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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman


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Speaking at the Jubilee Celebrations in Otago in 1898, Rolleston said: "Seldom indeed are our ideals realised in this world. We aim at one thing; we attain something different. It is in the working out that we gain or lose, and in which success or failure consists."

Hence it was that, though Rolleston's early dreams had not been fulfilled, yet he felt that his efforts had not been in vain. In the sphere of Provincial affairs he had played a leading part in the development of Canterbury and in the establishment of educational and social reforms. In Parliament he had won golden opinions as an administrator of outstanding ability. Sometimes a public man's influence is greater than his achievements, and Rolleston exercised a most beneficial influence on parliamentary life by his high ideals and passionate devotion to the service of the State. Mr Reeves describes Rolleston as "a Conservative by instinct who, as the result of practical experience, became a reluctant but convinced Reformer". He quotes in proof of this the fact that Rolleston became a Reformer where the land question was concerned. Mr Gisborne expresses much the same view. But in my view Rolleston began as a Liberal and remained a Liberal throughout his life. In proof of his early Liberalism, one might quote his creation of the Deaf and Dumb Institute, his advocacy of free secular and compulsory education, his indignant objection to the old Poor Law attitude towards the destitute, and his efforts to prevent land aggregation. In his later days, the extension of State activity in many directions and his political association with the Opposition led to his being regarded as a Conservative. But this was his political ill-luck, and competent critics like Mr Samuel Saunders, of the Lyttelton Times, still regarded him as a true Liberal. The fine tribute page 206by Mr Reeves to Rolleston's political career ends with these words: "What the rejection of Mr Rolleston's views has cost the country is not easy to compute. Already a heavy price has been paid for the mistake and the reckoning is not yet settled." Mr Justin McCarthy, in describing an English statesman, uses words that are applicable to Rolleston. "The most advanced Radicals", he says, "came to understand that the character of such a man is not to be estimated merely by the measure of his agreement with the reforms which in spite of his most vigorous opposition were able to establish themselves in the system of government. The feeling of the whole country rendered homage to his character when death removed him from the political arena in which he had borne himself so bravely and so well."

If we had no record of Rolleston but his public speeches, he would appear as a figure of portentous solemnity, always overweighed with an undue sense of responsibility. Someone described his speeches as resembling a long series of leading articles. They were prepared with immense care, and his delivery was halting and laborious, except when he spoke under sudden provocation. On one occasion he said to Mr Alfred Saunders: "I wish words would come to me as readily as they do to you. You never hesitate for a moment." To which Saunders replied: "Words come to me in single file and I take the first that comes. They appear to me to come to you about six abreast, and you attach I think rather too much importance to the selection of exactly the most appropriate word to be used."

Nevertheless, Rolleston's speeches well repay study, for they contain many wise maxims that are an index to his philosophy and confirm what the reader has already seen, that he was a man of deep sympathies. What, for example, could be more admirable than this extract from one of his speeches: "You may depend upon it there is no greater truth than this. In the old days it used to be said that, if you are virtuous, you will be prosperous and happy. Really page 207the reverse of this is the truer picture. I would make the toilers comfortable and give them the opportunity of working out their own salvation, and that would make them happy."1

Or again: "My experience of men is that they will rise to the positions in which they are placed. I feel that the more you trust people, the greater the confidence you put in them, the more likely they are to do right."

One of his closest friends was Scobie McKenzie, whose speeches displayed in full measure the very qualities of sparkling wit and brilliant repartee that were lacking in Rolleston's. But this intense seriousness that runs through all Rolleston's public speeches was laid aside in private circles. All his friends testify that he was a delightful companion, and his company was eagerly sought by men who liked good talk. In Parliament he loved the friendly association of the dining-table in Bellamy's, and in a touching tribute he wrote on Scobie McKenzie's death he said:

I am sorry to hear that that daily social meeting is more or less a thing of the past. Sir George Grey, Mr Bryce, Colonel Trimble, and others were men who there interchanged thoughts on every kind of subject. There was no more brilliant or versatile talker than Scobie McKenzie at these prandial gatherings.

The late Mr Charles Lewis, M.P., wrote an amusing account of the kindly way in which Rolleston would afford advice and guidance to many young members who sought his help. His method was to pose as an anxious inquirer rather than as a teacher. "He would ask questions with such humility and receive the answers with such gratitude that he appeared to be merely groping for light. By this means he would draw out the young tyro flushed with importance and stimulated by murmurs of encouragement." Finally it would dawn on the inquirer that he had overlooked some essential point and that he had been put right by "methods assuredly the most artful, the most insidious,

1 Hansard, 1897, vol. c, p. 586.

page 208and beyond all question the most effective". Then with a few kind words the Parliamentary veteran would walk away "leaving the chastened neophyte to contemplate his own unfathomable ignorance". Mr Lewis denounced as a fallacy the belief held by some people that Rolleston was the apostle of gloom. "I never knew", he said, "a man with a more abiding belief in the future greatness of his race…. Of New Zealand's future he would speak in terms as glowing as those of the most exalted optimist." He adds that to strangers Rolleston exhibited a stately old-time formality and a certain reserve born perhaps of nervousness, but the barrier once broken down he was a delightful companion with a keen appreciation of humour.1

In physical appearance Rolleston was strikingly handsome. Those who knew him describe him as one of the finest-looking men who ever entered the House. His portrait shows him as possessing all the physical characteristics usually associated in the public mind with the ideal of a statesman. The massive head is deeply set in his broad shoulders; the features are clear-cut and masculine; the steady eyes full of thought and intelligence; and the whole poise shows a striking personality.

Herbert Hampton, the English sculptor who designed the fine statue of Rolleston erected in Rolleston Avenue, Christchurch, said: "The making of this statue, the attempt to render the character of this great man—and I am sure with such a head he must have been great—gave me the greatest interest and pleasure, and I shall never fail to consider myself fortunate to have had the privilege to execute his statue."

The innumerable obituary tributes that were paid to Rolleston's personal character and career show what a remarkable ascendancy his single-minded devotion to public duty had earned for him in public esteem. The Lyttelton Times, which was opposed to him in politics, said: "There

1 See Christchurch Press, 10 July 1903.

page 209is scarcely a home from the North Cape to the Bluff in which his name is not held in grateful and affectionate regard. The secret of his popularity was that every one trusted him."

An eminent Civil Servant, Mr James McKerrow, said he had served under Rolleston for five years, which he regarded as the brightest five years of his forty years of official life. "He was one of the most pure and high minded men I had ever the good fortune to meet. His great wisdom and foresight was recognised by every member of the Civil Service who had come in contact with him."

I might quote many more similar tributes, but I will conclude with two sentences—one from his old opponent, Mr Seddon: "Above all others I have met in public life it was not with him a question of expediency but a question of doing the right thing, no matter how unpopular it was", and another sentence from his old colleague, Mr Massey: "Rolleston was without exception the most lovable man I ever met."

In the old church of Maltby village, where so many of his family are buried, there is a memorial brass the wording of which, written by himself, is his own summary of his life:

Quid terras alio calentes sole mutamus?
Patriae quis exsul se quoque fugit?1

In loving memory of William Rolleston for forty-five years a New Zealand colonist, youngest son of the Rev. G. Rolleston, formerly Vicar of Maltby. This memorial was placed here by his wife in fulfilment of his last wishes, and to record his devout thankfulness to Almighty God for the blessings of a long and active life and to perpetuate a remembrance of the unchanging love he bore in a far-off land to his native country and his early home.

Born at Maltby Hall September 19th, 1831.
Died in New Zealand February 8th, 1903.

But now they desire a better country that is an heavenly one.

1 Why do we change our own land for climes warmed by a foreign sun? What exile from his own country ever escaped from himself as well?

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