Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.

ALLEN, Sir James, G.C.M.G., K.C.B.

(1855–1942). Statesman.

A new biography of Allen, James appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

James Allen was born near Adelaide, South Australia, on 10 February 1855, the elder son of James and Mary Bax Allen. In early 1859, after the death of his wife, the father settled in Dunedin where he invested shrewdly in property. He took the children to England in 1862 to put them in the care of an uncle. James senior returned to Dunedin where he died in 1865. Allen was educated at Clifton College, and St John's College, Cambridge, where he obtained a third class in the natural sciences tripos in 1877. He was obliged to return to Dunedin to attend to the property he had inherited, but was in England again between 1874 and 1877 when he attended the Normal School of Science and the Royal School of Mines where he won the Bessemer and Murchison Medals.

Allen entered political life in 1880 when he was elected to the Dunedin City Council but resigned in 1883. At the general election of 1887 he stood for Dunedin East in the Conservative interest against the Premier, Sir Robert Stout, and defeated him. By now Allen was comparatively well known, not only in political but also in sporting and education spheres. He had played rugby twice for his university against Oxford and had captained the provincial rugby team. As the last life member, he had been appointed to the Council of the University of Otago, where he was later to become Vice-Chancellor (1903–09) and Chancellor (1909–12).

He was defeated at the 1890 election but in 1892 was returned at a by-election for Bruce, a seat he held until 1920. During the next 20 years he was in Opposition and recognised as one of the leaders. In June 1900 when Russell informed the House that the Opposition no longer considered itself an organised party, Allen was widely regarded as most likely to be his successor. Allen was shy, stiff, and lacked some of the essential qualities of a party leader and in 1903 Massey became leader with Allen as his deputy. In June 1912 the Reform Party became the Government and Allen took the ministries of Finance, Defence, and Education. The three budgets he presented were regarded as being extremely sound, and he was also responsible for the Act which reorganised the administration of education.

Allen is chiefly remembered for his work as Minister of Defence. He had long been interested in the volunteers and since 1891 had commanded various Otago units. In 1912 he retired with a Territorial decoration and the honorary rank of colonel. Basic military policy had already been settled when Allen took office, but he completely changed New Zealand naval policy. New Zealand's naval effort was restricted to the payment of a subsidy to the British Admiralty, but in 1912 on his way to England Allen discussed the formation of a Pacific Naval Unit to be financed by the Pacific dominions. At the London meetings the expeditionary force that New Zealand should supply in time of war was considered, and Allen strongly favoured the creation of a New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy. Though this was opposed by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, the passing of the Naval Defence Act 1913 brought the Division into existence. The Act was not, however, fully implemented until after the war. Allen's work ensured that New Zealand was ready at the outbreak of war. New Zealand troops captured German Samoa on 29 August 1914, while despite a delay of three weeks due to the lack of an adequate naval escort, the main body of the Expeditionary Force sailed on 16 October 1914.

When, after the indecisive election of 1914, the Reform and Liberal Parties formed a National Government in August 1915, Allen remained Minister of Defence. He was responsible for the War Pensions Act of 1915 which was improved in later years. A more difficult problem, however, was that of maintaining reinforcements for the Expeditionary Force. At first Allen was against conscription but in May 1916 he introduced the Military Service Bill to conscript by ballot men between 20 and 46. The Act was strongly criticised, particularly by the Labour Party, but Allen believed the system to be the fairest and most reliable method of obtaining the men required and winning the war. As a result, almost half the eligible male population of New Zealand was called up for foreign service, though of this number by far the greater were volunteers. In the last months of the war he drew up and introduced the legislation establishing the repatriation scheme for discharged servicemen. Allen frequently came under criticism because of his persistency and obstinacy, but his administration of the Defence Department was reviewed and praised by the Defence Expenditure Commission.

During the absence of Massey and Ward at the Imperial Conferences of 1917 and 1918 and at the Peace Conference in 1919, Allen was acting Prime Minister. For his war services he was in 1917 created K.C.B.

When the National Government was dissolved in August 1919, Allen assumed finance as well as defence. He was responsible for the measures under which New Zealand took over the League of Nations mandate for Western Samoa, while in 1920 he led the parliamentary delegation which visited New Zealand's island territories.

Allen resigned his seat early in 1920 when he was appointed High Commissioner for New Zealand in London, a position he was to fill with dignity for six years. During his two terms he represented New Zealand on many committees concerned with matters of common interest to the Empire. He was also New Zealand delegate to several conferences, the most important being the 1923 Imperial Economic Conference. As representative of the Dominion High Commissioners, he was a member of the British Empire Exhibition of 1924–25 Executive Committee. He regularly attended the Assembly of the League of Nations and took an active and prominent part in the work of several of the committees. He was created G.C.M.G. in 1926 for his work.

On his return to New Zealand he was in 1927 appointed to the Legislative Council and again took up an active public life. He was prominent in the establishment of the I.P.R. (New Zealand Branch), now the Royal Institute of International Affairs, and was for many years its president with a seat on the Pacific Council.

In 1938 Allen ceased to attend Parliament and retired into private life. He died in Dunedin on 28 July 1942.

Allen was a keen churchman and was a leading protagonist of the Bible in Schools movement. In 1914, though Minister of Education, he introduced a private measure which would have permitted Bible reading in State schools. It obtained strong Government support and aroused equally strong opposition. This resentment crystallised at the election and was one of the chief reasons for the Reform Party's failure to obtain a clear majority.

Allen married his cousin Mary Jane Hill Richards (died 1939) in 1877. There were three sons and three daughters, the best known being the Rev. Charles Richards Allen (1885– ) the blind author.

Allen was a man of high integrity with a stubborn sense of righteousness. He proved himself no mean administrator when he faced the problem of organising the Defence Department prior to and during the First World War. To his immediate staff he was a sympathetic chief but to others he was stern and reserved. Unfortunately his family life was marked by considerable strain and sorrow.

by James Oakley Wilson, D.S.C., M.COM., A.L.A., Chief Librarian, General Assembly Library, Wellington.

  • Otago Daily Times, 29 Jul 1942 (Obit).


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This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

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