Edward Tregear

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Edward Tregear
Edward Robert Tregear
Edward Robert Tregear
Wellington City Councillor
In office
Preceded by David McLaren
1st President of the Social Democratic Party
In office
Vice President Frederick Cooke
Succeeded by Hiram Hunter
Personal details
Born 1 May 1846 (1846-05)
Southampton, England
Died 28 October 1931 (1931-10-29) (aged 85)
Picton, New Zealand
Political party Social Democratic (1913-16)
Labour (1916-31)
Spouse(s) Bessie Tregear
Children 1
Occupation Engineer
Awards Imperial Service Order
New Zealand Medal
Military service
Allegiance New Zealand Army
Years of service 1867-69
Rank British&Empire-Army-Capt(1881-1902).svg Captain
Battles/wars New Zealand Wars

Edward Robert Tregear ISO (1846–1931) was a New Zealand public servant and scholar.


He was born in Southampton, England, on 1 May 1846, the son of Captain William Henry Tregear,[1] a descendant of an old Cornish family. Tregear was educated in private schools and trained as a civil engineer. He arrived in Auckland in June 1863 and took a position as a surveyor. This work brought him into close contact with the Māori, and he began to study their language and culture. Poverty forced Tregear to enlist in the Auckland Engineer Volunteers. He saw action against the Māori in the Tauranga area and was awarded the New Zealand War Medal. Between 1869 and 1873 he worked as a surveyor on the goldfields at Thames and Coromandel and on Māori lands near Tokoroa. His investments in gold mining and saw milling ventures proved disastrous, and he lost what little money he had, setting a pattern for the rest of his life in financial matters. In 1877 he moved to Patea, working privately until 1881 as a surveyor for roads boards. He also captained the Patea Rifle Volunteers.[2]

His research on comparative mythology and linguistics was expressed in a controversial book The Aryan Maori (1885), in which he placed the Māori language in the ranks of the Indo-European language family and further claimed that the Māori shared an Aryan origin with the European. While this 'Aryan Māori' theory was bitterly criticised in New Zealand it received favourable attention overseas. Tregear frequently contributed articles on Māori anthropology to scholarly British journals, received fellowships of the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Historical Society. Following on the heels of these fellowships, in 1893 he received a silver medal and an offer of a fellowship from the Society of Science, Letters and Art, which he refused. His refusal triggered an exposé in New Zealand of this bogus institution.[3] Tregear was to repeat and refine his theory of the Aryan origin of Māori in many works during the succeeding two decades.

A freethinking socialist, Tregear was a personal friend of the politicians Ballance and Reeves. When the Liberal Party took office in 1891, he was named head of the new Bureau of Industries, later known as the Department of Labour. Working closely with Reeves as Minister, Tregear was responsible for the huge amount of progressive labour legislation passed in the 1890s. He was editor of the Journal of the Department of Labour.

In 1891 Tregear published the Maori-Polynesian Comparative Dictionary which is regarded as his most important contribution to scholarship. In 1892 he co-founded the Polynesian Society with Percy Smith, with whom he co-edited the journal of the society. The French Government took official cognisance of the great amount of work devoted to the dialects of the Pacific Islands under the control of France, and he received the high honour of Officier of the Ordre des Palmes Académiques.[4] He completed a substantial work, The Maori Race in 1904. Following his retirement as Secretary of Labour in 1910, he was honoured with the Imperial Service Order.

Tregear never stood for Parliament, despite Ballance's urgings. In a 1912 by-election, he was elected to the Wellington City Council (re-elected 1913) and became president of the militant Social Democratic Party. However, in 1914, afflicted with failing eyesight and gravely troubled and disheartened by the failure of the waterfront strike, Tregear suddenly resigned all his offices. He retired to Picton in the South Island where he died on 28 October 1931. He was survived by his wife Bessie and their only daughter Vera.


Tregear is regarded as an architect of the advanced social reforms which drew the world's attention to New Zealand. He was a prolific writer in a range of disparate genres including poetry, satire, and children's fairy stories, besides anthropology and sociology. While his theory of an Aryan origin of the Māori has been soundly rejected, his linguistic work has proven to be more durable. "Tregear was among the country's most prominent, prolific and controversial intellectuals. Besides Polynesian studies, he produced journal and newspaper articles and public lectures on religion, philology, mythology, literature, science, economics, women, philosophy, ancient history, politics – indeed almost the entire spectrum of human history and experience" (Howe 2006).

Mount Tregear in the Southern Alps is named after him in close proximity to peaks named after other Liberal Party figures Notman, Ballance and Stout.

List of honours[edit]


  1. ^ Williams, R. W. (1981) Tregears Around The World
  2. ^ Howe, K.R. "Tregear, Edward". Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Retrieved 10 June 2016. 
  3. ^ Evening Post, New Zealand, Volume XLV, Issue 132, 7 June 1893, p.2: A bogus literary society Retrieved 6 February 2014
  4. ^ Cowan, James (1934): "Famous New Zealanders, No. 13, Edward Tregear – Pioneer, Scholar, Humanitarian": The New Zealand Railways Magazine; Volume 9, Issue 1 (2 April 1934).


Further reading[edit]

Party political offices
Preceded by
new office
President of the Social Democratic Party
Succeeded by
Hiram Hunter