John Hall, the leading 'conservative' politician in nineteenth century New Zealand, was born at Hull, England, probably on 18 December 1824, and was baptised on 31 January 1825. He was the third son of George Hall and his wife, Grace Williamson. George Hall was a master mariner and shipowner, who rose to the rank of Elder Brother of Trinity House, Hull.
John's early education was in a dissenting school. Convinced of the value of foreign languages in business, his father sent John at the age of 10 for further schooling in Europe. At the age of 16 he was taken into the office of a German merchant in London.
In 1845 he began as a junior officer in the General Post Office and soon became private secretary to the permanent head. However, royal patronage in favour of a rival blocked his appointment as chief postmaster at Brighton. For health reasons, and because he wanted wider opportunities, he was attracted to the Canterbury Association scheme, launched in 1848 – the year in which Hall enrolled as a special constable during the Chartist disturbances. He had decided to emigrate by 1852, drawn by the colony's pastoral prospects and Canterbury's Anglican ideals.
Hall arrived in Lyttelton aboard the Samarang on 31 July 1852, his brothers George and Thomas arriving soon after. He inspected sheep country in Otago, Wairarapa and Hawke's Bay, before deciding to settle in Canterbury. In partnership with his brothers he bought Run No 20 on the Rakaia's north bank in 1853, later adding the adjoining Run No 17. These runs formed Terrace station, of which Hall later become sole owner. His essential contribution to the success of the run was his shrewd freeholding, which protected Terrace station against speculators yet did not overburden current income. In 1891 the 29,763 acre property had an improved value of £94,264.
Hall soon entered Canterbury politics. Henry Sewell noted an early impression in 1853: 'He is looked forward to as a practical man for the management of public business'. Except when he was absent in England, Hall remained a member of the Canterbury Provincial Council during the whole of its life (1853–60 and 1863–73). He held office on the executive three times (1854–55, 1864–66 and 1870–71), heading it in the first and third periods. He was probably the most influential member not to be elected superintendent.
In the crucial debates of the 1850s and 1860s on pastoral tenures and rents Hall was a key figure. By skilful advocacy, sense of timing and calculated restraint, he probably did most to retain favourable terms for his fellow runholders. The executive of 1864–66 has been judged the strongest in Canterbury provincial history. Unfortunately the two principal figures, John Hall and William Rolleston, although appearing to be natural allies, held low personal opinions of each other at this stage and parted company over Hall's bolder railway policy. Hall worked energetically to develop a road from Christchurch to the West Coast goldfields in 1865–66. He promoted a separate Westland County and chaired its first council.
Although prominent as provincial leader, Hall was active in local government and community activities. His forte was the founding of new organisations; he held few offices for long. He was magistrate in Lyttelton and then in Christchurch between 1856 and 1863; as first chairman of the Christchurch City Council, from 1862 to 1863, he set an example in voluntary work with pick and shovel. Hall served on a number of local boards as founding member. He was the leading spirit in the Selwyn County Council from 1877 to 1879.
Elected to the second Parliament in December 1855, Hall joined William Fox's brief first ministry as colonial secretary in May 1856. After a long period in opposition Hall left for England in March 1860. There he married Rose Anne Dryden at Hull on 3 April 1861, returning with her in 1862 and resuming his public career. He was called to the Legislative Council by Fox in July 1862, but resigned in February 1866. In this period his main concern was provincial administration.
In 1866 Hall was charting a new course. He won a hard contest for the Heathcote seat in the House, resigned from the provincial executive and joined the Stafford ministry. He became heavily involved in Edward Stafford's policy of regional development and deserves credit for finding a solution to the local government problems of Westland and South Canterbury. On Stafford's defeat in June 1869 he went back to the provincial council; however, his executive was defeated in October 1870. He then returned to colonial politics, resigning from the Heathcote seat, and becoming leader of the Legislative Council in 1872 and colonial secretary in 1873. In March 1873 he resigned office on grounds of health, but retained his Council seat. He then left for England and did not return until 1876.
Hall was briefly a member of the first Atkinson ministry in 1876. The crisis of 1879 brought his political career to a climax. He was returned unopposed for Selwyn after resigning from the Council, and, as Fox had lost his seat, found himself elected to lead the opposition to Sir George Grey, the premier. On Grey's defeat in the House, Hall formed a ministry on 10 October 1879.
Faced with defections from his own ranks and a furious counter-attack from Grey, Hall was compelled to do battle as party chieftain in the most bitter political struggle yet experienced in New Zealand. What came most naturally to Hall – defensive tactics and behind the scenes manipulation – proved adequate. A tense stalemate was finally broken when four Auckland opposition members crossed the floor after Hall agreed to implement Grey's electoral reforms and to make concessions to Auckland. This compromise paved the way for the quick enactment of triennial parliaments and universal male suffrage. Shrewdly, Hall moderated the effect of the change by adding a 28 per cent country quota, to enhance the weight of rural votes.
Hall had weathered the initial storm; there were others to come. His cabinet was split by clashes of personality, interest and policy; Hall was driven almost beyond endurance in striving to maintain unity. The most divisive issue arose from the Parihaka crisis. Hall was pulled one way by his natural caution and the need for economy, another way by the need to maintain the government's authority and the demands of angry settlers.
The invasion of Parihaka, the arrest of Te Whiti-o-Rongomai III in November 1881, and the repressive measures that followed, closed the episode, but at great expense and without moral victory. Some, though not decisive, advantage accrued to Hall at the elections in December. However, the enlarged new Parliament included a high proportion of independent 'local advocates', who made the premier's task of holding his majority increasingly difficult. Under the strain Hall's health deteriorated and he sought to resign. His colleagues, in response, undertook not to quarrel in cabinet meetings. However, the worst offender, John Bryce, found new grounds for offence, and resigned. Hall thankfully seized the opportunity to follow suit with the whole ministry in April 1882.
In spite of the events at Parihaka and divisions over them, the Hall ministry may be reckoned among the most successful in the pre-party period of New Zealand politics. Hall closely supervised financial recovery from the chaos of the late 1870s. His catchword was 'prudence', by which he meant steady development on moderate borrowing, in contrast to Julius Vogel's 'leaps and bounds' policy. 'We are trying', he wrote in 1882, 'to make out what is the smallest amount of borrowed money we can go in for – without being considered unfit to govern the country.' His ministry introduced a wider range of reforms than any of its predecessors, and paved the way for later progressive legislation. Hall's contribution as political leader was both indispensable and indeterminate. Few New Zealand premiers have exercised such light control over their ministers; this was perhaps not all loss. Yet Hall provided a degree of executive integrity which none of his successors in the 1880s achieved. Alfred Saunders regarded his resignation as a 'National misfortune', because he considered it removed the chief obstacle to the malign influence of the Bank of New Zealand. Hall was genuinely surprised when the governor, Sir Arthur Gordon, his old antagonist, put him forward for a KCMG, which was conferred in May 1882.
Hall retired from the House in February 1883 and made an extended visit to England. When he returned in January 1887, he was alarmed by what he saw as new radical threats to private property. He hardly needed urging to re-enter politics. Elected to the House in September 1887, Hall refused to take office; he recoiled from further strains on his health. Nevertheless the premier, H. A. Atkinson, turned to him as his chief political mentor. This was a misfortune: Hall's judgement and nerve had declined. He was becoming increasingly concerned to erect conservative defences. In the fateful aftermath of the 1890 election, before he resigned, Atkinson made his ill-judged decision to 'pack' the Legislative Council, largely on Hall's advice. The new premier, John Ballance, made considerable capital out of this mistaken stratagem.
Paradoxically, at this period of his greatest conservatism, Hall was in the forefront of a great liberal cause. He was approached by the female suffrage movement and assumed parliamentary leadership of the campaign. Hall had long believed that women had a right to the vote; he was also certain that their votes would exercise a conservative influence. His final and most lasting political triumph came with the passage of the Electoral Bill in September 1893. Although Hall retired from the House in November 1893, he was for some years active in promoting the ineffective National Association, a strongly conservative constituency organisation. Later he came to realise that the Liberal leader, R. J. Seddon, whom he had earlier denigrated, was the best bulwark against radicalism.
Hall devoted almost as much of his life to the service of the church as to the state. He held most of the positions open to an Anglican layman. Layreader, vestryman and Sunday school teacher at Hororata, he also served on diocesan and general synods.
Hall received a tardy accolade as Canterbury's elder statesman when he was invited to assume the mayoralty of Christchurch in its exhibition year, 1906. His health declined under the strain of this final public task, and he died the following year, on 25 June, in Christchurch. He left a considerable number of bequests, large and small, for charitable and religious purposes; remembered his several nieces and nephews; and divided the substantial residue of his estate among his four surviving children, three sons and one daughter.
Hall must be regarded as a central figure in nineteenth century New Zealand politics. His diverse career reflects the nature of a new and regionalised society, largely dependent on the political talent of a small, leisured élite. The basis of his public career was his private success as runholder. He was a shrewd businessman and good employer. His love for Terrace station sustained him through wearisome responsibilities, far from his 'pigs and potatoes at Hororata'. His basic political aim was the preservation of private property rights in a society in which they appeared insecure. His political philosophy was defence of Terrace station writ large.
Hall went into politics as a matter of both inclination and duty. He shared the conservative belief that administration was the heart of government, and 'he looked on the transaction of departmental business as a labour of love'. In a system still without an adequate civil service his administrative skill and industry constituted a notable contribution to government.
Nevertheless Hall made his mark as government spokesman, opposition critic and debater. His speeches were cool and methodical, impressing by their mastery of facts and figures. He took a moderate line on public issues, and frequently emerged from debate as architect of compromise and consensus. He had his limitations: he was often successful in convincing, but rarely able to arouse. Under criticism Hall could be needled into quite waspish rebuttal. Incapable of rhetoric himself, he dreaded its disruptive effect on his orderly prescription for politics – especially in the mouth of his chief opponent, Grey. Indeed, he took office in 1879 primarily to keep Grey in check. Fear of growing radicalism kept Hall in politics much longer than he wished, and perhaps too long for his own good. 'In these times', he wrote in 1890, 'a man who has anything to lose cannot afford to let politics alone. They won't let him alone.' Hall always publicly disowned the 'Conservative' label fastened on him by Grey and later W. P. Reeves.
Hall may be reckoned the leading conservative politician in nineteenth century New Zealand. As a defender of what was increasingly called 'land monopoly', Hall spent much of his political career in strategic retreat, as the chief exponent of a conservative Fabianism. Established interests could not be defended by confrontation; radicalism might be contained and diverted by flexible, low-profile tactics. Hall abandoned outflanked posts, but lost no essential base.