Page 1: Biography
Oram, Matthew Henry
Lawyer, aviation promoter, politician, parliamentary Speaker
This biography, written by Jim Lundy, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000, and updated in April, 2015.
Matthew Henry Oram was born in Christchurch on 2 June 1885, the son of May Eltham and her late husband, Matthew Henry Oram: his English-born father, one of five brothers who owned and managed several hotels in the city, died three months before his birth. His mother, who was from Hobart, Tasmania, died when he was 12 years old and he was brought up by an aunt in Wellington. Matthew attended Wellington College (1898–1904) and Victoria College (1905–11), representing both at athletics. An active member of Victoria’s debating society, he won the Union Prize and the Plunket Medal in 1910, and was a member of the Joynt Challenge Scroll team in 1911. He graduated BA in 1908 and was awarded a Sir George Grey Scholarship; he completed an MA (with honours in mathematics) in 1909 and an LLB in 1912.
From 1912 he practised law in Palmerston North in partnership with John Mason. On 5 March 1913 he married Margarette Ann Florence Johnson in Wellington; they were to have two sons and two daughters. When war was declared in 1914 Oram, who had served in the Territorial Force for several years, enrolled in the army and sold his practice. Rejected as medically unfit for overseas service, he was appointed adjutant to an artillery unit in Palmerston North. He was transferred to Base Records in 1915, and for his work as deputy director, in charge of demobilisation, he was made an MBE (military division) in 1919. On his discharge he returned to practise law in Palmerston North; by 1939 he was a partner in the firm of Oram, Yortt and Struthers. During the Second World War he was to serve as a training officer in the Home Guard, attaining the rank of acting major.
When Captain Richard Russell brought the first aeroplane to Palmerston North in July 1920, Oram was one of those to take a joy-ride and a few days later he went with Russell on the first flight to Wellington. He gained his pilot’s licence and worked enthusiastically to promote Palmerston North as a future air transport hub for the North Island. He was the first president of the Manawatu Aero Club, and took a leading part in organising its first air pageant in 1931. In 1934 he encouraged the club to enter the handicap section of the London–Melbourne centenary air race, paying half the entrance fee and offering financial help. However, when the committee controversially appointed a new pilot in place of Oram’s nominee, he withdrew his support.
Prominent in social and cultural activities in Palmerston North, Oram helped form the local YMCA in 1919 and was its chairman for seven years. He also helped establish the Palmerston North debating club and competitions society, supporting both organisations for many years. He was one of the founders of the local repertory society, and for nearly 20 years he took a leading part in each annual production. He was its president from 1935 to 1940 and in 1956 became chairman of the New Zealand Players board. He had a keen interest in education, serving on the Palmerston North High School Board for 29 years (14 as chairman) and the Wanganui Education Board for 11 years. In 1937 he was appointed to the Victoria University College Council, and the following year he became a member of the council of Massey Agricultural College; he served on both bodies until 1950.
An ardent supporter of the British Empire (and later the Commonwealth), Oram was strongly opposed to socialism and to the extension of state control into areas he considered best served by voluntary organisations. He was a member of the Palmerston North Borough Council from 1920 to 1927, and stood unsuccessfully for Parliament in 1935 for the Democrat Party. In 1943 he won the Manawatu seat for the New Zealand National Party, holding it until 1957. In his first two sessions in Parliament Oram was one of the opposition’s most frequent speakers on education issues, promoting policies to increase opportunities for advanced and continuing education for children and adults, and to improve conditions for teachers.
After National’s victory in the 1949 election, Oram was tipped to become minister of education. However, his poor relationship with Prime Minister Sidney Holland, his right-wing views and his somewhat difficult personality may have counted against him. Instead, in June 1950 he was appointed Speaker of the House of Representatives. He is remembered as a fair and effective Speaker, few of whose rulings were ever challenged. With his wife he instituted the Speaker’s suppers: after lengthy sittings, invited members met in his chambers for informal discussion. He was knighted in 1952 and retired from Parliament in 1957, paying a special tribute to his wife for her loyal support. He also recommended that the position of Speaker become more independent of the electoral process.
Later, as president of the Constitutional Society, Oram led a strong public campaign – with limited success – for open government, taxation reform, a second chamber and a written constitution; he retired as president in 1968. In the 1950s he owned several racehorses, one of which, Golden Galleon, won the Wellington Cup in 1955. Matthew Oram died in Palmerston North on 22 January 1969. He was survived by his wife and children.