Page 1: Biography
Atkinson, Harry Albert
Engineer, socialist, insurance agent
This biography, written by Herbert Roth, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.
Harry Albert Atkinson was born in Urenui, north-east of New Plymouth, New Zealand, on 15 October 1867, the fourth of six sons of Marion (Polly) Ronalds and her husband, Decimus Atkinson, a farmer. The Atkinsons were one of the leading Taranaki families: an uncle, Harry Albert Atkinson, after whom the boy was named, had been minister for colonial defence and was to become premier; another uncle, Arthur Samuel Atkinson, represented Ōmata in Parliament.
After attending Nelson College from 1882 to 1883, Harry completed a five-year engineering apprenticeship with the Wellington firm of S. Luke and Sons. At this time he came under the influence of F. W. Frankland, the government insurance commissioner and a member of the Fabian Society, London, who gathered around him a circle of young people interested in social reform. In 1890 Atkinson helped to form a trade union, the Wellington branch of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers. Later that year he worked his passage to Britain where he found employment in a drawing office in Hyde, near Manchester.
In Manchester Atkinson met John Trevor, a Unitarian minister who conducted a labour church and issued a journal, the Labour Prophet. Trevor made a profound impact on the younger man's political thinking: Atkinson became secretary of the church and publisher of its journal, took part in local industrial struggles and helped establish the Manchester and Salford Independent Labour Party in 1892. Trevor officiated at Atkinson's marriage to Rose Claridge Bell at Chorlton upon Medlock, Lancashire, on 30 September 1893. When Atkinson returned to New Zealand in November 1893 he was 'a confirmed socialist'.
Rose and Harry Atkinson settled in Christchurch, where Harry worked as a fitter in the Addington Railway Workshops. He joined the Progressive Liberal Association, Rose became a member of the Canterbury Women's Institute and also, in 1896, the National Council of Women of New Zealand; both became involved in the prohibition movement. Harry lectured on the Manchester and Salford Labour Church in Wellington and Christchurch, and in October 1896 he formed the Christchurch Socialist Church, based on the British model. This was the first organisation in New Zealand to call itself socialist.
According to the French socialist Albert Métin, who visited New Zealand in 1899, Harry Atkinson described his organisation as a church because the workers were very religious and had a great mistrust of socialism. Atkinson, however, strongly denied attempting to promote socialism under a false cover. 'Like Trevor', he wrote later, 'I was imbued with the idea that it was important to recognise that in itself the effort…was religious.' The word 'church' was not added: it was considered to be fundamental in embodying the religious ideal.
The church's prime object was to promote 'a fellowship amongst those working for the organisation of Society on a basis of Brotherhood and Equality', and it affirmed the principle 'that only as we learn to lead purer and better lives can we benefit by any measures of Social Reform.' Members met on weekday evenings in hired rooms to listen to advertised speakers, while on Sunday afternoons Atkinson and colleagues mounted a stump in Cathedral Square. The only seemingly religious activity was the singing of labour hymns. Atkinson was secretary of the church, whose more prominent members included J. A. McCullough, later a member of the Court of Arbitration, and Elizabeth and James McCombs, both future members of Parliament. Membership, however, remained small; a monthly journal, the Socialist, which Atkinson edited, ceased publication early in 1898; and the church's opposition to the South African war (1899–1902) caused divisions and defections.
The church ceased to function in 1905. Atkinson, who now worked as an agent for the Government Insurance Department, announced his candidature for the Riccarton parliamentary seat that year but later withdrew his nomination. In August 1908, after his return from a second trip to England, he formed another radical organisation, the Canterbury Fabian Society, which sought affiliation to the London society whose programme it adopted. Atkinson was elected president. Despite its small membership, the Fabian Society became a rallying point for middle-class radicals, among them the physical-educationalist F. A. Hornibrook, the director of the Christchurch Technical College J. H. Howell, the printer W. S. Lovell-Smith, the feminist and social reformer Eveline Cunnington, and McCullough and the McCombses.
The Fabian Society existed until at least 1916. The Atkinsons meanwhile had become involved with the anti-conscription movement, and, from 1911, the National Peace Council of New Zealand. Rose Atkinson, childless herself, became a 'mother' to the young passive resisters of compulsory military training; she attended their trials and visited them in prison and at the Rīpapa Island detention camp.
After the First World War Atkinson continued his close association with the peace council and he promoted the aims of the No More War Movement, the League of Nations Union of New Zealand, the Workers' Educational Association and the Howard League for Penal Reform. He was a frequent correspondent in the daily press and he set out his vision of social reform in a pamphlet, Economic humanism, published in 1949. After the death of his wife on 22 June 1955 Atkinson visited his North Island relatives, and on 21 January 1956 he died in Katikati at the home of an older brother.
Quiet and retiring by nature, the father of socialism in New Zealand promoted his ideas in his later years from his writing desk rather than in the public square. His major achievement was his success in gaining the support of Christchurch professional people at a time when the labour movement elsewhere in New Zealand was confined almost entirely to manual workers. 'To me', Atkinson explained, 'Socialism is not a set of dogmas but a living principle, a striving after human betterment under all circumstances.' To that ideal he devoted his life.