Henry May (New Zealand politician)

Henry Leonard James May QSO (13 April 1912 – 22 April 1995)[1] was a New Zealand politician of the Labour Party. He was a cabinet minister from 1972 to 1975.

Henry May
Henry May.jpg
20th Minister of Internal Affairs
In office
8 December 1972 – 12 December 1975
Prime MinisterNorman Kirk
Bill Rowling
Preceded byAllan Highet
Succeeded byAllan Highet
2nd Minister of Local Government
In office
8 December 1972 – 12 December 1975
Prime MinisterNorman Kirk
Bill Rowling
Preceded byAllan Highet
Succeeded byAllan Highet
28h Minister of Civil Defence
In office
10 September 1974 – 12 December 1975
Prime MinisterBill Rowling
Preceded byTom McGuigan
Succeeded byAllan Highet
Member of the New Zealand Parliament
In office
7 July 1954 – 29 November 1975
Preceded byHarry Combs
Succeeded byBill Lambert
ConstituencyOnslow (1954–63)
Porirua (1963–69)
Western Hutt (1969–75)
Personal details
Henry Leonard James May

13 April 1912
Petone, New Zealand
Died22 April 1995 (1995-04-23) (aged 83)
Waikanae, New Zealand
Political partyLabour Party
Annie McNeill
(m. 1940; died 1967)

Doreen Langton
(m. 1970)


Early life and careerEdit

May was born in Petone in 1912.[2] He attended Petone convent school. He left school at 13 and found employment with Lever Brothers, later studying engineering part-time at Wellington Technical College. He then gained a job at the New Zealand Railways Department in the late 1920s, where soon after his wages were cut by 10% as part of the retrenchment policies of the United–Reform coalition government. He was also member of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants. At the outbreak of World War II his position with the railways was classified as a reserved occupation and he was ineligible to serve overseas. He subsequently served in the volunteer fire brigade to help fill the void of men that were overseas. After the war he left the railways and became the caretaker of the Petone waterworks.[3]

His family were active in the Trade union movement and he was involved in politics from his days at school. His first political involvement was when he was aged only 7 years old when he held oil lamps to light a street-corner stump speech for Labour MP Bob Semple on the corner of Jackson Street and Richmond Street during the 1919 election. Throughout the 1920s he delivered Labour Party leaflets and attended party meetings with his grandfather Chip Oakley, a local baker. By the 1930s he was a local organiser and electorate secretary.[3]

Political careerEdit

New Zealand Parliament
Years Term Electorate Party
1954 30th Onslow Labour
1954–1957 31st Onslow Labour
1957–1960 32nd Onslow Labour
1960–1963 33rd Onslow Labour
1963–1966 34th Porirua Labour
1966–1969 35th Porirua Labour
1969–1972 36th Western Hutt Labour
1972–1975 37th Western Hutt Labour

From 1947 to 1956 he was a member of the Petone Borough Council.[2] As a councillor he was opposed to the proposed amalgamation of Petone with Lower Hutt.[4] He was also a member of the Hutt River Board and Hutt Power and Gas Board.[3] He then transitioned to national politics, representing the Wellington area electorates of Onslow from a 1954 by-election to 1963, then Porirua from 1963 to 1969, then Western Hutt from 1969 to 1975.[5]

In February 1954 after long-serving Labour MP Harry Combs announced he would retire at the general election later that year owing to ill health. May put himself forward for the Labour nomination to replace him on Onslow.[6] May's selection had been something of a surprise as the former Labour Party president James Roberts was the other main candidate.[3] The National Party decided not to stand a candidate and May won the seat unopposed. May first learned of his default victory via a telegram from Petone MP Mick Moohan inviting him to attend that evening's session of parliament. May did so and was sworn in as an MP that very evening.[3] At the general election in November May defeated Wilfred Fortune (the retiring MP for Eden) by 519 votes, confirming him as the MP.[7]

He served as Labour's senior whip from 1958 to 1972. As senior whip during the Second Labour Government, which had a working majority of one, May became the "numbers man" and was tasked with ensuring that whenever the house divided the government had a majority present in the house.[8] He was chairman of Parliament's Local Bills Committee which in 1960 produced the "May Report" recommending New Zealand adopt regional councils and fewer borough councils and local authorities.[3]

In 1951 he was elected a member of the Labour Party executive. In 1963 he stood unsuccessfully for the Labour Party vice-presidency but was beaten by Norman Kirk. He stood again in 1966 and was successful, holding the office for three years until 1969 when he was defeated by Bill Rowling.[9]

After the formation of the Third Labour Government May stood for the cabinet and was tied for the final place in the caucus ballot with Ron Bailey (whom he had shared an office with for many years) with May narrowly winning. Prime Minister Norman Kirk regretted two friends being pitted against one another but was relieved when Bailey took the defeat graciously.[10] May was appointed by Kirk as Minister of Internal Affairs and Minister of Local Government from 1972 to 1975. In 1974 he gained additional responsibility as Minister of Civil Defence.[11] As Minister of Internal Affairs he was a patron of the arts. He increased the funding for the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council 127% and boosted the Historic Places Trust funding by an extra $63,000 as well.[12] His main accomplishment as a minister was restructuring New Zealand's local government setup in 1974, largely inspired by the "May Report" over a decade earlier.[2]

Following Norman Kirk's death he was responsible for organising his state funeral.[13] May also created the New Zealand Fire Service in 1975, merging the 26 permanent and 251 volunteer fire brigades in co-operation with Sir Jack Hunn.[3]

The Labour government was unexpectedly defeated at the 1975 general election and May lost his ministerial roles. May was also unexpectedly defeated by Bill Lambert in the Western Hutt electorate. While initially ahead of Lambert by the slender margin of 8 votes his position was tenuous with over one thousand special votes yet to be counted and the overall nationwide swing to National counting against him. Nevertheless May pointed to the fact that in every previous election he had gained votes after specials were counted and stated "I am not throwing in the towel yet".[14] Ultimately he was defeated after the final count was made however finishing 168 votes (only 0.88%) behind Lambert.[15]

Later life and deathEdit

Following his defeat, May moved to Waikanae with his second wife, Doreen, and became a gardener in his retirement.[3] He was appointed a Companion of the Queen's Service Order for public services in the 1976 Queen's Birthday Honours.[16]

May died on 22 April 1995, aged 83 years. He was survived by his second wife Doreen and four children.[2]

Family and personal lifeEdit

In 1940 he married his first wife Mary Anne McNeill and built their own home in Korokoro. They had four children and were married for 27 years before Annie died in a car accident in May 1967 on Hutt Road.[3] He later remarried to Doreen Langton, who died in 2010.[17]

His brother, Josiah Robert Philip May, was also a Petone Borough Councillor who had played rugby for Wellington B and had married Henry's wife Annie's sister Theresa Winifred McNeill.[18] First elected in 1950, he was deputy mayor of Petone under mayor Annie Huggan but was later dropped from the Labour ticket (along with Huggan) at the 1965 local elections. He was re-elected to the council as an independent (unlike Huggan who was defeated) and continued as deputy mayor on a majority independent council under new mayor Ralph Love.[19] When Love was disqualified from the mayoralty in January 1967 Joe became acting mayor until a by-election could be held.[20] Joe May declined to stand for mayor himself and Love resumed the mayoralty after winning the by-election in March 1967.[21]


  1. ^ "Henry May (1912–1995)". Alexander Turnbull Library. Retrieved 6 October 2010.
  2. ^ a b c d "Former cabinet minister dies". The Dominion. 24 April 1995. p. 3.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Bassett, Michael (27 April 1995). "Last of the old-time Labour men". The Dominion. p. 10.
  4. ^ "No Amalgamation". The Hutt News. Vol. XXII, no. 6. 21 July 1948. p. 7.
  5. ^ Wilson 1985, p. 219.
  6. ^ "Mr. H. E. Combs, M.P., Dead". The Evening Post. 12 June 1954. p. 13.
  7. ^ Norton 1988, pp. 297.
  8. ^ Freer 2004, p. 102.
  9. ^ Grant 2014, pp. 75, 150.
  10. ^ Hayward 1981, p. 98.
  11. ^ Wilson 1985, pp. 92–93.
  12. ^ Grant 2014, pp. 379.
  13. ^ Grant 2014, pp. 403.
  14. ^ "Henry May Won't Concede". The Evening Post. 1 December 1975. p. 2.
  15. ^ Norton 1988, pp. 390.
  16. ^ "No. 46921". The London Gazette (3rd supplement). 12 June 1976. p. 8056.
  17. ^ "Doreen (Langton) May Death Notice". The New Zealand Herald. 9 December 2010. Retrieved 11 June 2020.
  18. ^ "Brothers on Council". The Evening Post. 20 November 1950. p. 10.
  19. ^ "Few Surprises in Valley - Petone Mayor is Defeated". The Evening Post. 11 October 1965. p. 21.
  20. ^ "Out of Office". The Press. Vol. CVI, no. 31280. 28 January 1967. p. 1.
  21. ^ "The Mayor Resumes". The Press. Vol. CVI, no. 31328. 27 March 1967. p. 1.


  • Freer, Warren (2004). A Lifetime in Politics: the memoirs of Warren Freer. Wellington: Victoria University Press. ISBN 0-86473-478-6.
  • Grant, David (2014). The Mighty Totara: The life and times of Norman Kirk. Auckland: Random House. ISBN 9781775535799.
  • Hayward, Margaret (1981) [First ed. published 1981]. Diary of the Kirk Years (1 ed.). Wellington: A.H. and A.W. Reed Limited. ISBN 0-589-01350-5.
  • Norton, Clifford (1988). New Zealand parliamentary election results, 1946–1987. Wellington: Victoria University of Wellington Department of Political Science. ISBN 0-475-11200-8.
  • Wilson, James Oakley (1985) [First published in 1913]. New Zealand Parliamentary Record, 1840–1984 (4th ed.). Wellington: V.R. Ward, Govt. Printer. OCLC 154283103.
New Zealand Parliament
Preceded by Member of Parliament for Onslow
Constituency abolished, recreated in 1993
Title next held by
Peter Dunne
Constituency recreated after abolition in 1870
Title last held by
Alfred Brandon
Member of Parliament for Porirua
Succeeded by
New constituency Member of Parliament for Western Hutt
Succeeded by
Political offices
Preceded by Minister of Internal Affairs
Succeeded by
Minister of Local Government
Preceded by Minister of Civil Defence
Party political offices
Preceded by Senior Whip of the Labour Party
Succeeded by
Preceded by Vice-President of the Labour Party
Succeeded by