Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.

REEVES, the Hon. William Pember

(1857–1932).

Politician, historian, and poet.

A new biography of Reeves, William Pember appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

William Pember Reeves was the eldest son of the Hon. William Reeves, Resident Minister for the Middle (South) Island in the Fox Ministry of 1869–72 and principal proprietor of the Lyttelton Times. His mother, Ellen Pember, was a daughter of a wealthy Clapham stockbroker and sister of E. H. Pember, a successful parliamentary lawyer and unsuccessful poet. William Reeves failed on the Stock Exchange and – after his debts were paid in full – the family migrated to New Zealand. William Pember Reeves was born in Lyttelton on 10 February 1857, three weeks after their arrival; so, though he was a New Zealander, he was to say that he “only just managed it”.

Reeves was educated at a private “prep” school in Christchurch, the local high school, and (1867–74) the Christ's College Grammar School. He had an outstanding academic career, winning Provincial Government scholarships in 1866 and 1871, a Somes scholarship in 1873, and the University of New Zealand scholarships in classics, English, modern languages, and history in 1874. He then went to England and intended to read law at Oxford, following in the footsteps of his Uncle Edward, but a breakdown of health (tuberculosis was suspected) interrupted his plans. He returned to New Zealand where he worked as a cadet at Lowcliff, a sheep station near Ashburton, in 1876–77, recovering his health. He then became a law clerk and was admitted as a barrister and solicitor in 1880, but took little interest in his profession, appearing in only one case, and reporting Supreme Court cases in Christchurch for the New Zealand Law Reports in 1883–85.

Reeves's absorbing occupations at this time were cricket and rugby. He played for Canterbury against Otago at rugby in 1878, but was too light for the game, though he showed great pluck as a three-quarter back. He was one of the best Canterbury bats, and represented his province on a number of occasions in local competition and against visiting English and Australian XIs. In 1890, while he was in Parliament, he was injured in a game of Association Football, in a collision with A. P. Harper, the mountaineer.

Increasingly Reeves was drawn to journalism as a career. In 1883 he was parliamentary reporter for his father's paper; in 1885 he became editor of the weekly Canterbury Times; and in 1889–91 he was editor of the Lyttelton Times. He resigned on becoming a Cabinet Minister. Shortly afterwards his father died, virtually bankrupt, leaving his son a relatively poor man. Though he lost his connection with the Lyttelton Times, Reeves continued to write leading articles for some years. He was one of the outstanding leader writers New Zealand has possessed. He wrote on a wide variety of topics with wit, clarity and – on political questions – party prejudice.

In 1887 Reeves founded the Canterbury Electors' Association, a strongly provincialist political organisation with a pronounced radical element that was evident in denunciations of the rich and an appeal for working-class votes. In the election of that year, parliamentary candidates backed by the association had a sweeping success. Reeves unseated the member for St. Albans. But the Stout-Vogel Government, which the association supported, was defeated. From 1887–90 Reeves sat in the Opposition, among the disorganised remnants of the Grey and Stout-Vogel Government supporters. He made a reputation as a witty debater, and when the Atkinson Government was defeated in 1890, John Ballance appointed him Minister of Education, and Justice, and, later, of Labour, in the first Liberal Government.

Reeves's opinions moved strongly to the left in 1887–96. He was very sympathetic to socialism (his son was christened Fabian), and in 1890 he outlined socialist theories in a pamphlet under the pseudonym “Pharos”. He was a hard working and (because of his radicalism and acid tongue) unpopular Minister. As our first Minister of Labour, he introduced a large number of measures regulating conditions in factories, ships, etc., the most important being the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act of 1894, which aimed at encouraging trade unionism and preventing strikes. It was the first such compulsory Act in the world and influenced legislation in Australia. In New Zealand, its influence on industrial (and class) relations has extended to the present day. Within three years, and against strong opposition, even from Liberals, Reeves gave the country the most complete labour code in the world. As Minister of Education, during a depression, he was able to achieve much less of importance.

With Edward Tregear the head of the Department of Labour, a socialist, a poet, and a linguist, Reeves formed an effective partnership. But he was not on good terms with R. J. Seddon, who succeeded Ballance as Premier in 1893, despite Reeves's opposition. By 1895 Seddon opposed further labour measures, the prospect of which alarmed the right-wing Liberals, and early in 1896, to their mutual relief, Reeves left for London as Agent-General.

Reeves was an efficient Agent-General (later High Commissioner). He became a friend of G. B. Shaw, the Webbs, and other leading leftwing intellectuals, writers, and politicians. Much of his time, for seven years, was devoted to writing. In New Zealand he had produced two volumes of verse, mainly satirical, in partnership with G. P. Williams. In England he published two more which included his best known poems, The Passing of the Forest and A Colonist in his Garden. In these and a few other poems, Reeves grappled with some of what have become chief preoccupations of New Zealand writers, and his work merits its continuing place in anthologies, though his was not a major talent.

In 1898 Reeves wrote The Long White Cloud, a history of New Zealand which is still in print. It was a remarkable achievement, judicious, thoughtful, lively, and clear. Few national histories have been better presented, and Reeves's views continued to dominate New Zealand historical writing for very many years. Then came State Experiments in Australia and New Zealand (2 vol., 1902), a scholarly work which has not been superseded as a survey of the radical and experimental legislation of the period.

Reeves's later life was a disappointment. From 1908 to 1919 he was Director of the London School of Economics, but was not a success as an academic administrator. From 1917 until 1931 he was chairman of the board of the National Bank of New Zealand. Throughout these years he was often ill. The death of his son in the Royal Naval Air Service in 1917 was a blow from which he did not recover for many years. From 1913–25 a main interest was the Anglo-Hellenic League, of which he was first president. He loved Greece and the Greeks, supported their claims for territorial expansion, and was rewarded by a doctorate from Athens University and several Greek royal honours, including a knighthood.

In 1924 Reeves roused himself from prolonged depression and revised The Long White Cloud for a third edition which included inferior chapters by another writer. For a few months in 1925–26 he made a tour of New Zealand on behalf of the bank. This greatly cheered him for he was welcomed and praised by friends and old political foes alike. He died in London on 16 May 1932, survived by his wife, née Magdalen Stuart Robison (whom he had married in 1885) and two daughters.

Reeves was a rare “all-rounder”, though he suffered most of his life from ill health, especially from neuralgic headaches. He succeeded at sport and politics, by determination, by driving himself beyond his nerves' endurance, and suffered in consequence. Two of his marked traits are not often combined: he was a valetudinarian who on several occasions showed great physical courage.

Reeves was rather aloof in manner and rarely popular among his associates, though greatly admired by trade unionists in the nineties and by New Zealand writers and intellectuals of later years. He was an unusual figure in our politics, a scholar and thinker, who was the Government's chief theoretician, strongest radical, and best debater. He had a gift for (sometimes biting) epigram, which did not endear him to his opponents, but was at the same time unusually thinskinned – too sensitive, indeed, for a long career in politics. He found the English intellectuals more congenial than most people in New Zealand, but hating the climate and the class system, he never ceased to feel an expatriate.

by Keith Sinclair, M.A., PH.D., Professor of History, University of Auckland.

  • Evening Post, 21 May 1932 (Obit)
  • Christchurch Star-Sun, 8 Feb 1957 (article by Richards, J. W.).


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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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