The Life and Work of Richard John Seddon
The Life and Work of Richard John Seddon. — Chapter I. — Early Life And Life On The Goldfields
The Life and Work of Richard John Seddon.
Early Life And Life On The Goldfields.
On Eccleston Hill, near the outskirts of St. Helens, Lancashire, England, there stands an old-fashioned, two-storey, stone cottage, with small latticed windows, a wooden porch, and a picturesque aspect.
A tidy pathway leads from a rustic gate to the porch. In the spring and summer the garden is gay with flowers; at one end of the house an old tree almost shades an upstairs window from view; and ivy and other creeping plants cling to the wall and strive to peep into the windows and doors.
The cottage is very weather-beaten; and well it might be, for it has stood on Eccleston Hill, in storm and sunshine, for over 200 years. Some of the old residents of the town, indeed, say that it has seen exactly 300 summers, but in this there seems to be more surmise than evidence.
The cottage has a history. It could hardly help having one at its time of life. Its past, however, can only be partly guessed at. In the pretty little garden, curious stones, bearing signs of the work of some craftsman, have been found in fairly large numbers. There was once a large collection of these stones, some of which have been elaborately carved, and others bear inscriptions that nobody can decipher. An old cross was in the collection, but it has been missing for many years, and has page 2 probably found its way into the private museum of an antiquarian.
The presence of these relics, although supplying no direct evidence, supports a belief held in the district that the garden was once a burial ground, conneced with a Roman Catholic Mission that carried on its good work at Scholes Farm, close by. Colour is given to this story by the tradition that long underground passages once extended from Scholes Farm to the garden, and that the passage was used in those bad old days when Merry England was torn with religious persecutions.
At any rate, there the cottage stands to this day, wrapped in its glamour of a lost history, looking pleasantly out into the world, and caring very little for the attacks of its enemies, old Time and the elements.
It is about 65 years since the cottage took part in an important series of events connected with the story of a man's life related in this book.
In that happy way, rivalry lapsed into love. Miss Lindsay closed her school, and Mr. and Mrs. Seddon took up their residence in the stone cottage on Eccleston Hill, which has just been described.
In that cottage Richard John Seddon was born on June 22nd, 1845, and there he passed his babyhood and his boyhood.
Richard, who was the second child, had three brothers and three sisters. He was a healthy, robust, muscular, and boisterous young lad, and he gave plenty of evidence at an early age of the wilfulness that became one of his characteristics when he entered the battlefield of colonial politics.
The most definite impression left upon him by his early childhood was that made by the funeral of the thirteenth Earl of Derby, when Richard was a sturdy infant six years old. The Earl was a great patron of science, having been president of both the Linnean Society and the Zoological Society of London, and he kept at Knowsley Hall a splendid natural history collection, which had an attraction for the boy, who often made visits to the park. When he heard of the Earl's death, his first thought was that those happy outings would now have to come to an end, and he was more sorry on that account than on account of the death of the great nobleman. His grandfather's family were tenants of the Earl, and that association made Knowsley Hall a kind of shrine as far as he was concerned. Every tenant attended the funeral, and every horse in the immense estate was brought into use for the procession. The sight struck the boy as being a most remarkable one. “Through all the morning,” he remarked fifty years later, when he was sending his mind back to those days, “there came to me, even as a child, some knowledge of the deep affection that existed between the Earls of Derby and their tenantry, of which in riper years I have seen many demonstrations.”
Another incident that made a great impression on him as a child was the march past of the Scots Greys on their way to Liverpool to embark for the Crimea. It seemed to him that the steady stream of men would never end.page 4
About that time Queen Victoria visited Knowsley, and the children of the local schools assembled there to sing the National Anthem in Her Majesty's honour. It was the first time he had seen Queen Victoria, and the feelings then engendered, and the impression created, lasted throughout his long life.
By-and-by the time came when he had to go to school. He was taken in hand by his father, whose wish it was that Richard should pose as a “possible” to other boys, to whom he was to be an example of diligence and application. Richard had other views in regard to himself, however, and he was determined that his opinion as to what he should do would prevail. Although he was caught early, therefore, he did not play the part at all well. His mind was out in the open, and books and papers had far less interest to him than the games of the playground.
Squire Taylor and the new Earl of Derby were trustees of his father's school. This fact enabled him to become well acquainted with their estates, and the familiarity that grew up in that respect certainly fostered, if it did not actually create, the love of all kinds of sports that soon seized upon him and carried him far from his father's school at times when he was supposed to be studying as only the son of the master could be expected to study. He was shrewd enough to maintain very friendly relations with the keepers of the domains on the two estates. With them, indeed, he made his first reciprocal treaty. They gave him freedom to do as much bird-nesting as his heart dictated, and he, on his part, promised not to interfere with the game in any way, a promise which he kept faithfully.
One day when he was in a reminiscent mood, he told a newspaper interviewer of an incident in his schooldays. “A herd of catle,” he said, “just landed from Ireland, was passing my home one day, and I was standing by the roadside watching them with childish interest, when one of the cows rushed at a younger brother, and might have injured him. I was beside him in a moment, and, pulling the child inside the gate, saved him from any possible danger. This little action must have seemed quite heroic to my mother, for it was a long time afterwards before any circumstances could dislodge me from the very agreeable position of first favourite.page 5
“I have another little story of the same period. After school one day I went to bathe in a neighbouring pond, got out of my depth, and was on the point of drowning. A brass band was passing when my sister gave the alarm, and one of the men came to my rescue. Her further cries brought a local quarryman, and, in the moment before I lost consciousness, I caught sight of these two men, one with his trombone, the other in a leather apron, and ever since I have always felt a particular partiality for all men who play trombones or wear leather aprons.”
One of the most exciting adventures of his youth came to him through an excess of curiosity, which tempted him to test the truth of the tradition that there was an underground passage between the old abbey adjoining his father's school and Scholes Farm.
The cross, then a great feature of interest in the grounds, stood near the playground, in which were piled many gravestones huddled up from their former position, and while some of the inhabitants were planting flowers in that spot, one of the stones suddenly dropped well below the surface. That was regarded as proof of the existence of the subterranean passage, but to Richard the incident did not carry complete conviction. It was suggested that the hole should be filled up and the place should be left as it was, but he was of another mind, and started to explore with a spade. After a little time his labour came to a sudden end, for he unceremoniously disappeared, having dropped into one of the unknown abbey vaults.
The only branch of school work in which he took any particular interest was mechanical drawing, for which he once received the only first prize placed to his credit. In this way he showed where his desires and talents ran. It was mechanical engineering that captivated his fancy, and when he was still young he decided that the life of an engineer was the best thing for him.
When he began to be a big boy he was one of several who were taught extra subjects. It was an honour that he did not appreciate in the slightest. He asked himself why he should be kept inside the detested class-room learning Latin page 6 while his mates were outside in the glorious sunshine, playing at their games and enjoying themselves to the top of their bent.
The method of expostulation he adopted at last was a refusal to learn his lesson. There was a sharp battle, of course, but the issue was never in doubt. On that day, his grandfather happened to visit Eccleston. The position that had arisen, which was the talk of the household, was explained to the old gentleman, and it was agreed that the naughty boy should be taken away by him to the farm. There was no intention of sending him on to the land permanently, but it was thought that he would soon tire of country life, and would be glad to get back to Eccleston and his books.
He did soon grow tired of the country, and further conferences between the heads of the family led to an arrangement under which he was apprenticed to Messrs. Dalgliesh and Co., engineers and iron founders, of St. Helens. He was fourteen years of age then. Having served an apprenticeship of five years, at the end of which he was told that he had given his employers complete satisfaction, he was sent to the firm's Vauxhall Factory at Liverpool, where he evidently gave satisfaction also. Forty years later, when he returned to England as one of the Colonial Premiers at the King's coronation ceremonies, he saw the foreman of the Vauxhall factory, and asked him jocularly if he would give him a job, and the foreman replied in the affirmative. “He were a good 'un,” he remarked to one of Mr. Seddon's friends; “and, if he likes to come back, I'll give him a job to-morrow.”
Things were not to young Seddon's liking, however. He was restive, and he longed for change. He did not like the conditions under which the working classes in England had to labour. He saw skilled artizans, capable, sober, and industrious men, slaving ten hours a day for small wages, and he often felt keenly the oppression that took place all around him.
But the golden dreams haunted him night and day, at work and at leisure. He scanned the newspapers for reports from Australia. The favourable reports sank deep into his mind; the reports of hardships and terrible deaths seemed to fade away as soon as he had read them. He argued, as hundreds and thousands had argued before and since, that, if fortune came to others, it was just as likely to come to him. He was a cheery, optimistic man all his life. He never took the gloomy view. He could not do so, in fact, and to the end of his days was looking forward with the hope and the certainty of getting something done. “My greatest interest,” he said once, “lies in the to-days and the to-morrows, not in the yesterdays, with which I have done.”
So he heard the Golden South calling to him; and, bidding friends and relatives “good-bye,” he stepped on board the “Star of England,” a handsome young man, fair in complexion, upright in carriage, and strong in build.
His capital consisted of a Board of Trade engineer's certificate, a pair of broad shoulders, a steady purpose, a determination to succeed, and a stout heart. These friends stood by him through life. It is to them that he owed a great deal of the credit for the things he did in the new land to which Fate was leading him, but which at that time had no place in his thoughts. He went to search for gold, but he was denied success in that direction in order that he might gain that which gold could not give.
At that time, however, it would have been impossible to shake the conviction in his mind that gold was waiting for him to pick it up from the Victorian goldfields.
Soon after he landed in Melbourne, therefore, he set out for the diggings. There he was quickly disillusioned. The paths were not strewn with nuggets. There were no paths at all, and nuggets gave very few signs of being more plentiful than at old Eccleston in the England he had left. He worked hard and searched diligently; but in vain. He found himself poorer page 8 in everything except experience. The life was rougher than he had believed life among human beings could be, and the sights he saw on the goldfields were far more harrowing than those that had attracted his attention among the poor working classes of England. His optimism was tried as it had never been tried before; and it must be stated that the strain was too great. He broke down, and he went back to Melbourne to seek employment as an engineer. He found it in the Railway Workshops of the Victorian Government, at Williamstown. There he was engaged as a journeyman fitter. This was in the year 1864, and he was then nineteen years of age. He made friends with his fellow-workers, and some of them always had a place in his memory.
He was looked upon by the “hands” in the shop as a good tradesman and a first-class athlete. “He was always a politician,” one of his mates explained many years afterwards when Mr. Seddon was a conspicuous figure in the Empire's affairs. “Whether it was an election for a member of the House or for a town councillor, he was always head and ears in it, and would be discovered by old Houghton, the foreman, addressing a crowd of men in one part of the shop or the other. Houghton always knew who it was, and would say: ‘Now then, no more of that!’ and Mr. Seddon would reply quite cheerfully, ‘All right, Mr. Houghton;’ but ten minutes later he would be propounding the principles of his favourite candidate to another crowd not very far away. On one occasion he was reported for this to the head of the Department, or the Minister, for the Government employees were not then allowed to take any active part in politics. In the case mentioned, his man got into Parliament, so that nothing came of it.”
His fellow-workmen frequently admired his great physical strength. He took a delight in feats that were likely to cause envy. The shop in which he worked was 200 feet long. On one occasion, he walked its whole length with a 56 pound weight strapped to each foot, a 56 pound weight in each hand, and a 28 pound weight held by his teeth.
There was a gymnasium attached to the workshops. It was used by the men in the evenings, and Mr. Seddon was one of the page 9 constant attendants. While weight-lifting was his favourite method of displaying his strength, he was a good boxer, and was dexterous and smart with the single-stick. In later life he resented a suggestion that he was too ready to come to blows in order to assert his rights. “I've often found my fists useful,” he said, “but I've never been a bully.”
There was nothing that he would not attempt in the gymnasium, no matter how difficult it might be. Another member had only to say: “You can't do that, Seddon!” to make him reply: “Can't I, my boy?” and he immediately made the attempt, which was generally successful.
He seemed to be absolutely devoid of fear. “He was a regular dare-devil,” in the words of one of those with whom he worked; “but he was a very good-hearted fellow; he was foremost in subscriptions and acts of charity, and would do a good turn to anyone, if it was in his power.”
Outside of the gymnasium he proved himself to be a strong runner. He won the silver cup for general athletes at the Williamstown Eight Hours Demonstration, coming in first in the 100 yards, 200 yards, and 440 yards events. He joined the Williamstown Volunteer Artillery Corps, formed among the workshop employees, and was promoted to the rank of corporal, but got no further, not on account of want of force of character, but because he did not stay long enough to merit further promotion.
Williamstown was fated to play an important part in his career. While he was employed at the railway workshops, he became acquainted with Captain Spotswood and his family. There he met Miss Louisa Jane Spotswood, whom he asked to be his wife. Captain Spotswood was a grandson of a former Governor of Bombay, and the family did not give much encouragement to the young engineer. He and his sweetheart, however, plighted their troth, and Mr. Seddon found that the strongest of all impulses urged him on to make his fortune.
He was still convinced that his trade was not the thing for him. It was slow and tedious, offered no excitement, and failed to gratify his desire to push on in the world.page 10
After he had been employed in the workshops for about a year, news came that rich goldfields had been discovered on the West Coast of New Zealand. An uncle of his wrote to him from the West Coast, and urged him to come, stating that the New Zealand climate was much better than that of Victoria, and the life of the colonists was freer, brighter, and happier.
Nothing would suit him but to leave his employment at the workshops and go to the new fields, to see if they would be kinder to him than those he had believed would be his making.
He left Melbourne in the “Alhambra,” and arrived at Hokitika, on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand, in 1866.
He found that life on the New Zealand goldfields was not a bit less picturesque than life in Victoria. It had the advantage of a more vigorous climate. Apparently, the diggers, on the whole, were as fine a set of men as could be found in any part of the world. That was the opinion formed by Mr. Seddon at the time, and the more he saw of the diggers the more he liked them and their rough-and-ready but manly ways. It may be said that there was none more rough-and-ready than he, and none more manly. As shown in other chapters of this book, he lost no opportunity to disabuse the public mind in respect to the class of men who toiled on New Zealand's goldfields. In Parliament, on the platform, and in private life, he declared that they were good citizens, and he saw no reason why they should not have the same status in the community as that of any other class.
In the pages of Hansard, and in New Zealand newspapers, he has often recorded his opinion of the West Coast miners. “At Hokitika,” he said on one occasion, “I came into contact with a body of men who, physically and morally, were unsurpassed as men, and who were the pick of the world. They needed great physique to stand the hardships and privations of life in those early days on the Coast. Mentally they stood out as men who not only had an adventurous nature, but also followed the craving to get away from the Old World environment. They wanted something new, and they went where they could find it. We had miners from Otago, Australia, and page 11 California, as well as some of the most enterprising spirits of Australia and New Zealand.”
Describing the hardships and dangers that had to be met, he stated that miners who went to the West Coast from Canterbury had to ford the Teremakau River sixteen times. It is only one of the madly rushing streams that stood in the way of communication between one district and another before bridges were constructed. The West Coast is a notoriously rainy district. The heavy rains swell the rivers, and the gold seekers had to swim the Teremakau nearly as often as they forded it. When there was one in the party who could not swim, a swimmer crossed with a long flax rope and fixed it to a tree on the far side, and the miner pulled himself hand over hand through the water. In some cases, rude rafts of the stems of the flax-plant were constructed after the methods adopted by the Maoris, and a primitive ferry service was established.
In those dreadful journeys dry blankets were unknown, and dry clothes were a rarity. “Yet, when you met these adventurers afterwards on the streets of Hokitika,” Mr. Seddon said, “you took them to be the happiest, merriest fellows on earth.”
A writer who was on the West Coast goldfields when the rush broke out has given a graphic description, which well represents the sights that met the keen eyes of the young engineer in search of adventure and fortune. This writer* describes how field after field was opened up with amazing rapidity. Captains of vessels sailing along the Coast saw a continuous line of fires, each denoting a party of miners.
“Prospectors,” he says, “pushed up the rivers and streams, and spread over terraces and hills, their enterprise almost invariably gaining a rich reward. ‘Pile’ claims, as they were known in Victoria, and in some of the Otago workings, were unknown, and no single claim yielded its owner more than £5000 a man. But there were many claims that would give from £10 up to £50, and sometimes £100 per week per man.
* Mr. L. Northcroft.
“The mining camps extended from the Grey along the beaches past such marvellous rich patches as Darkey's Terrace, along to Brighton, Charleston, Addison's Flat, the terraces north of Westport to the Mokihinui, and along the beaches and gullies still further north, and then up the Buller, past many rich streams to the Lyell, where the biggest nuggets on the Coast were found, and still on to the Maruia, and the Matakitaki.
“South of Hokitika was the great Totara goldfield, and the celebrated Ross Flat, probably the richest piece of alluvial ground yet discovered in the world, layer upon layer of alluvial wash, all carrying gold in large quantities. Then we have the Okarito goldfield, with the Three-mile and Five-mile Beaches, the tail box of the Waiho River, and still further south the famed Gillespie's Beach, Hunt's Beach, and Bruce Bay.
“Gold was found everywhere, and in amazing quantities. At the Five-mile diggers carried the gold dust to Okarito to sell in billies, their ordinary chamois leather gold-bags being too small to contain their rich harvests. It was a life of wild exertion and fierce excitement, which has no counterpart in these somewhat dull and decorous times. Those were glorious, riotous days, which seemed so good that no one believed they could end. Each one had secured the purse of Fortunatus, which could never be finished, and acted accordingly. There was an axiom, in which implicit reliance was placed in those days, that, if a man became saving and economical, his luck would desert him. It was not necessary to spend everything he got, but, above all things, he must not be mean. Illustrations of this were furnished wholesale. The steady, industrious man would be haunted by ill-luck, whilst the spendthrift always sank a golden hole, and never a duffer. A man would be making twenty pounds a week; by Wednesday he would be without a shilling. Saturday page 13 would see him again in funds, but they would slip through his fingers in a day or two; and so the life went on.”
This state of things did not last for ever, and it was not very long afterwards that thousands of miners in the district were glad to be employed at regular work for £2 a week.
Mr. Seddon's description of the miners is confirmed by the writer quoted, who says that their ages ranged from twenty to forty, men from twenty-seven to thirty-three years of age being in the majority, and they were a splendid type. “Full dress” on the goldfields consisted of a high slouch hat, the front turned up sharp and the back turned down; a crimson shirt with a knotted crimson silk scarf; a pair of moleskin trousers, with a bright yellowish tinge on account of the clay, which seemed to wash in but never to wash out; a crimson sash; “nugget” pattern boots; and a crimson silk laced cord round the crown of the hat. Full beards were worn, and the dandies prided themselves on the length and thickness of this adornment. Irishmen generally preferred green to crimson sashes, ties, and scarfs, but no other colours were used.
From Hokitika he went to the Old Six Mile diggings at Waimea, and, with a few mates, washed a claim on the Waimea Creek.
His knowledge of engineering was found to be very useful, especially in connection with the “Band-of-Hope” water-race. He was encouraged by his success in that direction, and, later on, urged the Government and the Westland County Council to undertake the construction of large water-races. This was done, and those works, some of which cost very large sums of money, have helped to bring about the prosperity the West Coast has enjoyed.
His luck was still “out” at gold-seeking, however, so he decided to make an entirely new departure, and opened a store at Big Dam.
He found that steady business was better than the chance of making a fortune suddenly and the certainty of having to endure many hardships. He prospered so well that he was able in 1869 to leave his store for a time, go for a trip to Melbourne, marry Miss Spotswood, who had been waiting for him for three page 14 years, and bring his bride to the home he had prepared for her.
The next important change in his life was brought about by a “rush” to Kumara in 1874.
An account of how the “rush” that made Kumara famous took place, states that a gang of men had erected an illicit whisky-still at a spot in the bush. When they were digging down into the ground preparing for the still, they, like Dow in Bret Harte's poem, found what they did not seek: gold. They did not disclose their discovery, but remained quietly washing in the bush. A miner who had been “bushed” between Dillmanstown and Kumara saw the smoke of their fires and reached the spot. There he surprised their secret, which he reported to the miners. Mr. Seddon formed a party, went into the bush, and ascertained that another goldfield had been added to the list.
He removed his business and his family to Kumara, and the name of the town, which has grown up to a population of 2,000 in 1906, was associated with his own name throughout his career. In Hansard there are many references to the “Knight of Kumara,” as his fellow members of Parliament often called him. There are good grounds for the association of the man and the town. For many years they were one and indivisible. As he grew in influence among the miners, it grew in importance, only not so rapidly.
With his masterful manner and his thoroughness of purpose, he took charge of Kumara from its earliest infancy, nursing it and attending to its wants, and leading it along the rough road that most colonial towns have to travel.
On the New Zealand diggings, as on other goldfields, towns were established without much regard to surveys and skill in laying out. The streets were allowed to make themselves, with the result, as an old resident of the West Coast has said, that they were like a lot of dogs' hind legs, and meandered in and out wherever it was easiest for traffic to find its way amongst the houses.
Mr. Seddon saw the evil of the want of system in that respect. Being determined that his town would be better appointed, he induced the Goldfields Warden to go down and lay off a page 15 proper township under the Mining Act. His idea was to make it on the same plan as Melbourne, in hopes, probably, that it would attain the marvellous growth of that great city.
As some reward for his services, one of the streets was named after him, and he lived in it for some years. More than that, he was elected the first Mayor of Kumara when it was promoted to municipal rank.
The little town has not progressed very rapidly, and there is not much likelihood that it will ever achieve greatness as it is understood in regard to colonial cities. A New Zealand journalist* who accompanied Mr. Seddon to the West Coast in 1904, on the occasion of rejoicings at the silver jubilee of his entry into Parliament, describes Kumara in an interesting manner. He says:—
“Kumara is still essentially a mining township, prolific in hotels and permeated with the gold fever that, like the ague of the tropics, stays with the man it attacks until his last hour. Its residents live either by mining or by supplying miners. Gaunt flumes stalk across the country towards the titanic excavations that the driven water has made in the once smiling river flats, and black pipe-lines lie across the country like huge snakes. The bed of the Teremakau is disfigured by the many thousand tons of tailings that have been poured into it, and the whole landscape tells of man's strenuous search for gold.
* A member of the Lyttelton Times staff.
By this time Mr. Seddon had become an influential man, well known all over the Coast, and well respected.
He developed a liking, which became a ruling passion, for public life. He loved contests, arguments, and vehement discussions. He found in them the same exercise for his mind as the sports ground afforded for his body. He did not realise it at the time, but he also found in his public duties the disregard of old-groove methods, the boldness and promptness of action, and the broad Liberalism that characterise the legislation of his greater days, when he became an imperialist and a humanist.
At the age of twenty-four years, he was the recognised “head-man” of the district. Disputes were referred to him, and hardly any public action of importance was decided upon before those concerned sought his advice, or received it, as he did not always wait to be asked.
By and by he was able to leave business and to engage in practice as a miner's advocate in the Warden's Courts.
Knowing every water-right in the district and the history of every claim, Mr. Seddon was well armed against the lawyers who came from the large towns to conduct cases against his clients. One of these lawyers once remarked that he was a distinct loss to the legal profession.
At least one Warden* was impressed by his ability. “His cleverness as an advocate,” he says, “was beyond question. He never lost a chance when any legal point gave him an opportunity, and the readiness with which he grasped the bearing of legal matters was remarkable, although, as we now know, this was only one indication of the brain power and mental acuteness with which he was so abundantly endowed. The litigious digger of that day delighted in nothing more than a good legal technicality, especially when he had nothing else to trust to, and he rightly appreciated the qualities of an advocate who had the capacity of discovering a good technical point, and making the most of it.
“Mr. Seddon's excellence as an advocate was necessarily somewhat impaired by the want of regular legal training, and this sometimes caused a certain want of proportion in the view which he took of the importance of the different parts of a case, and caused him to labour too much at some point which would really have been more telling if merely suggested. But I have as little doubt that, with a legal education, he could have made a great name at the bar as gratification in the knowledge that he was reserved for better and greater work.”
* Dr. Giles.
Stories are told on the Coast to show the influence he exercised, and it is stated that on one occasion a dispute took place over pegging off some claims on a rich piece of ground. The majority of the miners interested contended that the minority, whose pegs had been shifted, had jumped their claims, and threatened to throw the offenders into the dam. Mr. Seddon addressed the clamorous majority, and, failing to get any satisfaction, challenged any single man to settle the matter with fists. There was no response, but the crowd became more reasonable. Then Mr. Seddon pointed out that the regulations provided for settling disputes without recourse to brute force, and that if they commenced with violence someone would probably have to suffer for it, and there was no saying where the matter would end. They agreed to interview the Warden, and the minority, who had taken the precaution to put in secret pegs, were easily able to convince that officer that they had a prior right.
On the Coast, as in the Victorian workshops, Mr. Seddon had very few equals in any branch of athletics in which he took an interest. Shortly after he entered Parliament, he happened one day to be in Goldsborough, when a publican, who had some reputation as a runner, expressed the opinion that “Dick was too fat to run.” Thereupon the member for the district offered to race him. A wager was made, the race was started, and the member easily outdistanced his opponent. “Well, old man,” said the winner, as they walked back to the starting-post, “you see I am not too fat yet.”
Another story which has often been told on the Coast relates that a bully, who had made things intolerable, insulted Mr. Seddon. This resulted in a fight and a complete victory for the man from Victoria. During the combat the brother of the bully had been profuse in advice and direction, and when the bully was beaten, Mr. Seddon challenged the brother to come into the circle, but he refused to do so. The second challenge appealed to the diggers' fancy, and, shouldering Mr. Seddon, they carried him to the township amidst hearty cheers.
The year 1869 was an eventful one for him in more ways than one. It was the year of his marriage, as has been stated, and it was the year in which he entered definitely upon his career as a public man.
On one day he offered himself to the miners as their representative on two local bodies, the Arahura Road Board and the Westland County Council. Bad tracks and worse roads were the grievances that actually called him forth. There had been great neglect on the part of the local authorities that controlled road-making work in the district. There were many complaints from the miners, but not the slightest notice was taken of them.
The miners thought that the young agitator would stir the authorities into some kind of activity. They therefore elected him at the head of the poll for the seat on the Road Board, but, being convinced that he was too young to take part in the work of the larger body, they made him stand by in preference to an older man. Only a few years passed, however, before he page 20 became not only a member of the County Council, but also its chairman.
The Road Board's affairs had been badly managed. Besides that, local government in New Zealand was not on a good basis in those days, and local bodies' powers and responsibilities were greatly restricted.
The older members of the Board, who were well acquainted with Mr. Seddon's capacity for making trouble where things were not done to his liking, did not look upon his success with a favourable eye. They recognised that he had been elected to the Board to urge them on. In order to secure some kind of revenge for the mild insult, they decided to place him in the chair, saying amongst themselves: “Perhaps the youngster can show us how to meet liabilities and make tracks without money.”
He was quite equal to the occasion. He accepted the position without hesitation. He ransacked the accounts, studied the Board's position, got a thorough grasp of it, and prepared a long report. His policy was retrenchment and “bluff.” In the first place he cut down the clerk's salary from five pounds to ten shillings a week, and economised in other directions.
In the next place, he induced the Board to announce that it would dismiss its servants, stop its works, and close its doors for twelve months, unless the County Council, the parent body, came to the rescue. The Council, which had not expected this peremptory demand, paid the required money into the Board's fund; the public servants were retained; the works in hand were pushed on; the tracks and roads were improved; and the young chairman became absolute dictator in the field of operations controlled by the Board, and held his position securely until the Board ceased to exist.
Time after time, in the House of Representatives, he showed similar powers of bold resolve and prompt action. The most notable illustration was in 1894, when he went to the rescue of the Bank of New Zealand, as related in another chapter. No responsibility was too great for him, and no danger deterred him from taking steps he felt were required to meet an emergency.page break page break
He lived at Staffordtown for some years, and was a member of the local School Committee. Tradition says that he who was to be the champion of “stone-wallers” in New Zealand did not hesitate to block discussion when it had exceeded the limits of his patience. A debate upon the appointment of a teacher to the school having lasted till four o'clock in the morning, Mr. Seddon, realising that the aim of his opponents was to postpone the fatal hour of division, moved that no more amendments should be taken. This was carried on the casting vote of the chairman, and the original motion, supported by Mr. Seddon, was then carried in the same way.
From the School Committee to the Board of Education was an easy step, and in 1874, when he became a member of the latter body, he played a prominent part in the struggle for secular education. The people were divided into secularists and denominationalists, and the conflict was marked by the peculiar bitterness that enters into most disputes based on religious differences. Mr. Seddon and Mr. John McWhirter, two candidates on the national and unsectarian side, conducted an exciting campaign. At Goldsborough they were sometimes obliged to dismount and walk up the hill, sheltered by their horses from a hailstorm of stones. On one occasion a shot was fired; it may have been an accident, but Mr. McWhirter maintained that it had been fired with the intention to injure Mr. Seddon and himself.
The people of Goldsborough still point out the old Hibernian School, a faded building. This school was the centre of a stirring debate, entitled “Sectarian versus Secular Education,” in which Mr. Seddon was opposed by a Roman Catholic priest. At the ballot, the miners, who did not approve of church interference in politics, supported Mr. Seddon's views, and the Hibernian School was closed.
On Westland being proclaimed a province, with a Parliament and a Superintendent of its own, Mr. Seddon took his seat in the Provincial Council as representative of Arahura. He became chairman of committees, but he could rise no higher before the provincial system of government in New Zealand was abolished, in 1876. Westland becoming a county again, he page 22 was elected to the County Council, appointed chairman, and continued to sit at the Council table until he entered the Ballance Ministry, in 1891.
A writer, who has worked with him on local bodies, states that he was all-powerful on the County Council. When persuasion and tact failed, he resorted to verbosity. “Fluent, loud, unceasing, and sometimes amusing, he carried the point he had in view by dogged, persistent talk. Worn-out members in sheer despair gave the Kumara orator his way, and he left for his home rejoicing. His rulings were nearly always accepted, whether he was right or wrong; his audacity carried him through.”
With May at his fingers' ends he was more than a match for them all; and the bewildered members would often rise from a meeting, after listening to one of his fiery speeches, lost in astonishment at the pitfalls they had dropped into, and at their own blundering stupidity. Mr. Seddon, who enjoyed nothing more than that kind of sport, would chuckle and smile to himself as he traced the consternation displayed on their countenances.
“Without being a money-grubber,” says another gentleman who knew him well, “he insisted on proclaiming that a labourer is worthy of his hire. Beyond travelling expenses, however, there was not much to be got out of public work, with one exception. This exception was the chairmanship of the County Council, which carried with it £250 a year and travelling expenses. The annual scramble for this prize was amusing, and was much enjoyed by a cynical public. There were nine members, and, as a rule, they were all candidates for the endowed chair. Of course the first man who got five votes took it. But the trouble was to get that number. Every member could depend on his own vote only, and it was sometimes hours before the game was played out.
“In this annual contest Mr. Seddon took a prominent part, as may well be supposed. When he did not secure the prize himself, which happened once or twice, he invariably managed to get the candidate he supported into the chair. Here again a knowledge of points of order, or disorder, were factors in his success.page break page break page 23
“The first time he became chairman he demanded from an astonished Council £250 a year, travelling expenses, and a guinea a day while travelling. This was refused, so far as the guinea a day was concerned. The Kumara hero fought hard for his point, but was defeated. Had it not been for the fact that the Council was suffering from chronic consumption of the purse, he would have once more triumphed. He honestly thought himself worth more to the public than a less energetic and hardworking man.”
During all these stirring times, he was qualifying himself for the greater work before him. He could not have entered a better school of politics. He is not by any means the only New Zealand politician who has started in local government and has gone step by step to Parliament. Some of the best members of Parliament have found the Road Board, the Borough Council, and the County Council a splendid training ground, and all who have served their political apprenticeship on those bodies have been useful members of the larger body, which has benefited by the practical advice they have been able to give at all times on many different questions. Added to his training in public, Mr. Seddon lost no opportunity of increasing his knowledge in private life. He learnt May's “Parliamentary Practice” almost by heart, and other standard works on the practical part of Parliamentary work were among the few books he cared to read or study.