Sir James Allen was the New Zealand Minister of Defence throughout World War One. Prior to the war he was a member of the Dunedin Naval Artillery Volunteers, of which he was the Commanding Officer in 1891. A major achievement of his was the passing of the Naval Defence Act in 1913 which led to the creation of the New Zealand Naval Forces.
Born at Adelaide, South Australia, on 10 February 1855, James Allen was the son of James Allen and his wife, Esther Bax. He and his brother were brought up by an uncle at Cockhill, Somersetshire, England, while his widowed father was in Dunedin. They were orphaned with the death, in 1865, of James Allen senior.
Allen attended Clifton College, Bristol, where he gained a scholarship in natural science. After graduating BA from St John’s College, Cambridge, in 1877, he returned to Dunedin with his wife Mary Jane Hill Richards.
Allen, who had inherited substantial property in Dunedin was a keen sportsman and in 1882 represented Otago at rugby. In 1884 he returned to England to attend a three-year course at the Normal School of Science and Royal School of Mines in London, in which he excelled. On his return Allen established substantial interests in coal and goldmining.
Allen entered national politics, standing as a conservative in the Dunedin East electorate in 1887, sensationally defeating the premier, Sir Robert Stout. Although never an outstanding orator, he impressed by his solid dependability, intelligence and practical good sense and he proved an effective parliamentarian.
Allen secured British agreement to the loan of a training ship, HMS Philomel. Allen foresaw New Zealand developing a substantial naval unit as part of an imperial force in the Pacific.
Allen had a long-standing concern with defence matters. He was an active member of the Volunteer Force and in April 1891 he assumed command of the Dunedin Naval Artillery Volunteers. He later served on the Otago Divisional Staff and was appointed coast defence commander of the Otago Military District with the rank of colonel. In Parliament he was the opposition’s leading spokesman on defence issues.
Allen also had a deep interest in education. He was appointed the last life member of the Council of the University of Otago in 1887, and later served as vice chancellor and chancellor. As a member of the Senate of the University of New Zealand he supported such progressive measures as the appointment of New Zealand examiners.
He was well prepared, therefore, to take the portfolios of both defence and education in Massey’s Reform ministry in 1912, but his major responsibility was finance where he sought to bring departmental expenditure under more rigorous control and to alleviate the adverse effects of short-term borrowing overseas. However, both political necessity and development imperatives demanded the continuation of the Liberal policy.
As Minister of Defence Allen established an effective working relationship with Major General A. J. Godley, the British officer who commanded the New Zealand forces. He took steps to improve the efficiency of the compulsory military training scheme; encouraged preparations for the possible dispatch of an expeditionary force overseas; sought to develop an aviation capability; and strongly supported close defence ties with Australia.