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John Ballance


John Ballance

The Right Honourable
John Ballance
Portrait of John Ballance
14th Premier of New Zealand
In office
24 January 1891 – 27 April 1893
Monarch Victoria
Governor William Onslow
David Boyle
Preceded by Harry Atkinson
Succeeded by Richard Seddon
Constituency Rangitikei, Wanganui
1st Leader of the Opposition
In office
2 July 1889 – 23 January 1891
Succeeded by John Bryce
Personal details
Born (1839-03-27)27 March 1839
Glenavy, Ulster, Ireland
Died 27 April 1893(1893-04-27) (aged 54)
Wellington, New Zealand
Nationality Irish
Political party Liberal
Spouse(s) Fanny Taylor (m. 1863, d. 1868)
Ellen Anderson (m. 1870)
Children 1 (adopted)
Religion Freethought

John Ballance (27 March 1839 – 27 April 1893) was an Irish 14th Premier of New Zealand, at the end of the 19th century, and the founder of the Liberal Party, the country's first organised political party.

Early life

Ballance in around 1870

The eldest son of Samuel Ballance, a tenant farmer, and Mary McNiece (a quaker), Ballance was born on 27 March 1839 in Glenavy in County Antrim in Ireland .[1] He was educated at a national school, then apprenticed to an ironmonger in Belfast. He later became a clerk in a wholesale ironmonger's house in Birmingham, where he married. Ballance was highly interested in literature, and was known for spending vast amounts of time reading books. He also became interested in politics, mostly due to the influence of his parents – his father was active in conservative circles, while his mother was a liberal. It was from his mother that Ballance gained many of the ideas he was later to promote. Having witnessed religious rioting when in Belfast, he became committed to the principle of secularism.

In 1866, Ballance and his wife migrated to New Zealand, intending to start in business as a small jeweller. After settling in Wanganui, however, he took an opportunity to found a newspaper, The Wanganui Herald.[2] He became the editor, and remained chief owner for the rest of his life. During the fighting with the Māori chief Titokowaru in 1867, Ballance was involved in the raising of a volunteer cavalry troop, in which he received a commission. He was later deprived of this owing to the appearance in the Herald of articles criticising the management of the campaign. He behaved well in the field, and, in spite of his dismissal, was awarded the New Zealand Medal.

Following the conflict, Ballance's status in Wanganui grew. He was respected for his management of the Herald, particularly his forthright and direct approach to reporting. He became increasingly involved in the affairs of the town, establishing a number of societies and associations. Perhaps the least important to Wanganui but among the most important to him was the chess club – he became a skilled player. In 1868 his wife Fanny died of illness, aged only 24. Two years later, he married Ellen Anderson, daughter of a Wellington architect.

Member of Parliament

Parliament of New Zealand
Years Term Electorate Party
1875 5th Rangitikei Independent
1876–1879 6th Rangitikei Independent
1879–1881 7th Wanganui Independent
1884–1887 9th Wanganui Independent
1887–1890 10th Wanganui Independent
1890–1893 11th Wanganui Liberal

In 1875, Ballance entered Governor who was then Premier. Grey's policies were not closely aligned with those of Ballance, but Ballance believed that he could nevertheless accomplish something worthwhile. He was Minister of Customs, Minister of Education, and later treasurer. His alliance with Grey ended with a notorious and very painful quarrel – Ballance found Grey far too controlling and authoritarian.

From 1879 Ballance represented Wanganui, but in 1881 he lost by just four votes (393 to 397), and it was reported that seven of his supporters were too late to vote as their carriage broke down.[3] He returned to Parliament for Wanganui in 1884.

On re-election as an Independent in 1884 he became a minister in the Cabinet of Robert Stout, a fellow liberal. He was Minister of Lands and Immigration, Minister of Defence and Minister of Native Affairs (relations with Māori). In his role as Minister of Lands he encouraged intensive settlement of rural areas, aiming to increase the number of people leaving the cities to "work the land", which he believed was essential to increase productivity and self-sufficiency. His system of state-aided "village settlements" - small holdings were leased by the Crown to farmers and money lent them to make a beginning of building and cultivation - was generally successful. Despite this desire for increased settlement of colonist-held land, he strongly supported the rights of Māori to retain the land they still held – many other politicians of his time believed that acquisition of Māori land was essential for increasing settlement. He reduced military presence in areas where strong tensions with Māori existed, and made an attempt to familiarise himself with Māori language and culture. In 1887 Stout's government lost the general election, but Ballance remained popular. Illness initially prevented his full participation in politics, but with his recovery in July 1889 he became Leader of the Opposition.[4]


A statue of John Ballance outside the Parliamentary Library in Wellington

In 1890 Ballance led a loose coalition of liberal politicians to victory in the general election. Harry Atkinson, the Premier who had defeated Stout, was forced to resign, but not before stacking the Legislative Council with his supporters. This was a serious problem for Ballance's premiership but he was able to overcome it, partly by reducing the life-tenure of legislative councillors to one term of seven years. [4] His successful battle with the Governor over changes to the Legislative Council helped define the relationship between the elected Premier and the appointed Governor, mostly in the Premier's favour.

Ballance was actively involved in the advocacy of women's suffrage, declaring to Parliament that he believed in the "absolute equality of the sexes." This was a cause he had partially inherited from his colleague in the Stout government, Julius Vogel, and in which he was influenced by his politically astute wife. Ballance was also responsible for the establishment, in 1891, of the progressive land tax and progressive income tax. He was widely praised for his handling of the economy, which expanded greatly during his term. [4]

First Liberal Government

As leader of Parliament's liberal faction, he brought his allies and colleagues into the Liberal Party, New Zealand's first political party, intended to embody the liberal ideas of Stout, Vogel, and Ballance himself. The next four premiers were from the party, although some (such as Richard Seddon) did not live up to the ideals that Ballance tried to establish.

Quiet and unassuming in manner and well read, Ballance always seemed fonder of his books and his chessboard than of public bustle. He has been described as "unassuming and unpretentious", and was quiet, polite, and extremely patient.


Ballance's gravestone in Whanganui

In 1893, at the height of his success and popularity, he died in Wellington of an intestinal disease after a major surgical operation. He is believed to have supported Stout as his successor, but the rapid onset of his illness prevented him from securing that outcome and he was followed by Seddon.

A statue was erected to his memory in front of Parliament House, Wellington, in front of the library – Parliament has since moved to a bigger, adjacent building. A statue was erected in Moutoa Gardens in Wanganui.


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^ McIvor 1989, p. 105.
  4. ^ a b c Reeves 1901.



Further reading

Government offices
Preceded by
Harry Atkinson
Premier of New Zealand
Succeeded by
Richard Seddon
First Minister of Education
Succeeded by
William Rolleston
New Zealand Parliament
Preceded by
William Fox
Member of Parliament for Rangitikei
Succeeded by
William Jarvis Willis
Preceded by
William Fox
Member of Parliament for Whanganui
1879–1881 (serving alongside John Bryce)
Succeeded by
William Hogg Watt
Preceded by
William Hogg Watt
Succeeded by
Archibald Willis
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