William Massey

For other people named William Massey, see William Massey (disambiguation).
The Right Honourable
William Ferguson Massey

William Massey in 1919
19th Prime Minister of New Zealand
In office
10 July 1912  10 May 1925
Monarch George V
Governor-General John Dickson-Poynder
Arthur Foljambe
John Jellicoe
Charles Fergusson
Preceded by Thomas Mackenzie
Succeeded by Francis Bell
5th Leader of the Opposition
In office
11 September 1903  10 July 1912
Deputy James Allen
Preceded by William Russell
Succeeded by Joseph Ward
Personal details
Born (1856-03-26)26 March 1856
Limavady, County Londonderry, Ireland
Died 10 May 1925(1925-05-10) (aged 69)
Wellington, New Zealand
Political party Reform (None until February 1909)
Spouse(s) Dame Christina Massey GBE (née Christina Allan Paul)
Relations Walter Massey(son)
Jack Massey(son)
Children 7
Religion Presbyterian

William Ferguson Massey, often known as Bill Massey or "Farmer Bill", (26 March 1856 – 10 May 1925) was the 19th Prime Minister of New Zealand, from 1912 to 1925, and the founder of the Reform Party. He is widely considered to have been one of the more skilled politicians of his time, and was known for the particular support he showed for rural interests. After Richard Seddon, he is the second-longest-serving Prime Minister of New Zealand.

Early life

Massey was born in 1856 into a Protestant farming family, and grew up in Limavady, County Londonderry in Ireland. His father John Massey and his mother Marianne (or Mary Anne) née Ferguson were tenant farmers, who also owned a small property. His family arrived in New Zealand on 21 October 1862 on board the Indian Empire[1] as Nonconformist settlers,[2] although Massey remained in Ireland for a further eight years to complete his education. After arriving on 10 December 1870 on the City of Auckland, Massey worked as a farmhand for some years before acquiring his own farm in Mangere, south Auckland, in 1876.[3] In 1882 Massey married his neighbour's daughter, Christina Allan Paul. They had seven children.[4]

Early political career

Massey gradually became more prominent in his community. This was partly due to his civic involvement in the school board, the debating society,and farming associations. Because of his prominence in these circles, he became involved in political debate, working on behalf of rural conservatives against the Liberal Party government of John Ballance.

In 1893 Massey stood as a candidate in the general election in the Franklin electorate, losing to the Liberal candidate, Benjamin Harris.[4] In early 1894 he was invited to contest a by-election in the neighbouring electorate of Waitemata, and was victorious. In the 1896 election he stood for the Franklin electorate, which he represented until he died in 1925.[5]


Parliament of New Zealand
Years Term Electorate Party
18941896 12th Waitemata Independent
18961899 13th Franklin Independent
18991902 14th Franklin Independent
19021905 15th Franklin Independent
19051908 16th Franklin Independent
19081909 17th Franklin Independent
19091911 Changed allegiance to: Reform
19111914 18th Franklin Reform
19141919 19th Franklin Reform
19191922 20th Franklin Reform
19221925 21st Franklin Reform

Massey joined the ranks of the (mostly conservative) independent MPs opposing the Liberal Party, led by Richard Seddon. They were poorly organised and dispirited, and had little chance of unseating the Liberals. William Russell, the Leader of the Opposition, was able to command only 15 votes. Massey brought increased vigour to the conservative faction.

While the conservatives rallied for a time, support for the Liberals increased markedly during the Second Boer War, leaving the conservatives devastated. Massey's political career survived the period: despite a challenge by William Herries, he remained the most prominent opponent to the Liberal Party.

After Seddon's death the Liberals were led by Joseph Ward, who proved more vulnerable to Massey's attacks. In particular, Massey made gains by claiming that alleged corruption and cronyism within the civil service was ignored or abetted by the Liberal government. His conservative politics also benefited him when voters grew concerned about militant unionism and the supposed threat of socialism.

Reform Party

In February 1909,[6] Massey announced the creation of the Reform Party from his New Zealand Political Reform League. The party was to be led by him and backed by his conservative colleagues.

In the 1911 election the Reform Party won more seats than the Liberal Party, but did not gain an absolute majority. The Liberals, relying on support from independents who had not joined Reform, were able to stay in power until the following year, when they lost a vote of confidence.

Prime Minister

Massey was sworn in as Prime Minister on 10 July 1912. Two days later it was reported in the press on 12 July that he had accepted the appointment of Honorary Commandant of the Auckland District of the Legion of Frontiersmen. Some members of the Reform party grew increasingly frustrated at Massey's dominance of the party. He earned the enmity of many workers with his harsh response to miners' and waterfront workers' strikes in 1912 and 1913. The use of force to deal with the strikers made Massey an object of hatred for the emerging left-wing, but conservatives (many of whom believed that the unions were controlled by the far left) generally supported him, saying that his methods were necessary. His association with the Legion of Frontiersmen assisted him greatly during this period as a number of mounted units, including Levin Troop, rode to Wellington in mufti and assisted as Special Constables. In the Levin Troop was a young Bernhard Freyberg, who would shortly earn the Victoria Cross near Beaumont Hamel.

Amongst the first Acts enacted by Massey's government was one that "enabled some 13,000 Crown tenants to purchase their own farms."[7]

First World War

All we are and all we have is at the disposal of the British Government.
Cable from Massey to the British Government, 1914[7]

The outbreak of the First World War diverted attention from these matters. The 1914 election left Massey and his political opponents stalemated in parliament, with neither side possessing enough support to govern effectively. Massey reluctantly invited Joseph Ward of the Liberals to form a war-time coalition, created in 1915. While Massey remained Prime Minister, Ward gained de facto status as joint leader. Massey and Ward travelled to Britain several times, both during and after the war, to discuss military co-operation and peace settlements. During his first visit, Massey visited New Zealand troops, listening to their complaints sympathetically. This angered some officials, who believed that Massey undermined the military leadership by conceding (in contrast to the official line) that conditions for the troops were unsatisfactory. The war reinforced Massey's strong belief in the British Empire and New Zealand's links with it. He attended the Peace Conference in 1919 and signed the Treaty of Versailles on behalf of New Zealand. Although turning down knighthoods and a peerage, he accepted appointment as a Grand Officer of the Order of the Crown (Belgium) from the King of Belgium in March 1921 and a Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour by the President of France in October 1921.[8]

Coalition with the Liberals

Massey memorial profile, Wellington

Partly because of the difficulty in obtaining consensus to implement meaningful policies, the coalition government had grown increasingly unpopular by the end of the war. Massey was particularly worried by the rise of the Labour Party, which was growing increasingly influential. Massey also found himself fighting off criticism from within his own party, including charges that he was ignoring rural concerns. He dissolved the coalition in 1919, and fought both the Liberals and Labour on a platform of patriotism, stability, support for farmers, and a public works program. He successfully gained a majority.

The Red Scare

According to New Zealand historian Tony Wilson, Massey was known for his anti-Bolshevik and anti-Soviet sentiments. He disliked domestic socialist elements like the "Red Feds", the predecessor to the New Zealand Federation of Labour, and the New Zealand Labour Party. As Prime Minister, Massey was opposed to Communist influence. He regarded the Red Terror (1919–20) in the Soviet Union, which followed the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, as proof of the "inherently oppressive orientation" of socialism. In response to the Red Scare the government passed the War Regulations Continuance Act, which continued wartime emergency regulations including censorship. This led to a ban on Communist-oriented literature, which continued to 1935.[9]

1922 election

Economic problems lessened support for Reform. In the 1922 election Massey lost his majority, and was forced to negotiate with independents to keep his government alive. He was also alarmed by the success of Labour, which was now only five seats behind the Liberals. He began to believe that the Liberals would eventually disappear, with their supporters being split, the socially liberal wing to Labour and the economically liberal wing to Reform. He set about trying to ensure that Reform's gain would be the greater.

In 1924 illness forced him to relinquish many of his official duties, and the following year he died of his illness. The Massey Memorial was erected as his mausoleum in Wellington, paid for mostly by public subscription. Massey University is named after him, the name chosen because the university had a focus on agricultural science, matching Massey's own farming background.

List of honours


Further reading

  • Constable, H.J. (1925), From ploughboy to premier: a new life of the Right Hon. William Ferguson Massey, P.C, London: John Marlowe Savage & Co. 
  • Farland, Bruce (2009), Farmer Bill: William Ferguson Massey & the Reform Party, Wellington: First Edition Publishers. 
  • Gardner, William James (1966), "MASSEY, William Ferguson", An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock, retrieved 24 April 2008 
  • Gardner, William J. "The Rise of W. F. Massey, 1891–1912", Political Science (March 1961) 13: 3–30; and "W. F. Massey in Power", Political Science (Sept. 1961), 3–30.
  • Gustafson, Barry, "Massey, William Ferguson 1856–1925", Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, retrieved 24 April 2008 
  • Massey, D. Christine (1996), The life of Rt. Hon. W.F. Massey P.C., L.L.D. : Prime Minister of New Zealand, 1912–1925, Auckland, [N.Z.]: D.C. Massey 
  • Scholefield, Guy H. (1925), The Right Honourable William Ferguson Massey, M.P., P.C., Prime Minister of New Zealand, 1912–1925: a personal biography, Wellington, [N.Z.]: Harry H. Tombs 
  • Watson, James, and Lachy Paterson, eds. A Great New Zealand Prime Minister? Reappraising William Ferguson Massey (2010), essays by scholars
  • Watson, James. W.F. Massey: New Zealand (2011), short scholarly biography; emphasis on Paris Peace Conference of 1919 excerpt


  1. "Port of Onehunga". Daily Southern Cross. XVIII (1638). 21 October 1862. p. 2.
  2. 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica
  3. "Oxford DNB". Oxford DNB. 1925-05-10. Retrieved 2016-03-29.
  4. 1 2 Gustafson, Barry. "Massey, William Ferguson". Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Retrieved 10 December 2011.
  5. Scholefield, Guy (1950) [First ed. published 1913]. New Zealand Parliamentary Record, 1840–1949 (3rd ed.). Wellington: Govt. Printer. p. 126.
  6. "The Reform Party". The Evening Post. LXVVII (36). 12 February 1909. p. 8. Retrieved 23 March 2016.
  7. 1 2 Allen, Sam (1985), To Ulster's Credit, Killinchy, UK, p. 116
  8. M. Brewer, 'New Zealand and the Légion d'honneur: Officiers, Commandeurs and Dignites', The Volunteers: The Journal of the New Zealand Military Historical Society, 35(3), March 2010, p.136.
  9. Wilson, Tony (2004). "Chapter 6: Defining the Red Menace". In Trapeznik, Alexander. Lenin's Legacy Down Under. Otago University Press. pp. 101–02. ISBN 1-877276-90-1.
  10. "Massey, William Ferguson – Biography – Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand". Teara.govt.nz. Retrieved 2016-03-29.
  11. Reynolds, David (2014). The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 108. ISBN 9780393088632. Retrieved 2016-01-18. Massey's British Israelite philosophy was extreme, not to say eccentric[...].
  12. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 4 August 2011. Retrieved 20 May 2014.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to William Massey.
Government offices
Preceded by
Thomas Mackenzie
Prime Minister of New Zealand
Succeeded by
Francis Bell
Political offices
Preceded by
William Herries
Minister of Railways
Succeeded by
David Guthrie
New Zealand Parliament
Preceded by
Richard Monk
Member of Parliament for Waitemata
Succeeded by
Richard Monk
Preceded by
Benjamin Harris
Member of Parliament for Franklin
Succeeded by
Ewen McLennan
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