ward was a fluent and very quick speaker, inclined to dazzle his audiences with masses of figures. He was an able administrator and established in his Departments many procedures which have stood the tests of time. Unfortunately his constant preoccupation, over a long period, with the affairs of his few Departments tended to narrow his horizons when larger issues were concerned. In this connection his stand upon Imperial relations at the 1911 Imperial Conference showed him to be quite out of touch with the feelings of his colleagues from overseas.

by Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.

  • The Remarkable Life of Sir Joseph Ward, Loughnan, R. A. (1929)
  • Otago Daily Times, 12 Nov 1928
  • Southland Times, 9 Jul 1930 (Obit)
  • New Zealand Tablet, 16 Jul 1930 (Obit).


Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.