Alexander Hatrick was born at Smythesdale, Victoria, Australia, on 29 August 1857, the second of ten children of Scottish parents Alexander Hatrick, a carpenter, and his wife, Margaret Sinclair. In 1875, at the age of 17, he arrived in New Zealand with four friends from Ballarat, and after a brief stay on the West Coast settled in the North Island township of Wanganui. Here he would establish one of New Zealand's largest commercial concerns and exert a major influence on the district and its hinterland.
For several years Hatrick was employed at a local foundry. Then, in April 1880, he opened a steam chaff-cutting and grain-crushing mill in partnership with his brother-in-law, Lewis Walker. Trading under the style of Walker and Hatrick, the firm was soon dealing in a variety of farm produce and trading between Wanganui, Nelson and the West Coast. From October 1884 it chartered vessels and traded with Queensland, and from March 1885 acted as a shipping agent. When Walker retired in January 1886 Hatrick assumed control of the firm and began extending the volume and scope of its operations. In addition to general merchandise it sold wine, spirits and farm equipment and was an agent for various fire and marine insurance companies.
On 2 January 1888 Hatrick married Catherine Juliet Carr in Dunedin. They were to have four daughters and three sons, one of whom died shortly after birth. A year after his marriage Hatrick began shipping on his own account. His first vessel, the St Kilda, sailed for Sydney on 19 January 1889 and for 15 years made regular trips across the Tasman Sea. It was followed by the Alexa in 1904 and the Wanganui in 1910.
In March 1889 Hatrick altered the name of the firm to A. Hatrick and Company, and the following year embarked on an enterprise that would earn it a worldwide reputation. He was aware of interest in the Wanganui River as a tourist route and a means of communication with the interior of the North Island, and, although others had failed, was convinced he could run a viable upriver service. He received the government mail contract for the 55 miles between Wanganui and Pipiriki, to commence in 1892, and his first river boat, the paddle-steamer Wairere, was shipped out from London in sections and assembled in Wanganui in late 1891. It had accommodation for 250 passengers and made its maiden voyage on 18 December. Among the passengers were Mother Mary Joseph Aubert and five children from the Catholic mission at Jerusalem.
In April 1892 Hatrick signed a contract with Thomas Cook and Son to carry tourists on the river, and on 24 May the Wairere started a regular weekly mail, passenger and cargo service to Pipiriki. It was joined in 1894 by the Manuwai (400 passengers) and in 1897 by the Ohura (145 passengers).
In July 1901 Hatrick purchased Pipiriki House, the only accommodation house in the settlement, and in 1902 replaced part of the original building with a new tourist hotel. At the end of 1903 he extended the river service a further 89 miles to Taumarunui, which was then the terminus for the railway line from Auckland. The following year he had a large houseboat constructed in Taumarunui and floated down to the mouth of the Ohura River. It had accommodation for 36 guests and was fully equipped with modern conveniences including electric light. Hatrick was then able to provide a three-day service from Wanganui or Taumarunui, with overnight stops at Pipiriki House and the houseboat. In 1905 12,000 tourists stayed at Pipiriki House.
Hatrick advertised the service widely and extolled the scenic attractions of 'The Rhine of Maoriland'. His publicity material was distributed in Britain and America by Thomas Cook and Son. In June 1910 he assisted the international film makers Pathé Frères to make an 18-minute film of Wanganui, the river boats and the river.
Pipiriki House burnt down on 10 March 1909 and within 11 months Hatrick had replaced it with one of the most up-to-date tourist hotels in New Zealand. By December 1911 he had 12 large vessels and seven smaller craft operating on the river. The boats were repaired and maintained at his workshops in Wanganui and Taumarunui. From 1897 all but one of the additions to the flotilla were assembled at the Wanganui workshop.
The river boats were also used by the Maori people of the river, by the mission stations and by settlers on the blocks in the hinterland which were being opened for settlement. They provided transport, carried supplies, stock and mail, and took out the wool clip and other farm produce. They conveyed hundreds of workers and large quantities of the material and machinery required for building the viaducts and central section of the main trunk railway line.
Navigation on the river was never simple. The constant clearing and maintenance of navigable channels was supervised by the Wanganui River Trust and Hatrick had cables laid so his ships could be winched over the fastest rapids. Until telephones were installed along the whole route in 1914, staff on board and ashore communicated by carrier pigeon.
The success of the river service was not at the expense of Hatrick's other business interests. On 31 December 1910 his firm, now involved in some 40 commercial activities, was converted into a limited liability company. However, it remained essentially a family firm with Hatrick firmly in control. He was also managing director of a lucrative steel water-pipe company, and an early importer of motor vehicles into New Zealand. By 1918 the company was the largest motor firm in the country. Over the years it had branches or agencies in Wellington, Auckland, Waitara, Raetihi, Sydney, Melbourne and London.
Hatrick was also prominent in public life. He served on the Wanganui Harbour Board and borough council, and was mayor from 1897 to 1904. He was instrumental in the development of the gas works, the water supply and the tramways, and the opera house was also built during this period.
Hatrick's contribution to the economy of the Wanganui region was enormous. He not only provided numerous services and commodities but also employed a large number of people. He was described by one employee as 'a classic example of the country's hard-bitten, go-ahead pioneers of commerce. No shrinking violet, he was a big man with a big moustache and, when the occasion warranted it, a big voice.' He was energetic, far-seeing and imaginative. However, he also had his critics. His monopoly of the river trade caused resentment among some local businessmen and backblocks settlers. In 1900 they set up a rival service, but their company was undercapitalised and Hatrick could always offer lower rates for fares and freight. When it went into liquidation in September 1902, he purchased its two vessels.
However, Hatrick was not simply preoccupied with profit. He initiated measures to protect historic and natural features on the river. Mother Aubert and her sisters always enjoyed free travel on his boats, and the women attending the 1901 convention of the National Council of Women of New Zealand were given a day's outing on the Manuwai. He paid for three relatives to be educated in Wanganui and employed others. Several of his staff were also beneficiaries of his will.
Alexander Hatrick died on 30 July 1918 in Wanganui. He was survived by his wife, who died in 1949, and six children. Hatrick's 'empire' no longer exists, but in Wanganui and along the river there are reminders and memories of its heyday and of the vision and practical skill of its founder.