William Alexander Bodkin was born in Queenstown on 28 April 1883, the son of Irish immigrants James Bodkin, a watchmaker, and his wife, Eleanor (Ellen) Black. In 1889 his father purchased the Monte Christo farm near Clyde, where Frenchman Jean Desire Feraud had experimented with grape growing and irrigation. William spent most of his childhood here, where his father grew fruit, raised dairy cattle and continued Feraud’s experiments with irrigation.
William left school at 12 or 13 to work on his father’s farm but earned enough money from rabbit shooting and investments in a local gold-dredging operation to fund his secondary education from the relatively advanced age of 18. He attended Wilson’s School in Christchurch and matriculated in 1904. He then proceeded to the University of Otago to study law and won admission to the Bar in 1909. He immediately purchased the practice of J. R. Bartholomew in Alexandra; about 1930 it became Bodkin and Sunderland. Bodkin specialised in mining and irrigation law and in 1909 adopted the role of local booster by setting up a group to promote irrigation in Central Otago. He married Elizabeth Lillias McCorkindale, a schoolteacher, at Mānuka Creek, South Otago, on 1 September 1920; they were to have one daughter.
Politically, Bodkin supported mainstream liberalism with its emphasis on development, self-help and closer land settlement. He first ran unsuccessfully for Parliament in 1914, standing as a Liberal against the Reform Party MP Robert Scott. Bodkin then turned his attention back to developing irrigation and revitalising mining. He acted as Alexandra’s borough solicitor and served one term on the borough council. In 1928 he won the Central Otago parliamentary seat for the United Party led by the ageing Sir Joseph Ward. He was a vigorous supporter of Ward’s unsuccessful attempt to revive John McKenzie’s closer settlement policies of the 1890s. Despite this disappointment he proved an able parliamentarian and a good speaker, and served as chairman of committees in 1930–31.
Bodkin’s political influence diminished during the years of the coalition government (1931–35). His calls for greater help for farmers and the revitalisation of goldmining added to his local popularity, however, and he strengthened his hold on the seat by continuing to promote irrigation schemes and tourism. His attempts to revive gold dredging proved less successful. Despite his managing to secure the passage of a special bill in 1936 to shore up the Molyneux Gold Dredging Company, this ill-fated venture failed to pay a dividend. Other dredging efforts proved only slightly more successful and the long-promised boom never eventuated. Bodkin decided thereafter that the expansion of tourism and fruit growing based on adequate irrigation held the keys to a more certain economic future for the arid region of Central Otago.
Following the coalition government’s defeat in 1935, he played a very active part in building the more broadly based conservative New Zealand National Party, which was established in 1936. Bodkin was rewarded for this and his effectiveness as an opposition speaker by being made minister of civil defence within the short-lived bi-partisan War Administration in 1942. When National won the treasury benches in 1949, he served as minister of internal affairs and minister of social security and, from 1951, minister in charge of tourist and health resorts. Bodkin proved an able administrator and earned a reputation as an expert in parliamentary procedure, but he failed to make any outstanding contributions to his portfolios. It seemed that his particular talents were best suited to the role of local advocate and opposition critic. Walter Nash hinted at this when, in 1954, he praised the retiring minister for his conscientious administration, generosity to his constituents and fine speeches made when in opposition.
The other major reason for Bodkin’s enormous local popularity was the prominent role played by his wife in community affairs. Elizabeth Bodkin established the Central Otago branch of the Royal New Zealand Society for the Health of Women and Children in 1915. She served as president of the branch from 1933 to 1949, as a dominion councillor between 1932 and 1960 and as dominion president from 1950 to 1957. This involved much travel around New Zealand and earned her a reputation as an able advocate for the cause of improved child-rearing practices. She also found time to be a supportive wife to a busy local MP who had to travel widely among his scattered constituents.
Bodkin was knighted in 1954. After his retirement he focused his energies on local history and founded the Alexandra District Historical Association and a local museum. He died at Alexandra on 15 June 1964, survived by his wife and daughter. The new museum built in Alexandra in 1967 was named the Sir William Bodkin Museum in his honour.