Christopher James Parr was born on 18 May 1869 at Pukerimu, near Cambridge, New Zealand, the son of Reuben Parr, a farmer, and his wife, Maria Greaves. Although the family shifted to Waihou, near Te Aroha, when James was nine, his upbringing continued to centre on a very tough farm life. For two years he did not attend school. In 1883 he was sent as a boarder to the Waiokaraka School at Thames, where he won a district scholarship awarded by the Auckland Education Board. This entitled him to three years' free tuition at the Auckland College and Grammar School. Concentrating on languages, he studied there until 1887, being proxime accessit in his final year. A chance encounter then changed the course of Parr's life.
Very reluctantly Parr had taken the first steps towards being accepted as a teacher when he was introduced to J. M. Alexander, an Auckland solicitor. Parr immediately signed up as an articled clerk. By the age of 20 he had passed the barristers' final law examination, and he was admitted to the Bar in 1890. When Alexander died suddenly in 1892, Parr decided to invest his £100 savings in setting himself up in practice. He prospered in general practice and court work, making £510 profit on his first year's work. Thanks to many lucrative retainers in the Warden's Court during the Coromandel goldrush, he was able to save £1,000 by 1895. On 11 September 1895, at Kaukapakapa, he married a schoolteacher, Ethel Clara Haszard. They subsequently had seven children, one of whom died at the age of three.
Parr now began to show an interest in activities other than the law. He joined a debating club and twice won a gold medal for extempore oratory. He also joined the Freemasons, becoming the worshipful master of Lodge St Andrew in 1896. In 1898 he was elected to the Ponsonby School Committee, and became foundation president of the Auckland Ratepayers' Association. In 1899 he became an Auckland city councillor, one of the youngest ever. He was re-elected regularly until his retirement in 1911.
Parr made an impression as a vigorous and able councillor, and was single-minded in the pursuit of his aims. In 1902 he embarked on a six months' study tour of the great cities of the United States and England. He came back convinced that the trip had added '30% to 40%' to his value, both as a law practitioner and as a public man. In 1905 he was elected to the Auckland Harbour Board and from 1908 to 1915 he was an ex officio member of the Auckland University College Council. He was elected to the Auckland Education Board in 1903, chairing it from 1908 to 1911. He handled with tact, urbanity and impartiality issues as diverse as the curriculum, technical and manual training, religious instruction and school buildings. He also introduced a pioneering system of teacher grading. In 1912–13 he was president of the Auckland Institute and Museum; he was vice president from 1914 to 1932.
In May 1911 Parr was elected unopposed as mayor of Auckland. He was re-elected in 1912, 1913 and 1914 in the one-year terms then operating. Until 1926 he also continued in his law practice, in which he had been joined in 1904 by E. C. Blomfield, a former Native Land Court judge. Parr was convinced that the mayor should initiate policy, not merely chair meetings. His interests were catholic, spanning parks, roads (he was the inspiration behind Anzac Avenue), public health, planning and organisation. He secured a number of parks, adamant that no opportunity to enhance recreational facilities should be allowed to go by default. Later he pleaded that 10 per cent of land subdivisions should be set aside for recreational purposes.
The emerging discipline of town planning made a marked impact on Parr. As foundation president of the Auckland Town-planning League and the Federated Town-planning Associations of New Zealand, he damned the dominance of the 'eternal straight road and right angle' mentality and castigated the skyscraper as 'a blunder from every point of view'. He also advocated municipal housing, and was responsible for the establishment of the city council's first such venture – six houses built in 1916.
Socialism and militant unionism were abhorrent to Parr, who played an important role in combating two major strikes. In early 1912 a dispute, originally involving local body labourers, marked the first occasion on which a rival union established itself in place of one which had cancelled its registration under the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1908. It was Parr's adroitness, coupled with his rousing warning about having 'to face revolutionary syndicalism in its worst form', which finally broke both the strike and its sponsoring union.
During the 1913 waterfront and general strikes, Parr accepted Prime Minister William Massey's request to handle the affair in Auckland. He acted in typically forthright fashion. For him, two objectives were paramount: the preservation of order and the unimpeded movement of goods across the wharves. He helped organise the special constables who were crucial to subduing the strikers' resolve.
Parr derived his greatest satisfaction as mayor from the 'Greater Auckland' movement. The Auckland City Council adopted an aggressive policy of amalgamation with suburban boroughs and road boards. Parr had no expectation of suburban local body members and officers consenting to their own 'extinction as public men', so appealed over their heads directly to the ratepayers. In the second half of his mayoralty two boroughs and two road boards were incorporated. On his retirement from the mayoralty in 1915, one local journal opined that 'a cheery optimism [and] unbounded belief in the destiny of Auckland in boom or slump' underlay Parr's exceptional achievements.
James Parr's transition to national politics was perhaps predictable. At the 1905 general election he had consented to stand for the New Zealand Political Reform League in Auckland West, but lost when Premier Richard Seddon personally intervened. Parr later confessed that the defeat was a blessing in disguise, as he was able to concentrate his talents on municipal affairs. In 1914 Parr, assisted by 500 campaign workers, captured Eden for Massey's Reform Party. He held the seat in 1919, 1922 and 1925. Following the 1922 election he was charged with corrupt practice: his women's committee had enthusiastically organised an afternoon tea campaign meeting which was topped off by strawberries and cream. The court, noting that Parr had not paid for the victuals, nor even known about them, found in his favour.
On the back bench Parr combined devotion to the imperial cause in the conduct of the First World War with a disinclination to toady to the party line. He strongly supported the Empire Trade League, a body committed to keeping German goods out of New Zealand. He argued that the cabinet should be chosen by and from all members of Parliament. In 1919 he enunciated the goal of home ownership for workers and wanted free medical, dental and optical treatment for all children under 16 years of age.
That same year Parr nearly came undone politically. Disenchantment with Massey's leadership surfaced in the form of a shadowy clique of 'Progressive Reformers' of whom Parr was one. There were rumours about the formation of a breakaway party. However, press leaks led to the abject collapse of the dissident faction, Parr pledged his loyalty to Massey, and in 1920 he was rewarded with two important portfolios – public health and education. He retained the former until 1923 when he became minister of justice. He also served as postmaster general and minister of telegraphs from 1925.
As minister of education Parr was able to apply himself to his abiding interest. He helped introduce the Correspondence School and the School Dental Service, upgraded the academic content of teachers' training college courses, and refined the national grading system for teachers. He made access to educational facilities easier for backblocks children. He also championed the concept of junior high schools and was present at the official opening in 1922 of its first practical outcome, Kowhai Junior High School in inner Auckland. He contributed articles to the School Journal praising the British Empire, introduced compulsory weekly flag-saluting in schools and instituted loyalty oaths for teachers.
Although Parr moved to the right politically, using the communist bogey in the 1925 election, educationally he was in the vanguard. For Parr, the best teachers were those who 'inspired the child to think for itself', and this was matched by his firm conviction that 'to educational experiment and progress there can be no end'. He took a major step towards the centralisation of the education system with the introduction of the New Zealand Education Gazette, which meant that all vacancies were advertised nationally, and was responsible for setting up the 1925 Reichel–Tate commission on university education.
Parr's mayoral achievements had been marked by his appointment as CMG in 1914; he was made a KCMG in 1924. In 1926 he resigned from Parliament on his appointment as high commissioner for New Zealand in the United Kingdom. While in London he also served as New Zealand's representative to the League of Nations and was a member of the Committee of Imperial Defence, the Empire Marketing Board and the Imperial Shipping Committee.
Parr's term expired in 1929; he returned to New Zealand in 1930 and was promptly appointed leader of the Legislative Council. He was made a GCMG in 1935. His wife, Ethel, died on 4 November 1933; nine days later Parr was appointed to a second term as high commissioner. He accepted the offer with some eagerness.
Parr's second term ended in 1936. His large legal income and a flair for careful investment ensured a comfortable retirement on a property he had acquired in Hertfordshire. He came briefly to New Zealand in 1938, and on the voyage out met Barbara Mary Whitworth, a widow, whom he married at Cambridge on 12 December; they returned to live in England. By now in indifferent health, he died at a friend's home, Pond Cottage, Potten End, Berkhamsted on 2 May 1941.
James Parr was a man of immense self-assurance combined with a degree of pugnacity and a liking for self-promotion; he was capable of looking both suave and resolute. He abhorred vacillation, fence-sitting and honeyed words, and it was a blend of idealism, energy, determination and lucid persuasiveness which underlay his remarkable mayoral and ministerial achievements.