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Story: Masters, Joseph

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Masters, Joseph


Cooper, community leader, farmer, politician, writer

This biography, written by G. H. Sutherland, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.

Joseph Masters was born in Derby, Derbyshire, England, in 1802. His father, a leather breeches manufacturer, died when Joseph was a child, and his mother was forced to take up employment as a nurse. From an early age Joseph worked in a silk mill, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day. He frequently fell asleep and tumbled off the high stool on which he was perched in order to reach the bobbins. During this time his mother married a wealthy man with a large family. As a factory boy Joseph was considered too humble to associate with them, and went into lodgings. In 1809 and 1810, after being dismissed from his job, Joseph attended school, where the discipline was harsh.

Joseph then went to live with his grandmother at Wilton, but she was too poor to keep him. He found accommodation in stables and washed horses for 6d. on market days. Eventually his uncle, a cooper at Rugby, sent for him. He completed an apprenticeship as a cooper before serving for six years in the Grenadier Guards. He then worked for periods as a Bow Street officer and a gaoler. On 15 January 1826 at Lambeth he married Sarah Bourton.

In his early life Joseph Masters was mindful of his appearance and manners. He later resolved 'to shew to poor friendless boys, similarly situated to myself that by civility, honesty, industry, and sobriety, avoiding gambling, and bad language how they may educate themselves sufficient to be useful, and to raise themselves in the world to a respectable position.' Although he had little formal schooling, he recognised its worth and was keen to see that other working class children were properly educated.

In May 1832 Masters emigrated with his family to Hobart, Tasmania, arriving in September 1832. He worked there as a cooper for a whaling firm. Leaving Tasmania in 1841, he travelled with his family by way of Sydney and the Bay of Islands to Wellington, New Zealand. In 1842 he set up as a ginger-beer manufacturer at Te Aro and then as a cooper on Lambton Quay.

Keenly interested in small-farm settlements, Masters wrote a series of letters to the Wellington Independent under the name 'Working Man'. He suggested that working men 'should unite and purchase a large block of land'. A committee could then be appointed to oversee the survey of the land into blocks of about 30 acres, each with a town allotment. After a public meeting on 19 March 1853 a working men's land association, later known as the Small Farm Association, was formed. Two of the committee, Masters and C. R. Carter, waited on Governor George Grey and requested his assistance. Grey's support led to blocks being made available in Wairarapa from Māori land purchases. Masters accompanied H. H. Jackson to Wairarapa to persuade the Māori to sell.

Masters became a key figure in the early settlement of Wairarapa. He took the lead in the planning and establishment of Greytown in March 1854, and Masterton in May of the same year. As he had envisaged, these settlements comprised holdings of forty acres of rural land and one town acre. Masters selected the site for Greytown, and promoted the educational aims of the Greytown and Masterton Trust Lands trusts, the rents and profits of which were later to be devoted to 'maintaining educational establishments and a library in connection therewith and for other purposes of public utility.' He became a farmer and later a member of the Wellington Provincial Council. He represented Wairarapa and Hawke's Bay (1856–57), Wairarapa (1865–69) and Wairarapa West (1869–73). In 1863 he was a candidate for Parliament but was defeated by C. R. Carter.

Sarah Masters, his first wife, died on 12 March 1859. On 5 December that year, at Pāuatahanui, near Wellington, he married Sarah Bowler, a widow. There were no children of the marriage. Joseph Masters died on 21 December 1873 and was buried in Masterton, the town which had been named after him.

A leader of vision and courage, Masters had a sincere desire to improve the lot of others. He is generally regarded as the founder of the Small Farm Association, whose aims were achieved largely because of his energy and practical leadership. The Wairarapa settlements which he helped establish were the earliest planned small farm subdivisions in New Zealand. Although the size of unit and terms of occupancy would vary, the same pattern of subdivision was followed by official and private agencies for the next 50 years.

How to cite this page:

G. H. Sutherland. 'Masters, Joseph', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1m23/masters-joseph (accessed 25 June 2024)