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The Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Wellington Provincial District]

Superintendents Of Wellington

Superintendents Of Wellington.

Though the provincial governmental bodies have been swept away now nearly twenty years, it is but reasonable that a Cyclopedia of New Zealand should make at least some mention of the old provincial institutions which were at one time so popular; and it is meet also that some special reference be given to the gentlemen who occupied the then important position of Superintendent of the Province.

The “Constitution” is supposed to date from 1852, but the first elections under it did not take place until the next year, and it was 1854 before any of the elected bodies were assembled. The Constitution had suffered in its construction by a good deal of patchwork. Apparently minor, but really great, alterations had been made, and the consequent amendments, which would have made the whole a perfect scheme, were overlooked; and so it happened that when the true test of working was applied a great many anomalies were discovered; and these anomalies had the effect of greatly increasing the importance and powers of the Provincial Council and the Superintendents, and of hampering the General Assembly and the Governor.

The Superintendent and his Council were each elected for a maximum period of four years; but the Governor was supposed to have the power under the Constitution of dissolving the Council at any time; of vetoing any of its enactments, of disallowing the election of the Superintendent at any time within three months of his return, or of removing the Superintendent from office on a prayer from a majority of the Council. But in actual practice these were difficult of accomplishment. The Superintendent alone had the power of convening the Council; so, by delaying the session until three months after his election, the Superintendent rendered nugatory much of the Governor's power concerning himself. Then, in the case of an Act of the Provincial Council being disallowed by the Governor or the General Assembly, whatever had been done under that Act prior to the disallowance could not be interfered with. In one case the Wellington Provincial Council passed an Act empowering the raising of a loan of £25,000, and the money was actually raised before Parliament met to repeal the Act.

Then, instead of naming the directions in which the Councils might legislate, the Constitution named those in which the Councils might not interfere with the prerogative of the Higher Chambers, and as these prohibited subjects were limited in number to thirteen, the Councils were not slow to take action in a variety of ways which were really intended should be ultra vires. The thirteen subjects the making of laws in relation to which was reserved for the General Assembly were :—Customs, Post-office, shipping dues, lighthouses, weights and measures, currency, bankruptcy, Courts of Judicature, marriage, Crown lands and native land, criminal law, and the law relating to inheritance. Outside of these there was, of course, a very wide range, and the results were most unfortunate. The real work which it was intended should be accomplished by the Provincial Council was neglected, and the time was nearly all taken up in legislation upon matters which by everything but the letter of the Constitution were most certainly intended to be dealt with by the General Assembly. Each province had its Executive; and even in one of the smallest Councils, where the whole membership was under ten, changes of “ministry” used to take place, and the time of the Council was taken up with “no-confidence” debates and all the formalities which are by many considered rather stupid even in the Parliament of to-day. The effect of all this was that without blame being attachable to anyone, both the Councils and the Superintendents presiding over them became of very much greater importance than they could possibly have been had their duties been confined to matters entirely beneath the scope of the General Assembly. It must soon have page 211 been evident that either the General Assembly or the Provincial Councils might very easily be dispensed with. That both were allowed to continue for upwards of twenty years is surprising. A great many fought hard for provincialism; and it is by no means certain that the abolition of the provinces was the wisest step. To have the higher chambers displaced by a Council of a dozen—made up of one member from each Provincial Council, and some three or four appointed by the Governor—would, in the opinion of many, have been to step greatly in advance of the present system. If the old Provincial Councils assumed functions altogether superior to their legitimate scope, it is equally certain that the General Assembly of to-day descends to the consideration of matters absurdly beneath the recognised field for parliamentary interference. At the present time there is an effort being made to consolidate a number of the smaller councils and boards into something like what it was first intended the Provincial Councils should be. That this is a move in the right direction appears to be the general opinion. Of course, the mistake can never be made again of allowing a provincial body to usurp the functions of Parliament, or in any other way to assume the importance which formerly attached to the provincial institutions.

Only old colonists know how important these were. There is no man in the Colony now who occupies the same position that the Superintendents formerly occupied. Young New Zealand cannot realize it. It was a much-coveted post of honour and responsibility. Before the Superintendent could be elected a roll had to be prepared of the names of all those in the whole province qualified to vote. Excitement was at a high pitch for several weeks prior to the election. Newspapers were started and run in the interests of the candidates. Electioneering touters spread themselves throughout the provinces, and spent money freely, at the expense of candidates and their parties. Every district was deeply interested: the return of one candidate instead of another might make all the difference between a district gaining a school and being left four years longer without one; the construction of roads and bridges similarly hung in the balance. Candidates were severely catechised on all such questions as taxation, education, charitable aid, temperance, and many others, which were uppermost at that time. On the day of election the excitement of the past three months culminated in drunkenness and fighting at nearly every one of the scores of polling-booths. In the days of open voting, handbills were circulated every half-hour during the day of election, giving the “state of the poll,” with just so much exactness as might be compelled by the conscience of the party issuing them. When the “ballot” came into operation, these bulletins were continued fictitiously, and many unthinkingly believed them to be authentic. In cases where there were more than two candidates, this election dodge had a considerable effect: a voter, believing his candidate to be hopelessly behind, would then vote for his second favorite, in the hope of keeping out a hated rival. When the voting was open, many of the lower class of electors would refrain from entering the booth until late in the day—waiting for a rise in the value of the “article” they had to sell, and taking good care to be well regaled in the meantime by both sides. Personation was very common, and by no means always detected. If the result of the election was very close, there was just a hope for the second candidate that sufficient forgeries would be detected to turn the scale, unless, indeed, he himself belonged to the party most given to personation. This hope, and the fact that the results at some of the most distant parts could not be known immediately, would often keep up the excitement for several days, to the great advantage of the newspapers and the publicans, all of whom made a good harvest out of a Superintendency election. It was an event which even the children of those days can remember.

During the twenty-three years of Provincial Government, Wellington had but two Superintendents—Dr. Featherston, for the first eighteen years, and Mr. (afterwards Sir William) Fitzherbert. Whether Dr. Featherston would have retained the office throughout the whole period, had he not retired to accept the Agent-Generalship, is too hard to say; but it is significant that the gentleman who alone succeeded him was of the same party—was, in fact, the very man who, eighteen years before, read the address petitioning Dr. Featherston to accept nomination. In other parts of the Colony such unanimity by no means prevailed.

Dr. Isaac Earl Featherston, the first Superintendent of the Province of Wellington, was born in Newcastle on-Tyne in 1813. Being at an early age threatened with consumption, he more than once visited Greece and other parts of southern Europé in the hope of eradicating the tendency. In 1842, when twenty-nine years of age, with a view still further to build up his constitution, Dr. Featherston came out to New Zealand as surgeon of the “Olympus.” Dr. and Mrs. Featherston were exceedingly popular with the passengers. Many of the Doctor's warmest supporters were fellow passengers who had learned to love and respect him during the voyage. On arrival in Wellington, Dr. Featherston found the people of the embryo capital engaged in a struggle with the New Zealand Company, and he espoused their cause with such satisfactory results that he was presented with page 212 a silver tea service as a mark of gratitude and popular approval. About 1850, the Settlers' Constitutional Association was formed, and Dr. Featherston became its most enthusiastic member. It is beyond doubt that by the unsparing use of his voice and pen, he did much to hasten the day of representative institutions, and particularly responsible government. When, by virtue of the privileges which Dr. Featherston had worked so hard to secure, the province of Wellington was called upon to choose a Superintendent, the Doctor's public career so emphatically marked him out as the best man for the position that he was elected without opposition. At some of the five subsequent elections there were contests, of course; but the popular Doctor was thoroughly installed in the hearts of the people, and the opposition but the more firmly rooted him there. Speaking of his first election the Spectator (London) said:—” There was but one man, by universal admission, who was known to combine all the qualities Dr. Isaac Earl Featherston which were needed for the Superintendent of that province, and that man was Dr. Featherston. The following was the remarkable language in which Mr. Fitzherbert, who has himself since become a New Zealand statesman of the highest standing and celebrity, spoke in presenting to Dr. Featherston a requisition to become Superintendent: ‘If the characteristic of the office of Superintendent should consist in his being a counterpoise to the Governor-in-Chief, a man to stand in the gap between the colonists and the Imperial ruler, a ready and transparent channel for the transmission of the wishes and wants of the settlers in unpolluted purity, then, indeed, it behoves them to examine minutely into the qualifications of the man before they elect him. Honesty, ability, and rigid inflexibility of purpose combined, truth and high courage, become indispensable qualities, if that view of the office of Superintendent be correct. Nor ought these qualities to be taken on credit. A man is wanted on whom the settlers know—not think—they can rely. In fact, a tried man, I am far from detracting from the merits of my fellow-colonists; many probably possess all these qualities, but we have not yet proved it in any one man in the province except Dr. Featherston.” Referring to him generally the same authority says:—” Dr. Featherston's power over the natives, and the gallantry which was part of the spell, were put to a severe test in the course of the war, when he persuaded a native force to serve with the British force. They made it a condition that they should be led by him, and by him accordingly they were led, with a courage which gained him not only the New Zealand Cross, but the kind of admiration from his commanding officer which even the most cordial and generous of commanding officers rarely express.” As Superintendent of Wellington and member of Parliament, Dr. Featherston was his own contemporary. He represented Wanganui in the first Parliament, and sat for that constituency during the sessions of 1854 and 1855. In 1856 he stood for Wellington and was triumphantly returned. From that date he continuously represented Wellington until 1871, when he resigned to accept the appointment of Agent-General in London. Prior to this he had been sent on several occasions to Australia and England on special missions, and he was considered eminently successful in them all. When, therefore, it became necessary for the Colony to be represented in London, Dr. Featherston's fitness for that position was acknowledged in all quarters. This appointment he held until June of 1876, his death occurring on the 19th of that month. Even bad news travelled slowly in those days. It was not until the 13th of the following month that the news of Dr. Featherston's death reached Wellington. Parliament was in session, and there was a warm discussion in full swing, Mr. (now Sir Robert) Stout's Licensing Bill being before the House. The Premier (the Hon. Sir Julius Vogel), in making the announcement, spoke in the highest terms of the many and noble services rendered the Colony by Dr. Featherston. Sir Robert Stout expressed the great regret he felt at hearing the sad news, and willingly consented to the postponement of his bill in order that the House might adjourn. Sir Julius then moved the adjournment “as a mark of respect to the memory of a gentleman who had occupied distinguished positions in New Zealand, and who had had so much to do with the early history of the Colony.” The New Zealand Times, referring to the Doctor's selection for the position of Agent-General, said:—“Since Dr. Featherston's appointment in 1871 to the office of Agent-General, he has invariably justified the wisdom of the choice then made, by the rare ability he has shown in the discharge of the responsible, onerous, and delicate tasks that have been entrusted to him. His character as a gentleman, and his value as a negotiator, were admitted in the highest circles at Home, and procured for him the offer on one, if not on two occasions, of the honour of knight. hood—an offer he did not see fit to accept. The honour he most coveted was the decoration of the New Zealand Cross, and although delay occurred in granting it to him, it is satisfactory to know that a few months since his wishes were gratified.” Such was the man whom the province of Wellington honoured, and delighted in honouring, with the highest position within its gift, six times in succession, spreading over a period of eighteen years; and the parliamentary constituencies of Wanganui and Wellington together for the same period honoured him with the highest office in their power to bestow upon him. Such a record is unique in the history of the Colony.

The Hon. Sir William Fitzherbert, K.C.M.G., M.L.C., who succeeded Dr. Featherston as Superintendent of Wellington, and who held the office until the abolition of the provinces in 1876, is referred to on page 180 [sic: 100] of this volume. Sir William was very popular, and greatly respected.