Harold Herbert Williams was born at Wairoa, northern Hawke’s Bay, on 25 January 1880, one of several children of Elizabeth Carroll and her Welsh-born husband, Herbert Joseph Williams, a county clerk and former constable in the Armed Constabulary. Harold was informally adopted at a young age by Elizabeth’s childless elder sister, Mary (Mere), and her husband, Henry Hyde Carr, and he used this surname throughout his life. Henry Carr had served as a private in the Hawke’s Bay military settlers in the 1860s and later as a constable in the Armed Constabulary, before finding employment as an interpreter in the Native Department. Elizabeth and Mary Carroll were daughters of Joseph Carroll and Tapuke, Ngāti Kahungunu woman of mana.
This familial connection and bicultural heritage probably stood Harold Carr in good stead for a career in Māori lands administration. After an education at Wairoa primary school, in 1896 he moved to Wellington to take up an appointment as a cadet in the Native Land Purchase Office. In 1905 Carr returned to the East Coast where, with the exception of a brief spell in Rotorua in the early 1920s, he was to spend the next half century working in the Gisborne office of the Native Land Court. On 16 July 1906, at Wellington, Harold Carr married Theresa Sheridan; Harold’s new father-in-law, Patrick Sheridan, had been officer in charge of the Land Purchase Office during his period of cadetship. The couple were to have three children. A keen follower of rugby all his life and a competent half-back, Carr represented Poverty Bay in the 1905 season.
From humble beginnings as a clerk, Harold Carr rapidly progressed up the ranks of Native Department bureaucracy to become deputy registrar of the Gisborne office by 1906 and registrar the following year. In 1910 he was also appointed a commissioner of the remodelled Native Land Court, effectively giving him all the powers, if not the title, of a judge of the court.
In 1921 Carr was entrusted with his biggest task to date. In the vast and remote Urewera district the government had been purchasing individual interests in scattered blocks of land since 1910. Yet, although more than half of the district had nominally been purchased, in no instance had the Crown successfully acquired all the shares in any one block outright. In October, as representative of the Native Department, along with R. J. Knight of the Department of Lands and Survey and Henare Te Raumoa Balneavis, the native minister’s private secretary, Carr submitted proposals for a comprehensive scheme of consolidation and exchange of interests in the Urewera district, aimed at to ensuring that the Crown acquired a clear title to lands suitable for Pākehā settlement. These proposals were given legal effect in the Urewera Lands Act 1921–22, and Carr and Knight were formally appointed as consolidation commissioners. Working closely with the Māori leader Apirana Ngata, who had been appointed to represent the interests of non-sellers, by 1927 they had overseen the transfer of nearly three-quarters of the approximately 650,000-acre Urewera reserve into Crown ownership. Despite the often bitter opposition the commissioners encountered during the process, Carr was later to become a forceful advocate for the Urewera people, particularly the former owners of the Waikaremoana block, whose ungracious treatment from the Crown appears to have appalled him.
Carr’s role in consolidating titles in the Urewera district must have impressed his superiors, and in July 1923 he was appointed to the bench of the Native Land Court. He was the first person of Māori descent to attain such a position. A protégé of Ngata, James Carroll (his uncle) and Peter Buck, Carr in many respects epitomised a new generation of Māori leaders, comfortable in both Māori and Pākehā cultures, and accepted by both. His appointment was hailed by the Gisborne District Law Society and East Coast Māori.
In the late 1920s Carr implemented several more consolidation and development schemes under the supervision of Ngata; in 1930 he headed a Māori delegation to Rarotonga charged with investigating the state of land titles in the Cook Islands. However, Carr always had the greatest affinity for the East Coast, where his impact was felt most, and in 1933 he was appointed deputy commissioner of the East Coast Native Trust, which was responsible for administering a large portion of remaining Māori lands in the district. His relationship with the commissioner, J. S. Jessep, an efficient though somewhat autocratic administrator, was always fraught. Carr’s supporters had unsuccessfully petitioned in support of his appointment as commissioner, and Jessep believed that Carr was using his position as the local Native Land Court judge to stack committees of beneficial owners with his own supporters. Conflict continued between them throughout the 1940s.
Carr’s retirement in 1952 was the occasion for large farewell gatherings at Gisborne and Wairoa, attended by members of the legal fraternity, his fellow judges, Māori kin and friends. The affection the latter felt for him was apparent from the substantial presents (including a new car) he received. When he died at Gisborne on 8 March 1973, his body was taken to lie in state at Te Poho-o-Rāwiri, near Gisborne, a marae that he had been instrumental in having built. Harold Carr was buried at Taruheru cemetery, where his wife, Theresa, had been laid to rest five years earlier. He was survived by a daughter and a son.