Page 1: Biography
Master mariner, ship owner, company director
This biography, written by W. A. Laxon, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.
Alexander McGregor was born at Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, on 20 August 1828. He was of Scottish descent, the son of Alexander McGregor, a farmer, and his wife, Mary McKinnon. As a young man he worked in the coastal trade around Nova Scotia and New England. On 26 May 1857 he married Charlotte Matheson at Provincetown, Massachusetts, USA. In 1858, with his kinsman Roderick McGregor, he embarked as a passenger on the Prince Edward for New Zealand. The McGregors reached Auckland on 13 May 1859 and Alexander began his long involvement with the coastal trade of Auckland province.
His first acquisition was the 36-ton schooner Kiwi, which he and his partner, Kenneth McGregor, another kinsman, had built in 1859 in Roderick's newly established yard at Whangarei Heads. Alexander began trading from Auckland to Russell, Whangaroa and Mangonui, and occasionally around North Cape to the west coast ports. In 1863 he had the Fairy built, in 1864 the Ivanhoe, and in 1865 the Rob Roy; the latter two ships were built in Robert Howie's yard at Whangarei.
Attempting to keep any regular service operating with sailing vessels on the exposed coastline of northern New Zealand was a daunting task, and by the beginning of the 1870s Alexander McGregor became convinced that a service with steamships was the only satisfactory solution. Because steamers required more capital than a professional seafarer could command, the new vessel, the Rowena, was built for a syndicate: this included McGregor with 26 of the 64 shares; the supplier of the engines, George Fraser; the engineer, William Laird; and several leading Auckland merchants such as D. B. and James Cruickshank and J. S. Macfarlane.
Under Alexander McGregor's command the Rowena entered the trade from Auckland to the northern ports. Six further steamers were built over the next eight years, and the group's trading interests were extended south to Tauranga and Opotiki on the east coast and from Onehunga south to Raglan, Kawhia and Waitara on the west coast. The syndicate owning each ship varied, but the dominant influence was always Alexander McGregor. He ceased work as ship's master in 1875 when his expanding interests required closer supervison from the shore.
In May 1881 the syndicates were reorganised as the Northern Steam Ship Company Limited, and in September their new flagship, the MacGregor, a 256-ton steamer, was delivered. McGregor had reached an agreement in April with James Mills, managing director of the rapidly expanding Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand: in exchange for the Union Company's withdrawing from the Auckland provincial trades, the Northern Company would acquire the Union steamer Wellington and confine itself to the same area. This was the basis for the new company's lasting prosperity.
For the first three years under McGregor's guidance as managing director the Northern Company prospered, commissioning larger steel vessels such as the Clansman and Gairloch. McGregor had had several earlier clashes with various maritime unions. This time, as the depression of the 1880s hit harder at shipping companies' freights and incomes, in an effort to hold down costs he proposed a reduction in both wages and overtime pay for the employees. In response, the Federated Seamen's Union of New Zealand, with the financial aid of kindred unions, in 1887 launched its opposition company, the Jubilee Steam Ship Company. The Northern Company's financial condition deteriorated further, and in June 1888 McGregor was dismissed by his fellow directors.
At nearly 60 a lesser man might have admitted defeat; but within six weeks Alexander McGregor, in conjunction with his son William, a qualified marine engineer, and other partners, was back in business as the McGregor Steam Ship Company. He purchased the steamer Rose Casey. This time his territory was the nearer trades from Auckland to Waiwera, Warkworth and Omaha. His success in these trades over the next 10 years showed that accusations of mismanagement at the time of his dismissal were misplaced.
By the end of the century Alexander McGregor had largely retired from active participation in the McGregor Steam Ship Company. He died at his Ponsonby home on 11 January 1901. McGregor was survived by his two sons and two daughters. His wife, Charlotte, had died four years earlier. Despite the unpleasant circumstances surrounding Alexander McGregor's departure from the Northern Steam Ship Company, his contribution to the development of coastal steam communication endured: the Northern Steam Ship Company dominated the Auckland provincial trades until ships gave way to trains and motor vehicles.