Robert Semple (21 October 1873 – 31 January 1955) was a union leader and later Minister of Public Works for the first Labour Government of New Zealand. He is also known for creating the Bob Semple tank.

Bob Semple
Bob Semple, 1935.jpg
Bob Semple in 1935
21st Minister of Public Works
In office
8 November 1942 – 13 December 1949
Prime MinisterPeter Fraser
Preceded byTim Armstrong
Succeeded byStan Goosman
In office
6 December 1935 – 21 January 1941
Prime MinisterMichael Joseph Savage
Peter Fraser
Preceded byJohn Bitchener
Succeeded byTim Armstrong
14th Minister of Railways
In office
12 December 1941 – 13 December 1949
Prime MinisterPeter Fraser
Preceded byDan Sullivan
Succeeded byStan Goosman
Member of the New Zealand Parliament
for Miramar
Wellington East (1928–1946)
In office
14 November 1928 – 13 November 1954
Preceded byThomas Forsyth
Succeeded byBill Fox
7th President of the Labour Party
In office
7 April 1926 – 12 April 1928
Vice PresidentJim Thorn (1926-7)
John Archer (1927-8)
LeaderHarry Holland
Preceded byTom Brindle
Succeeded byJohn Archer
Member of the New Zealand Parliament
for Wellington South
In office
19 December 1918 – 17 December 1919
Preceded byAlfred Hindmarsh
Succeeded byGeorge Mitchell
Personal details
Born21 October 1873
Sofala, New South Wales, Australia
Died31 January 1955(1955-01-31) (aged 81)
New Plymouth, New Zealand
Political partyLabour
SpouseMargaret Semple

Early lifeEdit

He was born in Sofala, New South Wales, Australia. He started working at an early age as gold miner in Australia. In 1903 he was involved in a miner's strike in Victoria, Australia. The strike was defeated and Semple ended up being blacklisted.[1]

To avoid the blacklist Semple moved to the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand. By 1907 he was president of the Runanga Miner's Union and earned himself nickname 'Fighting Bob Semple'.

He was jailed in 1913 for supporting the general strike and again in 1916 after fighting conscription for overseas service during World War I. Semple served as the President of the Labour Party from 1926 to 1928.[2]

Semple was a member of the Wellington City Council for a decade between 1925 and 1935. In 1935 he unsuccessfully stood for Mayor of Wellington, coming runner-up to Thomas Hislop.[3] His wife Margaret was also a Wellington City Councillor from 1938 to 1941.[4]

Parliamentary careerEdit

New Zealand Parliament
Years Term Electorate Party
1918–1919 19th Wellington South Labour
1928–1931 23rd Wellington East Labour
1931–1935 24th Wellington East Labour
1935–1938 25th Wellington East Labour
1938–1943 26th Wellington East Labour
1943–1946 27th Wellington East Labour
1946–1949 28th Miramar Labour
1949–1951 29th Miramar Labour
1951–1954 30th Miramar Labour

Semple was elected to the seat of Wellington South Parliament for Labour in a 1918 by-election, but lost the seat in the 1919 general election. In 1928 he won the Wellington East seat, and held it until 1946, when it was renamed Miramar. He then held Miramar until 1954, when he retired.[5]

In 1935, he was awarded the King George V Silver Jubilee Medal.[6] Semple was a prolific user of "unparliamentary language" during his time as an MP, and was fond of insulting colleagues by calling or comparing them to Australian animals such as kookaburras, kangaroos and dingoes.[7]

During his term in Parliament, Semple held many important infrastructure portfolios, such as Minister of Public Works (1935–1941, 1942–1943) and Minister of Railways (1941–1949).[8] Semple was seen by many as the public face of the first Labour government's infrastructure investment. He reshaped the Public Works Department by resuming its original function as the development arm of the government by phasing out its focus on relief work from the Great Depression.[1] During World War II he had built the 'Bob Semple tank', made from corrugated iron and a tractor base. The tank had numerous design flaws and other practical problems and was never put into production, although it was and continues to be regarded with affection by many New Zealanders.[citation needed]

In later life he became an ardent anti-communist.[1] He did not seek re-election in the 1954 election, and died in New Plymouth in January 1955.


  1. ^ a b c Richardson, Len. "Semple, Robert". Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Retrieved 30 December 2013.
  2. ^ Paul, J.T. (1946). Humanism in Politics: New Zealand Labour Party in Retrospect. Wellington, NZ: New Zealand Worker Printing and Publishing. p. 192.
  3. ^ "Polling in Wellington". The New Zealand Herald. Vol. LXXII, no. 22105. 10 May 1935. p. 13. Retrieved 2 August 2016.
  4. ^ Wellington: Biography of a city by Redmer Yska (Reed, Auckland, 2006) page 159 ISBN 0-7900-1117-4
  5. ^ Wilson 1985, p. 233.
  6. ^ "Official jubilee medals". The Evening Post. 6 May 1935. p. 4. Retrieved 30 August 2013.
  7. ^ Dooney, Laura (7 December 2016). "PhD research highlights unparliamentary language in New Zealand". Stuff. Retrieved 2 November 2019.
  8. ^ Wilson 1985, pp. 82f.

External linksEdit


Political offices
Preceded by Minister of Public Works

Succeeded by
Preceded by Succeeded by
Preceded by Minister of Railways
New Zealand Parliament
Preceded by Member of Parliament for Wellington South
Succeeded by
Preceded by Member of Parliament for Wellington East
Constituency abolished
New constituency Member of Parliament for Miramar
Succeeded by
Party political offices
Preceded by President of the Labour Party
Succeeded by