The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 4 (July 1, 1935.)
Famous New Zealanders — No. 28 — Richard John Seddon, — New Zealand's Greatest Premier
The title of Richard John Seddon to permanent fame in New Zealand and the British Empire rests in the first place on his pioneer work in liberal and humanitarian legislation, and in the second on his vigorous development of the Imperial sentiment. More intellectual men than he occupied the position of Premier of the Colony that is now a Dominion but none so forceful and dominating in character. In his thirteen years of office as head of the Government he overshadowed all others; he was the uncrowned king of the country, the popular hero of the democracy. Like every strong man he had many enemies, but many more friends. He has been described as the most autocratic of democrats. His leadership in experimental Socialistic legislation attracted the attention of statesmen and writers in the outside world; his fervent advocacy of close relations with Britain and the despatch of New Zealand Contingents to the war in South Africa made him a most popular figure in England. In this character sketch by one who knew him well, party politics are touched upon but lightly; the writer endeavours to give a personal study of a great builder of New Zealand who is held in affectionate remembrance for his courage, his championship of the people's rights, and his devotion to the cause of a united Empire.
When we think of R. J. Seddon we think first of the West Coast, the Golden Coast. It was there that the twenty-one-year-old Seddon set foot on New Zealand soil in 1866. He came from Victoria, but he was not many years out from his native Lancashire; the accent of his birthland was strong on his tongue all his life. It was the rough-carved, bold, manly life of gold-digging Westland that developed his spirit of enterprise and resourcefulness, vigour and self-reliance as it developed his burly frame. The first great rush of diggers was over, but the Coast was still a scene of amazing strident treasure-hunting activity, and Mr. Seddon had a taste of almost every phase of industry there. His name is associated most of all with the gold-sluicing township of Kumara; there he went into business, made his weight felt—very literally sometimes—in local affairs; he mastered the ways and laws of the goldmining industry, and raised a young family.
The West Coast made Seddon, not as a man of wealth as it had many others, but as a bold, confident young man of affairs and presently as member of Parliament. And once he entered Parliament—he was returned as member for the district in 1879—he never looked back. The crude excitements of local politics developed into the Parliamentary fever that never left him. He was captured by the newly-born Liberal ideas and the personal enchantment of that great and enigmatic figure Sir George Grey.
He won his way in politics by force of character, the rugged power and the straight speech that close contact with the fearless men of the Golden Coast had developed in him. His opportunity came when John Ballance became Premier, on the rising tide of legislation for “the masses.” Seddon became Minister for Public Works, Mines and Defence. Thus the strong man from the half-tamed West Coast put on the yoke of office from which only death was to release him—the death that came upon him at sea in 1906 after a health tour in Australia that became a kind of triumphal march.
It was soon after John Ballance's death in 1893 that I first saw Dick Seddon. Every New Zealander from North Auckland to Stewart Island soon dropped the “Mr. Seddon.” The more his fame grew, the more affectionately familiar did the populace become, as is the way with great men. It was “Dick,” “Old Dick,” “Good old Dick,” with the crowd; there were those who used less friendly terms, but they were in the minority. In the newspaper world, we soon came to see a good deal of the new Premier, and his spirit of unaffected friendship and his vigour of speech went a long way to win our hearts. He was still a good deal of a rough diamond, but a jewel in the rough is no less a jewel. I for one developed a great admiration for the Premier's downright character. I frequently travelled with his party in the course of my always-varying duty as “Auckland Star” reporter. I think it was Seddon who set the fashion of speech-making tours throughout the land, by way of meeting the people—he soon came to call them “my people,” with a majestic wave of the hand. At any rate it was he who developed that trick of travel until those tours of his became triumphal processions. They became indeed royal tours. There were glorious days, and more glorious nights (often prolonged into the morning!) at Huntly, or Waihi, or Hawera, when the Premier's train landed him there, often with the local brass band to meet the Ministerial party at the station.page 18
King Dick and King Mahuta.
Interlude—a royal visit now and again to “my Maori people”; scene, King Mahuta's kainga at Waahi, on the Waikato, on the opposite side of the river to Huntly. Mahuta usually sent his beautiful war-canoe, the Taheretikitiki, as a royal barge, manned by a score or so of bare-backed paddlers, to ferry the “Pirimia” and his party down-stream from Huntly to the meeting-place. (One of our illustrations shows the Premier and party in the big canoe, in 1898). “Timi Kara,” otherwise James Carroll (he was not Sir James then) always accompanied his chief in his capacity of Native Minister. All the village played carnival that day; flags of Kingite designs were flying; Maori brass bands blaring away, all the aristocratic dames of Waikato beckoning us to them, undulating their pleasing forms in the ancient dance of welcome as they retired gracefully before us to the green marae. Timi Kara himself would take a stone mere or a taiaha or a paddle from the nearest Maori, and go through a stately dance of greeting in return, preceding his portly belltoppered and frockcoated Chief. Haere mai, haere mai, haere mail—and everyone delightfully noisy and merry; and then the dignified elders to greet each other, King saluting King, on the parade-ground, the speechmaking arena under the shining sun.
Those meetings with Waikato—they were invariably the same. The Maoris wished to discuss land grievances, and the Treaty of Waitangi. The Premier never wished to commit the Government to anything tangible. He was a perfect master of the art of oratorical bluff. “Now, my dear Maori people,” he would say, “all this will be looked into, and I must give you a word of advice in conclusion, because of my great love for my Maori people. Be industrious, set to work, farm your land, grow a lot of wheat as your fathers and grandfathers did before you. Keep away from the public-houses, do not gamble, do not go to the races and waste your money like the foolish pakeha. Do not forget what I say for I have great affection for my Maori people and I do not want them to become spoiled by bad pakehas. And now, I must run away, for my train is waiting for me to take me to the great city where we make all the laws for your good. Good-bye, and God bless you!”
And, so, the procession was reformed to the royal canoe; and Haere ra!
They were perfectly joyful interludes, those koreros on Waikato-side.
Mahuta and his people perfectly understood the Premier. They sat politely silent, while he dished them out grandmotherly advice and in return they dished out a bountiful feast whenever they could induce him to stay. They liked the big man; they admired his commanding form, his belltoppered leonine head; they liked his booming voice. And when he died, they composed the most eloquent and touching songs of lamentation for him. A Waikato farewell to the dead “Hetana” which I give at the end of this article is the most poetic piece of blended mourning and philosophy that I have ever read from a Maori tribe, a tribute that far transcends anything from the prosaic pakeha.
Traits of Character.
But leave the Kainga and survey the man and his methods in the Legislature, and his masterful and victorious career. Seddon was a blend of many qualities, many virtues and many faults and foibles. I think he can be described with truth, as chivalrous, generous, tyrannical, downright, diplomatic, perfectly unscrupulous, fair-dealing; he could play the bully, he was full of human sympathy and prejudices; he was capable of dissimulation for political ends, he was as straight as one of his West Coast kahikatea trees. All those contradictory qualities he displayed; he was a strange mixture of incongruities. But one thing shone out above all others, his supreme courage. He feared no man or body of men. Once he had made up his mind on a desirable course he would push on with it no matter who came in his way. He could be ruthless to his political opponents; he was often over-generous to his friends. “Spoils to the victors” was sometimes said to have been one of his working principles. But perhaps he was in that no worse than his opponents. It is not in human nature to be unmindful of those who have helped you to victory. One thing he lacked, and that was a sense of humour. He was without sense of proportion; he made a great fuss about non-essentials. We who knew and liked him often wished he would develop those saving qualities and make an end to a speech before he said something supremely ridiculous.
The Old West Coasters.
One of Seddon's most admirable traits of character was his unwavering loyalty to old friends. We all know how his beloved West Coast adored him. He never forgot the old-timers of Westland. A veteran friend of mine in Wellington, Jack Caldwell, a good old digger who had made money and lost it, was in his declining years manfully holding a job as messenger in a Government department. He told me that one morning he went to the Wellington Hospital to visit an old mining mate who was dying. When he went to his friend's beside Dick Seddon was sitting there. He was holding the dying man's hand, and tears were running down his checks. Jack Caldwell sat on the other side, and there the three old Coasters wept unashamed; their last meeting. They were united, Premier, messenger, and dying miner, by the spirit of pure and generous mateship, memories of other days, the comradely fidelity that is better than gold.
The Call of Empire.
Seddon's popularity was at its pinnacle, perhaps, just at the beginning of the present century when the Boer War was attracting all the foot-loose young and adventurous from New Zealand, as from Australia and Canada. That period was marked by an enthusiastic wave of military life. Not even the Great War in its early stages aroused more eagerness to enlist for foreign parts than the Boer War did. A perfect war for these oversea countries; we had the kind of men that the conditions of South Africa needed most. And Mr. Seddon made the very most of it. He leathered the big drum of Imperialism for all it was worth; he was the perfect recruiting page 20 sergeant. General rather; as Minister of Defence he saw to it that our Contingents were sent away thoroughly well equipped; and he followed it all up by a visit to South Africa where he was greeted by another big figure after his own heart—Lord Kitchener—and he was a quite impressive figure at the final peace-signing. Alas! If all warfare were only like that! Kitchener himself had not dreamed then of the hideous thing modern scientific war could become.
A Historian's Estimate.
In Dr. W. P. Morrell's new book, “New Zealand,” one of a series of world historical studies, the young New Zealand scholar—he is Reader in History in the University of London—makes shrewd comment on Seddon's complete domination of his party, “not altogether to its own good.” No democratic leader ever excelled him in making it appear to the people that he was indeed one of themselves, and thought as they did. How true this remark is, many a contemporary of Seddon can testify to-day. He is accused by Morrell of a propensity for breaking with clever young men. W. P. Reeves is evidently in mind. But Seddon did not actually break with Reeves. He simply translated him to London, which I believe was well to Reeves' taste by that time.
The Seddon manifestos, which were rather numerous, trumpeted forth the cardinal aims of his Government. He proclaimed that in his view Government should provide conditions which would reduce want and permit the very largest possible number of its people to be healthy, happy human beings. “The life, the health, the intelligence and the morals of a nation,” to quote his last manifesto, “count far more than riches, and I would rather have this country free from want and squalor and unemployed than the home of multi-millionaires.” That summed up very well the excellent ideals of the man who was more truly the leadel of the people than any politician who preceded or succeeded him.
The law-making of the Seddon period was well described as adventurous legislation. One Labour law after another, one Socialistic measure after another, were passed in rapid succession. Seddon and his colleagues carried on and amplified John Ballance's programme of legislation regulating hours of labour, the conduct of factories and shops, the regulation in fact of every department of industry.
Labour was liberated and enthroned, greatly to the disgust of very many employers. Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration was provided for as a means of settling disputes. Women were enfranchised; old age pensions were established; advances to settlers were instituted (on the initiative of Sir Joseph Ward), and various other measures all making for the betterment of social conditions were placed on the Statute book. These measures attracted a great amount of attention in the outside world, and publicists from Britain, Europe and America visited the Colony to study its wonderful essays in experimental Socialism. There were naturally loud complaints from those with whose interests the new brand of legislation conflicted. But as a historian has expressed it, Seddon held New Zealand in the hollow of his hand until the last. He had for better or for worse captured the country. He was the big voice, and that voice was heard with apparently undiminished vigour until the giant frame suddenly collapsed and he died at only sixty-one.
Sir John McKenzie, his most stalwart supporter and the breaker-up of big estates in an almost ruthless manner, wore himself out like Seddon, and as Ballance had done before him. Sir Joseph Ward, his successor, similarly followed the fatal lure of militant politics until his health broke down, and still he held to office and what he considered the call of duty.
The end of the Nineties was high-water mark for the products of the land. There had been hard times, but Seddon was never faced with a period of heavy economic pressure and a huge unemployment problem. What a Seddon would do to-day if he were with us makes a tempting subject for speculation. I shall leave it to others to debate.
A New Zealand historian (Miss N. E. Coad) has summed up the great Premier's work and efforts in these words: “He was indeed the poor man's friend.” He could have no better epitaph.
The Premier's Family.
Such a man could not but have a loyal and devoted family. Mrs. Seddon accompanied her husband on many of his long journeys, including two visits to England as guests of Royalty. Her serene, kindly nature was the needful foil to Seddon's often fiery character; a refuge from the continual strain and irritation of political life. Captain Richard Seddon—Dick the Second—served gallantly in two wars and fell in France. Mr. T. E. Y. Seddon followed his father as M.P. for Westland and held the seat for many years with an interlude of service as Captain in the Great War. Mary Stuart Seddon (Mrs. Hay) was her father's treasured helper for many years, and Mrs. Knox Gilmer (May Seddon), is a vigorous worker for charity and other amenities of Wellington life, and a fervent and eloquent advocate of native forest protection in the Dominion.
A Maori Farewell.
Never can I forget the thrilling and heart-touching Maori gathering in Parliament House on the morning of the burial in 1906. The tangi chants, the weeping for the beloved White Chief, the high wild calls of farewell, were a grief-cry from the primitive. But even more deeply poetic than those tangi voices was a written farewell from the high chiefs of Waikato, signed by the Hon. Mahuta, M.L.C., the old chief Patara te Tuhi, Henare Kaihau and others. This is a translation:
“… . We farewell him who has been taken away by the Great Creator to the pillow which will not fall, and to that bed which cannot be raised. Alas! Alas! Our grief and pain overwhelm us. Depart, oh the mooring-post of the canoes of the two races. Depart the mighty totara tree of the forest, felled by the axe of Death the irresistible; death the swallower of greenstone treasures… . Death is the great King of this earth; it comes in many forms; it has all power, and none can disregard its voice, be he ever so great or so small. We, your people, lament. The heavens, too, have cried out; the storms arose, the lightning flashed, the thunder rolled across the sky; the soft wind of the crying of the earth was heard; the great stormy wind passed through the forest. The other trees are sad, the cry, they suffer and groan with pain. Afterwards the people know of the death; and there is nothing greater than death… .
“A man imagines he will continue for ever in the world, but he dies. The world thinks it rules itself, but when an earthquake shatters it, that is its form of Death. In like manner the waters think they have dominion, but when they dry up that is their Death. Stones rejoice in their hardness, and consider they cannot be broken up, but when they are shattered their death is accomplished. Death in its various forms rules everything and cannot be averted… . But the results of our parent's work, the great treasure left by him, the result of his life's labours in this world, will not be lost and will ever be remembered by succeeding generations. Heaven and earth may pass away, but good works shall never pass away—they live for ever.”
Week-Ending By Train Increasingly Popular.
Advertising for one of the week-end excursions from Wellington to Waitomo (313 miles)recently, had to be stopped some days earlier than usual beacuse bookings indicated that the limit of motor accommadation (300)had been reached, at the Waitomo end, between Hangatiki station and the Caves (7 miles).
A very convenient time-table which enabled the complete trip to be made without loss of business time and without accommodation costs, and the provision of first-class carriages and a low combined rail and motor fare, with effective advertising, all contributed to this happy issue. The Department was quick to announce that a further excursion would be run at an early date, thus satisfying those who did not book early enough to be included in the first excursion.
Bright and early the other morning an old Maori woman, wearing a man's battered felt hat and a brightly coloured shawl was seated on the steps of a warehouse in Customs Street, Auckland, calmly smoking a blackened clay pipe. Two smartly dressed laughing girls passed. Said one: “How happy that old thing looks!” “She's enjoying her after-breakfast pipe,” said the other. They seemed much amused. “I wonder,” said the first, “what kind of tobacco she smokes—must be something special, I should say.” “Let's go back and ask her,” said her friend, “just for fun.” So back they went and asked her. The old dame smiled, and said “Cut Plug No. 10,” adding that she always smoked it. It is one of the five famous toasted tobaccos: Cut Plug No. 10 (Bullshead), Navy Cut No. 3 (Bulldog), Cavendish, River-head Gold and Desert Gold, and their rare flavour and delightful fragrance appeal to pakeha and Maori alike. And they have another outstanding merit—they are harmless! It's the toasting that eliminates the poisonous nicotine! But beware of worthless imitations!*