Sam Hanna Bell Samuel Beckett John Hewitt Bernard (Barney) Hughes James Joseph Magennis VC Frances Elizabeth Clarke Stewart Parker William Carleton Rosamond Praegar

John Ballance (1839 - 1893):
Journalist; Prime Minister of New Zealand

John Ballance was a native Ulsterman who emigrated in his twenties to New Zealand where he eventually became successful in the newspaper world and even more successful in politics, serving two years as Prime Minister in which office he was both popular and widely respected. 

Ballance was born at Ballypitmave, near Glenavy in County Antrim, to a tenant farmer father, Samuel Ballance, an Anglican (Church of Ireland, the established church) described as having “evangelical tendencies” and a mother from a Quaker background. He was educated at the local national school and at a small private school in Belfast, Wilson’s Academy. His father was active politically, so that John was exposed to politics at an early age, and took an interest himself, even to the point of helping write his father’s speeches, but whereas Samuel was a conservative, John would later display far more his mother’s liberal sympathies. As eldest son he could have inherited the family farm but instead he moved to Belfast where he was apprenticed in an ironmongery firm and in 1857 he moved to Birmingham, England, where he was able to hear such notables as John Bright, the Liberal MP and prominent Quaker; Michael Faraday, the famous scientist; and Joseph Chamberlain, the prominent Liberal politician and statesman. He also met Fanny Taylor, whom he married in 1863.

Ballance worked as a travelling salesman but also attended evening classes at the Birmingham and Midland Institute (a pioneer establishment of adult scientific and technical education one of whose Presidents was Charles Dickens, and which displays a blue plaque to a famous student), studying politics, biography and history. His wife did not enjoy good health and partly for this reason they decided to emigrate to New Zealand: she had a brother resident there, at Wanganui, on North Island (around 100 miles along the coast from Wellington). 

At first Ballance made his living as a jewellery salesman on Taupo Quay, but he evinced neither inclination nor, seemingly, aptitude for this and soon switched to the world of journalism, in 1867 setting up the Evening Herald in partnership with a local printer. This enterprise suited Ballance far better and he managed and edited the Herald (renamed the Wanganui Herald in 1876) and its weekly edition, the Weekly Herald (later the Yeoman) with no little success. (A possible historical family echo might be seen in the title Yeoman, as Ballance’s paternal grandfather had been a yeoman – essentially a pro-government militiaman - in the 1798 rebellion in Ireland.) He also experienced bereavement as his wife deceased in March 1868 at the age of just 24. 

This was the time of what were then called the Maori Wars. Ballance’s attitude in this regard might seem ambiguous, as he and his newspaper were opposed to compulsory military service – Ballance was issued with a call-up notice which he refused, being sentenced to a night in custody – though he raised a unit of cavalry with which he fought seemingly with valour during the “Second Maori War” and was without doubt behind the penning of scathing editorials regarding the performance of government forces against the indigenous/Maori population. 

The latent politician in Ballance came to the surface in the 1870s. In 1872 he applied to stand in a parliamentary by-election for the seat of Egmont, but withdrew before the vote. In 1875 he was elected for Rangitikei, on a ticket of abolition of the provincial system and in favour of state education. He increased his majority at the general election of 1876. At first he attached himself to the government of Conservative Prime Minister Atkinson but soon switched to the Liberal George Grey’s government in which he served initially as Commissioner of Customs, Commissioner of Stamp Duties and Minister of Education, then from January 1878 as Colonial Treasurer, that is, Minister of Finance, a post of considerable importance for a comparatively youthful politician. In this office he introduced some tariff reforms and a land tax, but he resigned in 1879. Absent from the legislature for several years, he produced publications outlining his views on land nationalisation and “free thought” (he was a keen secularist). 

Back in parliament from 1884 (he was returned for Wanganui by a large majority) he was minister responsible for lands and immigration, native affairs, and defence portfolios. He sought with some success to reconcile the conflicting aspirations of New Zealanders of European origin (“Pākehā” in Maori) and the indigenous Maori people: on the one hand he had a reasonably enlightened policy attempting to protect Maori land from private sale and he reduced the numbers of armed constabulary in sensitive areas hoping to alleviate tension between Maori and European populations. He also visited Maori throughout the North Island and made an effort to acquire some proficiency in their language. However, he failed to reverse his predecessor’s policy of reducing expenditure on native affairs, and his Native Land Administration Act 1886 did little to restore to the Maori their desired control over lands. 

In 1889 he was leader of the opposition and in 1891 became Prime Minister. He proved a tough premier who knew his own mind, though initially he was frustrated by the Legislative Council, or upper house of parliament, which had been to an extent packed by his predecessor. However, Ballance’s premiership saw definite steps in the direction of the primacy of ministers over the upper house. He also took an interest in female suffrage, perhaps influenced by his second wife, Ellen, who amongst other things was Vice-President of the Women's Progressive Society. 

Ballance died in office on 27 April 1893, was given a state funeral and buried at Wanganui three days later. His birthplace, at modern-day 118a Lisburn Road, Glenavy, Co. Antrim, has been restored by the Ulster New Zealand (UNZ) Trust. The Trust was presented on February 18, 2014 with a Maori dictionary which had been used by Ballance.

Born: 27 March 1839
Died: 27 April 1893
Richard Froggatt

Professor Sir Peter Froggatt


Te Ara Dictionary of New Zealand Biography; Dictionary of Irish Biography;;; News Letter, February 19, 2014