George Forbes (New Zealand politician)

The Right Honourable
George William Forbes
22nd Prime Minister of New Zealand
In office
28 May 1930  6 December 1935
Monarch George V
Governor-General Charles Bathurst
George Monckton-Arundell
Preceded by Joseph Ward
Succeeded by Michael Joseph Savage
9th Leader of the Opposition
In office
13 August 1925  4 November 1925
Preceded by Thomas Wilford
Succeeded by Harry Holland
In office
6 December 1935  2 November 1936
Preceded by Michael Joseph Savage
Succeeded by Adam Hamilton
Personal details
Born (1869-03-12)12 March 1869
Lyttelton, Christchurch, New Zealand
Died 17 May 1947(1947-05-17) (aged 78)
Cheviot, New Zealand
Political party Liberal (1908–1928)
United (1928–1936)
National (1936–1947)
Spouse(s) Emma Serena Gee
Children 3[1]
Religion Anglican

George William Forbes (/fɔːrbz/; 12 March 1869 – 17 May 1947) served as the 22nd Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1930 to 1935. Few expected him to become Prime Minister when he did, and some believed him unsuitable for the post; it was his misfortune to hold office during the very worst period of the Great Depression. He nevertheless remained in power for five years. Often referred to as "Honest George", Forbes had a reputation for probity, rare debating skill, and impressive memory. His courteous and friendly attitude earned him the liking and respect of parliamentarians from all sides of the House. Throughout his time in national politics his Hurunui constituents held Forbes in high regard: even when Prime Minister he would roll up his sleeves and help load sheep from his farm on the railway wagons for market. Forbes headed the coalition government that eventually became the modern National Party.

Early life

Forbes was born in Lyttelton, just outside the city of Christchurch. He gained his education at Christchurch Boys' High School in Christchurch, and did not attend university. He became known for his ability at sport, particularly in athletics, rowing, and rugby where he captained the Canterbury team. After finishing school he briefly worked in his father's ships' chandlery business in Lyttelton, but later established himself as a successful farmer near Cheviot, to the north of Christchurch. He quickly became active in the local politics of the region, particularly with regard to the Cheviot County Council and the Cheviot Settlers' Association.[2]

Entry to Parliament

Parliament of New Zealand
Years Term Electorate Party
19081911 17th Hurunui Liberal
19111914 18th Hurunui Liberal
19141919 19th Hurunui Liberal
19191922 20th Hurunui Liberal
19221925 21st Hurunui Liberal
19251928 22nd Hurunui Liberal
1928 Changed allegiance to: United
19281931 23rd Hurunui United
19311935 24th Hurunui United
19351936 25th Hurunui United
19361938 Changed allegiance to: National
19381943 26th Hurunui National

At the 1902 election, Forbes made his first attempt to enter national politics, standing for the Hurunui electorate. He stood as an independent, having failed to gain the Liberal Party nomination. He lost the election. At the 1908 election, however, he became the Liberal Party's official Hurunui candidate, and won the seat of Hurunui. He would hold this seat for thirty-five years.

Forbes remained a backbencher for some time, but became the Liberal Party's Whip when party leader Thomas Mackenzie became Prime Minister in March 1912. He retained this position when his party went into Opposition on 10 July 1912. However, he had considerably higher status within the party than his official responsibilities indicated, although few thought of him as a potential leader.

By the early 1920s, the Liberal Party faced a decision as to its political future. The Reform Party government of William Massey dominated the political scene, having secured the conservative vote, while the growing Labour Party had started to undermine Liberal's progressive voter-base. Many members of the Liberal Party believed an alliance with the Reform Party inevitable, seeing such co-operation as necessary to counteract the "radicalism" of the Labour Party. When Massey died in 1925, Liberal leader Thomas Wilford decided to approach Massey's successor with a merger-proposal, suggesting that the new party could use the name "the National Party". The Liberal Party chose Forbes to represent them at a joint conference. The new Reform Party leader, Gordon Coates, rejected the proposal, although Wilford declared that Liberal would adopt the name "National" regardless.

Party leader

Forbes in 1914.

Shortly after the merger proposal was rejected, Wilford resigned as leader, and Forbes unexpectedly became party leader. In the election later that year, however, the party did very badly, gaining only eleven seats compared with Reform's fifty-five. To compound the injury, Forbes no longer even held the post of Leader of the Opposition – the Labour Party had won twelve seats, enabling its leader Harry Holland to claim seniority in Opposition, although with two independents sitting in opposition as well the position of Leader of the Opposition remained vacant until Labour won the 1926 Eden by-election.

The party's poor fortune did not last long, however. In 1927, Liberal Party politician Bill Veitch secured an alliance with Albert Davy, a former Reform Party organiser who had become dissatisfied with what he saw as Reform's paternalism and intrusive governance. The former Liberal Party (still known as National) absorbed Davy's new "United New Zealand Political Organization", and adopted the name "the United Party". Forbes and Veitch both vied as candidates for the leadership of the United Party, but the position eventually went to a former Liberal Party Prime Minister, Joseph Ward. Forbes became one of two deputy leaders, having particular responsibility for the South Island.

Under the United banner, bolstered by Reform Party dissidents, the remnants of the old Liberal Party once again gained traction. In the 1928 elections, United formed a government with backing from the Labour Party. Forbes gained the portfolios of Lands and Agriculture. Gradually, however, Ward's health declined to the state where he was unable to carry out his duties, and Forbes became leader in all but name. In 1930, Ward finally gave his official resignation, and Forbes became Prime Minister. He also made himself Minister of Finance.

Prime Minister

As Prime Minister, Forbes, described as "apathetic and fatalistic", reacted to events but showed little vision or purpose. Opponents also criticised him for relying too much on the advice of his friends. However, the depression years proved a difficult time for many governments around the world, and his defenders claim that he did the best job possible in the circumstances of the economic crisis. During his premiership, Forbes also served as the Minister of External Affairs between 1930 and 1935.[3]

The Forbes government began to show signs of instability when the Labour Party withdrew its support. Labour expressed dissatisfaction with a number of the government's economic measures – Forbes intended them to reduce the government deficit and to stimulate the economy, but Labour claimed that they unnecessarily harmed the interests of poorer citizens. Forbes had perforce to continue with reluctant support from the Reform Party, which now feared Labour's growing popularity.

In late 1931, Forbes called for a "grand coalition" of United, Reform, and Labour to resolve the country's economic problems. Forbes told a joint conference that he would not implement the measures he deemed necessary without broad backing. Labour refused to join this coalition, but ex-PM Coates (prompted by the Reform Party's finance spokesperson, William Downie Stewart, Jr.) eventually agreed.

In the 1931 elections, the United-Reform Coalition performed well, winning a combined total of fifty-one seats. Forbes remained Prime Minister, but surrendered the finance role to William Stewart. Slowly, however, many people came to believe that Coates held significantly too much power, and that Forbes showed himself overwilling to give in to Coates' demands. This view became reinforced when Coates and Stewart argued over financial policy – although Forbes was known to prefer Stewart's policy, he publicly sided with Coates, and Stewart resigned.

Coates replaced Stewart as Minister of Finance, and became even more dominant in the coalition. Stewart, noting this, complained that "the Prime Minister is too passive and the Minister of Finance is too active". Both Forbes and Coates, however, increasingly took the blame for the country's ongoing economic problems, and could not avoid public dissatisfaction. In the elections of 1935 the Labour Party defeated the coalition government, gaining fifty-five votes to the coalition's nineteen.

In 1935, Forbes was awarded the King George V Silver Jubilee Medal,[4] and in 1937, he was awarded the King George VI Coronation Medal.[5]


By 1935 Forbes had become increasingly weary of politics, writing that he agreed with Stewart's description of the profession as "slavery that is miscalled power". Nevertheless, Forbes reluctantly allowed his colleagues to select him as Leader of the Opposition, and from May 1936 led the new National Party (created out of United and Reform) until October 1936 when Adam Hamilton became the party leader. Both party and leader agreed on Forbes's tenure as leader of the new National Party as a temporary measure, as Forbes had indicated his desire to withdraw from the limelight, and younger figures in the party saw his past tenure as a political liability.

Forbes retained his parliamentary seat until 1943, when he retired after 35 years as a Member of Parliament. He declined the offer of the customary knighthood, and four years after his retirement he died at Crystal Brook, his farm near Cheviot.

The national memorial for Forbes, the George Forbes Memorial Library, forms part of Lincoln University near Christchurch.[6]


  1. Gardner, W. J. "Forbes, George William - Biography". Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Retrieved 11 December 2011.
  2. New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, vol. 226-243 (1930-1935).
  3. "Official jubilee medals". Evening Post. 6 May 1935. p. 4. Retrieved 2 July 2013.
  4. Taylor, Alister (1998). The New Zealand Roll of Honour. Alister Taylor. p. 449. ISBN 0-908578-58-X.
  5. See "Architectural competition", Journal of the NZ Institute of Architects, 23 (8): 201, 1956, and Burns, M. M.; Wilson, F. Gordon; Muston, Ronald C. (1957), "The George Forbes Memorial Library", Journal of the NZ Institute of Architects, 24 (3): 70–74

Further reading

Work of Forbes

Works about Forbes

  • "Architectural competition", Journal of the NZ Institute of Architects, 23 (8): 201, 1956 
  • Burns, M. M.; Wilson, F. Gordon; Muston, Ronald C. (1957), "The George Forbes Memorial Library", Journal of the NZ Institute of Architects, 24 (3): 70–74 
  • Carr, Clyde (1936), Politicalities, Wellington, [N.Z.]: National Magazines, pp. 50–52 
  • Nelson, Olaf F. (1932), The situation in Samoa: Mr. Nelson meets Mr. Forbes: a record of the interview, Auckland, [N.Z.]: National Printing 
  • Wilson, John (18 October 1993), "Cheviot's jolts and ballots", Christchurch Press, p. 25 
Wikimedia Commons has media related to George William Forbes.
Government offices
Preceded by
Joseph Ward
Prime Minister of New Zealand
Succeeded by
Michael Joseph Savage
Political offices
Preceded by
Bill Veitch
Minister of Railways
Succeeded by
Dan Sullivan
Preceded by
William Downie Stewart
Succeeded by
Rex Mason
New Zealand Parliament
Preceded by
Andrew Rutherford
Member of Parliament for Hurunui
Succeeded by
William Gillespie
Party political offices
Preceded by
Thomas Wilford
Leader of the Liberal Party
Succeeded by
Joseph Ward
Preceded by
William MacDonald
Senior Whip of the Liberal Party
Succeeded by
Sydney George Smith
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