Story: Acland, Hugh John Dyke

Page 1 - Biography

Acland, Hugh John Dyke

1904–1981

Farmer, politician, wool board chairman

This biography was written by W. D. Grace and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Hugh John Dyke Acland, known as Jack, was born at Christchurch on 17 January 1904, the eldest son of Hugh Thomas Dyke Acland and his wife, Evelyn Mary Ovans. John Barton Arundel Acland, his grandfather, had arrived in Canterbury in 1855, and with Charles Tripp established at Mount Peel the first high country sheep station in the province. Jack Acland’s father was a highly regarded surgeon who was knighted in 1933.

Acland was educated at Christ’s College. He then worked on properties in Northland and Canterbury and as stockman at Addington saleyard. He spent two years in Australia before taking over the management of Mount Peel with his brother Colin; he assumed sole management in 1933. To strengthen the property, Acland in 1938 relinquished leases for over 40,000 acres, reducing it to 17,200. After the war he cleared gorse and scrub, constructed roads and put about 1,000 acres in grass. Cattle numbers increased, lambs were fattened and the property put on a sound footing. On 12 June 1935, Acland had married Katherine Wilder Ormond, the daughter of a prominent Hawke’s Bay family, at Waipukurau. They were to have three sons and three daughters.

Acland took an active role in the local community. He was a member of the Geraldine County Council (1934–42) and of the South Canterbury Hospital Board (1940–59), and was a lay reader in the Anglican church. In 1942 he won the Temuka parliamentary seat for the New Zealand National Party. In the House he took an independent line, describing himself as a Liberal. He spoke up for South Island needs and called for greater autonomy for local councils. His main concern was ‘to remove the psychological and economic causes of the low birth-rate’. He sought lower taxes for families on low incomes, subsidised help for mothers, and a universal family allowance. This won some support from Labour members but not from those of his own party. In 1946, with the redrawing of boundaries, Acland was offered only the more distant electorate of Timaru. He lost narrowly and left the party, writing that ‘they obviously did not want me and I can’t say that I see eye to eye with them’.

The following year, Acland was elected a growers’ representative on the newly formed New Zealand Wool Board. He became deputy chairman in 1957 and chairman in 1960. Wool was experiencing competition from synthetic fibres, and Acland presided over the industry’s vigorous response. Woolgrowers accepted greatly increased levies for promotion and research, the Wool Research Organisation of New Zealand was established in 1961, young scientists were sent abroad for training, there was technical help for mills using New Zealand wool, and the board stepped into freight arrangements. As one of the inner committee of the International Wool Secretariat, Acland ensured that New Zealand wool received a fair share of promotion and product development. He travelled widely, visiting IWS branches and meeting with trade representatives.

The 1960s saw improved wool packaging and transport to ship-side, and research that was to lead to scientific measurement and sale by sample. Eventually, the board proposed setting up a corporation to market wool. Farmers supported this until 1972, when the board accepted a recommendation that the corporation compulsorily acquire the whole clip. Acland said it was not something he personally relished but was necessary to preserve the traditional family farm. The outcome was a bitter grassroots campaign that defeated the proposal. Acland, in failing health, resigned the chairmanship in 1972 and did not seek re-election the following year.

Sir John Acland (he was appointed a KBE in 1968) was a genial, modest man whose strength was that so many instinctively trusted him. Religion and a landowning tradition gave him a genuine concern for the welfare of ‘the average man and for the woman in the home’, and for the family farm, which he said was the most efficient and best for society. He had a wide circle whom he consulted on industry issues, was more intent on drawing people out than giving his own opinions and preferred to lead from behind, qualities that caused some to underrate him. A conciliatory man, he achieved much at home and abroad by goodwill rather than argument.

Acland had a keen instinct for farmer opinion. He was a bluff public speaker, taking a simple line with his audience, but his integrity and social standing carried many farmers along with the innovations of the 1960s. He died at Mount Peel on 26 January 1981, survived by his wife and children. A son, John, became chairman of the New Zealand Meat Producers’ Board.