March 1940 – This month last century

73 years ago Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage dies (27 March 1940)

Mickey Savage, as many New Zealanders fondly referred to him, was the country’s first Labour Prime Minister.

Autograph album, 1930s, New Zealand. Maker unknown,compiled by Benjamin Roberts. Gift of anonymous donors, 2007. Te Papa

Autograph album, 1930s, New Zealand. Maker unknown,compiled by Benjamin Roberts. Gift of anonymous donors, 2007. Te Papa

Australian-born Savage had arrived in New Zealand in 1907. He became the Labour MP for Auckland Central electorate in 1919.

Labour’s win 16 years later was a response to the hardship of the Great Depression and the limitations of private charity. The party won 55 seats out of a total of 80 and, as its leader, Savage became Prime Minister.

Under Savage, Labour promised more humane policies – ‘applied Christianity’ – and the right to a decent standard of living for all. The means to this ‘cradle to grave’ welfare philosophy was realised through Social Security legislation. 

Shortly after it was introduced, in August 1938, Savage collapsed. Emergency surgery revealed cancer of the colon. In just 19 months, the 68-year-old had succumbed to the disease.

After lying in state in Wellington, Savage’s body was taken by train to Auckland; around 200,000 people lined the route up to his grave at Bastion Point.

Michael Joseph Savage was probably New Zealand’s most beloved Prime Minister. Many felt a deep personal connection to him. His memorial gained special significance for those who lived through the Depression and found hope in Savage’s vision of New Zealand.

Read more about Savage’s life on the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

Learn about the 1938 Social Security legislation

Go to the Slice of Heaven: 20th Century Aotearoa exhibition website to see more about New Zealand governments and their social welfare policies

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