Story: Campbell, Hugh McLean

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Campbell, Hugh McLean

1875–1951

Farmer, politician

This biography was written by M. D. N. Campbell and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

Hugh McLean Campbell was born at Te Aute, near Pukehou, Hawke's Bay, on 21 March 1875, the fourth child and only son of Hugh Campbell and his wife, Margaret Gardiner, who died three years later. Hugh senior had managed sheep runs in Australia before joining his brother Henry at Wanaka in 1867. He then acquired Poukawa station, south of Hastings, which he enlarged to over 11,000 acres by 1890.

A delicate boy in his early years, young Hugh grew up under the care of an elder sister, Catherine, and Mary Williams, wife of Te Aute College founder Samuel Williams. He became a weekly boarder at Heretaunga School in Hastings, and after leaving school helped his father to manage Poukawa and its prize stock, which included merino and Lincoln sheep, and Hereford cattle. On 31 January 1900, at Carnarvon, Manawatu, he married Mildred Rachel Ralston, the daughter of a local sheepfarmer. They were to have three sons and a daughter. Hugh built a large villa-style homestead at Horonui, his portion of Poukawa, and there he began to entertain visiting political figures. In later years he was to subdivide the 8,000-acre Horonui block among his children.

Campbell's entry into national politics came with the rise of the Reform Party in Hawke's Bay after 1909. The retirement of Sir William Russell led to a search for a new opposition candidate for the Hawke's Bay seat, one who would appeal not only to established sheepowners, but also to small farmers and townspeople. Many voters in Hastings and the more isolated northern districts of the electorate felt neglected by the Liberal government. Campbell lacked political experience but was encouraged by his brother-in-law John Chambers and George Nelson, who, like Campbell, were founding directors of the Hawke's Bay Tribune in 1910.

At the general election in 1911, aided by vote-splitting between the Liberal and independent candidates, Campbell topped the poll on the first ballot; he then defeated the Liberal party's H. I. Simson on the second vote. Once elected Campbell worked hard for his district, but he soon lost ground in the north, where many voters wanted more Maori land opened up for settlement. Delays over public works, in particular the Gisborne–Napier railway, also troubled Campbell, and in 1914 he was defeated by the Liberal Robert McNab on a magisterial recount. When McNab died suddenly in 1917 Campbell observed the Liberal and Reform parties' wartime agreement not to contest by-elections.

In 1919 Campbell regained the Hawke's Bay seat, but a serious illness forced him to stand down in 1922. Returning to politics in 1925, he defeated the Liberal incumbent, Gilbert McKay, and then held the seat for Reform in 1928, and for the coalition government in 1931. By then he had also become well known in local politics: he was a member (1917–29) and chairman (1924–25 and 1926–29) of the Hawke's Bay County Council at a time of important river and road works.

Hugh Campbell's last years in Parliament were marked by the growing misery of the depression. As bankruptcies, farm mortgage sales and unemployment increased, he sought a credit moratorium and more public works to alleviate the distress. When Gordon Coates became minister of finance in 1933, Campbell tried to persuade him to waive interest on all private and public loans for three years; he failed, but remained a strong supporter of Coates. The need for public funds intensified after the disastrous Hawke's Bay earthquake of February 1931. Together with W. E. Barnard, the New Zealand Labour Party MP for Napier, Campbell strove to obtain funds for reconstruction. Although he felt the initial grant of £1.5 million was only a 'feeble start', he accepted the prevailing financial stringency.

In the early 1930s neither Campbell's tireless constituency work nor his personal popularity could stem the growing tide of support for the Labour Party in and around Hastings and Wairoa. In 1935 he was defeated by Labour's E. L. Cullen, a Wairoa dairy farmer. He retired from national politics, but remained active in local farming, business and community affairs. Saddened in his last years by the death of his wife in 1947, Campbell died at Horonui on 22 May 1951, survived by his four children.

Commonly known as 'HM', Campbell was a tall, cheerful man with a thick moustache. His fondness for old suits and hats sometimes frustrated his political advisers, but made little difference to his popularity. He was a member and office-holder of numerous local associations and sports clubs, and chaired the board of directors of the Dominion newspaper from 1934 to 1950. He also enjoyed horse-racing and ran his own stables for many years. Although he was never particularly prominent on the national stage, Hugh Campbell was a capable, hard-working and popular local MP.