Kenneth Stuart Williams was the youngest of a remarkable quartet of second-generation descendants of the missionary brothers Henry and William Williams. Kenneth, his first cousin Thomas Sydney Williams, and his second cousins, brothers Heathcote Beetham and Arnold Beetham Williams, (known as KS, TS, HB and AB) developed farming on the East Coast north of Gisborne, where they consolidated the family's reputation as responsible land-holders, men of public affairs and noted benefactors of the region.
Kenneth was born at Pakaraka, Bay of Islands, New Zealand, on 13 September 1870, eighth in a family of eight sons and three daughters. His father was John William Williams, a grazier, son of Henry; and his mother was Sarah Busby, daughter of James Busby. He was educated at Heretaunga School, Hastings, and at Christ's College, Christchurch, from 1884 to 1888. He excelled at sport, being a member of the First XI and the First XV, and was a prefect.
When Kenneth was in his early 20s his uncle Samuel Williams sought help for his extensive farming enterprises in the Waiapu district. In response, Kenneth left Pakaraka in 1894 for Tuparoa, a coastal station near East Cape, to gain experience while assisting T. S. Williams to develop a viable farm there. Samuel offered both cousins the chance of their own land if they could clear the debts on the property. After Kenneth married, at Pakaraka Church on 3 August 1898, Samuel placed in his charge the inland station of Matahiia on the Mata River, south-west of Ruatoria; it was to be his home for the rest of his life. His bride was Samuel's niece, Lilian Mary Ludbrook, Kenneth's first cousin. They were to have four children in four years; two sons and a daughter grew to adulthood.
The station had been managed and administered by experienced Williams employees. There was a large woolshed with 20 shearing stands, used by surrounding farms, shearing up to 60,000 sheep in peak years. In 1897 10 machine stands were installed. With this sound start, Kenneth proceeded to farm the block wisely and the station prospered in spite of difficulties of access and its distance from commercial centres. Until 1932 the homestead was often isolated by flooded rivers. Stores were shipped in bulk from Auckland to Tuparoa, and those living at the station learnt to be resourceful and self-reliant.
Kenneth Williams was tall, slim and athletic in appearance, with a balding head and a large moustache. His reputation for great courtesy and hospitality, his gentle manner and calm temperament inspired confidence, respect and affection in those who met him. His ability to speak to Ngati Porou in fluent Maori earned him great respect and was a tremendous asset to him in local affairs. He joined the Waiapu County Council, serving as chairman from 1909 until 1920. He was a founding member of the Waiapu Hospital and Charitable Aid Board in 1903 and served as first chairman of the Tokomaru Harbour Board from 1910 to 1919. A founder of the Waiapu Racing Club, Williams owned several successful racehorses and represented Hawke's Bay clubs on the New Zealand Racing Conference.
In 1916, when land settlement schemes for soldiers returning from the First World War were mooted, the four Williams cousins set up the Waiapu Returned Soldiers Trust as a private scheme to benefit local men. Each subscribed £10,000 to purchase the 4,000-acre Whakaangiangi estate. Six farms were established. In 1920 the farms were balloted for and taken up by local returned soldiers, with advances for fencing, buildings and stock. Repayment of the advances was to be used to help others less fortunate. Kenneth Williams was particularly involved in establishing this scheme, and its beneficiaries regarded him as a staunch friend. The Waiapu Trust encapsulated the Williams philosophy of service to the community and was one of the most successful private efforts at resettlement in New Zealand.
The Williamses' philanthropy continued in the depression of the early 1930s. Many farmers, including a number who had trained on Williams properties, were close to financial ruin. The family repeatedly stood guarantor with the banks, notwithstanding their own resultant hardship. They thereby ensured that the East Coast continued as the same farming country they had pioneered.
Williams entered national politics in 1920 when, as the Reform Party candidate, he won the Bay of Plenty seat in a by-election. In Parliament he became known as one who spoke rarely, unless he could do so with authority. His abilities became well known, however, and from 1926 to 1928 he was minister of public works under Gordon Coates, with whom he formed a close friendship. He had handed over the management of Matahiia to his eldest son, Charles, in 1924, so was able to concentrate on his busy portfolio. He worked to extend the country's network of main highways, and in 1927 was responsible for the introduction of the petrol tax. An excellent horseman, he rode to remote corners of the country to view works projects as few ministers had done before. Williams helped to advance the prospect of Gisborne becoming at last linked by rail with the rest of the country. He was returned to his seat unopposed three times.
When the coalition government was formed in 1931 Williams declined another ministerial post; because of the effects of a severe car accident some years earlier he felt he could no longer rely on good health. He continued to work hard for his constituency, but after a further setback in 1934 decided to retire at the end of the term.
A garden party in Williams's honour was held in Opotiki on 25 November 1935 just two days before the election. During speeches that paid tribute to his years of service he collapsed. He died shortly afterwards. The Poverty Bay Herald wrote that 'it was fitting perhaps, that the end should come with words of appreciation ringing in his ears and with the knowledge that his work had not passed unrecognised'. He was buried at Matahiia in a simple service attended by hundreds, and was survived by his wife, two sons and a daughter. The family legacy lives on in the many properties still farmed by the descendants of the four cousins, and in the many charitable trusts they have set up to benefit the people of Gisborne and the East Coast.