‘Farmer Bill’ returns to Limavady

Published in Features, Issue 6 (November/December 2015), Volume 23

WILLIAM FERGUSON MASSEY, OR ‘FARMER BILL’ AS HE WAS KNOWN IN HIS ADOPTED COUNTRY, IS ARGUABLY LIMAVADY’S MOST FAMOUS SON. HE WAS PRIME MINISTER OF NEW ZEALAND DURING TURBULENT TIMES, MOST NOTABLY DURING THE FIRST WORLD WAR, FROM 1912 UNTIL HIS DEATH IN 1925. HE IS NEW ZEALAND’S SECOND-LONGEST SERVING PRIME MINISTER.

By Aaron Callan

William Ferguson Massey c. 1920. (Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ)

William Ferguson Massey c. 1920. (Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ)


William Ferguson Massey arrived at a time of great change for New Zealand. From around the 1870s there were political divisions over how much the state should assist individual achievement. The Liberals, led by John Ballance, another Ulsterman by birth, came to power in 1891 and dominated New Zealand politics for two decades. Following Ballance’s death in 1893, the Liberals were led by Richard Seddon. New Zealand gained an international reputation as a ‘social laboratory’. In 1893 it became the first country to give votes to women. Seddon died in 1906 and was succeeded by Sir Joseph Ward. New Zealand was affected by a worldwide recession in 1909 and there was a considerable splintering of the Liberals’ rural support, eventually leading to their defeat by Massey’s Reform Party in parliament in 1912.

Underestimated by opponents
Massey’s bluff exterior led many of his opponents to underestimate his political skills. He spoke the language of the ordinary man but was a shrewd operator with a strong vision, independent thinking and a steely determination. His political ideology was founded very much in Ulster-Scots personal self-reliance. The New Zealand parliamentary debates reveal that he was organised, articulate (sometimes to the point of verbosity), surprisingly well read, not so surprisingly given to biblical quotation, and, as he gained experience, a thorn in the sides of such colonial political giants as John Seddon and John McKenzie. While most at home on rural topics, he was an informed and incisive debater on finance and trade. Even his critics conceded his personal probity and industriousness. Massey spent eighteen years in the political wilderness of opposition. No New Zealand prime minister has served that long in opposition before coming into government.

New Zealanders identified strongly with their British heritage while seeing themselves as healthier, more egalitarian and more progressive than ‘the old country’—a ‘better Britain’, as historian James Belich has characterised their self-perception. The First World War came to define Massey’s premiership. He was once described by a Canadian during the Paris peace conference as being ‘as thickheaded and John Bullish as his appearance would lead one to expect and sidetracked the discussion more than once’.

David Lloyd George congratulating Massey outside 10 Downing Street upon his ten years as prime minister of New Zealand, c. 1922. (Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ)

David Lloyd George congratulating Massey outside 10 Downing Street upon his ten years as prime minister of New Zealand, c. 1922. (Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ)

Homecoming
Massey’s visit to Limavady in November 1916 lifted spirits only months after the commencement of the Battle of the Somme, which claimed many lives from Limavady. The visit was eagerly anticipated and an organising committee was formed, headed by the Rt Hon. Maurice Marcus McCausland DL. Arrangements included the renaming of a street in Massey’s honour, and Massey Avenue remains to this day a legacy of that visit. He was received by the chairman of the Urban Council, Robert Douglas JP, and by many Limavady residents. His first port of call was the Alexander Memorial Hall for luncheon with prominent local people, including the MP Hugh T. Barrie and the Hon. Judge Brown KC. The town clerk, J.D. Boyd JP, gave Massey an address of welcome:

‘The inhabitants of Limavady beg to tender you a most hearty welcome on the occasion of your visit to your native town. We have watched with interest and pride your public career in the land of your adoption. Leaving Limavady in early life, you have by your ability and zeal reached the highest position in the great dominion of New Zealand . . .’

The address was incorporated in a red morocco album with a monogram on the front and a watercolour sketch inside of the ‘Dog’s Leap’. Massey briefly acknowledged the address and toasts were made, to the king and the armed forces and then to

‘Our distinguished visitor and guest, the Right Hon. William Ferguson Massey, Premier of New Zealand’.

In honouring their guest they were honouring themselves

‘. . . when they thought of him, born and brought up in their town, taught at one of the local schools by a Mr Brandon, who, he was informed by one of the then scholars, placed his hand on young Massey’s shoulders and said—“You are the smartest boy in the school”.’

Massey gave a farewell message before leaving for Londonderry:

‘I accede with pleasure to your request to give you a message to the citizens of my native town. It has given me the greatest gratification to visit the town of my birth and to view again the scenes of my boyhood, so full of vivid and lasting memories. I desire to express my keenest appreciation of the cordial welcome extended to Mrs Massey, my daughter and myself; and also to thank the chairman and members of Limavady Urban Council, and, through them, the citizens of the town for their very hearty reception tendered to me on Saturday. I shall look forward to having the opportunity of re-visiting Limavady on some future date, when I hope to see the prosperity of the town continuing to increase and its present progress maintained. The war has compelled welcome extended to Mrs Massey, my daughter and myself; and also to thank the chairman and members of Limavady Urban Council, and, through them, the citizens of the town for their very hearty reception tendered to me on Saturday. I shall look forward to having the opportunity of re-visiting Limavady on some future date, when I hope to see the prosperity of the town continuing to increase and its present progress maintained. The war has compelled ­

Massey travelled throughout the Limavady area and visited many sites that brought back memories for him. As a guest of Maurice Marcus McCausland, he and his family stayed at Drenagh. He had the opportunity to visit the new technical school, market yard, his birthplace and the haunts of his youth. His birthplace is marked by a commemoration stone and plaque on Irish Green Street.

Interest in home affairs
Massey took a great interest in Ulster politics, particularly between 1916 and 1923. He was a staunch supporter of unionism and almost certainly sympathised with the Ulster Covenant in 1912. He supported the creation of Northern Ireland, leading Sir James Craig to say that if anything ever happened to him he hoped that Massey would return to take over as prime minister. This showed the respect Massey commanded in his native country. Craig later called him the ‘greatest living Ulsterman of his day’.

Bill Massey visited Ulster—and, indeed, Limavady—again in 1923. He was accompanied by the high commissioner of New Zealand, Sir James Allen, and was a guest of Sir James Craig at Stormont Castle before visiting both Limavady and Londonderry. During this visit he was received at a luncheon by the lord lieutenant of Londonderry, Mr T.F. Cooke. As in 1916, Massey paid tribute to the links between the Empire and Ulster, and especially between Ulster and New Zealand, remarking, ‘Give me a quarter of a million Ulstermen and women and I will take the blessed lot’.
Following this visit, on 17 December 1923 Massey wrote a letter to Mr J.D. Boyd, which is held in Limavady Museum’s collection: ‘I carry away with me very happy memories of my short visit to my native town and I send you and my other friends there my best wishes for Christmas and for a prosperous new year’. Speaking at the Belfast Chamber of Commerce, Massey described himself as ‘the greatest commercial traveller in the Empire’. Sir James Craig later recalled that ‘it was Mr Massey who, stumping his feet, asked what was the use of being prime minister unless one could be a first class commercial traveller for his own country’.

Massey sharing a lighter moment at Queen’s University, Belfast, in the course of his second visit in 1923. (Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ)

Massey sharing a lighter moment at Queen’s University, Belfast, in the course of his second visit in 1923. (Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ)

Later years
Massey returned to New Zealand ill and tired on 24 January 1924. Cancer progressively weakened him and by October he was forced to relinquish many of his duties. An operation on 30 March 1925 was unsuccessful, and on 9 April he returned home from hospital, dying on 10 May 1925 at the age of 69. All schools closed and church services were held throughout the country and at Westminster Abbey. He was buried at Point Halswell in Wellington Harbour. Viscount Craigavon (Sir James Craig) visited his grave in 1929 to lay a wreath, describing him as a great imperialist and firm friend of Ulster. Viscount Brookeborough, Northern Ireland’s third prime minister, would make the same journey to lay a wreath in the 1950s.

Aaron Callan, an Ulster Unionist councillor for Limavady, is secretary of the Roe Valley Historical Society and of the William F. Massey Foundation.

Read More: Early Years

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