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Story: Selig, Phineas

Page 1: Biography

Selig, Phineas


Journalist, newspaper editor and manager, sports administrator

This biography, written by Ross Harvey, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.

Phineas Selig was born on 5 September 1856 in Melbourne, Australia, the seventh child of Benjamin Aaron Selig, a watchmaker and jeweller, and his wife, Catherine Jacobs. In 1862 he arrived in Wellington, New Zealand, where his father was employed as officiating minister by the Wellington Jewish congregation. Phineas was educated at private schools in Thorndon. He became a copyholder at the Government Printing Office, then in 1871 joined the Lyttelton Times, Christchurch, first as a reader and later as a reporter. It is thought that he contracted 'congestion of the lungs' while reporting the opening of the railway line to Dunedin on 6 September 1878. He subsequently resigned because of ill health and moved to Sydney.

After about three years he returned to Christchurch, where he established several newspapers. In May 1884 Selig and Arthur Edward Bird founded the weekly sporting newspaper the New Zealand Referee. In 1891 the newspaper was purchased by the Christchurch Press Company and amalgamated on 3 July with the Weekly Press. Selig remained as editor of the New Zealand Referee section of the Weekly Press and also contributed under Bird's pen-name, 'Sir Launcelot' (his former partner died in 1893). Under its new owners the Referee prospered to become the nation's main sporting paper. In March 1901 Selig was appointed the Christchurch Press Company's acting manager and was confirmed as manager on 29 May 1903. A talented administrator, he presided over a programme of expansion unprecedented in any New Zealand newspaper company.

Selig was active in organisations connected with the wider newspaper and printing industry. He was a member of the Canterbury Master Printers' Association from 1900, and was president from 1903 to 1914. He helped establish the national association (later the Federation of Master Printers of New Zealand) in November 1907, with the objects of price-fixing and protecting employers against employees. His most important contribution to newspaper and printing trade associations, however, was as president of the Newspaper Proprietors' Association of New Zealand from 1908 to 1921. During this period the association expanded its activities considerably. Notable among Selig's innovations were persuading the government to provide advance copies to newspapers of important public statements, including the budget; securing newsprint for newspapers during periods of war shortages; and establishing a pool to buy newsprint in bulk. He was elected the association's first life member for his outstanding service. Selig was chairman of the United Press Association in 1916, 1918 and 1924. In 1920 he attended the Imperial Press Conference in Canada and in 1926 the Press Congress of the World in Switzerland.

Phineas Selig was also influential in the sporting arena as a journalist and editor, then as an administrator. Until the pressure of business caused him to retire in 1903 he was a New Zealand Amateur Athletic Association councillor. He visited Australia with New Zealand athletic teams and represented the association at a meeting in Melbourne in 1899 to establish the Amateur Athletic Union of Australasia. He founded the Public Schools Amateur Athletic Association of North Canterbury. As president of the South Island Trotting Association, Selig succeeded in establishing a national body and in 1899 became president of the New Zealand Trotting Association, a position he held for 22 years. He was also for 13 years president of the New Zealand Trotting Conference, the rule-making body for the sport, and presided at two Sydney conferences on trotting rules.

An energetic man, Selig was active in other areas. He was a member of the Canterbury Society of Arts, the Canterbury branch of the Navy League and the Over-Seas League, and president of the Christchurch Jewish congregation.

In Dunedin on 24 August 1892 Selig had married Kate Mendelsohn, daughter of Louis Mendelsohn, a Dunedin merchant. They had two daughters. Kate died on 12 October 1923; Phineas retired as manager of the Christchurch Press Company on 8 January that year. He died on 7 November 1941 at Lewisham Hospital, Christchurch.

Phineas Selig's vigour and administrative ability were the keys to his success in several fields. He left an enduring legacy, particularly in the secure base of the Press, the activities of the Newspaper Proprietors' Association, and strengthened national trotting and athletics organisations.

How to cite this page:

Ross Harvey. 'Selig, Phineas', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2s13/selig-phineas (accessed 1 December 2023)