William Ferguson Massey was born at Limavady, near Londonderry in Northern Ireland, on 26 March 1856. Bill Massey, as he was generally known, was the eldest child of John Massey and his wife, Mary Anne Ferguson. Bill's father came from a long-established Ulster family but both his mother and his paternal grandmother were Scots.
In 1862 John Massey sold the family farm in Ireland and with his wife and two of their children migrated to New Zealand with a group of Nonconformist settlers, arriving on the ship Indian Empire on 20 October. Bill Massey remained in Ireland for a further eight years to complete his education at a private secondary school, following primary schooling at the national school at Limavady. He arrived in New Zealand on the City of Auckland on 10 December 1870.
John Massey had hoped to develop a plot of land granted to migrants who paid their own fares to New Zealand, but he was bitterly disappointed with the bush section near Pūhoi. Instead he leased land at west Tāmaki, where his son Bill worked for the first two years after arriving in New Zealand. About 1873 Bill Massey went to work for John Grigg on his Longbeach station near Ashburton. Returning to Auckland after nearly three years, Massey again worked for his father before leasing his own 100-acre farm at Māngere about 1877, and also buying a threshing machine which provided him with an additional income.
A neighbouring farmer was Walter Paul, who with his wife Christina Allan had migrated from Scotland to New Zealand via Australia, where their eldest daughter Christina Allan Paul had been born. She was 19 and Massey 26 when they married in the Presbyterian church at Māngere on 5 April 1882. They were to have seven children, two of whom – Walter and John – became members of Parliament.
In 1890 Massey's wooden farmhouse burnt down and he purchased a large red-brick house with a grey slate roof. Built in 1852 and set on 17 acres of land it was located in what became Massey Road, Māngere. There Massey built up an impressive library indicative of his wide reading. His favourites were Kipling, Shakespeare, Dickens, Scott, historical biography, and the Bible, especially the Old Testament which he could (and did) quote comprehensively throughout his life. The homestead was later given to the local community by Massey's son George and was turned into a community centre.
By the early 1890s Massey had become a local notable, active in numerous activities and organisations. He was chairman of the Māngere School committee and worshipped at the local Presbyterian church. He was senior warden of the Manukau Freemasons' lodge, a member of the Māngere Road Board and was active in the local debating society. More importantly he was chairman of the Māngere Farmers' Club, which in 1890 revived the Auckland Agricultural and Pastoral Association of which Massey became president from 1890 to 1893; as such he was the de facto spokesman for farmers in the Auckland province. This last position led to Massey's being chosen as vice president of the National Association of New Zealand, a political body formed in Auckland in September 1891 to organise urban and rural conservatives against the new, radical Liberal government led by John Ballance.
At the 1893 elections held on 28 November, Massey stood as opposition candidate for his local electorate of Franklin but lost narrowly to the Liberals' Major Benjamin Harris. When several months later the Waitematā seat became vacant, opposition supporters in Waitematā sent a telegram to Massey asking him to stand in the by-election. According to Massey he was on top of a haystack when the telegram arrived and it was passed to him on a pitchfork. Massey accepted the invitation and in a hard-fought contest was elected to Parliament on 9 April 1894. He was to stay in Parliament for the remaining 31 years of his life.
The small, dispirited, loosely organised collection of conservative independents whom Massey joined in the parliamentary opposition were no match for the completely dominant Liberal government of Richard John Seddon. The opposition leader, William Russell, was supported by a mere 15 of the 70 members of the House of Representatives, and the imbalance in numbers also reflected the distribution of talent in the House. Massey was one of the few oppositionists prepared to remain conscientiously in the House hour after hour and day after day. Although not seen as a creative policy maker or dynamic leader, he became respected for his tenacity and clarity in debates and in time revealed his astuteness as a tactician and organiser. By 1896 he was the opposition whip.
Frustrated by his inability to influence events, unhappy with the lengthy absences from his family and finding the financial cost of being a politician onerous, Massey seriously considered retiring from politics in 1896. Instead he relinquished Waitematā and again contested his home constituency of Franklin. In the election of 4 December he defeated Harris, the government whip, by 2,184 votes to 1,710. Over the country as a whole the opposition almost doubled its strength in the House to 28 members.
As a group the opposition now adopted a more clear-cut conservative position on land tenure and labour legislation. Massey himself became the major advocate of freehold land tenure, and he also strongly supported the construction of the main trunk railway line between Auckland and Wellington. He continued to emphasise the importance of individual responsibility and initiative, and individual incentives and rewards. Co-operation at the local level was desirable whereas state compulsion was to be opposed. In foreign affairs Massey suggested an inquiry into whether or not New Zealand should join the Commonwealth of Australia, subsequently accepting the recommendation of a royal commission that New Zealand should remain independent while maintaining economic co-operation. Although in later years Massey was to advocate handing over Germany's Pacific islands territories to New Zealand and Australia, in the 1890s he opposed Seddon's annexation plans for the Cook Islands and Niue.
Following the passage of the Old-age Pensions Act 1898 and with Seddon at the height of his power, the Liberals won a resounding victory at the 1899 elections. The opposition, referred to by Seddon as the 'National Ass' and depicted as the lackey of the squatters and rich businessmen, was cut back to 15 members again, although Massey easily retained his seat with two-thirds of the votes cast. The jingoism of the South African war, economic prosperity and industrial harmony all further consolidated Seddon's government between 1899 and 1902 and made the opposition's position impossible. It largely ceased to exist as an organised force inside or outside Parliament. During most of that time Massey, as whip, served as de facto leader.
The 1902 election saw little change in the relative strengths of the government and opposition and it became obvious that a robust, effective and credible opposition leader was essential to devise and manage tactics in the House and to appeal for support in the electorate at large. The two major possibilities were the opposition's most trenchant financial spokesman, James Allen, and Massey, who although younger was clearly the better organiser and a more genial personality. Massey was unanimously elected leader on 9 September 1903, with Allen becoming his unofficial deputy.
Although Massey campaigned strenuously inside and outside Parliament over the following two years, he at first made little impact on Seddon's remarkable reputation and hold on power. At the 1905 election Seddon's supporters won all but 18 seats and there was a suggestion for a time that Massey might be replaced as opposition leader by William Herries. On 10 June 1906, at the age of 60, Seddon died suddenly. He was replaced by Sir Joseph Ward, a clever man but not the brilliant campaigner or manager of people that Seddon had been. For the first time Massey was to be set against another mortal politician and not the demigod Seddon had become in the eyes of the public.
Ward and the Liberals won the 1908 election, at which Massey campaigned for the return of a strong, unified opposition which could challenge alleged Liberal corruption, cronyism and incompetence, especially in the public service. He continued to emphasise freehold tenure and to exploit growing concern among both rural and urban property owners at the advent of militant unionism and socialist, syndicalist and anarchist propaganda. Aided by the country quota the opposition won 27 seats at the 1908 election; Massey began referring to them as the alternative government. In February 1909 Massey announced that he and his supporters would thenceforth be known as the Reform Party.
At the 1911 election Massey was a nationally known figure. He had shaved off his beard, though keeping a distinctive moustache. His massive physical frame, reminiscent of Seddon, was a distinct advantage in a political system where the voters expected the country's leading politician to be larger than life. The Liberals lost 16 seats, leaving them with only 30. The Reform Party won 36. The remaining 14 seats went to unpredictable independents, Labour candidates and Māori MPs.
The genesis of the first Reform Party government led by Massey was marked by uncertainty, unscrupulous political manoeuvring, nasty intrigue, accusations of bribery, and bitter recriminations in which Massey himself indulged. In February 1912 a no-confidence vote against the Liberal government was defeated by 40 votes to 39 on the Liberal speaker's casting vote. Massey was furious. A second no-confidence motion moved in July 1912, however, was carried with the help of five Liberal dissidents by 41 votes to 33. On 10 July Massey was sworn in as prime minister.
Massey's first cabinet consisted of himself, Allen and Herries, F. H. D. Bell, A. L. Herdman, William Fraser, R. H. Rhodes, F. M. B. Fisher and Māui Pōmare. Six of the nine were university graduates, and the senior ministers apart from Massey were city men, indicating that Massey was neither prejudiced against men more educated than himself nor interested in leading merely a country party government. Allen, until his resignation in 1920, and Bell, were his closest and most able lieutenants during the following years.
Although Allen and Bell were prepared to argue with their leader from time to time, after 1912 Massey came increasingly to dominate both his caucus and the party. Not a vindictive man, Massey nevertheless could fly into a temper and was intolerant of those who did not share his own somewhat narrow religious and political outlooks and principles. The party organisation enjoyed almost no independence and merely did what Massey requested.
The incoming Reform government was immediately faced with two of the major industrial disputes in New Zealand's history: the 1912 Waihī miners' strike and the 1913 waterfront and general strikes, which split the community into two irreconcilable camps. Massey, his attorney general, Herdman, and Police Commissioner John Cullen adopted a partisan position; the use of special constables, who became known as 'Massey's Cossacks', earned Massey the undying hatred of many urban workers, an enmity passed on to their children. However, more conservative voters, especially in the farming community, saw Massey's stand as firm and decisive, arguing that Massey simply took the 'Red Feds' at their word and met their revolutionary rhetoric and intimidatory tactics with superior force.
Massey not only fulfilled his promise to oppose the industrial militants but he also established an independent public service commissioner to appoint and promote public servants without political cronyism and religious discrimination. He implemented a third major election policy plank by passing an act to make the leases of Crown tenants freehold.
The outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 distracted public attention from both domestic issues and the December 1914 general election, which again denied Massey a clear working majority in Parliament. He gained 40 seats – exactly half – but was in a minority after the appointment of a speaker. The deadlock in the House, accompanied by growing public agitation for a wartime coalition government (similar to that established in Britain in May 1915), led Massey reluctantly to invite Ward and the Liberals, and indeed the small group of Labour MPs, to join Reform in a national government. Labour declined but the Liberals and Reform Party created a coalition on 4 August 1915. Massey remained prime minister but Ward, who took the finance portfolio from Allen, was de facto joint leader of the government. Massey and Ward detested each other on personal, political and religious grounds and a decision to legislate only if there was unanimity in the coalition cabinet made the period of National government very frustrating for all involved.
On 24 August 1916 Massey, accompanied by Ward, sailed for Britain on the first of five extended visits he was to make overseas during the following eight years. Allen, minister of defence, was left as acting prime minister during Massey's absence, which lasted until 25 June 1917. During that time Massey not only attended meetings of the Imperial Conference and the Imperial War Cabinet but also toured Britain, receiving honorary LLD degrees from the universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh and the freedom of the city of London, the first of 10 cities to so honour him between 1916 and 1921. Massey also visited New Zealand troops, many of them in hospital following the battle of the Somme, where in three weeks the New Zealand Division suffered 7,000 casualties including Massey's youngest son, George, who was seriously wounded. Massey's willingness to meet the troops and listen to their complaints annoyed others in authority, including New Zealand's governor general, Lord Liverpool.
Massey and Ward returned to England on 2 May 1918 for a further Imperial Conference, arriving back in New Zealand on 12 October. The war ended on 11 November but rejoicing in New Zealand was muted by the onset of an influenza epidemic which killed more than 8,500 people and incapacitated many more. Christina Massey had been appointed a CBE for her work during the war with servicemen on leave and the dependents of servicemen killed overseas, and she helped organise emergency care for the sick during the epidemic. She became a victim herself and her health was permanently impaired.
Massey travelled to Europe on 12 December 1918 to represent New Zealand at the Paris Peace Conference, signing the Treaty of Versailles on New Zealand's behalf on 28 June 1919. He was concerned at the post-war chaos in Europe and the rise of communism in Russia but was sceptical about the idea of a league of nations. Instead he continued to look to Britain and the British Empire to guarantee New Zealand's future economic and military security. Loyalty to the British Empire and a deep faith in the positive characteristics of the British people were prominent aspects of both Massey's and the Reform Party's outlook and public appeal. During the latter years of his life he was also influenced by British-Israelism, with its mystical belief in the divine mission and the permanency of the British Empire. Massey declined the offer of a peerage or even a knighthood and returned to New Zealand on 5 August 1919 to contest a general election delayed since 1917 because of the war.
The post-war situation in New Zealand worried Massey. The country was deeply divided between town and country, employer and worker, conservative and radical, conscriptionist and anti-conscriptionist, rich and poor, Protestant and Catholic. Many people were prepared to blame the government for the appalling war casualties, inflation, profiteering, and the atrocious urban housing and inadequate health services revealed by the epidemic. The New Zealand Labour Party, formed in 1916, appeared to have largely united the previously fratricidal left-wing sections of society and to have become the beneficiary of the widespread disillusionment with the coalition government. In 1918 Labour won three by-elections through which three of the party's apparently most revolutionary leaders – Harry Holland, Bob Semple and Peter Fraser – entered Parliament. Ward, seeking belatedly to distance himself from the government's unpopularity, withdrew from the coalition in August 1919 and went to the electors with a radical and expensive policy. Massey also had to silence some critics in his own caucus and prevent the Auckland branch of the New Zealand Farmers' Union from forming a country party to compete with Reform for the rural vote.
Massey campaigned against the Liberals and Labour on a policy of patriotism, stability, law and order, defence of the rural sector, and the protection of private property. He promised to expand New Zealand's exports, improve urban housing and health services, and, predictably, spend more on public works, especially railways.
At the 1919 election, and again in 1922, an organisation known as the Protestant Political Association of New Zealand (PPA) campaigned actively in favour of the Reform Party. The PPA, a violently anti-Catholic organisation led by the Reverend Howard Elliott, was strongly represented in Reform's extra-parliamentary organisation – half of the Reform Party's Auckland executive belonged to the PPA, for example. Although Massey publicly disassociated himself from the PPA, he always took a negative attitude to the selection of a Catholic candidate by the Reform Party in any electorate; he was critical of the Catholic church's stand on issues, such as their opposition to the Bible in schools movement; and he held secret meetings with the PPA's secretary, Henry Bilby. His anti-Catholicism was no doubt confirmed by his membership of the Orange, Oddfellows' and Masonic lodges, the last of which chose him as its grand master in 1924. By that time, however, the PPA had been largely discredited and it was openly critical of Massey for not meeting its expectations. Massey's successor, Gordon Coates, was to disown the PPA completely in 1925.
The election on 17 December 1919 gave Massey for the first and only time during his 31 years in Parliament a clear majority of the seats. Reform with 36 per cent of the vote won 45 seats, the Liberals 18, Labour 8, and there were 10 independents. Although Allen resigned in 1920 and took up the post of high commissioner in London, Massey was to find two other very capable lieutenants in the soldier-farmer Coates and the erudite Dunedin lawyer William Downie Stewart.
By 1920 a quarter-century of almost continuous prosperity was ending. The prices Britain paid for New Zealand produce started to fall, and the country slipped into recession. Massey moved towards stronger producer boards with the New Zealand Meat-producers Board in 1922 and the New Zealand Dairy-produce Control Board in 1923. Reform Party supporters, however, became more insistent that taxes should be lowered, government spending cut, public servants dismissed and wage demands rejected. Massey's absence from New Zealand from 16 April to 30 September 1921 limited his ability to control domestic events on a day-to-day basis during that time.
Reform's 1922 election campaign was very negative and the result was a depressing one for Massey. Reform came out of the election with only 37 seats to the Liberals' 22 and Labour's 17. Four independents held the balance and had to be courted by Massey. The opposition parties proved reluctant to co-operate with one another and Massey remained prime minister, although he complained that governing with such an uncertain majority made his life hell all the time.
Between 1923 and 1925 Massey took steps to combat inflation and keep interest rates down. He increased old-age and widows' pensions and instituted pensions for the blind. Export prices started to improve and state loans were used to establish agricultural banks. There were tax cuts, especially for farmers, and continued spending on public works, housing and the rehabilitation of servicemen onto farms. A railway workers' strike in 1924 was crushed. Massey's strategy was not only to create a favourable climate for the 1925 election but also to persuade Liberal voters that in 1925 the choice was between Reform and Labour, in the anticipation that the majority of Liberal voters would shift to Reform. He did not live to see the results of his long-term strategy, which at the 1925 election helped to give Reform its greatest victory ever with 56 of the 80 seats in the House.
On 28 August 1923 Massey sailed for his fifth and last visit to Britain. He was not well and returned to New Zealand ill and tired on 24 January 1924. Cancer progressively weakened him during 1924 and by October he was forced to relinquish many of his duties as prime minister. An operation on 30 March 1925 was unsuccessful and on 9 April he returned from hospital to his home in Tinakori Road, where he died on 10 May 1925 aged 69. He was buried on 14 May at Point Halswell at the entrance to Wellington Harbour. On 19 September 1930 a large memorial was unveiled at the site. His wife, Christina, who was made a GBE in 1926, died at Wellington on 19 April 1932 and was interred with her husband.
Massey's entire parliamentary career was marked by crises and difficulties with which few other major New Zealand politicians have had to cope, and none over such a long period. He inherited a small, unpopular, disunited and dispirited opposition that had to compete against the charismatic appeal of Seddon. His governments from 1912 to 1925 grappled not only with problems resulting from prosperity but with economic recessions, strikes, growing divisions within society, a world war and the worst epidemic in the country's history. A three-party splitting of the vote resulted in Massey only once, in 1919, winning an election with sufficient seats to assure himself a majority in the House, and even then it was small. A less astute or tenacious parliamentary tactician would not have been able to hold his caucus together or manage the House as well as Massey did, even if in his later years he became a more distant, authoritarian and irascible figure.
Despite his assumption of a bluff, rustic persona in public, Massey is one of New Zealand's most significant politicians. He took an opposition that had all but ceased to exist, and by force of personality and astute political leadership both inside and outside Parliament transformed it into an organised political party. He and his party saw farmers as the developers of the countryside, the base of the economy and the personification of the young nation's pioneering spirit. This inevitably brought them into conflict with other sectional interests, particularly the emergent union movement and the Labour Party. Yet although Massey espoused the cause of conservatism, both his personal instincts and his practice while in office place him in a tradition of humanitarian pragmatism.