Thomas Edward Taylor was born on 16 June 1862 in Kirton in Lindsey, Lincolnshire, England, the son of Edward Taylor and his wife, Anne Turner. His father had been in the navy and the police force before the family moved to London in 1867. There Thomas joined the Band of Hope, campaigning against the abuse of alcohol; he even persuaded his father to give up his moderate drinking in favour of total abstinence.
The Taylors emigrated to New Zealand in 1873, arriving at Lyttelton on the Cardigan Castle on 15 November. They settled in Addington, Christchurch. Thomas briefly continued his education at Christchurch West School but left in 1874 to join the importing and forwarding firm of J. M. Heywood and Company as an office boy. He was eventually to become a manager with the firm.
Addington was a stronghold of Methodism, and Taylor's parents soon became converts from Anglicanism. At the age of 14 Taylor himself experienced a religious crisis resulting in personal conversion. He soon became a Sunday school teacher and belonged to a debating society in the Addington Free Methodist Church. When he was 16 he began a course of training intended to prepare him for the ministry, but his minister decided he was too unorthodox and argumentative. Taylor then left the church but was always indebted to the ethical and social concerns of Methodism. He later fortified these by reading social reformers such as Thomas Carlyle, William Morris, Herbert Spencer, John Stuart Mill, Edward Bellamy and Henry George, and novelists such as Dickens, Thackeray and Tolstoy. He retained Methodism's strict attitudes towards gambling and alcohol along with a deep sense of caring for humanity and an evangelical zeal for social reform.
Taylor came to national prominence through his activities as a prohibitionist. The Licensing Act 1881 had divided New Zealand into districts in which ratepayers elected licensing committees with the intention of regulating the liquor trade; prohibitionists seized on this as a weapon in their campaign to close all hotels. In 1889 or 1890 Taylor and Leonard Isitt founded the Sydenham Prohibition League. Taylor organised extensive canvassing for the election in 1890; prohibition was nevertheless defeated, and Taylor and Isitt decided that more proselytising was needed. They founded the weekly newspaper the Prohibitionist as joint editors. Their uncompromising approach made many converts and prohibition was carried at the next poll. The licensing committee's decision to close five of Sydenham's eight hotels was overturned by the courts and the prohibitionists began a campaign to achieve a direct veto over liquor sales in any district. In 1893 Premier Richard Seddon's Alcoholic Liquors Sale Control Act required 60 per cent of an electorate to vote 'yes' if a district was to go 'dry'. This was seen as an act of cynicism, and Taylor never forgave Seddon.
The new triennial poll did ensure that prohibitionists had a ready-made platform. For Taylor, this was not simply a convenient step towards influence and power; he was committed to the abolition of a liquor trade he saw as an impediment to individual and social advancement, and gave it considerable attention throughout his political career. He became a vice president of the New Zealand Alliance, the main prohibitionist organisation, in 1898.
Taylor demonstrated his unflinching commitment to principle when in 1894 he refused the offer of a partnership in Heywood and Company because it would have meant giving up his work on behalf of prohibition. Instead, he set up an importing and land agency business with Herbert Cole and C. C. Derrett. It was not the move of a man concerned with worldly advancement, especially as Taylor now had a family to support: he had married Elizabeth Best Ellison at Christchurch on 18 April 1892, and the first of their six children had been born in 1893.
Taylor commenced his formal political career in 1891 by becoming a member of the Sydenham Borough Council, where he concentrated his attention not only on licensing matters but also on the welfare needs of the local people, particularly the unemployed. By 1896 Tommy Taylor, as he was now commonly known, was ready to contest one of the three parliamentary seats for City of Christchurch. His election platform revealed wide-ranging concerns. He opposed party government and supported the abolition of the Legislative Council. He also favoured the more rapid break-up and settlement of the large estates. Other issues promoted by Taylor included technical education in schools and more accessible secondary education, improved conditions in hospitals, reformatories and lunatic asylums, and the right of women to hold public office. He also advocated the replacement of the three-fifths majority requirement in the liquor poll with a simple majority.
As a member of the House of Representatives, Taylor lived up to his label of radical independent. He supported the proposed introduction of old-age pensions and pursued the issue of land reform. His zeal for prohibition and administrative reform united with his antipathy to Seddon over the issue of the enforcement of licensing laws. Taylor called for a royal commission into the state of the Police Force in April 1897; he believed that when inevitably prohibition had been adopted, it would have to be enforced by honest and efficient police action, and that Seddon had been interfering in the administration of the licensing laws. Seddon set up a royal commission in February 1898; it reported in September that inefficiency was due to factors other than the interference of Seddon and the minister of justice, Thomas Thompson. The zeal with which Taylor pursued his cause had probably weakened it. He published his own account of the proceedings in The shadow of Tammany (1898).
Taylor lost his parliamentary seat in 1899 largely as a result of his opposition to New Zealand's support for Britain in the South African war. He believed it to be a capitalist war and opposed militarism while millions lived in poverty in England. The opposition of the liquor trade and of the Lyttelton Times also played a part in his defeat. Temporarily out of politics, in 1899 he began a national speaking tour in favour of prohibition. He was also one of a group of businessmen who in 1900 formed the New Zealand Electrical Construction Company; it introduced Christchurch's first electric tramways. In 1902 Taylor further studied electricity generation while on a visit with his wife to Europe and Britain.
Taylor was again elected to Parliament as an independent in 1902 on a platform that was decidedly more oriented to labour reform than previously. He supported regulated shop hours, the employment of unionists over non-unionists, a universal half-holiday and a teachers' superannuation scheme. He also remained committed to reforms such as changes in the licensing poll and a referendum on religious instruction in schools.
During this term Taylor renewed his attack on what he perceived as the political corruption surrounding Seddon. In 1903 he accused Seddon of interfering with the right of the police to enforce the licensing laws in Newtown, Wellington; he claimed the police had been prevented from bringing prosecutions for sly-grogging. In September he seconded a motion of no confidence in the ministry. More seriously, he was involved in a libel case with Seddon's son, Richard. After his return from service in South Africa, Seddon junior had been appointed private secretary to the minister of defence, an office then held by his father. Allegations of nepotism were made. Provoked by Seddon during a debate on an unrelated issue, Taylor claimed, under privilege, that Seddon junior had been court-martialled for cowardice. Believing that Taylor had repeated the allegation outside the House, the premier's son issued a defamation writ for £1,000. After a Supreme Court trial in December 1904, in which Taylor conducted his own defence, an inconclusive verdict was reached. A new trial was set down for February 1905, but after an exchange of letters between Taylor and the premier, the matter was settled out of court.
In 1905 Taylor led a small group of MHRs known as the New Liberals. Their existence indicated a certain amount of radical discontent and disillusionment with the Seddon ministry. Their objectives included efficient, uncorrupted administration, an elected executive or cabinet, taxation reforms, increased taxation on large estates and a halt to sales of Crown land. They never formed a coherent party and their political influence was cut short by the defeat of Taylor and H. D. Bedford in the election of 1905. The defeat was partly due to the allegations of the New Liberal MHR F. M. B. Fisher that Richard Seddon junior had been improperly paid £76 for reorganising the Defence Department's stores. No evidence was ever produced.
Taylor spent the years 1906 to 1908 campaigning for licensing law reform. In 1906 he started the Express, an independent weekly that lasted for only one issue; it contained a penetrating appreciation of the recently deceased Seddon and proposed plans for improving the physical infrastructure of Christchurch. He was re-elected to Parliament for Christchurch North in 1908. Despite being offered a seat in Sir Joseph Ward's cabinet late in 1908, Taylor chose to remain independent so that he could 'exercise a free judgement on public issues.'
He became embroiled in another controversy in 1909 when he opposed, on the grounds of unconstitutional behaviour, the cabinet's presentation of a dreadnought battleship to Britain without first obtaining the consent of Parliament. His attitude was thought by many to have been disloyal. On other issues of a more social or economic nature, such as the level of the old-age pension, labour conditions and land legislation, he remained a champion of the poor, the disadvantaged and the dependent. He also secured government support for the Lake Coleridge power project – the first state-constructed hydroelectric station in New Zealand.
In 1911, with the support of organised labour, Taylor was elected mayor of Christchurch. He instigated a large number of reforms ranging from the tarring of roads and more frequent rubbish collections to the promotion of New Zealand artists. At the suggestion of his wife, Elizabeth Taylor, Christchurch's memorial of the coronation of King George V and Queen Mary was the founding of the Christchurch Crèche and Kindergarten Association; Tommy Taylor thought it more appropriate than a military parade, and Elizabeth became its first president. In his final years Taylor, never physically strong, suffered from physical and nervous exhaustion. His frenetic activity as mayor of Christchurch may have owed something to his knowledge of the likelihood of an early death. Taylor died of a perforated gastric ulcer at Christchurch on 27 July 1911. At his funeral procession 50,000 people lined the streets of the city. He was survived by his wife, five daughters and a son.
Tommy Taylor was one of the most colourful figures in contemporary political life. He was deeply committed to a broad range of social reforms, pursuing them with a zeal that frequently led to oratorical extremism and a denial of the pragmatic value of compromise. He occasionally showed a lack of judgement, which would have been a severe handicap had he ever sought high office. Taylor never did, preferring to stand outside party politics and retain a free hand to pursue his chosen causes.
Taylor owed much of his success to his ability as an orator; perhaps his size and physical appearance – he was 5 feet 10 inches in height and slightly built, and his head seemed too small for his body – contributed to the forceful impression he made. In his later years he moved progressively closer to a form of socialism, although he continued to stress the value of thrift, hard work and independence. His perception that it would take a new political party to realise many of the ideals for which he had fought is encapsulated in words written to a young Robert Semple in 1910: 'my shift seems about closing, yours…just beginning.'