Massey, William Ferguson (1856–1925), prime minister of New Zealand, was born 26 March 1856 at Keenaught near Limavady, Co. Londonderry, elder son of John Massey and Mary Anne (née Ferguson). His father was a tenant farmer from a long-established planter family; his mother's family had recently arrived from Scotland. In 1869 John Massey sold the family farm and emigrated to New Zealand, leaving William behind with his grandmother for a year to complete his education. After joining his family in New Zealand in 1870, William began work as a farmer; he soon imported a steam threshing mill and in 1876 he leased a hundred acres of land at Mangere, near Auckland, which was to become his home. In April 1882 he married Christina Allen Paul, the daughter of a Scots immigrant; two of their seven children would later follow their father into parliament.
From 1890 Massey started to make his mark in rural political life, becoming president of the local farmers’ club. A member of the Mangere presbyterian church, he was also a leading freemason and Orangeman (he became grand master of the North Island lodge in 1890). It was soon suggested that he represent his fellow farmers on the national stage: he was unsuccessful in the general election of 1893 but won a hard-fought by-election for the seat of Waitemata on 9 April 1894; he was to remain in parliament for the rest of his life. As an MP Massey opposed landlordism and championed railways and road-building schemes. Unlike his fellow Ulsterman John Ballance (qv), he advocated incorporating New Zealand into Australia. Ten years after his entry into national politics Massey had risen to head the small conservative parliamentary faction in opposition to Richard Seddon's governing Liberal Party. His party made little impact until Seddon was succeeded by the mercurial Sir Joseph Ward, a catholic, in 1906. A disgruntled opposition began muttering about corruption and favouritism towards catholics in appointments to government posts. In 1909 Massey's opposition assumed the name ‘Reform Party’.
After a bitter political battle, Massey formed his first administration on 10 July 1912, a talented body of men, who included six university graduates. Massey, who held the labour portfolio, was immediately faced with a wave of strikes. He responded by enrolling farmers as special constables (known as ‘Massey's Cossacks’) and succeeded in winning a decisive but bloody victory over the industrial protesters. The outbreak of the first world war saw New Zealand rally at once to Britain's side. In August 1915 Massey agreed to form a coalition with Ward's Liberal Party. With the aid of Sir James Allen, he proved a forceful wartime leader, introducing conscription without consulting the New Zealand electorate, standing up for the dominion's interests in London, and showing concern for the welfare of its troops. He was rewarded at the general election of 1919 by winning the only overall majority of his career, but his last three years of power were marred by economic recession and internal divisions within his party. He died 10 May 1925, and was buried at Point Halswell, at the entrance to Wellington harbour.
Massey's reputation has undeniably been harmed by his having presided over what has been called ‘the era of bigotry’. Pre-war domestic politics were scarred by squabbles over drink, gambling, social reform, and especially education, all of which had a strong sectarian dimension. Despite the charge that Massey ‘found it difficult to discard his Orangeism’ (Davis, 9), he emerges less as a bigot than as an astute politician determined to hang on to the office he had sought for so long.
Massey's cautious approach to sectarian issues was also apparent in his attitude to the Irish question in its various guises. His public references to Ireland were few and guarded, often forced from him and made under extreme provocation. He kept stoically silent during the long and bitter fight over Irish home rule. There was widespread colonial support for the measure, which its friends maintained would merely extend to Ireland the freedom that made New Zealand so loyal and contented. When war in Europe caused Irish ranks to close against the foreign foe, Massey spoke feelingly at a patriotic meeting at Wellington of his pride in ‘being of Irish birth’ (New Zealand Herald, 13 Aug. 1914). After 1916 the rise of revolutionary separatism in Ireland made it increasingly difficult to reconcile Irish national ambitions with imperial security. Massey continued to exercise restraint in his references to the Irish conflict, despite the weekly provocation offered by the catholic weekly the New Zealand Tablet, edited by the fiery Wexford-born priest James Kelly (qv). He even found himself speaking up in the house for Irish home rule as against self-determination (Evening Post (Wellington), 18 Sept. 1919).
Massey was genuinely horrified by disloyalty and ever vigilant against those ‘who would sell their immortal souls to see the Empire broken up and dismembered’ (New Zealand parliamentary debates, 1921, cxc, 170). He believed that the empire should be kept strong ‘at any sacrifice and at any cost’ (Evening Post, 4 Aug. 1920). This requirement, rather than the preservation of protestant Ulster from Sinn Féin clutches, was his primary concern during the Anglo-Irish conflict. When the treaty was concluded in December 1921, Massey immediately expressed the hope that ‘the people who have been opposing the Government of the United Kingdom – of the Empire – will become loyal citizens of the new Dominion which is being set up’ (New Zealand parliamentary debates, 1921, cxcii, 910).
Despite heavy pressure on him to declare where his loyalties lay, Massey's silence on the Irish issue in New Zealand was accompanied by an equal circumspection abroad. When leaving for the imperial conference in London in mid 1921, he was lobbied by both friends and enemies of Irish self-determination. While he publicly urged that nothing be done to endanger imperial unity, he also privately warned Lloyd George that any attempt to coerce ‘Ulster . . . will mean very serious trouble all over the Empire’. After elections for the newly created parliament in Northern Ireland, he cabled his congratulations to the prime minister, James Craig (qv), along with his ‘earnest hope that the event would help restore peace and harmony to the whole of Ireland’ (Evening Post, 31 May 1921). Massey chose not to attend the official opening of the Northern Ireland assembly, sending instead a stirring message:
Ulster citizens have proved their loyalty to King and country and given a guarantee that their Parliament will stand fast for those principles of freedom, liberty and righteousness upon which the Empire has been built up, and which have placed Britain in the front rank of the nations of the world. (Evening Post, 25 July 1921)
Massey's finest hour came at the imperial conference, when he was lionised by the press; ten cities and municipalities granted him their freedom; honorary doctorates were awarded to him by four universities. Boasting a leadership record longer than that of any other of those sitting around the conference table, Massey seemed to embody the tenacious qualities of the British race. Lloyd George requested that they be photographed together outside 10 Downing Street; Massey responded by inviting the Welshman to visit New Zealand. He referred to Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, and Andrew Bonar Law as ‘personal friends’ (New Zealand Herald, 31 Oct. 1922).
Massey's essence may be found in the fervour of his imperialism. The British empire reconciled his two identities as Ulsterman and New Zealander; it was echoed in his accent, a mixture of Irish brogue and colonial twang (Daily Mail (London), 6 Jan. 1917). Escaping his narrow Ulster heritage, Massey came to embrace a broad imperial faith with a quasi-religious intensity. Although his bucolic appearance made him seem slow-witted and occasionally a figure of fun, his transparent sincerity struck a chord with most New Zealanders, who shared his views on the British empire and on their place in it.