Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Sir Joseph Ward

Text of British Dictionary of National Biography entry prepared in 1995.
Ward (1856-1930) was Prime Minister of New Zealand 1906-12, and 1928-30.

Ward, Sir Joseph George, first baronet, GCMG, merchant, Prime Minister of New Zealand, was born in Hawke Street, North Melbourne, Australia, on 26 April 1856. He was the third and last surviving child of ten born to Irish immigrants William Ward, a clerk, and Hannah nee Dorney who was to become a hotel keeper after her husband's death in 1860. In September 1863 following a second unsuccessful marriage to John Barron, Hannah Ward Barron took her three children to Bluff, at the southern tip of New Zealand's South Island. There Joseph grew to maturity, attending the local school and helping his devoutly Catholic mother run the Club Hotel.

Ward's formal education ended in 1869 when he joined the Bluff Post Office as a telegraph messenger. He learned Morse code. He then worked as a clerk at Samuel Nichol's general store on the Bluff waterfront until 1876 when he briefly joined the Railways Department as chief clerk in charge of the loading and unloading of ships. In 1877 Ward built storage sheds and became a merchant on his own account. Ultimately he acquired shipping agencies and bought wool, grain and skins from local farmers, selling them grass seed, fertiliser and stockfeed. All his life a merchant company carrying his name traded from Bluff and the nearby town of Invercargill.

Ward was elected to the local borough council in 1878 and three years later to the Bluff Harbour Board and to the mayoralty. In February 1883 he became Chairman of the Harbour Board and at 27 was the most influential citizen in the small port. Handsome, of medium height, with an expansive moustache that was later trimmed back then waxed, he married on 4 December 1883 Theresa Dorothea de Smidt of Bluff, who was tall, graceful and ten years younger. They had five children. It was a most successful marriage lasting until her relatively early death in February 1927. Theresa was Ward's chief admirer and dressed elegantly with huge, extravagant hats.

In 1887 Ward entered Parliament for the seat of Awarua. He supported the mildly expansionary Stout-Vogel ministry. The ministry was defeated by conservatives and Ward soon allied himself with those calling for tariff protection and closer settlement of the land. Courteous, well-dressed, with a "bright and happy" style of debating, Ward revealed himself to be a technocrat with a passion for getting maximum value from government expenditure. When John Ballance's Liberal Party took office in 1891 Ward became Postmaster General while continuing to expand his private business. Ballance died in April 1893 and Ward became Colonial Treasurer in Richard John Seddon's ministry. He was now obliged to spend longer periods away from home and his business which had moved somewhat recklessly into the frozen meat trade suffered. Ward's greatest early achievement, the Government Advances to Settlers Act 1894, which saw the Government raise money in London at 3% and on-lend to New Zealand farmers at 4 %, thus undercutting the trading banks, was designed in part to inject money into farming, particularly Southland, where his own business needed stimulation. While many thousands of farmers benefitted nationally, the cash injection was not enough to save Ward. By 1895 the J.G. Ward Farmers' Association was indebted to the Colonial Bank for £100,000 which itself was on the verge of collapse. As Colonial Treasurer Ward was responsible for an Act that merged the Colonial Bank with the larger Bank of New Zealand. However, the new structure refused to accept liability for the Ward Farmers' Association account. The business went into receivership. Ward's friends sought to buy his business, but the Supreme Court refused to sanction the sale in a decision that many Southlanders regarded as an act of political persecution by the judge.

Ward resigned from the Cabinet in June 1896 and in July 1897 he surrendered his public offices and became a bankrupt. The law at that time did not prevent bankrupts being elected to Parliament, and Ward won the by-election for Awarua with an increased majority. With the help of friends and family he was discharged from bankruptcy on 5 November 1897. Over the next two years, while helping Seddon's government from the back bench in Parliament, Ward devoted most of his time to rehabilitating his finances. He spent the summer of 1899 in London where he managed to sell for a good price a parcel of shipping company shares earlier deemed worthless by the official assignee. This windfall enabled Ward to repay all his creditors, and in time he became a wealthy man. After the 1899 election, with encouragement from Ward's friends in the ministry, Seddon made Ward his deputy as Colonial Secretary, Postmaster General, Minister of Railways and later in the year Minister of Health. In 1901 Ward received a KCMG for arranging a royal visit. Ward shifted his family to Wellington where they occupied Awarua House, now known as Premier House. Ward's rehabilitation was complete, although stories, many of them inaccurate, lingered for many years about his bankruptcy.

Ward devoted himself to the rapid expansion of post offices and telephones and the completion of the North Island Main Trunk Railway. He reduced postal, telephone and rail charges causing a huge expansion in patronage. He established the Department of Health and was also responsible for the introduction of superannuation schemes for government employees. Business acumen and a talent for figures made him indispensable to Seddon.

When Seddon died in June 1906 Ward was in London. He hastened back to New Zealand and was sworn as Prime Minister on 6 August 1906. Ward restructured the Cabinet but found cross-currents within the overlarge Liberal caucus difficult. Worried by a dwindling supply of land and constant demands for access to it, Ward's ministry advanced the concept of leasehold tenure in a series of bills only one of which was enacted. Friends and foes alike became disconcerted by vacillations in policy. Growing union unrest and strikes- unknown since 1894- also bedevilled his government. Ward held on to office- his only outright victory as Liberal leader- in the election of 1908.

But he was soon in trouble. The economy turned down temporarily and, with little success, Ward endeavoured to fasten attention on imperial matters by a gift to the Royal Navy of a dreadnought, HMS New Zealand. His posturing at the Naval Conference of 1909 and the Imperial Conference in 1911 made him the object of ridicule among left wing elements at home; a baronetcy for the portly, moustached premier in the coronation honours list drew special attention from cartoonists. The general election of December 1911 produced deadlock but in February 1912 on the Speaker's casting vote, Ward survived. He resigned from the prime ministership in March, and in July his party limped into Opposition. Ward took up golf and spent many months in Europe in 1913, returning late that year to assume the position of Leader of the Opposition. The election of 1914 produced stalemate again. Ward failed to staunch the flow of former Liberal voters across to various Labour groupings. His old foe, the Ulsterman, William Ferguson Massey of the Reform Party, held the top spot in a National Ministry that took office on 12 August 1915. Ward managed all at the same time to hold the positions of deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Finance and Leader of the Opposition.

Ward was obliged to accept responsibility for wartime inflation and wage controls. He attended two Imperial Conferences in London with Massey as well as the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Hoping that he could topple Massey's Government, Ward withdrew from the National Ministry in August 1919 and attempted to re-launch the Liberals as a radical party. They were humiliated in the election of December 1919, Ward losing his seat.

Ward was now nearly 64 and for the first time in 42 years he held no elected office. Most assumed that his overlong career was nearing its end. His health was giving trouble. Yet he sought to return to Parliament in a by election in 1923, and did become MP for Invercargill in 1925. With speeches that rambled down memory lane, Ward seemed a political irrelevance. But the uncertain economy of the 1920s nurtured nostalgia. A new political party called United invited the frail, 72 year-old to lead it into the election of 1928. Suffering from diabetes and poor eyesight, Ward inadvertently promised to borrow £70 million in one year to revive New Zealand's economy. He was the big winner in the November election although United lacked a majority. With Labour Party support in Parliament Ward defeated the Reform government of Gordon Coates. On 10 December 1928 the frail Ward took office again as Prime Minister.

Farce followed. Little of the money was borrowed; unemployment rose rapidly, and Ward fell ill, nearly dying in November 1929. He clung to office and accepted a GCMG in the New Years honours. But he was scarcely in touch with affairs for many months as he sought a cure in the thermal waters of Rotorua. His life flickered. In May 1930 his children and fellow ministers obliged him to resign the prime ministership. He remained a minister until his death on 8 July 1930. He was buried in Bluff Cemetery overlooking the small town that had nurtured him, and which he had represented for most of his political life. With his death went the former Liberal Party's principal entrepreneur, someone who was a better ideas man than a strategist, yet who had contributed much to the infrastructure of New Zealand.