Henry George Ell is primarily remembered in Canterbury as the tireless promoter of the Summit Road along the crest of the Port Hills, but he also championed many other social and environmental causes. He was born probably on 24 September 1862 at Christchurch, New Zealand, the son of Eliza Elizabeth Atkins and her husband, George Waldock Ell, a butcher and later stockdealer with a farm at Halswell, a few miles south-west of Christchurch. Harry, as he was known, left school at the age of 15 to become, briefly, a junior attendant at the Canterbury Museum, before being employed on a sheep station and then at a wool-scouring works. From 1881 to 1884 he was a member of the Constabulary Field Force in Taranaki, taking part in the invasion of Parihaka. He was later critical of the policies of those years; as one of a group of 50 men, he was ordered to uproot, for no apparent purpose, every taro and kumara in a beautifully kept Māori garden near Ōpunake. Such actions had, he said, 'brought about the bitterness and estrangement between the two races'.
On his return to Christchurch he was employed for four years as a printer with the Christchurch Press. He was then a salesman for five years with Nind-Ward and Company before moving to Andrews and Company, manufacturing stationers. On 10 January 1892 at Christchurch Ell married Adelaide Eleanor Gee.
From 1884 Harry Ell had become involved in politics. He was a member of the Knights of Labor and the Canterbury Liberal Association, and served as both president and secretary of the Progressive Liberal Association. In 1896 he stood unsuccessfully for Parliament on a prohibition ticket, also arguing for a range of radical policies. In 1899 he was elected as an independent liberal for Christchurch, soon becoming known in the House for his energy. Meanwhile, his involvement in local politics continued. He was at various times president of the Christchurch Tailoresses' and Pressers' Union and also a committee member of the Canterbury Children's Aid Society, the Canterbury Prohibition Council and the Prohibition League. From 1917 to 1919 he sat on the Christchurch City Council.
As a representative of the temperance lobby Harry Ell spoke in Parliament against the easing of the liquor laws, at the same time regularly questioning the practice of gaoling alcoholics. This was part of an ongoing parliamentary campaign to end the practice of using prisons and lunatic asylums for the detention of those who would be more appropriately supervised elsewhere. In his maiden speech in 1900 he foreshadowed a successful attempt to outlaw official use of the word 'lunatic'. A prominent member of the Anti-Gambling League, he often spoke on the 'gambling vice'. In 1906 he introduced, unsuccessfully, a Totalisator Abolition Bill.
Ell had a considerable awareness of what was happening in New Zealand and overseas. He favoured the establishment of a state bank, the introduction of universal old age pensions and supported the 1905 Workers' Dwellings Bill. He also pursued a range of educational matters, such as the need for physical drill in schools, a school dental service and the provision of teaching materials about native flora and fauna.
Harry Ell was notable for his strong interest in New Zealand's natural heritage and endangered species. Although he believed that timber should be milled efficiently in the interests of assured supply, he also demonstrated a keen ecological awareness in arguing for headwater and riparian forest reserves to prevent flooding in farming districts. His drive to preserve scenery in the face of expanding settlement resulted in the Seddon government's introduction of the Scenery Preservation Bill in 1903. In 1913 before the Royal Commission on Forestry he advocated accelerated afforestation and the training of scientific foresters, the latter point being a favourite earlier theme.
Despite the regard in which he was held by his fellow parliamentarians, Ell achieved ministerial office only once: for three months in 1912 as postmaster general in the Mackenzie ministry. In 1919 he contested the Lyttelton constituency, which contained the Port Hills, rather than Christchurch South, which he had represented since 1905. However, he was defeated. He subsequently stood unsuccessfully in his old seat in 1922 and 1925.
The Summit Road scheme at Christchurch, to which Ell had given considerable energy during his time in Parliament, now became his preoccupation. His interest began with a successful attempt to halt the closure of various tracks on the hills in 1900. It developed into a burning desire to set up a network of scenic reserves along the Port Hills and on towards Akaroa, to be connected by a specially constructed road with regularly spaced rest houses for the refreshment of walkers. It was a practical expression of his aim both to promote healthy recreation and to conserve the landscape.
He secured the first scenic reserve at Kennedys Bush on the hills above his father's farm in 1906 through a government subsidy and public fund-raising. Subsequently, he completed three rest-houses: the Sign of the Bellbird, Sign of the Kiwi, and Sign of the Packhorse. He and his wife, Adelaide, lived in the first for a while, operating a toll-gate to raise funds for the project. By the early 1930s there was a string of reserves obtained as gifts or by purchase along the proposed road line, which had been surveyed from Godley Head as far as the Pigeon Bay saddle, and substantial lengths of the Port Hills section of the road had been formed.
Assisted by depression relief workers, known locally as Ell's Angels, and his friend, the expert carver Mary Sophia Douglas, he devoted his last years to continuing the construction of the finest rest-house of all, the Sign of the Takahē, at the hill terminus of the tramline from Christchurch. The elaborate two-storeyed structure was not finally completed until 1949, when it became a fitting point of entry to the Summit Road scheme. Harry Ell died in Christchurch on 27 June 1934, survived by his wife, three daughters and one son.
Described as active, virile, tenacious and often tempestuous, Ell was 'impatient of criticism, intolerant of interference', but 'a dauntless, indefatigable' man. At times he became irritable with those who attempted to contain his enthusiasm: 'I will not yield up to the keeping of others, the ideals and sentiments which I have always associated with this public work', he wrote in 1923. 'It is my work and I intend to continue with it'.