William Pember Reeves was born at Lyttelton on 10 February 1857, three weeks after his parents arrived in New Zealand. He was later to say that, although he was born a New Zealander, he only just managed it. His parents were William Reeves and his wife, Ellen Pember. She was one of a wealthy Clapham family. William Reeves was a member of the London Stock Exchange, where he defaulted in 1854 but was readmitted after paying his debts in full. At the end of 1856 they sailed for New Zealand with their baby daughter; their first son had died at three months. Nine children were born in New Zealand, two dying in infancy.
William Reeves senior tried several occupations before becoming a partner in and manager of a local newspaper, the Lyttelton Times. At the age of five his son Willie was sent to board at a preparatory school for Christ's College. The boys were taught Latin and other subjects for £40 a year. Three years later, his parents having moved from outside Christchurch into the town, he went to the local Presbyterian high school, and a year later to Christ's College.
William was not popular at school. He was thought 'snobby' by some of the boys and was disliked for his smartness. In particular, he fell out with some of the wealthy squatters' sons. There was much bullying. He proved an excellent scholar and won a series of school and provincial government scholarships, and eventually, in 1874, the university entrance scholarship in Classics, modern languages, English literature and history. At mathematics he was hopeless.
By 1867 his father had become a principal proprietor of the Lyttelton Times and that year was first elected to Parliament. He later became a member of the Executive Council in the Fox ministry, but made no mark in politics. He had wide business interests and mixed with Christchurch's social and political élite. The large family home, Risingholme, occupied extensive grounds at Ōpawa.
In 1874 William junior sailed for England to follow in the footsteps of his uncle, Edward Pember, a well-known lawyer, by studying law. While in England he suffered a severe breakdown in health, possibly tuberculosis. Instead of going to Oxford as intended he returned to New Zealand. He became a cadet on a sheep station near Ashburton and largely regained his health. He read widely but indiscriminately. He later wrote, 'I was disheartened, I looked upon myself as a failure, and thought that learning would be wasted on a man who could not go to Oxford.'
Back in Christchurch his life seemed equally aimless. He worked in a law firm as a barrister's pupil and was admitted to the Bar in 1880. He spent much of his time in these years playing cricket, becoming one of the best Canterbury bats and representing his province against visiting English and Australian teams. He also represented Canterbury at rugby once, but despite a plucky performance he was too slight for the game and gave it up. Although he was studious and 'a bundle of nerves', and was often in ill health, on several occasions he displayed great physical courage.
Reeves soon came to detest the law and appeared in only one court case, which he won. He wrote up Christchurch Supreme Court cases for the New Zealand Law Reports from 1883 to 1885. But it was politics which had become his real interest. In 1882 he began to write political commentary for the Lyttelton Times, and a year later became the newspaper's parliamentary correspondent. In 1885 he became editor of his father's weekly paper, the Canterbury Times.
Reeves first became deeply involved in politics in 1887, fighting for a railway to link Christchurch with Nelson and the West Coast. It was the great age of railway building. This was more than a political cause – it was a crusade. In mid 1887 he formed the Canterbury Electors' Association, with himself as president, to support the Stout–Vogel government in the coming election and the proposed railway. The association was closely linked to the Lyttelton Times. Two days later the government's Christchurch opponents, including two proprietors of the rival newspaper, the Press, formed the Political Reform Association. The contest was between two groups of capitalists, but Reeves constantly spoke in terms of class warfare, expressing strong hostility to 'money' and the squatters. He made a considerable impression as a speaker. Julius Vogel, who attended one of his meetings, thought him 'the cleverest young man in the colony' and told Reeves that if his stomach was as good as his head he would be premier in a dozen years. When Reeves was elected for the seat of St Albans, he announced that 'Men have beaten money for once'. A man in the audience called out, 'He is the working man's friend.'
Robert Stout lost his seat in the election and Harry Atkinson formed what his opponents called a 'scarecrow ministry'. Reeves rapidly established a reputation as a good and witty speaker, but he found life as an opposition member frustrating. His so-called party – in practice a number of factions and relics of earlier groupings – lost its leader in 1888 when Vogel returned to England. In 1889 Reeves said that he would follow any 'respectable Liberal' who became leader. Shortly afterwards John Ballance was elected leader of the opposition. The makings of an effective party could now be perceived, and Reeves became one of Ballance's staunchest followers.
Besides being a parliamentarian, Reeves led a busy life as a family man, newspaper editor and writer. On 10 February 1885, at Christchurch, he married Magdalene (Maud) Stuart Robison, the daughter of a bank manager. Two daughters, Amber and Beryl, were born in 1887 and 1889. A son, Fabian, followed in 1895.
In 1889 he began to publish poetry and short stories, some in a new literary magazine, Zealandia. That year the Lyttelton Times Company published Colonial couplets: being poems in partnership by Reeves and G. P. Williams. Williams, a railway engineer, wrote vigorous, amusing verse. So did Reeves, but in some of his poems he aimed higher than local political satire, attempting Victorian romantic verse, without much success. The book was popular. Two printings sold quickly and the authors followed it up with another volume, In double harness, in 1891.
In 1889 Reeves also became editor of the Lyttelton Times, which soon became one of the leading Liberal newspapers. A year later he published, under the pseudonym 'Pharos', a series of articles in the Lyttelton Times on socialism and communism. These were republished as a pamphlet, Some historical articles on communism and socialism (1890), the first publication on the subject in New Zealand. Reeves wrote under a pseudonym on the advice of his directors. His enemies recalled that Pharos was the Alexandrian lighthouse – one of the seven wonders of the world.
Reeves's political views were influenced principally by those of the German 'state socialist' Ferdinand Lassalle and the English Fabian socialists (after whom he named his son). He seemed to regard all state controls as socialist. His pamphlet revealed little understanding of Marx, and although he began to call himself a socialist, he was never a Marxist. He had become the principal intellectual and ideologist of what would be the Liberal party.
The long depression of the 1880s had stimulated radical thought in the colony. Land reformers demanded a tax on land; trade union organisations demanded factory legislation. In 1890, when the Maritime Council was decisively beaten in the country's first major strike, trade unionists flocked to support Ballance's party, now calling themselves 'Liberals', in the coming election. The Liberals promised sweeping labour and land reforms. Reeves and two friends, W. B. Perceval and R. M. Taylor, stood as 'United Liberals' and won the three Christchurch seats comfortably. Early in 1891 the Atkinson government resigned. When Ballance announced his cabinet Reeves was listed third, as minister of education and minister of justice. In 1892 he was appointed minister of labour – the first, it was said, in the British Empire.
In administering his education portfolio, Reeves concentrated on reforming the structure of primary teaching. While the depression persisted larger goals seemed impossible. The Ballance government was committed to financial conservatism, and Reeves himself was extremely cautious in financial matters. He wanted to provide secondary education for poor children, but felt that the country could not afford it. Consequently, although he had a bill drawn up to create free places in secondary schools, he did not press ahead with the measure. He took a special interest in Māori schools, many of which he visited. He regarded an increase of more than 10 per cent in the attendance of Māori schoolchildren in 1894–95 as a 'ray of hope' for their race.
His greatest enthusiasm was for labour reforms. For three years he had great difficulty in getting any of his bills passed by the Legislative Council, as did the other ministers. However, he proved as determined as he was hard-working. His 'pet measure', as he said, was the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1894, which introduced compulsory arbitration in industrial disputes, probably for the first time in the world. His aims were twofold: to facilitate the settlement of disputes, and, as stated in the act itself, 'to encourage the Formation of Industrial Unions and Associations'. He wanted 'a kindly solution' to the industrial disputes which arose from 'the natural warfare between classes'. That was a socialist remark, but his act brought disputes before a court, which was not a socialist strategy.
The act created district Boards of Conciliation and a Court of Arbitration. To get an award from the court, workers were required to form unions and employers to recognise them. It met little resistance. Most unionists supported it; most employers opposed it, but were too weak politically to prevent its passage. There was little industrial trouble in the country at the time, and it seems unlikely that it would have been passed but for Reeves's persistence. The act led to a rapid rise in the number of trade unions (although most were weak). It was to dominate industrial relations in New Zealand for 79 years.
The series of labour acts for which Reeves was responsible gave New Zealand probably the most extensive system of labour regulations in the world. The Truck Act 1891 enforced the payment of wages in cash and not kind. The Shipping and Seamen's Amendment Act 1894 laid down the proportion of skilled seamen necessary in ships at sea. The Factories Act 1894 forbade the employment of children under 14 and laid down the maximum hours that women and children could work. The Department of Labour, established by Reeves, sent inspectors to factories to ensure that the Factories Act was obeyed. He believed that there should be 'a very large extension of the functions of the State', and that such an extension was a form of socialism.
His greatest difficulties were over legislation regulating shopping hours and working conditions of shop employees. Despite much opposition, the Shops and Shop-assistants Act 1894 was passed, and led to a prominent feature of New Zealand life for many years – the 'long weekend', with scarcely a shop to be found open from Saturday noon until Monday. He also ran into much trouble over an Undesirable Immigrants Exclusion Bill, which was not passed. Unionists approved of one of the bill's features, the virtual exclusion of Asian immigrants, but there was much criticism of its exclusion of paupers: no one who did not have £20 could have entered the country. Richard Seddon said that this clause would have excluded himself. The bill earned the minister the epithet 'Undesirable Bill' Reeves.
Reeves was probably the best orator in the government ranks and he played a major role in pushing for other reforms, notably the reforms in land legislation introduced by John McKenzie. The principal aim of these reforms was, through land taxation and compulsory purchase, to break up some of the large pastoral estates and make land available to small farmers. In the debates over the graduated land tax he aroused strong enmities. He called the great estates 'social pests', and was accused of applying that label to the estate owners themselves.
Reeves was often thought of by his critics as bitter, sneering and superior. It was widely known, however, that there was by now less basis for an attitude of superiority. When he became a minister he resigned as editor of the Lyttelton Times. Shortly afterwards, in April 1891, his father died, and it was discovered that William Reeves senior had continued to treat the funds of the Lyttelton Times Company, which had become a limited company in 1881, as his own, apparently lending its money to his stud farm. He had also lost money heavily in investments in land. William Reeves's estate was virtually bankrupt and the family lost control of the Times altogether.
In 1893 Ballance was succeeded on his death by Richard Seddon. Reeves achieved his greatest political successes in 1894, under Seddon's leadership. But the relationship between the two was uneasy. Reeves thought Seddon bullying, rude and crude. In 1895 Reeves was promising further labour laws to please the unionists; Seddon wanted to slow labour legislation down. In the end Reeves was offered the post of agent general for New Zealand in the United Kingdom. He accepted, and departed for England in January 1896. This was not regarded as a demotion; the post was considered the greatest in the control of the government. When it was turned into that of high commissioner in 1905 it carried a higher salary than that of the prime minister. It was widely rumoured that Seddon wanted it for himself.
Reeves was a great success as the colony's representative in London. He was in demand as a public speaker – by 1905 he had given four or five hundred lunch or after-dinner speeches. These gave him ample opportunity to boost New Zealand, which was his main task. He also proved skilful at raising loans.
He had ample opportunity to meet prominent figures among the radical liberal, labour and socialist groups. He became a close friend of Sidney and Beatrice Webb and other Fabians, including George Bernard Shaw: both men were very witty and enjoyed each other's company. Reeves wrote a Fabian tract, The state and its functions in New Zealand (1896). He continued to hold advanced views for some years. He twice declined a knighthood, and later the GCMG, 'for private reasons'. Maud Reeves was also a very active member of the Fabian Society, giving numerous addresses, often on feminist subjects. She was an active suffragist, and wrote a pioneering sociological book, Round about a pound a week (1913), showing how the poor survived on that income.
In London Reeves continued to be a very productive writer. In 1898 he published New Zealand and other poems, which included some of his best-known poems such as 'The passing of the forest'. What is sometimes regarded as his best piece of verse, 'A colonist in his garden', was published in The passing of the forest and other verse in 1925, and has appeared in modern New Zealand anthologies. Although not a major figure, Reeves can be counted as one of the best New Zealand poets of his time.
He also wrote an outstanding short history of his country, The long white cloud – Ao Tea Roa (1898). This provided what became the standard, largely unquestioned interpretation of New Zealand history until the 1950s, when it was still in print. It gives a New Zealand Liberal view of the country's development. It is sympathetic to the Māori and places great emphasis on the role of the colonising companies such as the New Zealand Company. In 1902 Reeves published the two-volume State experiments in Australia & New Zealand, a survey of the land, labour, old-age pension and other radical legislation in the two countries, including an account of the women's franchise movement. Although long out of print, it has never been superseded.
In 1897 Reeves wrote from London to Edward Tregear, the secretary of the Department of Labour, that he had 'climbed to the summit of his life at forty'. Although he held important positions, it is true that in some ways his life in England, from which he never returned except for one visit, was a long anticlimax. An old school friend and rival, William Atack, found him 'care-worn' in 1906. He was a sad-faced, sick-looking man. Ten years of exile from New Zealand politics, to which he longed to return, ill health and disappointment had taken their toll. When Seddon died in 1906 Reeves contemplated going home, but his New Zealand friends advised against it. He wrote that he was 'almost heartbroken' at having to renounce a return to politics. He was only 49. More disappointments, family ones, were to follow.
While representing New Zealand, Reeves was deeply involved in the contemporary imperialist movement. After the demise of the Imperial Federation League of the 1880s, some English imperialists now sought to establish an imperial council. Reeves was a member of Sidney and Beatrice Webb's 'Co-efficients', a group formed to discuss the idea of 'imperial efficiency', and also joined the Pollock Committee, another imperialist group led by the jurist, Sir Frederick Pollock. Reeves published his own scheme, which proposed turning the Colonial Conference into an imperial council. In 1905 this was adopted by the British Empire League. In the end, however, his and other proposals led to a mere verbal change: the Colonial Conference was renamed the Imperial Conference.
On Seddon's death his lieutenant, J. G. Ward, was abroad, and William Hall-Jones served as caretaker prime minister. It seems that on his return Ward wished to reward Hall-Jones with the high commissionership. Reeves resigned in 1908, in an atmosphere 'far from serene and pleasant', and was replaced by Hall-Jones. However, Ward helped Reeves to be appointed a director of the National Bank of New Zealand. As an expert on New Zealand economic and political affairs, with numerous personal contacts, he was an obvious asset to the bank.
In 1908 the Webbs arranged for Reeves to be appointed director of the London School of Economics and Political Science, which they had been largely responsible for establishing in 1895, and which became part of the University of London in 1900. He had occasionally lectured at the school and since 1902 had been a Crown nominee on the university senate. He had no university background as a student or teacher. Indeed, as he wrote, he was appointed because he was 'not a professor…[but] a practical man'.
Reeves's early days at the LSE were blighted by a famous scandal. In 1908 his brilliant daughter, Amber, ran off to Paris with H. G. Wells, a Fabian and advocate of sexual freedom. She became pregnant and married another man (Wells was already married) before the child was born. Wells wrote a novel, Ann Veronica (1909), based on this affair. Reeves, who was rigidly conventional in sexual morality, was terribly hurt and let everyone know by constantly denouncing Wells. His relations with the Fabians were never as close again. A further blow, from which he never recovered, came in 1917 when his son, Lieutenant Fabian Reeves of the Royal Naval Air Service, was killed in action in France.
Reeves was not a success as director of the LSE. His lack of academic background restricted his relationship with the staff. His bad temper became notorious and some senior staff, such as the well-known Fabian and sociologist Graham Wallas, avoided him. He gave the school no leadership or sense of direction. His main contribution, and not a negligible one, was to put its finances on a sound footing.
Reeves's only remaining enthusiasm was for Greece: he adopted a new country. He took a leading part in founding the Anglo-Hellenic League and wrote pamphlets boosting the Greek nationalist cause and denouncing Turks and Bulgarians. He became a friend of the Greek prime minister, Eleutherios Venizelos, and accepted a Greek honour, becoming a High Commander of the Order of the Saviour. The University of Athens awarded him an honorary doctorate.
In 1919, under pressure from Sidney Webb, Reeves resigned from the LSE. His only occupation now was with the National Bank, of which he had been appointed chairman of directors in 1917. In 1925–26, on behalf of the bank, he made his only return visit to New Zealand. In 1930–31, during the depression, he fought a successful battle against some of the shareholders who wanted to reduce staff salaries and cut the pension fund; he had not altogether lost his early sympathy for the workers. Reeves died at his home in London on 15 May 1932, at the age of 75. Maud Reeves died at Hendon, Middlesex, in 1953.