Story: Wright, Arthur Hobbins

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Wright, Arthur Hobbins

1861–1938

Policeman, police commissioner

This biography was written by Sherwood Young and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

Arthur Hobbins Wright was born at South Hamlet, Gloucester, England, on 8 April 1861, the ninth and youngest child of Henry Wright, a prominent mechanical engineer, and his wife, Elizabeth Hobbins. In 1879 he arrived in New Zealand on the Fernglen. Settling in Auckland, he worked as a clerk and then as a waiter, and on 7 June 1880 married Elizabeth Lily Fletcher.

In August 1882 Arthur Wright joined the New Zealand Constabulary Force. After serving as a beat constable in Invercargill he joined the clerical staff there in November 1883. In 1890, after gaining the top mark in the police examinations, he earned promotion to second-class constable. With the abolition of the Invercargill police district in 1891, Wright was transferred to Dunedin as assistant clerk for the new combined district. In 1893 he was promoted to first-class constable and appointed district clerk in Wellington, where he became an able deputy to the irascible officer in charge, Inspector Peter Pender. In 1898 Wright was promoted to sergeant, then in February 1905 the commissioner of police, Walter Dinnie, transferred him to headquarters, as deputy to the chief clerk, John Tasker, a civilian. Tasker died nine months later, and on 1 January 1906 Wright was promoted to sub-inspector and appointed chief clerk and accountant for the New Zealand Police Force.

Revelations of inefficiencies and scandals in the force, and widespread criticism of Dinnie's leadership, led to the appointment of a royal commission to inquire into the police in 1909. The duties and performance of headquarters staff, including Wright, and the role of district clerks were among the commission's main concerns. It had become common for officers commanding districts to entrust promising uniform branch members with the responsibilities of the district clerk's role. Often these staff effectively commanded the district when their superior was absent. Three future commissioners of police – Wright, W. G. Wohlmann and Denis Cummings – and a future superintendent, S. P. Norwood, were all highly regarded district clerks during this period.

Dinnie tried to convince the royal commissioner, H. W. Bishop, that his 10 headquarters staff, including Wright, were all essential. Bishop, and the inspector at Auckland, John Cullen, thought otherwise, and the commission's report recommended that Wright, three of the four sergeants and both constables should return to normal police work, and that the chief detective's position should be abolished.

Dinnie was forced to resign, and was replaced as commissioner in early 1910 by F. G. B. Waldegrave, the under-secretary for justice; a civilian, C. E. Matthews, became the new chief clerk. However, Waldegrave found he still needed Wright, who had been working in his own time for two years on the new police regulations. His expertise and knowledge of the force proved invaluable to the new commissioner and helped to smooth the transition to the new regime during 1910.

Amid ongoing controversy, Arthur Wright was promoted to inspector on 13 March 1911, and placed in charge of the Thames district. He was to be at the forefront of events during the Waihi miners' strike the following year. Wright's careful, low-key response to the dispute was overruled by Cullen, the new commissioner, who enthusiastically enforced the Reform government's hard line against militant trade unionists. Cullen personally took charge of police operations at Waihi and was widely criticised for his heavy-handed methods; at the height of the dispute over 80 police were deployed in the town, and a striker was killed in clashes with police and strike-breakers.

In 1913 Thames was incorporated in the new Hamilton district and Wright's headquarters was moved there. In November 1915 he was promoted to superintendent at Dunedin, and he became superintendent at Auckland in September 1919. Following the retirement of the popular John O'Donovan, Arthur Wright became commissioner of police on 1 January 1922, and moved to Seatoun in Wellington. Although his experience as a beat constable was limited, Wright was highly respected within the force for his administrative ability and for his kindness towards colleagues. During his four years as commissioner, he maintained the benign leadership style of O'Donovan and worked hard to improve conditions for front-line police.

After his retirement as commissioner on 31 January 1926 Wright continued to live at Seatoun. He was an enthusiastic member of the local bowling club, served as a justice of the peace, and twice visited the United Kingdom. Arthur Wright died in Wellington on 26 January 1938 after a short illness. He was survived by his wife, five sons and four daughters.