William Ferguson Massey, New Zealand statesman, Prime Minister from 1912 to 1925, and founder of the Reform Party, is born in Limavady, County Derry in what is now Northern Ireland on March 26, 1856. He is a lifelong spokesman for agrarian interests and opponent of left-wing movements. His Reform Party ministries include leadership of the country during World War I.
The Massey family arrives in New Zealand on October 21, 1862 on board the Indian Empire as Nonconformist settlers, although William remains in Ireland for an additional eight years to complete his education. After arriving on December 10, 1870 on the City of Auckland, he works as a farmhand for some years before acquiring his own farm in Mangere, south Auckland, in 1876.
While managing his own farm, Massey assumes leadership in farmers’ organizations. He enters Parliament in 1894 as a conservative and from 1894 to 1912 is a leader of the conservative opposition to the Liberal ministries. He becomes prime minister in 1912 and promptly signs legislation enabling freeholders to buy their land at its original value. The first years of his ministry see labour strikes by miners in Waihi in 1912 and wharf workers in Wellington in 1913. His harsh repression of them give impetus to the formation of the Labour Party in 1916. He also improves federal administration by putting civil service positions under a nonpolitical commission.
A coalition with the Liberal Party led by Sir Joseph Ward enables Massey to continue his ministry in 1915. He participates in the Imperial War Cabinet (1917–18) and signs the Treaty of Versailles at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, making New Zealand a founding member of the League of Nations. He opposes separate sovereign status for dominions within the British Commonwealth.
Following the war, farmers are troubled by depressed prices resulting from the sharply reduced British demand for their products, and they also face inflation in land prices, aggravated by increased demand for land by returning servicemen. Massey responds to these problems by establishing the Meat Control Board (1922) and the Dairy Export Control Board (1923), but rural and urban unrest resulting from rising prices continue to mount in the final years of his ministry.
In 1924 cancer forced Massey to relinquish many of his official duties, and he dies on May 10, 1925 at Wellington, New Zealand. The Massey Memorial is 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.