Thomas Wilford

Last updated

Sir Thomas Wilford

Thomas Wilford, 1928.jpg
Thomas Wilford in 1928
8th Leader of the Opposition
In office
8 September 1920 13 August 1925
Preceded by William MacDonald
Succeeded by George Forbes
18th Mayor of Wellington
In office
DeputyJohn Smith
Preceded by Alfred Newman
Succeeded by David McLaren
Personal details
Born(1870-06-20)20 June 1870
Lower Hutt, New Zealand
Died22 June 1939(1939-06-22) (aged 69)
Wellington, New Zealand
Political party Liberal
Georgia Constance McLean(m. 1892)
Relations Thomas Mason (grandfather)
George McLean (father-in-law)

Sir Thomas Mason Wilford KCMG KC (20 June 1870 – 22 June 1939) was a New Zealand politician. He held the seats of Wellington Suburbs then Hutt continuously for thirty years, from 1899 to 1929. Wilford was leader of the New Zealand Liberal Party, and Leader of the Opposition from 1920 to 1925.


Early life

Wilford was born in Lower Hutt in 1870. His parents were the surgeon John George Frederick Wilford and his wife, Elizabeth Catherine Mason. His grandfather on his mother's side was Thomas Mason. Wilford was a keen sportsman and athlete in his youth and competed in several sports including rugby, tennis and boxing. [1] He obtained his education at Wellington College in the Wellington suburb of Mount Victoria, followed by Christ's College in Christchurch. He passed his examinations as a lawyer at age 18, but could not be admitted to the bar until he had reached the legal age of 21. [2]

He married Georgia Constance McLean, daughter of George McLean, on 17 February 1892 at Dunedin. They had one son and one daughter. [2]

Member of Parliament

New Zealand Parliament
1896 1897 13th Wellington Suburbs Liberal
1899 1902 14th Wellington Suburbs Liberal
1902 1905 15th Hutt Liberal
1905 1908 16th Hutt Liberal
1908 1911 17th Hutt Liberal
1911 1914 18th Hutt Liberal
1914 1919 19th Hutt Liberal
1919 1922 20th Hutt Liberal
1922 1925 21st Hutt Liberal
1925 1928 22nd Hutt Liberal
1928Changed allegiance to: United
1928 1929 23rd Hutt United

Wilford was elected to the Wellington Suburbs electorate in the 1896 general election, but the result was declared void after an election petition on the grounds of corrupt and illegal practices as Wilford had exceeded the £200 election spending limit which had only recently been introduced. [3] Charles Wilson was elected MP for that electorate following a by-election on 23 April 1897. [4]

Wilford then won the Wellington Suburbs electorate in the 1899 election and the new Hutt electorate from the 1902 election, which he held until he resigned on 18 November 1929. [4]

He was Chairman of Committees from 1909 to 1910. [5]

Wilford was a member of the Wellington Harbour Board from 1900 to 1910, and chaired the Board from 1908 onwards. In 1901 Wilford ran for the Wellington mayoralty, losing to incumbent mayor John Aitken by 3,069 votes. [6] He championed the redevelopment of the Hutt Road and railway linking Wellington city to the Hutt Valley from 1899 and 1911, skillfully working with and around local body groups to achieve a rather costly upgrade of the existing infrastructure. He resigned from the Harbour Board when he became Mayor of Wellington in 1910 for one year. After being re-elected unopposed he resigned as mayor of Wellington due to health issues. [2]

Wilford almost died in 1911 after complications following an appendicitis operation. His health was to never fully recover. Wilford was forced to sail to England in early 1912 for more advanced surgery and during this long absence his position within the Liberal party was significantly weakened. [2]


Wellington Mayoral election, 1910 Wellington Mayoral election, 1910.jpg
Wellington Mayoral election, 1910

He was Minister of Justice, Minister of Marine and Minister of Stamps in the World War I National government from 14 November 1917 to 22 August 1919 under William Massey. [7]

Leader of the Opposition

Wilford became the Leader of the Liberal Party and therefore Leader of the Opposition upon the death of William MacDonald in 1920. However, he was initially hampered in this position due to many Liberal MP's wishes to remain leaderless until their defeated leader, Joseph Ward could re-enter Parliament. [8] By 1922 Wilford had achieved a reconciliation with the Liberal's dissidents and contested the 1922 election as party leader. [8]

There was talk of a proposed alliance of sorts between the Liberal and Labour parties in order to avoid vote splitting, similar to the Lib-Lab Pact in the UK. [9] Wilford entered into discussions with Labour leader Harry Holland over a joint campaign and upon winning, forming a coalition to set up a proportional representation electoral system. The talks broke down however after Wilford demanded to hold office for a full term before holding an election under the new system. [9]

The Liberal's fared better under Wilford's leadership in 1922 than in the previous election, gaining an additional five seats. This can partly be attributed to Labour not standing candidates in all electorates against the Liberal's in line with the ultimately failed joint campaign talks. [10] However, the Liberal's were still unable to regain office and by 1925, Wilford had yielded the leadership to George Forbes.

Labour politician, John A. Lee, a colleague who knew Wilford well, stated that while no one could have saved the Liberal party from its ultimate demise, if Wilford had been in better health, he would have delayed it, returning the Liberals to power and served as Prime Minister himself. [2]

United Party

From 10 December 1928 to 10 December 1929 he was Minister of Justice for a second period, in the cabinet of Joseph Ward. Wilford was also Minister of Defence in the United ministry. [11] This was a reflection that he "had a long-standing interest in naval policy, especially the Singapore Base, ... had travelled extensively in the Pacific and the Far East", and he "was regarded as something of a specialist in Far Eastern questions." [12]

He resigned from Parliament on 18 November 1929 to become High Commissioner to the United Kingdom. [13] In the 1930 King's Birthday Honours, Wilford was appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George. [14] In 1935, he was awarded the King George V Silver Jubilee Medal. [15]


Wilford died at Wellington on 22 June 1939, survived by his wife and two children. [2]


  1. "Past Mayors of Wellington". Wellington City Council. Retrieved 14 August 2015.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Butterworth, Susan. "Wilford, Thomas Mason - Biography". Dictionary of New Zealand Biography . Ministry for Culture and Heritage . Retrieved 17 December 2011.
  3. Scholefield 1950, p. 147.
  4. 1 2 Scholefield 1950, p. 148.
  5. Wilson 1985, p. 252.
  6. "Wellington City Council". The Free Lance. I (43). 27 April 1901. p. 11. Retrieved 11 March 2016.
  7. Scholefield 1950, p. 44.
  8. 1 2 McLintock 1966, p. 9.
  9. 1 2 O'Farrell 1964, p. 126.
  10. O'Farrell 1964, pp. 126-7.
  11. Wilson 1985, p. 80.
  12. McGibbon 1981, pp. 181, 221.
  13. Wilson 1985, p. 245.
  14. "No. 33611". The London Gazette (Supplement). 3 June 1930. p. 3476.
  15. "Official jubilee medals". The Evening Post . 6 May 1935. p. 4. Retrieved 2 July 2013.

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Political offices
Preceded by
Kennedy Macdonald
Chair of Wellington Harbour Board
Succeeded by
Robert Fletcher
Preceded by
Roderick McKenzie
Chairman of Committees of the House of Representatives
Succeeded by
James Colvin
Preceded by
Alfred Newman
Mayor of Wellington
Succeeded by
David McLaren
Preceded by
Josiah Hanan
Minister of Justice
Succeeded by
Gordon Coates
Preceded by
William Downie Stewart
Succeeded by
Thomas Sidey
New Zealand Parliament
Preceded by
Alfred Newman
Member of Parliament for Wellington Suburbs
Succeeded by
Charles Wilson
Preceded by
Charles Wilson
In abeyance
Title next held by
John Luke
In abeyance
Title last held by
Alfred Newman
Member of Parliament for Hutt
Succeeded by
Walter Nash
Party political offices
Preceded by
William MacDonald
Leader of the Liberal Party
Succeeded by
George Forbes
Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
James Parr
High Commissioner of New Zealand to the United Kingdom
Succeeded by
James Parr