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The Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Wellington Provincial District]

The Hon. Sir George Maurice O'Rorke

The Hon. Sir George Maurice O'Rorke, Speaker of the House of Representatives, occupies a unique position in colonial politics. He is justly considered one of the best Speakers New Zealand has ever had, and his long tenure of office is proof of the esteem in which he is held. But his fame is by no means confined to this Colony. On the contrary, it is a well-known fact that the Parliaments of the Australian Continent look with envy and admiration to New Zealand's Speaker, and think that if their chairs were as ably filled the scenes that sometimes have occurred in their Legislative Assemblies might have been prevented. Although prominent in political life for so many years, Sir Maurice is not a native of the Colony. He was born at Moylough, in the county of Galway, Ireland, and received his primary education at Dr. Smyth's school, near Dublin, from which he passed with an exhibition to Trinity College. During his residence there he distinguished himself as an honourman in classics and graduated B.A. in 1852. The gold fever was now at its height in Great Britain, but that was not the moving cause of Mr. O'Rorke emigrating to Australia. His thoughts were turned thither from his having had an uncle, Henry Dennis, settled as a squatter in the Darling Downs, in the early forties, but who was lost in the wreck of the “Sovereign,” near Moreton Bay, in 1847. Immediately after the completion of his University course, he sailed for Melbourne. Arriving in Victoria in the palmy days of the goldfields, he found the acquisition of a station in Victoria beyond his means, and with the view of taking up a run in the interior, pushed into New South Wales. In Sydney, at the age of twenty-three, he was offered the charge of a school in that city at a salary of £300 a-year, but, although having a strong leaning for the promotion of education, he decided in favour of trying his hand at station life, and spent some time with the late C. N. Bagot, who was also a Galway man. Bagot was a great overlander, and had stations on the Murrumbidgee and Lachlan, and Mr. O'Rorke got initiated into the life of an overlander by taking stock from the Lachlan to Bendigo, and subsequently took mobs of horses on his own account from New South Wales to Melbourne. On one occasion he disposed of his horses at Beechworth, and took up a party of diggers to the Buckland River, a tributary of the Ovens, and was so far successful that he and his mates, in a fortnight, divided amongst them their gold, which realized £1400. Dissatisfied, however, with his prospects of obtaining land in Australia, the land being locked up in the hands of the squatters, he determined to try his fortune in New Zealand, and sailed for Auckland in 1854. Not long after his arrival he settled down to farming in Papakura, but removed to Onehunga in the following year. Farming in those days, as in these, was not in every page 104 case a remunerative business; nor was it altogether agreeable to his tastes. He therefore resolved to seek more congenial employment. This he found in the service of the Auckland Provincial Council, in which he was appointed to the position of clerk in 1857. He was holding this office in 1860, when Onehunga became entitled to return a member to the House of Representatives. Mr. O'Rorke came out as a candidate in opposition to the Stafford Ministry, which was then stealthily crippling the provinces. The contest aroused great excitement. The Government had two candidates in the field, one of whom was withdrawn in the middle of the contest, and the Government supporters combined their full force to crush Mr. O'Rorke; but when the result was announced, Mr. O'Rorke was declared elected by a majority of one. With a single exception, this constituency has returned him as its representative at every election for thirty-five years. As early as 1860 the struggle between the Provincialists and
The Hon. Sir George Maurice O'Rorke

Photo by Wrigglesworth and Binns.

the Centralists had begun, and Mr. O'Rorke took his stand on the side of the former. A few years later, in 1865, while attending the General Assembly in Wellington, he was nominated for a seat in the Auckland Provincial Council, and was elected in his absence. His fitness for the office of Speaker had already been recognised, for on his return to Auckland he was chosen for that position in the Provincial Council on the first day on which he took his seat as a member and he held the Speakership of that Council continuously until the abolition of the provinces in 1876. So well had he discharged his functions as Speaker during these eleven years that twice on the eve of dissolution he was accorded by the Councillors a unanimous vote of thanks for the eminent and impartial way in which he had presided over their deliberations. In his position of Speaker of the Council he wisely abstained from taking any party side in politics. But the interests of his constituents were by no means neglected. Then, as now, he never shrank from his duty to his constituents, and for many years the fight over Onehunga bills was one of the events of the session. Those who think that Onehunga is disfranchised by the fact of its representative being Speaker are greatly in error. A time may come when the Speaker of the House of Representatives shall be elected as such by the people, and shall not be required to discharge the duties of a representative. But even under present arrangements no constituency suffers by returning such a man as Sir Maurice, although he may not be able to devote his time exclusively to the needs of his special district. During his term of office in the Auckland Provincial Council his energies were by no means confined to the discharge of the functions of Speaker and representative. It was largely through his instrumentality that the Auckland Grammar School was established, and many endowments secured for Onehunga. The country libraries, too, with which the Auckland province is now so well provided, were largely assisted by him. As a member of the General Assembly, Mr. O'Rorke's abilities were soon recognised. In 1861 he began to act as Chairman of Committees, whenever that functionary happened to be absent from the House, and in 1863, Mr. Carleton being absent in England, Mr. O'Rorke was voted to the chair for the session. On the return to power of the provincial party in 1869 he was offered the position of Under-Secretary for the Colony, with a salary of £800 a-year. This, however, he declined, as he was unwilling to give up living in the Province of Auckland, in order to assume the post offered him. In the following year he was unanimously elected Chairman of Committees, which office he held for two years. On the formation of the Waterhouse Ministry in 1872 he obtained a seat in the Cabinet, and after the retirement of this Government he continued to hold office under Sir Julius Vogel, until that gentleman proposed the famous resolutions to abolish the provinces of the North Island, when Sir Maurice retired from the Ministry, rather than acquiesce in the destruction of the Provincial Legislatures. In 1875 the Chairmanship of Committees again became vacant, and Mr. O'Rorke was elected to the position by the common consent of the members. Four years later the Speakership of the House was vacated by Sir William Fitzherbert (who was translated to the Upper Chamber), and Mr. O'Rorke, nominated by Sir George Grey, the Premier, and seconded by Major Atkinson, leader of the Opposition, was unanimously elected Speaker. Parliament was dissolved a few months later, and on re-assembling, Mr. O'Rorke was again chosen Speaker. So soon were his abilities recognised that in 1880 he received the honour of knighthood from the Queen. From his first appointment as Speaker in 1879, he has discharged his duties with such success that on the assembling of each successive Parliament his election is a mere matter of form. No one in the House who has sat under him would ever think of nominating anyone else for the position. As for instance, after the election of 1893, when Sir Maurice had been absent from Parliament for three years, and his place had been filled in the meantime by Major Steward, he was elected Speaker for the sixth time by an overwhelming majority. Among the important Acts of Parliament which may be placed to the credit of Sir Maurice O'Rorke are the Act for establishing a University College at Auckland the Act for bestowing on the City of Auckland the site and grounds of the old Imperial Military Barracks, now the beautiful Albert Park, the Act converting the One Tree Hill reserve of 120 acres into a public domain, the Libraries Act, which is an adaptation of the Imperial Libraries Act—known formerly as Ewart's Act—to the circumstances of the Colony, and which provides a perennial fund for all cities and boroughs that adopt it for the maintenance of Free Libraries. So much for his political life. One word in conclusion about the many page 105 other positions he holds. He has always taken a warm interest in educational matters. For many years he has been a member of the Senate of the University of New Zealand, and has been Chairman of the Council of the Auckland University College from its foundation, Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Auckland Grammar School, and Chairman of the Auckland Technical School Association, and was appointed by the will of the late Mr. Dilworth as one of the Trustees of the Dilworth Olster Institute. Sir Maurice O'Rorke is third son of the late Rev. John O'Rorke, of Moylough, County Galway, Ireland, his mother being sister of the late John Dennis, of Birmingham House, Tuara, in the same county. Sir Maurice married in Auckland on the 31st of December, 1858, Cecilia Mary Shepherd, daughter of the late Alexander Shepherd, first Colonial Treasurer of New Zealand, appointed by the Imperial Government in 1842. Mr. Shepherd retired from the Treasurership in 1856 on the establishment of responsible government, being pensioned off at the same time with Mr. Swainson, Attorney-General, and Dr. Sinclair, Colonial Secretary. Sir Maurice O'Rorke has one son, Edward Dennis O'Rorke, who married, in 1893, Miss A. C. Rhodes, of Elmwood, Christchurch, and resides near Auckland.