Page 1: Biography
Coloniser, landowner, politician
This biography, written by Neva Clarke McKenna, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.
Thomas Ball was born in Brigg, Lincolnshire, England, on 28 February 1809, the son of Thomas and Ann Ball. His father was a bookseller. Thomas junior trained to be a chemist and, probably in 1834, he married Jemima Abraham. The couple had two daughters, Lucy Ann and Emily, and one son, William Thomas. When Jemima Ball died in London, on 13 May 1848, she left Thomas with three young children.
In 1858 Ball read a pamphlet on New Zealand which led him to consider emigration. As one who took a keen interest in political issues, he felt the working classes could make better lives for themselves in the colony than in England. Accordingly, he arranged for a group of around 80 people to join him in emigrating to New Zealand. An incentive was the promise of government land grants for groups of settlers. Most of the 'Ball Party', as they were known, paid their own fares, but others surrendered their land orders for an advance of passage money.
Ball was known in Brigg for his integrity, tolerance and charity, and news of his impending departure caused widespread regret. A farewell tea-meeting was held in his honour and he was presented with an address signed by residents of Brigg including members of the landed gentry, professionals, businessmen, tradesmen, a Wesleyan minister and a Catholic priest.
On 11 June 1859 Thomas Ball and his predominantly Wesleyan party sailed from Gravesend on the Matoaka, arriving in Wellington on 13 September. The party travelled on to Auckland, where some members remained to seek employment. The rest sailed north to Mangonui on the Dove to take up their land grants in the nearby Oruaiti valley. A second small group sailed from England on the Phoenix on 12 October 1859 to join them.
Soon after their arrival the settlers banded together to build a chapel for Bible reading and worship. Ball donated the pit-sawn timber for the octagonal church, which was 18 feet in diameter and thatched with rushes carried to a point, surmounted by a spire. Completed in 1861, the design of the building was based on similar preaching houses in England which had been blessed by John Wesley.
Throughout his life Thomas Ball worked for both the Congregational church and the Methodist church. Because he acted as a preacher he was often referred to as Reverend Ball. He was also referred to as Dr Ball; and indeed his training as a chemist proved invaluable in the settlement. He was a natural leader. In 1865 almost every male settler in the Mangonui district signed a petition urging him to accept nomination as a candidate in the forthcoming elections for the Auckland Provincial Council and the General Assembly. Ball was a provincial councillor from 1861 to 1872, being on the provincial Executive Council in 1862. He was also a member of the House of Representatives from 1866 to 1870. In the House Ball advocated progressive education, and in 1869 moved a resolution calling for the introduction of public schools. He was later recognised as one of those who helped to promote the free education system, established by the Education Act 1877.
Ball found prosperity in New Zealand. When Mangonui was surveyed he bought several township sections, and also purchased land in Auckland. In addition to farming he was a partner of Robert Wyles, who kept a large general store in Mangonui with branches at Awanui and Whangaroa. Ball also held shares in several ships, and had a vital interest in the establishment of a regular and dependable coastal service between Auckland and Mangonui: he was instrumental in the formation of the Northern Steam Ship Company in 1881, and was an inaugural director.
In 1880 Thomas Ball moved to Onehunga, Auckland, where he was a justice of the peace, as he had been in Mangonui. He died on Christmas Day 1897. He had achieved his goals in emigrating to New Zealand, and through his settlement scheme helped others to improve their lot. The only mistake this remarkable man seems to have made was to bring carefully nurtured gorse plants to the Oruaiti valley.