Page 1: Biography
Signwriter, painter, politician
This biography, written by Shirley Tunnicliff, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
Harry Atmore was born in Nelson on 14 December 1870, the 11th child of Edward Atmore, a gardener, and his wife, Ellen Winearls. Harry was educated at the Bridge Street School and then apprenticed to a signwriter in Wellington. On his return to Nelson he set up as a signwriter, painter and decorator. He was responsible for the gold work on the spire of St Mary's Church, and his acid glass-etching adorned various city buildings. His painstaking craftsmanship attracted crowds of onlookers. He played rugby for Nelson, and acquired that love of outdoor pursuits that characterised him all his life. Tramping was a favourite relaxation, especially up the Dun Mountain where he built a log cabin and spent much time reading.
Atmore's first attempt to enter national politics at the 1902 election failed, but he threw himself into local body politics and became a member of the education board, the city council and the licensing committee. It was not until the local MP, John Graham, retired in 1911 that Atmore's efforts to enter Parliament were successful. His maiden speech set the tone for his remarkable hold over the Nelson electorate in the future: 'no one should control the member for Nelson except the member for Nelson himself and his constituents'. His first significant act in Parliament was to help stave off the defeat of Sir Joseph Ward's Liberal government by voting for it on a no-confidence motion. He normally supported the Liberals from then on.
Defeated in the 1914 election, Atmore volunteered for active service but was rejected on account of his age. In 1918 he was defeated in a by-election for Wellington Central by Peter Fraser, the New Zealand Labour Party candidate. In 1919 Atmore was elected for Nelson; he remained its representative for the next 27 years. At first he attacked the rising Labour Party, fearing its socialist programme, and admired Mussolini for his success in quelling 'revolutionary socialism'. Labour made a determined effort to defeat him in 1925 but did not stand a candidate against him after that. In the 1928 election he supported Ward's new United Party and was rewarded by a seat in the cabinet, as minister of education. He had that passionate concern for education often found in self-educated people. He had spent years reading widely and deeply, and had one of the most extensive private libraries in Nelson.
Atmore's first concern as minister was that every child in New Zealand should have the opportunity to develop his or her full potential. He set up a committee to examine public education. Among the subsequent radical reforms first proposed in the Atmore Report were the raising of the school leaving age to 15, the establishment of intermediate schools, abolition of scholarship entry to post-primary school, and the broadening of the secondary syllabus so that it was no longer dominated by the requirements for entry to university. There should be one national teaching service for primary, secondary and technical schools, based on the principle of equal pay for men and women; this was never implemented. One of Atmore's enthusiasms, the inclusion of agricultural subjects in the post-primary curriculum, was emphasised: 'agriculture, and not Latin, or mathematics, should occupy pride of place in the time tables and examination schedules'. The report also supported the retention of local education boards, stating that 'the public of New Zealand would rather bear the burden of the extra cost of the present system than change it for one of bureaucratic control, however much cheaper the latter may be'.
The deepening depression and consequent forming of the coalition government in 1931 deprived Atmore of his portfolio. Many of his plans were fulfilled under the first Labour government in which Peter Fraser, who had been one of the members of the Atmore Committee, was minister of education. The Education Amendment Act 1938 endorsed Atmore's recommendation for local unified control by education boards of primary and post-primary education, though it was shelved during the war and never brought into effect. Not till the implementation of the Thomas Report in the post-war period were many of these far-seeing reforms achieved.
Atmore espoused social credit monetary reform and campaigned vigorously for it throughout the country, blaming many of New Zealand's problems on its obligation to pay interest on its London debts. The Forbes–Coates government, he charged, 'acted under orders'. Although he usually voted in support of the Labour government after 1935, he criticised its members for not altering the monetary system; if they did, they would make New Zealand 'the real paradise of the Pacific'. This was one of the few complaints he had about a government he regarded as heir to the Liberal tradition.
On 24 June 1936, at the age of 65, Atmore married Dorothy Annie Corrigan at Hāwera. His wife, wealthy and well-educated, made the new home they built, Te Maunga, a centre of hospitality. Especially during the Second World War they were both actively involved in patriotic work, for which Dorothy Atmore was awarded the MBE. On 8 August 1946 Harry announced his intention to stand down at the next election. Only two weeks later, on 20 August, he was found dead at his home; Dorothy died in 1976. There had been no children.
Harry Atmore's remarkable hold on the Nelson seat can be partly explained by his availability to his constituents. Requests for help – ranging from repairs for a country school, to exemption for an only son of elderly farmers from military service, to support for the completion of the Nelson railway, to appeals for jobs in the public service – were all answered personally in his own handwriting. For a whole generation Harry Atmore worked for all Nelsonians without party bias, with such a commitment that his constituents regarded him as a personal friend. He refused to own a car, preferring to ride a bicycle everywhere locally and thus be part of the neighbourhood.
Born five years before the end of provincial government, Harry Atmore represented an earlier, less sophisticated political age, before the rise of parties. He expressed the hopes of the descendants of the small pioneer settlers in their wish for a fairer, more egalitarian society. His determined pursuit of their interests earned him the respect even of political opponents and made possible a lengthy career as a political independent.