Born at Clones, Ireland, on December 21, 1843, Thomas Bracken emigrated to Dunedin from Geelong, Victoria, in 1869. During his Australian years he had written much verse, collected into a volume issued in Dunedin in February 1869. He was determined to make a career in journalism and talked his way into a job on the staff of the Otago Guardian.
Thomas Bracken photography is courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, New Zealand Railways Collection (PAColl-5167), Reference: 1/2-023879; G.
At the Guardian he met John Bathgate, founder and patron of the Advertiser. Bathgate founded the Advertiser in July 1875 'to foster a national spirit in New Zealand and encourage colonial literature' and believed he had found 'the perfect man for the job of editor' in Thomas Bracken.
Bracken accepted the position of editor on 17 July 1875 and immediately began a progressive editorial policy of encouraging local writers. He also wrote much of the paper himself. Under his vigorous editorship circulation soon reached 7000 copies and attracted talented contributors. The success of the paper inspired Bracken to contribute the occasional verse himself, including God Defend New Zealand.
Bracken led a life of contrasts. Following the highs of the Advertiser, he had a selection of his poetry published in 'Flowers of the Free Lands' in 1877. He also flung himself into politics. A strong supporter of Sir George Grey's radical, egalitarian policies, he stood unsuccessfully for Dunedin City in 1879. Two years later he won Dunedin Central and stayed in that position for three years.
In 1883 he visited Samoa and urged the New Zealand Government to annex the islands before the Germans did. When Bradshaw died in 1886, Bracken was returned at the by-election but didn’t stand again after the 1887 dissolution.
When elected in 1881, Bracken said 'I am tied to no Party and I will work for all classes — for justice to all'. His parliamentary career fulfilled this pledge. A firm supporter of Liberal policies he went his own way when he thought the occasion required it. He was a prime mover in encouraging the formation of a Trades and Labour Council in Dunedin in 1881 and a supporter of the eight-hour day. He opposed centralism and was fearful of government 'by a handful of official fogies in the Temple of Red Tape on Lambton Quay!'
Bracken returned to journalism after leaving parliament and formed Thomas Bracken and Co with Alexander Bathgate and others, who bought the Evening Herald. He ran the paper until it was replaced by Liberal journal The Globe in 1890.
Bracken then concentrated on his writing, publishing 14 books of verse and prose. His last text Musings in Māoriland didn’t sell well in Australia so, at the request of his publisher, he went on a promotional tour across the Tasman. Although he sold 700 copies of the expensive work, his lecturing failed to cover his costs. When he returned to Dunedin his health began to deteriorate and he found himself in strained circumstances. A job was found for him as Bill Reader in Parliament but after two sessions worsening health forced his return to Dunedin.
Clouded in debt and with continuing poor health, the final highlight of Bracken's life came in 1897 when then Prime Minister Seddon presented a copy of the words and music of God Defend New Zealand to Queen Victoria. Less than six months later Bracken was found lying sick and poor 'at a cottage at the back of a tram in Mornington'. He was taken to Dunedin Public Hospital where he died on 10 February 1898.