Page 1: Biography
This biography, written by Kerry Stratton, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
Peter Barr, son of Dunedin's first chief postmaster, Archibald Barr, and his second wife, Sarah Hepburn, was born in Dunedin, New Zealand, on 9 July 1861. He was educated at Middle District School and then at the High School of Otago from 1875 to 1877. Barr left school at the age of 16 and entered the accountancy firm of R. H. Leary and Company as a clerk. A brief period as a land and estate agent in Melbourne ended when a bout of typhoid forced an early return to Dunedin about 1886.
Barr was then admitted as a partner in R. H. Leary and Company. His single-mindedness and dedication are evident in his activities within the firm, which he controlled following the death of its senior partner and founder, R. H. Leary, in 1895. Subsequently known as Barr, Leary and Company, it ultimately became Barr, Burgess and Stewart.
In the later nineteenth century accounting was regarded not as a profession but as a trading skill, encompassing the functions of assignee in bankruptcy, auctioneer, stockbroker and commission agent. Throughout his career Barr sought to raise the standing of the practice of accountancy. His scrupulousness, honesty and integrity became apparent as a member of the Dunedin Chamber of Commerce and its secretary from 1891 to 1922. His management of church finances as a member of the Moray Place Congregational Church gained him the respect and friendship of such prominent fellow businessmen and Congregationalists as H. E. Shacklock and his family.
Utilising his respected position, Barr was instrumental in founding the Incorporated Institute of Accountants of New Zealand in Dunedin in 1894; it soon organised itself nationwide. Its purpose was to establish some form of minimum standard of competency for those who wished to call themselves accountants, and to establish a code of ethics to which its members must adhere. Barr was to serve on its council for 15 years, and was the member most determined to push for legal recognition of accountancy as a profession.
The purpose of the New Zealand Society of Accountants Act 1908 was to establish a corporate body of qualified accountants, with the power to make provision for the training and examination of members of the profession, and to promote efficient practice. Barr was elected first president of the New Zealand Society of Accountants (NZSOA), the organisation incorporated under the act in 1909. This brought together the members of the institute and the rival association. There were some initial difficulties stemming from past antagonisms, but under Barr's steady hand the professionalism of accountancy was advanced and its public standing enhanced.
Barr's ambitions for the accountancy profession were well on their way to being fulfilled by the time he stepped down as president of the NZSOA in 1913. Notable among the many early achievements of the association were the elevation of accountancy to degree status through an agreement with the University of New Zealand in 1910, and the imposition of a minimum qualifying standard for practising accountants. Delegates at the annual conference in 1912 testified that much of the early success of their organisation was due to Peter Barr.
Barr was not a man to rest on his laurels. He continued to be actively involved in both the NZSOA and the institute, and also continued his association with the Dunedin Chamber of Commerce and the Congregational church. He served on various committees and commissions, most notably the Defence Expenditure Commission of 1918 and the Committee on Taxation in 1922. He was a Dunedin city councillor from 1908 to 1910, district governor of Rotary International in 1926, and a director of several Dunedin public companies.
Barr had married Mary Elizabeth Forsyth at Greymouth on 28 November 1900; they had a daughter and a son. Mary Barr died in 1929, and following his retirement in the early 1930s Barr travelled extensively. At his death in Dunedin on 21 March 1951 he was survived by his two children.