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Wright, David McKee


Shepherd, poet, journalist, Congregational minister

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

David McKee Wright was born at Ballynaskeagh, County Down, Ireland, on 6 August 1869, the second son of William Wright, a Presbyterian missionary, and his wife, Annie McKee. His mother remained only briefly in Ireland following his birth and he was raised by his grandmother, Rebecca McKee, until his parents returned from missionary work in Syria. Annie Wright died in 1877, shortly after the family had moved to London.

Wright was educated at the Glascar School, Ballynaskeagh, then at Pope's School, London, and the engineering section of the Crystal Palace School. Illness kept him at home for much of his youth; he read voraciously and began to compose poetry. He ran away from his family on three occasions, in part because of his unhappiness at his father's marriage, in September 1880, to Sophia Colyer Davison. The evangelical, scholarly and philanthropical tastes of his family also oppressed him and they mocked his absorption in poetry. At 17 Wright was diagnosed as having a spot on the lung and in 1887 was dispatched to New Zealand in hopes of a cure.

In Christchurch Wright was briefly reunited with the family of his uncle, David McKee, and his grandmother, who had emigrated earlier. He then journeyed to the Aparima River and Lake Manapōuri, and was employed as a shepherd at Puketoi station and later at Scobie Mackenzie's Hakataramea valley station. From 1890 he contributed verses and stories to the Otago Witness, and from 1892 to the Christchurch Press. He also attacked the Liberal government, and in particular the minister of lands and agriculture, John McKenzie, in political commentary and satirical prose and verse.

In 1895 Wright replied to critics of the Otago Witness's practice of featuring local writers in an annual supplement: he attacked the view that 'no good thing can come out of New Zealand', and henceforth more strenuously asserted New Zealand themes in his writing. At the end of 1896 his story 'Mates: a tale of the golden coast' won the Otago Witness Prize Competition, the first of numerous major prizes he was to capture. Aorangi and other verses, his first collection of poems, appeared in 1896, but was not well received.

At the beginning of 1897 Wright moved to Dunedin and enrolled as a student at the University of Otago. His academic results were barely adequate, but he was awarded the first Stuart Prize for poetry for the poem 'Queen Victoria, 1837 : 1897'. He failed to make a success of his studies for the Presbyterian ministry, and at the end of his first year he took up outfield preaching at Alexandra and Clyde.

Wright's demotic poetry flourished after the publication of Aorangi, and from April 1896 he produced a series of works for the Otago Witness. Twenty-four ballads were collected at the end of 1897 in the volume Station ballads and other verses; their favourable reception established Wright as a New Zealand poet rather than an Otago bard. The poems were characterised by genial cheer and moral earnestness. Wright identified country life with manly virtue and womanly purity, and town existence with industrial strife, crime and effeminacy. His bitterest invective was directed at grasping station bosses, and at strikers, whom he generally portrayed as work-shy.

In 1898 Wright responded to a call to the Congregationalist Emmanuel Church in Ōamaru, where his attacks on the moral pollution of the town aroused the hostility of some district worthies. He became prominent in the North Otago temperance movement and in the North Otago Christian Endeavour Union, being elected president in May 1899. He also campaigned against industrial evils, denouncing sweating in Ōamaru and Dunedin. Wright was active in the founding of a branch of the British and Foreign Bible Society in Ōamaru and became its chairman in February 1899.

David Wright's poetic output declined in his Ōamaru period, although he composed and printed hymns for his congregation's use, and gave literary addresses. On 3 August 1899 he married Elizabeth Couper at Dunedin. She joined her husband's temperance advocacy and youth ministry.

Wright also attracted attention for his opposition to Britain's role in Africa and to New Zealand's rush to join the South African war (1899–1902). By the end of 1899 his church's membership had waned to 37. The Congregational Union of New Zealand decided to discontinue services in Ōamaru in 1900 and Wright was moved to the parish of Newtown in Wellington. Before he left Ōamaru, Wright published Wisps of tussock. Several of the 'Tussock and asphalt rhymes' from the Otago Witness gave the book its backblocks flavour, but Wright had by now turned from an interest in writing such hymns to rural labour and sights and directed his energies to lyric and satiric verse.

In Wellington Wright submitted work to the Free Lance and other papers. His poem 'Wellington' was printed in gilt and black lettering on the glass sliding doors of two of the city's trams for many years. He was now beset by money troubles, particularly after the birth of a son on 15 September 1900, and he resigned his pastorate early in 1901. Temperamental differences between him and his wife contributed to his troubles. In May 1901 he took up the Nelson pastorate and continued as minister for four years, until he broke with the Congregational Union over its attempt to secure unanimous support for no-licence. He still advocated temperance, but believed that the choice was up to the individual.

From this time Wright stepped up his lecturing activities and free-lance journalism. In 1906 he bought an old press and began to print a weekly paper, the Nelson Times, producing 12 issues before August 1906, when he merged it in a new journal, Te Rauparaha; the paper had 'strong Labor leanings'. In December 1906 the first of Wright's contributions appeared in the Sydney Bulletin under the name 'Māori Mac'. His poems were included in an Australasian anthology in 1905, and in W. F. Alexander and A. E. Currie's 1906 New Zealand verse anthology. In 1907 he began to write regularly for the New Zealand Mail. His Bulletin appearances increased, and he freelanced for the Dominion in Wellington. These undertakings were welcome at a time when he was struggling financially. The winning of a £25 prize offered by the Australasian Traveller's annual publication Australia Today did little to stave off bankruptcy.

When Wright returned to Nelson at the end of 1907 his family's belongings were seized and his library and furniture sold. He took a lease on Crown land in the Baton valley, south of Motueka, where he cleared a patch and erected a cabin. Elizabeth Wright refused to live there. Wright returned to free-lance writing in Nelson, while Elizabeth taught woodcarving to support the family.

In 1910 Wright moved to Sydney. His contributions to the Bulletin increased, and he also wrote for the Sun and Sydney Mail, and free-lanced for Fairplay, a sporting weekly dedicated to defence of the liquor trade. By late 1914 he was editor of Fairplay, and by 1916 of the Red Page of the Bulletin. Most of these contributions were anonymous, particularly while he worked for the more conservative Bulletin. Wright's only collection of verse published in Australia, An Irish heart, was released in 1918 to critical acclaim. But advocates of literary nationalism attacked his conservative poetic and editorial practice, and he became embroiled in controversy over his editing of Henry Lawson.

Efforts to bring about a reconciliation between Wright and his wife failed, and from 1913 to 1918 he lived with Beatrice Florence Osborn; they had four sons before he broke with her to live with the poet and actress Zora Cross. They had two daughters. In 1926 Wright's health declined. He resigned from the Bulletin and attempted to win an income from the Australian Worker, for which he wrote copiously until his death on 5 February 1928 of a heart attack at Glenbrook, in the Blue Mountains.

David Wright was long remembered for his open-handedness and conversational charm, and for his fearlessness in controversy and even physical danger. On occasions he gave way to Bohemian impulses, but his earnestness and gentle manner suggested the air of a parson to many colleagues. His hobbies included building (he constructed a cabin and all the furniture at Glenbrook), collecting gemstones and china, and gardening (he grew prize flowers and produce at Glenbrook). The best of his poetry is marked by self­-awareness and formal restraint; the best of his satires and light verse often have resiliency beyond their initial aims, and merit preservation.

Beatrice Osborn died at Brisbane in 1962, and Zora Cross at Glenbrook in 1964. Elizabeth Wright established a private hospital in Nelson, eventually living comfortably on the proceeds of its sale in 1927. She died at Nelson on 30 November 1952.

How to cite this page:

Michael Sharkey. 'Wright, David McKee', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2w33/wright-david-mckee (accessed 20 July 2024)