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Herries, William Herbert


Farmer, horse breeder, politician

This biography, written by Michael Belgrave, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

William Herbert Herries was born on 19 April 1859 in London, England, the son of Herbert Crompton Herries, a barrister, and his wife, Leonora Emma Wickham. His parents both came from families active in the British civil service and politics. After his father's death in 1870 William was brought up by his mother in a wealthy middle-class world, where holidays were spent in the country houses of his relatives. Rambling the countryside of Yorkshire and Surrey encouraged the collection of fossils, and kindled an interest in geology. Herries went to Eton College in 1872, and, in 1877, to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he took a degree in natural science.

In 1881, following his graduation, Herries arrived in New Zealand. A tour of the colony followed, including the then obligatory visit to the Pink and White Terraces and the thermal district of Rotorua. With Ernest Meysey-Thompson, a friend from Eton and Cambridge, he bought a 900-acre property at Shaftesbury, near Te Aroha. Herries later became sole owner when Meysey-Thompson returned to Britain. For the next decade Herries busied himself with farming, dedicating his leisure to what became a lifelong passion for horse-racing and bloodstock lines. On 4 December 1889, at Te Aroha, Herries married Catherine Louisa Roche, whose family were neighbours at Ohineroa; they were to have no children.

From the early 1890s Herries was increasingly drawn into local and then national politics. In 1891 he was elected to the Piako County Council and in 1893 became a member of the Waikato Hospital and Charitable Aid Board. The next year he took Louisa back to Britain to meet his family. He spent some time with an uncle, William Wickham, a Hampshire MP and an ideal model for a career in national politics. In the 1896 general election Herries successfully contested the Bay of Plenty seat for the opposition, defeating the sitting member. He retained the seat until 1908, when he won the newly formed constituency of Tauranga.

Well versed in the house's standing orders, Herries soon built a reputation as an effective adversary of the Liberal government. One of the most important lieutenants of William Massey, he was rewarded with the portfolios of native affairs and railways when Massey became prime minister in 1912. Herries remained a senior member of the cabinet until his death, although he resigned his portfolios in February 1921. He was minister of native affairs until 1921, minister of railways until 1919, minister of marine and minister of customs from 1919 to 1921, and in 1920–21 was minister of labour. He was appointed KCMG in 1920.

Herries's background, bearing and personality allowed him to slip easily into the role of colonial patrician. He was tall, red-faced, jovial and amiable, and his lack of rancour was often noted. He won friends easily and opponents freely conceded he had no personal hostility. Yet his even temper overlay deeply held conservative principles. As a member of the New Zealand Racing Conference he mixed with the country's landed élite, whose interests had dominated political opposition in the 1890s. Herries, none the less, bridged the gulf between this narrow and defensive conservatism and the aggressive right-wing populism of Massey's period in office.

Herries's rural constituents elected him in deference to his social position and he loyally represented their interests. His politics were those of the North Island country settler and his conservatism did not preclude belief in a strong role for the state. He favoured public works if these meant facilities for rural settlement, and lambasted the Liberals for failing to spend their public works budget. He pushed the development of Rotorua as a tourist spa and the expansion of the North Island railway system. His dreams of further enlarging and rationalising the country's railways were curtailed by the First World War. Stripped of manpower and resources, Herries was forced to be content with holding a decaying system together while meeting the country's military needs.

By 1900 Herries was effectively the opposition's spokesman on Māori affairs; his views reflected the aspirations of his constitutents. He gave settler avarice for land a tone of reasonable benevolence it did not deserve. For Apirana Ngata, MHR for Eastern Māori, Herries personified all the hostile forces of the Pākehā world which the native minister, James Carroll, had tried so persistently to contain. Herries's views were formed early and held throughout his career. All Māori land should either be taken into trust and leased to Māori and European alike, or individualised. Herries clearly preferred individualisation, blaming rental income for Māori indebtedness, an unwillingness to work and general moral turpitude. Once titles were individualised, Māori would be free to develop their land; if it was not developed it should pass into Pākehā hands – by compulsion if necessary. Herries was also prepared to sell the land of European owners who refused to civilise their estates by developing them.

In opposition, Herries harried Carroll in all his delicately balanced attempts to restrain Pākehā land hunger or to recognise, however tamely, Māori tribal interests. Herries derided Māori landlords, denigrated Māori land boards, and vilified restrictions on the sale of Māori land. Surprisingly, he won Carroll's respect and even his friendship. In government, Herries restructured the Native Department into an efficient land purchase department. Between 1911 and 1920 well over two million acres of Māori land were alienated, half of it purchased by the Crown. From Ōrākei to Urewera, Herries used his considerable skills of persuasion to induce Māori to sell. Long-held opposition to Rua Kenana and to the King movement led to the 1916 police raid on Maungapōhatu and to the imprisonment of Tainui conscientious objectors.

Herries proved more sympathetic to Ngāi Tahu and Taranaki causes, and was at least partly influenced by Māui Pōmare, the one Māori in Massey's cabinet. This did not prevent a major purchasing campaign on Taranaki reserved land. The Liberals' tardy attempts to deal with Ngāi Tahu grievances in the South Island Landless Natives Act 1906 were never regarded as final by Herries, and he allowed Kemp's Purchase of 1848 to be re-examined by a commission of inquiry in 1920. In 1913, at Pōmare's insistence, a commission looked at the role of the public trustee in managing Māori land. In the same year legislation allowed for Māori eventually to regain reserved land from its European lessees.

Only in his final year as minister did Herries go some way to easing his reputation as an inveterate land purchaser. In 1920 he established the Native Trust Office, which allowed for Māori to develop lands, if only with their own resources. Ngata later commented that even Herries had been won over by Carroll's policies. None the less, it was a very small beginning to state-sponsored Māori land development. Herries also presided over the Pākehā portion of the Rotorua welcome for the prince of Wales in April 1920. He played the host well, and was credited with personally ensuring that Māori guests were returned home despite a rail strike.

Ministerial office came too late for Herries to enjoy it fully. The long years in opposition had taken a toll on his energies, and even the news of Massey's success in forming a government came while Herries was returning from a disastrous trip to England: his mother died in 1912 just before his departure and his wife, Louisa, on the voyage.

In his latter years, unhindered by the demands of farm and family, Herries was left to pursue his addiction to politics, horse-racing and alcohol. In 1921 he published a book on the bloodlines of thoroughbred horses, while his health deteriorated visibly. Since the sale of his Te Aroha property in 1903 he had had no fixed home, other than the distant England where he hoped to retire. On his death at Wellington on 22 February 1923 he was still described without a sense of contradiction as a 'nationalist first, last, and all the time', loving the 'land of his adoption second only to his native Motherland by the grey North Sea'. He was given a full state funeral and his ashes were buried at Te Aroha.

How to cite this page:

Michael Belgrave. 'Herries, William Herbert', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3h19/herries-william-herbert (accessed 25 July 2024)