William Ferguson Massey
Massey University and its predecessor, Massey Agricultural College, take their name from New Zealand Prime Minister, William Ferguson Massey.
Bill Massey, as he was commonly known, was born in Limavady, Northern Ireland in 1856. He was the eldest child of John Massey and Mary Anne Ferguson who emigrated to New Zealand in 1862 as part of the wave of people who left Ireland as a result of the Great Famine. Bill initially remained in Ireland. This was so he could complete his education, first at the national school in Limavady and then at a private secondary school, before leaving for New Zealand in 1870.
After he arrived, Bill Massey spent his first years in New Zealand working for a number of farmers (including his father). From 1877 he leased his own 100-acre farm near Mangere and five years later, in 1882, married Christina Allan Paul, the eldest daughter of Walter Paul and his wife Christina Allan, who were neighbours of his.
By the start of the 1890s, Massey had become well-known in the community and was chair of various committees, clubs, boards and associations, and the local lodge. He was also instrumental in reviving the Auckland Agricultural and Pastoral Association in 1890 and was appointed its president from that year until 1893, essentially making him the spokesman for farmers in the Auckland province. It was because of this position that he was chosen as vice-president of the National Association of New Zealand, which had been formed in 1891 to organise conservatives against John Balance’s Liberal government.
Massey stood as opposition candidate for his Franklin electorate in the 1893 elections but lost to the Liberal candidate. Several months later, the Waitemata seat became available. Massey stood in this by-election and, after a hard-fought battle, was elected to Parliament on 9 April 1894. He kept this seat for a few years before relinquishing it to stand for his home constituency seat of Franklin. This time, he succeeded, and also served as de facto leader of the opposition during the period between 1899 and 1902. Because he was seen as an excellent organiser and a genial personality, Massey was unanimously elected leader in 1903. Over the next decade, under his leadership, the Reform Party slowly gained in popularity. After the Liberal government lost a vote of no confidence in 1912, William Ferguson Massey was sworn in as Prime Minister on 10 July 1912.
Massey was soon confronted with the Waihi miners' strike of 1912 and later with the waterfront and general strikes of 1913. These were broken up, sometimes violently, by special constables nicknamed 'Massey's Cossacks', resulting in the Prime minister gaining a mixed reputation. Indeed, his harsh repression of these strikes indirectly led to the formation of the New Zealand Labour Party in 1916.
The outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 distracted public attention from both domestic issues and the December 1914 general election. Massey gained 40 seats in Parliament – 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 led Massey to reluctantly 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 in August 1915. Massey remained Prime Minister, but Ward was de facto joint leader of the government.
In 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. They returned to New Zealand in 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.
Massey again travelled to Europe in 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 returned to New Zealand on 5 August 1919 to contest a general election delayed since 1917 because of the war. At this time, New Zealand 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.
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. 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. The election of 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.
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. His party 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.
In August 1923 Massey sailed for his fifth and last visit to Britain. He was not well and returned to New Zealand ill and tired in 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 in March 1925 was unsuccessful and in April he returned from hospital to his home in Tinakori Road, where he died on 10 May 1925 aged 69. He was buried at Point Halswell on the Miramar Peninsula. In September 1930, a large memorial was unveiled at the site. His wife, Christina, died at Wellington on 19 April 1932 and was interred with her husband.
At the time of his death, the Right Honourable William Ferguson Massey had been the dominant and respected political figure in New Zealand for many years. He had been a strong supporter of education in the agricultural sciences. These factors helped make him a natural choice when it came to naming the new agricultural college that was established in the North Island in 1926/1927, Massey Agricultural College.
A collection of items associated with the life of the Mr Massey is held by Massey University.Awards and honoursHonorary Doctor of Law degree from University of Cambridge.
Honorary Doctor of Law degree from University of Edinburgh.
Freedom of the City of London, Edinburgh, Cardiff.Sources
Barry Gustafson. 'Massey, William Ferguson', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993, updated November, 2013. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2m39/massey-william-ferguson (accessed 1 September 2022).
'MASSEY, William Ferguson', from An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock, originally published in 1966. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/1966/massey-william-ferguson (accessed 2 September 2022).
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. "William Ferguson Massey". Encyclopedia Britannica, 6 May. 2022, https://www.britannica.com/biography/William-Ferguson-Massey. Accessed 2 September 2022.ContributorMassey University Archives