Public Affairs

William Massey’s war years

A Limavady farmer went on to lead New Zealand throughout World War One.  Peter Cheney retells his story.

One of Ireland’s lesser known tales from the First World War is that a farmer from County Londonderry led New Zealand through its darkest days. William Ferguson Massey had been born in Limavady in 1856 and emigrated in 1870. The rest of his family had arrived eight years previously but he was kept at home to complete his schooling.

A career on the land followed and he acquired his own farm at Mangere, just south of Auckland, in 1876. His wife, Christina, was the daughter of Scottish settlers and they had seven children. Massey’s outlook was strongly influenced by his Presbyterian faith and membership of the Orange Order.

In the 1890s, Massey rose to prominence in the National Association of New Zealand, formed to oppose Liberal Prime Minister John Ballance – who was himself born near Glenavy. Massey entered Parliament in 1894 and went on to found the conservative Reform Party in 1909. His principal opponent, Joseph Ward, was a Catholic of Irish descent whose majority was overturned by a narrow vote of no confidence in July 1912.
When war commenced in Europe, Massey cabled London with the message: “All we are and all we have is at the disposal of the British Government.” He immediately offered two brigades, comprising 8,500 men, and conscription brought the full fighting force up to 124,000 – nearly half the eligible male population.

Back home, though, Massey was unable to secure a majority in Parliament and had to share power with Ward from 1915 onwards. The wartime coalition was popular with the public but relations between the two men were strained due to their differing personalities and contrasting political and religious views.
Both men, though, had a duty to jointly represent New Zealand and spent almost a year in Britain and France from August 1916 onwards. Massey not only attended the Cabinet in London but visited his troops on the frontline. His son, George, had been injured in the Battle of the Somme and he went out of his way to hear the complaints of the soldier – a move which undercut and offended the generals.

The trip also included Massey’s first return home and he was to return again in 1923. A statue of him stands outside Limavady Borough Council’s former offices and he is also commemorated by Stormont’s Massey Avenue.

New Zealand had been automatically included in the war effort in 1914 but Massey signed the Treaty of Versailles separately. This moment may have appeared insignificant at the time but allowed the country to declare war separately 20 years later – a step on the road to full independence from Britain.

Massey returned to a deeply divided New Zealand. The war had cost 18,000 lives and left more than 40,000 wounded, in a population of a million. He won re-election in December 1919 but recession and his failing health were regular struggles in his remaining years in office. He became increasingly unwell, with cancer, during 1924 and passed away at home in May 1925.
UUP councillor Aaron Callan is a keen local follower of Massey’s history.

“He is significant because he left Limavady at 14 and became Premier of his country, in the process changing the political landscape,” Callan comments. “Sir James Craig, in fact, called him ‘the greatest living Ulsterman of his day’ and offered that if anything should happen to him, he would want Massey to come back to Northern Ireland and take over as Premier.”

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