|Rt Hon John Ballance, XIVth Prime Minister of New Zealand|
John Ballance was born at Ballypitmave, near Glenavy, County Antrim (in a cottage near the Ballance house), into a comfortably off, though not prosperous, Ulster family.
His date of birth is said to have been 27th March, 1839.
His father, Samuel Ballance, was a Protestant tenant farmer on Lord Hertford's estate 'with evangelical tendencies'.
His mother, Mary McNiece, was a Quaker from a prominent local family.
The eldest of eleven children, John was educated at Glenavy National School and at Wilson's Academy, Belfast.
Early impressions of him are of a sturdy but rather lazy boy with a propensity to do nothing all day but read.
At 16 years of age he was helping to write his father's speeches.
But if it was his father who brought John Ballance into early contact with political life, it was his more liberal mother who influenced the direction of his own political philosophy.
A series of major sectarian riots in Belfast also made a lasting impression.
Ballance left Wilson's Academy before completing his education and took a job with a Belfast ironmongery firm.
In 1857, when he was 18, he left Belfast for Birmingham, where he worked as a travelling salesman.
|The original house before restoration|
Caught up in the Victorian ethic of self-help and self-education, he enrolled in evening classes at the Birmingham and Midland Institute, studying politics, biography and history.
Birmingham was at the centre of important political and philosophical movements and Ballance took a lively interest in current affairs.
He heard speeches by major figures of the day such as John Bright, Michael Faraday and Joseph Chamberlain.
In Birmingham, Ballance also met Fanny Taylor, the daughter of a licensed victualler; they were married at St Peter and St Paul's Church, Aston, on 17 June 1863.
Not long afterwards, due in part to Fanny's ill health, they decided to emigrate to New Zealand where she had a brother living in Wanganui.
In April 1866 they left London on the Ruahine bound for Melbourne, Australia, and after a short stay continued to New Zealand on the Albion.
They arrived at Wellington on 11 August, and a few days later travelled on to Wanganui.
In Wanganui John Ballance opened a shop on Taupo Quay, selling jewellery he had purchased in Australia.
The business was neither successful nor something Ballance contemplated pursuing for long.
Instead, his chosen career was journalism: He established the Evening Herald in 1867, in partnership with local printer A D Willis.
An able and innovative journalist, Ballance managed and edited the Evening Herald (from 1876 the Wanganui Herald ) and its weekly edition, the Weekly Herald (later the Yeoman ) with considerable success, particularly in the years before the economic downturn of the 1880s.
During the war against Titokowaru of Ngati Ruanui in 1868–69, when the township of Wanganui felt itself under immediate threat, the Herald was outspoken in its criticism of the poor performance of the British forces and vehement in its attitude to Titokowaru's forces.Regarded by authorities as a maverick troublemaker, Ballance spent a night in jail after refusing to respond to an order to turn out as part of the local militia, the compulsory nature of which offended his liberal beliefs.
The public perception gained of Ballance at this time through his bellicose editorials in the Herald was of a man who 'called a spade a spade'.
The later testimony of friends, however, spoke of his soft-hearted and kindly personality.
Ballance became increasingly involved in Wanganui affairs, helping to found the Wanganui and Rangitikei Land and Building Society and the local Oddfellows lodge.
In March 1868 Fanny Ballance died after a short illness, at the age of 24.
Two years later, at Wellington, on 19 May 1870, John Ballance married Ellen Anderson, the daughter of Wellington merchant David Anderson and his wife, Ann Thompson.
There were no children from either marriage, but in 1886 Ellen and John adopted Ellen's four-year-old niece, Florence Anderson, whom they re-christened Kathleen.
In 1872 Ballance put his name forward at a parliamentary by-election for the seat of Egmont, but withdrew before the vote.
Three years later he narrowly won in Rangitikei, on a platform stressing abolition of the provincial system and arguing in favour of state education.
He increased his majority at the general election of 1876.
Ballance made an early impact in Wellington.
Following the abolition of the provinces in 1876 he focused on the promotion of closer land settlement, which he considered to be the major political issue of the day.
Ballance won the Wanganui seat in 1879 but two years later suffered what was to be his only electoral defeat.
Out of Parliament he continued to advocate legislative and other measures to promote closer land settlement; encouraging, for example, the establishment of small farm associations.
He reorganised his newspaper business.
He also became involved in the "freethought" movement.
A convinced secularist, he formed the Wanganui Freethought Association with Willis in 1883 and brought out the monthly Freethought Review (1883–85).
At the 1884 general election Ballance was returned for Wanganui by a sizeable majority.
He subsequently joined the Stout–Vogel ministry, holding the lands and immigration, native affairs and defence portfolios.
With his Land Act 1885, a major piece of legislation, he sought to place as many people as possible on the land by encouraging leasehold tenure and establishing government-assisted special settlement schemes.
In a victory that contrasted sharply with the poor performance of other leading government candidates, Ballance took the Wanganui seat at the 1887 election with more than twice the number of votes gained by his opponent.
Ill health and financial difficulties prevented his full commitment to politics during the next two years, but in July 1889 he was able to accept the leadership of the opposition.
A radical land policy was the dominant theme of Ballance's campaign at the 1890 election, which took place against a background of strikes and economic depression.
He won Wanganui by just 27 votes.
Elsewhere, Liberals and their trade unionist allies in the cities fared well.
When the sitting premier, H A Atkinson, resigned after being defeated in the House in January 1891, Ballance was ready to form the country's first Liberal government.
Surrounding himself with a cabinet of considerable talent, Ballance steered his government through two difficult years before his death from cancer in 1893.
In his last months in office Ballance supported moves to enfranchise women, a reform of which he had long been an advocate.
In his support for women's suffrage Ballance was strongly influenced by the views of his wife.
Ellen Ballance was prominent in the growing feminist movement in New Zealand and was vice president of the Women's Progressive Society, an international organisation.
A thoughtful, intelligent and politically astute woman, Ellen shared fully her husband's political interests.
She regularly attended Parliament to listen to the debates from the gallery, and she was highly regarded in Wellington's political circles.
The personal qualities John Ballance possessed fitted him well for the task he faced as premier.
He was kindly, courteous and considerate and displayed great patience.
He was a man of honesty and integrity.
As a result he attracted extraordinary loyalty among his cabinet and party.
Robert Stout wrote of his 'magnetic power of attaching people to him'.
Many viewed his mild temperament as a sign of weakness as a leader.
In fact he possessed much political toughness, although it was often hidden and seldom acknowledged.
WP Reeves described him as 'absolutely the most unassuming and unpretentious' of all the successful and able men he had known.
But, he added, 'as a Premier – and I say it emphatically – he knew how to be master in his own house.'
John Ballance died in Wellington, New Zealand, on 27 April 1893.
After a state funeral he was buried at Wanganui three days later.
Ellen Ballance survived her husband by 42 years.
She remained active in community organisations in Wanganui, including the Anglican church, the Wanganui Orphanage and the Plunket Society.
She died at Wanganui on 14 June, 1935.
First published in May, 2011.