Page 1: Biography
Draper's assistant, socialist, land speculator, politician
This biography, written by Jean Garner, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 3, 1996.
James McCombs was born on 9 December 1873 at Mohill, County Leitrim, Ireland, the elder child of Kate Rourke and her husband, George McCombs, a farmer. The family emigrated to Wellington, New Zealand, on the Waimea in 1876. By 1886 they were living in Christchurch where James attended Sydenham and Christchurch East schools. He completed his formal education at standard six in 1888 and worked as a draper's assistant until 1907.
McCombs had grown up an Anglican and undertook Sunday school teacher training. Although he retained ties with the Anglican church, around the turn of the century he joined the short-lived Socialist Church. He was also associated with the radical prohibitionists Tommy Taylor and Harry Ell, acting as the secretary of election campaign committees for both men.
Sometime after 1897 McCombs joined the Progressive Liberal Association, a socialist pressure group. Here he met Elizabeth Reid Henderson who, like her sisters Christina and Stella, was working for women's rights. Elizabeth Henderson became foundation president of the Young People's No License League; McCombs became a committee member. The couple remained active in the league and continued to work together in politics after their marriage in Christchurch on 25 June 1903. Their son and daughter grew up in an extended family which included both grandmothers and Christina Henderson.
For a time McCombs speculated in property. He bought and sold land in several areas in and around Christchurch – transactions that were not always profitable. The family home was in the prestigious suburb of Fendalton but gradually the grounds were subdivided and the property sold off. Between 1914 and 1918 McCombs experienced serious financial difficulties: he was sued for debt several times and twice involved in bankruptcy proceedings; in all cases he settled his debts. By the 1920s the family was living in its Clifton holiday home.
By 1908 McCombs had determined to make a career in politics. That year he stood unsuccessfully as an independent Liberal for Christchurch East and in 1911 as a Liberal–Labour candidate for Avon. He was elected to the Christchurch City Council in 1913. From then until 1917 his most important work was with the electricity committee, which was responsible for bringing hydroelectric power to the city from Lake Coleridge. In 1917 and 1919 McCombs stood unsuccessfully for the Christchurch mayoralty.
McCombs was one of the founders of the Woolston branch of the Social Democratic Party in 1913. Although he had taken cases to the Court of Arbitration, he had not been prominent in a major trade union and had moved beyond the limited backing of the unions to achieve widespread support in the working-class community. This shift proved critical: his election to Parliament in the Lyttelton by-election of 1913 coincided with the failure of the watersiders' strike. His success helped to encourage the labour movement to give priority to parliamentary strategy rather than industrial action.
With the formation of the National government by the Reform and Liberal parties in 1915, McCombs and four other members affiliated to the labour movement became the official opposition. The need for cohesive action led to the founding of the second New Zealand Labour Party in 1916. McCombs helped to draft its constitution and programme. He was also its first president but, objecting to the party's approach to prohibition, resigned his membership a year later. He rejoined the party in 1918 and served as deputy chairman from 1919 until 1923. In 1919 he tied the vote for its parliamentary leadership. When lots were drawn the post went to the more militant Harry Holland, with whom McCombs had clashed in 1917. The antagonism between the two men continued but McCombs's frequent challenges to Holland's leadership were unsuccessful.
There was a strong element of personal conviction in the causes McCombs espoused in Parliament. He continued to champion prohibition, an issue which straddled party divisions, but his stand against conscription and his persistent advocacy of proportional representation were characteristic of Labour politicians of his era. He went further than his colleagues in his consistent efforts on behalf of women: he spoke out on the payment and training of nurses, attempted to introduce legislation to permit women's election to Parliament, and repeatedly raised the question of their appointment as justices of the peace.
McCombs was noted for his debating skills, and his knowledge of standing orders saw him nominated (unsuccessfully) as Speaker in 1923. He was conscientious, working long hours and preparing his speeches meticulously. One of Labour's most knowledgeable speakers on finance, he opposed the deflationary policies adopted during the depression and the reduction in award wages ordered by the Court of Arbitration, and advocated central planning and the provision of credit by the state.
As a member of the Christchurch City Council again from 1931 to 1933, McCombs chaired its finance committee. The Labour-dominated council reduced rates and protected its workers from the full impact of wage cuts. Nevertheless, it did little to reduce unemployment or stimulate the local economy.
Throughout his 20 years in Parliament McCombs was permanently in opposition. He died at Christchurch on 2 August 1933 without having had the opportunity to utilise his abilities fully. He was survived by his wife, Elizabeth (who succeeded him in his parliamentary seat), and their two children.