Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Atkinson, Harry

1413474Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement, Volume 1 — Atkinson, Harry1901William Pember Reeves

ATKINSON, Sir HARRY (1831–1892), prime minister of New Zealand, whose full name was Henry Albert Atkinson, was born at Chester in 1831. Educated at Rochester school and at Blackheath, he emigrated to Taranaki, New Zealand, in 1855. He settled as a farmer at Harworth, about four miles from the town of New Plymouth, and at the outbreak of the Waitara war in 1860 was elected captain of a company of Taranaki volunteers, winning distinction at the engagements of Waireka and Mahoetahi. From 1863 to 1864 he commanded the Taranaki Forest Rangers, a body of bush scouts and riflemen which has been described as the worst dressed and most effective corps the colony ever possessed. In the opinion both of the men he led and of competent onlookers. Major Atkinson's prudence, bravery, and untiring energy placed him very high among the officers who had to overcome the peculiar and very great difficulties of New Zealand bush warfare. At the end of 1864 he became minister of defence in the cabinet of Sir Frederick Aloysius Weld [q. v.] and urged the adoption of the 'self-reliance policy' with which Weld's name is identified. This was that the imperial troops, of which ten thousand had been engaged in the war — for each unit of whom the colonists were paying 40l. a year — should be dispensed with, and the defence of the settlers entirely entrusted to the militia and volunteers. Gradually this was done, but the Weld ministry was put out of office in October 1865, and from 1868 to 1873 Major Atkinson did not sit in parliament. It was in the two years' struggle (1874-6) between centralism and provincialism, which ended in the abolition of the provinces into which New Zealand had been divided, that his energies brought Major Atkinson into the front rank of the colony's politicians. Though neither emotional nor graceful as a speaker, he was perhaps the most efiective debater of his day in the House of Representatives, where his command of facts and figures, clear incisive style, and bold straight-hitting methods made him feared as well as respected. Three times prime minister (in 1876-7, in 1883-4, and in 1887-91) and four times colonial treasurer (in 1875-6, in 1876-7, in 1879-83, and in 1887-91), he was from 1874 to 1890 the protagonist of the conservative party. In addition to the abolition of the provinces he did away with the Ballance land tax in 1879 [see Ballance, John, Suppl.], imposed a property tax, raised the customs duties in 1879 and 1888, and gave them a quasi-protectionist character, greatly diminished the public expenditure in the same years, and in 1887 reduced the size of the House of Representatives, and the pay of minister members of parliament. He advocated compulsory assurance as a provision for old age, and the perpetual leasing instead of the sale of crown lands. In 1888 he was created K.C.M.G. In 1890 his health broke down; on the fall of his last ministry, in January 1891, he became speaker of the legislative council; on 27 June 1892 he died very suddenly of heart disease in the speaker's room of the council chamber. Though not well known outside New Zealand, his name is held in high esteem there as that of a brave and energetic colonist, a clear-headed practical politician, and a sagacious leader in difficult times.

He was twice married: by his first wife he had three sons and a daughter; by his second, two sons and a daughter.

[Gisborne's New Zealand Rulers and States men (1840-1897), 1897; Grace's Recollections of the New Zealand War, 1890; Rusden's Hist. of New Zealand, Melbourne, 1896; Reeves's Long White Cloud, 1899; Mennell's Dict. of Australasian Biography; New Zealand newspapers, 28 June 1892.]

W. P. R.