Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.

MACKENZIE, Sir Thomas, G.C.M.G.

(1854–1930).

Politician, explorer, business man.

A new biography of Mackenzie, Thomas Noble appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Mackenzie was born in Edinburgh on 10 March 1854 and came to New Zealand in 1858 when his father, David Stewart Mackenzie, brought out his family in the Robert Henderson. They settled in a fern-tree cottage in what is now St. Clair, Dunedin, and Thomas was educated at the Green Island and North-east Valley Schools and then at the Stone School. After some private tuition he ended his schooling in his early teens, and he worked for several years in mercantile firms before following his brother James (later Surveyor-General) into surveying. Thomas was 20 when he joined the Survey Department; he worked in the Hutt Valley, Rangitikei, and Manawatu, and finally in the Dunedin area.

In 1877 Mackenzie bought a general storekeeping business in Balclutha, which he developed considerably and sold well in 1886. He was now a man of substance and one well-known personally throughout South Otago, partly because of his service on the Balclutha Borough Council (1881–87) and partly because of his conduct in the “seeds case”, in which in 1887 he established in the Courts that there was a legal responsibility falling upon the vendors of seed that it should be true to label even without an express warranty. This local popularity resulted in his return to Parliament in 1887 as member for Clutha. He retained the seat until 1896. For the next three years Mackenzie was in Britain representing certain cooperative produce marketing concerns and insurance interests. He discovered and suppressed a system of assessing imported produce for non-existent damage. He had already, in 1889, inquired into the export of produce to Britain on behalf of the Government.

In 1900 Mackenzie returned to Parliament when he won the by-election for Waihemo caused by the resignation of his near-namesake, Sir John McKenzie, Liberal Minister. Mackenzie at this time was an opponent of the Liberals. He criticised most effectively the siting of the Central Otago railway and considered the development of the Catlins area in South Otago at least as promising. In successive Parliaments, in 1902 representing Waikouaiti and in 1908 Taieri (he complained that shifting electoral boundaries always seemed to be unseating him), he championed the interests of Otago in a style somewhat reminiscent of the days of Macandrew and Pyke. Meanwhile he had been moving closer to the Liberal viewpoint and early in 1909 joined the Ward Cabinet as Minister of Industries and Commerce, later adding the portfolio of Agriculture. In 1911 Mackenzie transferred to a North Island electorate, winning the Egmont seat. In February 1912 the Liberal Government led by Ward was saved from defeat only by the casting vote of the speaker. Ward resigned, and Mackenzie was thereupon elected leader of the party and invited to form a Government. He was Prime Minister from 28 March to 10 July when he resigned, as his party was defeated as soon as it met the reassembled Parliament and gave way to the first Government of William Massey.

Although he had virtually changed sides in 1909 and had more recently endured the embarrassments of leading a “caretaker” Government, Mackenzie was personally a respected figure and it seemed natural that in August 1912 he should resign his seat to take up an appointment as High Commissioner in London, in which he served, with distinction, until 1920. As High Commissioner Mackenzie bore the brunt of the problems of war. He was critical of the management of food imports into beleagured Britain and did not hesitate to speak his mind. Although he had protested against profiteering, he retained the confidence of business interests and represented the London Chamber of Commerce at international gatherings in America on his way home. He had represented New Zealand at the Peace Conference and League of Nations, and had served in a variety of international bodies covering safety at sea, Pacific cables, the Dardanelles Royal Commission (where he felt constrained to present a minority report), and war graves administration. He was made a K.C.M.G. in 1916 and in 1920 was the first New Zealander to be made a G.C.M.G.

Mackenzie was appointed to the Legislative Council in 1921 and reappointed in 1928. He died in Dunedin on 14 February 1930. He had married Ida Henrietta Nantes, of Geelong, Victoria, in 1884 (five sons and two daughters). A son, Clutha, blinded in the war, became director of the Institute for the Blind, Auckland.

In addition to his parliamentary services Mackenzie all his life took a full part in local affairs, from the days of his Balclutha mayoralty to his later residence in Dunedin. He was Mayor of Roslyn 1901–02, and served on the Otago Education Board for many years, the Otago High Schools' Board, and the Otago Hospital Board.

His early life as a surveyor left Mackenzie with a deep interest in the natural life of this country and a love of those untouched fastnesses of which many still remained in the South Island. In 1881 with Professor J. H. Scott and James Allen, he travelled through from Lake Wakatipu to Martins Bay by the Harris Saddle. In 1885 with John Sharp and W. S. Pillans (a companion also on later expeditions) he explored the Tautuku Forest in the Catlins district, Otago. In October 1888 he led a party exploring inland from Milford Sound in an attempt to estimate the height of the Sutherland Falls. Quintin McKinnon met the party after discovering the McKinnon Pass and inspired Mackenzie to make the return west to east crossing from Milford to Lake Te Anau, both crossings being made hazardous by early season avalanche snow. Mackenzie's later explorations were in the difficult country between Manapouri and the West Coast sounds, which he visited in 1894 and 1896, discovering several passes. In 1907 he did further work in the Te Anau – Wakatipu area. In 1888 Mackenzie led the party searching for Professor Mainwaring Brown in the Manapouri area and in 1892 took part in the search for his former companion, Quintin McKinnon. In 1898 Mackenzie was elected to the fellowship of the Royal Geographical Society.

Sir Thomas Mackenzie was a modest, hardworking man who made his way by diligence and businesslike methods. His political career was based as much on administrative ability as on his power as a speaker, although he could always marshal facts effectively. He reached the highest office briefly and almost by accident but did not disgrace it. His work as wartime High Commissioner was the most valuable phase of his career.

by David Oswald William Hall, M.A., Director, Adult Education, University of Otago (retired).

  • History of Otago, McLintock, A. H. (1949)
  • Exploration of New Zealand, McClymont, W. G. (1959)
  • New Zealand Parliamentary Guidebook, Russell, G. W. (1895)
  • Evening Star (Dunedin), 14 Feb 1930 (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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