Edward Robert Tregear, son of William James Tregear and his wife, Mary Norris, was born in Southampton, Hampshire, England, on 1 May 1846. He led a comfortable life there with his mother and younger sisters, Mary and Ellen. His father was a captain with the Peninsular and Oriental Line and was seldom home. Edward was an imaginative, scholarly lad, who proudly traced his Cornish ancestry to the mystic days of King Arthur, and steeped himself in medieval, Celtic, Nordic and classical legend. At seven he could read and write Greek and Latin.
Tregear's pleasant life ended abruptly with his father's financial ruin in 1858, probably through gambling, followed by his death from typhoid in Bombay, India, in 1859. The family was reduced to miserable circumstances. On 27 June 1863, 17-year-old Edward brought them to Auckland, New Zealand, on the War Spirit. They lived for three or four years in obscurity at Warkworth, before settling in Auckland.
Poverty forced Tregear into the uncharacteristic role of soldier, in the Auckland Engineer Volunteers. He fought against Māori in the Tauranga district in 1867 and won the New Zealand War Medal. He then trained as a surveyor. Between 1869 and 1871 he worked at Thames and Coromandel as a surveyor on the goldfields (and briefly as a miner), and lost what little money he had in goldmining companies. In 1872–73 he was employed by the Land Purchase Department surveying Māori lands on the Hauraki Plains and around Tokoroa. He then took charge of a contingent of Māori troopers and labourers in the Armed Constabulary employed in roadmaking around Te Awamutu. There followed a financially disastrous sawmilling venture near Rangiriri. In 1875 he was a government surveyor in Taranaki, but his health collapsed in the wet north Taranaki bushlands. He moved to Pātea in 1877 and worked as a private surveyor for roads boards until 1881. He was captain of the Pātea Rifle Volunteers.
The 1870s were years of great personal turmoil and physical hardship. He travelled where few Europeans had been, and lived for months in Māori communities without seeing another European. Tregear became fluent in Māori and fascinated by their culture; but he spent much of his isolation brooding, seeing himself as a young poet exiled to desert lands. To add to his miseries he fell in love with Eliza Emma Joynt, formerly Arden, of New Plymouth. Bessie, as she was known, was the ill-treated and deserted wife of Nathaniel Joynt. Tregear's verse of the 1870s is full of the agonies of exile, torments of unrequited love, and themes of duty and honour, as he awaited the uncertain outcome of Bessie Joynt's lengthy divorce proceedings.
Tregear applied his classical schooling and his passion for the new sciences of comparative mythology, religion and linguistics to try to comprehend his strange new country and its alien Māori inhabitants. He began working on a Māori dictionary and a study of Māori origins.
In 1880 Bessie Joynt gained a divorce, at the time a most unusual feat for a woman. Two weeks later, on 18 June, she and Tregear married at Hēnui Church, New Plymouth. Their only child, Vera, was born in Hāwera on 29 September 1881. Tregear had his first desk job in New Plymouth, as a draughtsman surveying with William Fox's West Coast Royal Commission.
Tregear was active in the New Plymouth Working Men's Club and known for his outspoken support for the downtrodden and his hatred of capitalist corruption. A self-styled 'socialist', he argued strongly that the state should control the rich and protect the poor. Tregear's 'socialism' derived not from theory but from his experience of financial misfortunes. And these continued; he was bankrupt for a time in 1882. He flirted briefly with the freethought movement, which gave him an entrée to the colony's radical intellectual élite. He got to know Robert Stout, John Ballance and William Pember Reeves. Tregear's publications in the Freethought Review were notable for their support of collectivist action and for impassioned concern at the lowly status of women. He also published a book of very witty fables with strong political overtones, Southern parables (1884). Tregear was also known for his expertise in Māori language and custom. Ballance, as native minister, transferred him to the Wellington survey office in 1885 to help prepare John White's Māori manuscripts for publication. Although Tregear never took up that project he stayed in Wellington, becoming very active in intellectual circles, especially the Wellington Philosophical Society.
A first result of his studies in comparative mythology and linguistics was his controversial book The Aryan Māori (1885), in which he claimed to find in Māori language, mythology and custom many remnants of an ancient Aryan heritage. He placed Māori squarely within the Indo-European language family and claimed that Māori and European shared an Aryan origin. This 'discovery' marked an intellectual turning point for Tregear. New Zealand was no longer the desolate place of his poems of the 1870s. He could now see that his adopted land had an imaginative landscape similar to England's and as ancient. Māori were no longer primitive aliens but shared with him a common if distant ancestry. The Māori world was no longer unknowable. He had cracked its code, and filled a desert land with people, history, mythology and culture which he could understand and willingly embrace. It was a feat of intellectual colonisation.
While his Aryan Māori was sometimes bitterly criticised in New Zealand it was generally favourably received overseas. Tregear began publishing articles in scholarly British journals, was admitted to fellowships of the Royal Geographical Society and Royal Historical Society, and became a member of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland and of the Philological Society, London. He corresponded with such notables of British scholarship as Max Müller, Andrew Lang and J. G. Frazer, and contributed to their debates, such as that over solar mythology. Tregear reiterated and refined his theories of the Aryan origins of Māori in numerous publications over the next 20 years.
Tregear's monumental Māori–Polynesian comparative dictionary (1891) established his international reputation in Polynesian scholarship and he received honours from England, Italy and France. His output of Polynesian studies continued at a prodigious rate with articles, dictionaries, a collection of Polynesian fairy-tales – Fairy tales and folk-lore of New Zealand and the South Seas (1891) – and a large volume of Māori ethnography, The Māori race (1904). In 1892 he co-founded with Stephenson Percy Smith the Polynesian Society and co-edited its journal for 11 years. Tregear also played a prominent administrative as well as intellectual role, as councillor and president of the Wellington Philosophical Society and as a governor of the New Zealand Institute.
By the early 1890s Tregear was among the country's most prominent, prolific and controversial intellectuals. Besides Polynesian studies, he produced journal and newspaper articles and public lectures on religion, philology, mythology, literature, science, economics, women, philosophy, ancient history, politics – indeed almost the entire spectrum of human history and experience. He painted landscapes (badly), was a superb illustrator and graphic designer, was good with his hands and was skilled at small engineering projects, patenting a theodolite and tinkering for years with a perpetual motion machine. He wrote a novel, Hedged with divinities (1895), and began to publish some verse, under the influence of the Australian writer and critic A. G. Stephens.
Tregear also promoted the establishment in 1888 of the New Zealand Institute of Surveyors; he was its vice president and the founding editor of its journal. He organised the Civil Service Rifle Volunteers (Wellington) during the South African war of 1899–1902.
Ballance unsuccessfully begged Tregear to stand for the Liberals in 1890. In 1891 Ballance, as premier, and Reeves, as minister of labour, appointed Tregear their secretary to the Bureau of Industries (soon renamed the Department of Labour). Working closely with Reeves, Tregear helped to plan, draft and administer some of the world's most 'advanced' labour legislation, including unemployment relief, factories and shops legislation, and above all the innovative Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act of 1894. He also conducted royal commissions into private benefit societies and the kauri gum industry.
After Reeves's departure overseas in 1896, Richard Seddon took over the labour portfolio. But the overworked premier left labour matters largely to Tregear, who ceaselessly pushed Seddon for more state regulation and control. Tregear's influence was most notable in almost annual amendments to strengthen the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act, and extensions to shops and factories legislation where he was particularly concerned to improve the working conditions of women and children. He also assisted Seddon with matters beyond his jurisdiction, such as the Old-age Pensions Act of 1898.
Tregear was the most eloquent advocate for increasing the size and authority of government and was known as the 'apostle of bureaucracy'. The Department of Labour, initially only himself, became one of the largest and most powerful Liberal state agencies. From Wellington it controlled a huge network of mainly part-time inspectors, usually policemen, throughout the country. As well as its secretary, Tregear was, variously, chief inspector of factories, registrar of industrial unions, and chief inspector of awards. An ardent supporter of civil servants' rights, he was president of the New Zealand Civil Service Association from 1907 to 1910.
Tregear became the leading publicist and theoretician of New Zealand labour reform. He published many pamphlets and handbooks about labour laws, founded and edited the Journal of the Department of Labour, and wrote numerous 'socialistic' articles for labour journals, especially in England and the United States, praising New Zealand's 'advanced' legislation and absence of strikes. He corresponded with labour leaders and reformers throughout the world. This publicity had considerable influence on 'progressive' thought in Australia, Britain and particularly the United States. New Zealand's reputation attracted many visitors and Tregear often played host.
Unlike many heads of government departments, Tregear was frequently embroiled in political controversy. His attacks on the evils of capitalism and his overt support for workers and unions in many conflicts with employers led to demands by business groups for his resignation. The Liberal leaders, though sometimes embarrassed by their radical public servant, stood by him, not least because of his international prominence. Tregear's personality also helped him to survive controversy. Although fearlessly outspoken, he was always a gentleman, never raising his voice, ever genial and humorous.
After Seddon's death in 1906 the first strikes in more than a decade occurred, bitterly upsetting Tregear who had placed so much faith in conciliation and arbitration. In this changing political and industrial climate Tregear's influence waned, particularly since the new minister of labour, J. A. Millar, took close control of the Department of Labour and effectively gagged Tregear in public.
By this time Tregear himself was sometimes seriously ill. He had also lost interest in his Polynesian studies, and was angry with both the Polynesian Society and the Wellington Philosophical Society for not offering him honorary memberships and insisting that he pay his subscription arrears. Tregear never had any money. Although now earning a reasonable salary, he claimed that he gave most of it to needy friends and family and to the unemployed. Prime Minister Joseph Ward's 'legislative holiday' and his savage retrenchment of civil servants, even in the Department of Labour, saw Tregear privately disillusioned with the Liberals and more sympathetic to a separate political labour movement.
Tregear retired at the end of 1910 in a blaze of tribute, even from former enemies. He was awarded the Imperial Service Order in 1911, and the Polynesian Society gave him honorary life membership. Free from civil service obligations, Tregear actively supported political labour, especially after the Liberals' defeat in 1912. He joined the fledgeling New Zealand Labour Party and was elected on its ticket to the Wellington City Council. He then played a major role in bringing together the labour movement's numerous warring factions. In 1913 Tregear was the president of the Social Democratic Party, with Peter Fraser as secretary. William Massey's brutal crushing of the strikes of November 1913 brought an ill Tregear close to nervous collapse. He immediately retired from all public offices.
During the First World War Tregear was a grand old figure wandering around parliamentary corridors. He continued to write poetry, some praising the Anzac legend, and in 1919 he published his only collection of verse, 'Shadows' and other verses. In 1921 he and Bessie Tregear moved to Picton to be near their grandchildren. During the 1920s Tregear was regarded with fondness and reverence by Labour Party parliamentarians. They paid tribute to the architect of so much labour legislation and one of the New Zealand worker's greatest friends. He died in Picton on 28 October 1931, survived by his wife and daughter.