Hugh Pollen (1851-1912) – the ultimate faceless bureaucrat?

Hugh Pollen (1851-1912) – the ultimate faceless bureaucrat?

Hugh Pollen was the influential head of New Zealand’s largest government department for 20 years – but what did he look like?

Hugh was the son of medical doctor, civil servant and politician Daniel Pollen (1813-96), who was briefly (1875-76) Premier of New Zealand – i.e. the pre-1907 equivalent of Prime Minister. Hugh entered public service at the age of twenty, and was appointed Under-Secretary to the Colonial Secretary in 1892.

In modern parlance, the title of ‘Under-Secretary’ sounds like a junior office clerk, but the nearest modern equivalent would be Chief Executive of the Department of Internal Affairs (which the Colonial Secretariat became following Dominion Day on 26 September 1907). And the Colonial Secretariat was “The Mother of All Departments” (see Michael Bassett’s 1997 book of the same name, describing the history of the Department of Internal Affairs).

Hugh Pollen became New Zealand’s first Under-Secretary for Internal Affairs when the Colonial Secretariat was renamed in 1907 (at which stage he was responsible for 170 staff). He died at his home in Hanson Street, Newtown on 11 January 1912 while still in office.

One of multiplicit responsibilities of the Colonial Secretariat/Internal Affairs was legislation protecting New Zealand wildlife. During the 20 years that Pollen was at the helm, the number of fully protected native species grew from three birds to every indigenous bird species plus tuatara (and briefly bats). Pollen had a direct hand in protecting more wildlife species than any other civil servant in the history of the country – but remains a faceless man of mystery. Even his effusive obituaries (including one based on a tribute by Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward) were not accompanied by a portrait.

The sole attempt to provide an image of Hugh Pollen (namely p.52 of The Mother of All Departments; the history of the Department of Internal Affairs) used an image of the wrong man, taken nine years after Hugh Pollen’s death.

If any readers know of an image of Hugh Pollen, or know any of his descendants, I would be very grateful if you could reply to this blog, or contact me via Te Papa.

Colin Miskelly, Curator Terrestrial Vertebrates


  1. Hello, I am his great great great great grandson and we have quite literally no photographs of him anywhere and questioned his existence for a while. I have his brother and his father but not himself

    1. Author

      Thanks very much for making contact about this Conor.

      I am sorry to hear that family members also do not have any photographs of Hugh Pollen.

      Ngā mihi nui

  2. A Dickensian sketch from the NZ National Archives,
    On 20 March 1891 William Colenso writes to the Colonial Secretary asking for the later volumes of John White’s Ancient History of the Maori…
    Current Colonial Secretary Patrick Buckley writes a memo to Undersecretary GS Cooper,
    “The applicant has written for a copy as it appears to me because that the sale was prohibited. I think there can be no objection to gratifying his curiosity. I suppose he will pay unless there is some special reason to give a copy gratis.”
    Under secretary Cooper tells more lowly Under secretary Pollen (on 31 March 1891),
    “Tell Mr. Colenso that the reason why Mr White’s book was withdrawn from sale was the destruction by fire of the greater number of volumes unbound. Of the few wh. are left the Col. Sec. has authorised the issue of a copy of a vol of each of nos. 3 & 4 to Mr. C. on payt.”
    He sends Pollen a further note on 21 April,
    “Has not Mr Colenso been written to in terms of my minute of 31 March?”
    Pollen replies (22 April),
    “Mr Cooper, not yet. It is usual to wait until books have been sent, and it did not occur to me to write first in this instance.”
    Cooper: “Write now.”

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