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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman

Chapter I — Ancestry and Education

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Chapter I
Ancestry and Education

"England would not be what she is without her system of public education and no other country can become what she is without the advantages of such a system"—



In none of the letters and documents of Rolleston do we find any reference to his ancestry. Perhaps he was more interested in the future than in the past—more absorbed in the possibility of building up an ideal society in a new land than in dreaming of the long generations of squires, soldiers, and clergy from whom he was descended. If a dispute still exists between those who attribute the main influence in the life of an individual to heredity and those who lay most stress on environment, this dispute can hardly be settled by quoting the case of Rolleston, for he combined in his person the best of both factors. On the one hand his ancestry was the finest that England could give him, and on the other his environment in the new and virgin country of New Zealand afforded an ideal opportunity for the realisation of his dreams of a new society.

Nevertheless, those readers who find a fascination in family pedigrees cannot fail to be interested in knowing that Rolleston's ancestry can be traced in an unbroken line to the remote days of English history till we come at last to a William de Rolleston who lived at the time of the Norman Conquest. The famous Domesday Book records the Rolleston property as valued at 10s., which might be the equivalent now of £10. Some writers tell us that the name is of Norse origin and means Rolvers Town. Others page 2find its derivation to be from the Saxon word Hrothwulf's Ton—presumably the township of some forgotten chieftain of that name.

Possibly Rolleston was originally a place name, as there are at present six villages in England and Wales bearing that title. If this be so—if some early Rolleston ancestor of many centuries ago took his name from a place in England—it is strange to reflect that, in modern times, the process has been reversed in New Zealand, and that, in honour of William Rolleston, we find in Canterbury such place names as Rolleston Junction, Mount Rolleston, and Rolleston Avenue.


From the time of the Conquest, Rolleston's ancestors lived close to the soil in a way that only people in the north of England can fully understand. They were scattered over the midlands, and were all outstanding in their own community. They were not very wealthy, and they did not mix in London politics. Some were squires, some entered the Church, and some were soldiers of a sturdy type.

In the time of Henry II, we find one Rolleston ancestor a ranger in Sherwood Forest. Later on they helped King John in his contest with the Barons. In 1310, John de Rolleston, Vicar of Beverley, had to bear the banner of St John of Beverley with the army against the Scots, and was granted leave of absence by the Chapter. In 1314, the Archbishop wished to send John de Rolleston with the banner as before. But the expenses of his journey were not forthcoming, and there is a quaint side-note in the Beverley Act book which reads: "Does this mean that the banner did not go to Bannockburn? If so, the cause of the English defeat there is easily understood!" However, the Rollestons were frequently in service in the wars against the Scots. In 1315 a Ralph de Rolleston was "Commissioner of Array" in Staffordshire and Shropshire for raising troops page 3for the Scottish wars. Later in the same century a John de Rolleston was serving in the French Wars at the time of Crecy, and, in 1316, he was in the retinue of Thomas, Earl of Warwick, Marshal of England.

They plotted in the cause of Mary, Queen of Scots, and were Royalists in the time of King Charles I. Their efforts to afford assistance to that unfortunate monarch and his army involved them in such losses that, in order to raise funds, they had to sell the ancestral home of Rolleston on Dove.1

1 The Dove River runs along the borders of Derbyshire and Staffordshire until it joins the Trent. It was the favourite fishing stream of Izaak Walton, and is still beloved of anglers.


After the loss of the old home, the family moved to Watnall Hall, Nottinghamshire. This property had come into the family in the time of Henry VIII through marriage with the heiress of the Binghams. In due course it was inherited late in life by John Rolleston, the Rector of Aston, Derby, who died in 1770. His younger son, Robert, migrated to London, where he became a successful wine merchant. Finally, Robert's son, George Rolleston, the father of our William Rolleston, after being educated at Eton and Merton College, Oxford, became in 1815 Vicar of Stainton and Maltby, in Yorkshire, and of Stainton, in Lincolnshire.


We have thus, by a series of hasty leaps down many centuries, reached William Rolleston's father, the Reverend George Rolleston, M.A. He is certainly worthy of notice, however brief, for he represented a type that has never been seen in New Zealand, and may now be almost extinct in England. He was for over fifty years squire and vicar of the three parishes under his charge. His clerical duties sat lightly on him. It was his character of squire that page 4engaged most of his time and attention, for he dearly loved hunting and country pursuits.

In the year 1825, this reverend gentleman came into the possession of a substantial mansion known as Maltby Hall, near the village of Maltby. It stood on a secluded plateau surrounded by forty acres of woodlands, shrubberies, and pleasure grounds. In these lovely grounds were to be found waterfalls, and even a little temple erected to "Diana or some other classical deity" amid the shady walks. The history of Maltby Hall goes back to the time of Charles I; but the house had been rebuilt about the middle of the eighteenth century.

It was here that William Rolleston was born on 19 September 1831.

When, thirty years later, Rolleston built for himself, on his lonely mountain station in New Zealand, a slab hut lined with cob and thatched with raupo, did his mind's eye ever recall the scene of his birthplace, with its parklands, gardens, and spacious rooms? If so, the contrast never caused him any regrets, for his English home and its surroundings had bred in him a love of the country and of the beauties of Nature that remained with him throughout his life.


The Reverend George Rolleston married Anne Nettleship, of Gainsborough, Lincolnshire. Some of her relatives acquired distinction as scholars and in other walks of life. Anne Nettleship is described as having been a gentle and lovely woman. Her son William applied to her the poet's words: "The sweetest soul that ever looked with human eyes." There were ten children of her marriage with the Reverend George Rolleston, of whom William was the youngest child but one.

One brother, George Rolleston, M.D., F.R.S. (1829-81), became a Fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford; Assistant page 5Physician, British Civil Hospital, Smyrna, in the Crimean War (1855-57); Linacre Professor of Anatomy and Physiology, Oxford, 1860; F.R.S. 1862; a Fellow of Merton College, Oxford, 1872; and he was the author of many learned scientific papers on anthropology, anatomy, and zoology. There is an interesting story on record which illustrates Professor Rolleston's great reputation as an anthropologist. It appears that while some workmen were digging near Marble Arch at the site where Tyburn tree once stood they uncovered three skeletons. A controversy arose as to whether or not one of the skulls was that of Oliver Cromwell. An appeal was made to Professor Rolleston, who examined the exhibit and replied: "If that is the skull of Cromwell it must have been when he was quite a young man!"1

1 Many years later, when William Rolleston visited England in 1900, he attended a large dinner at St Bartholomew's Hospital, at which reference was made to the fact that Professor Rolleston had been a prominent member of Bart.'s forty years before. In replying for the visitors, Rolleston said that "as well in New Zealand as elsewhere in his travels, he owed more than he could express to the name and fame of his brother".


Rolleston received his early education at Rossall School in Lancashire. Some vivid recollections of his life at Rossall were contributed to the School Magazine by Rolleston in his old age, and I cannot do better than make some brief extracts:

When I reached Rossall (says Rolleston), I had never before seen the Sea, and my first view of it made a great impression on me. That early seaside life is no doubt responsible for my having in later years finally fixed my abode on the coast of New Zealand. I used to watch the waves with delight from the old sea wall beyond the wreck-yard. On the one side was the long line of surf to the Blackpool Headland; on the other the beacon to the north and the breakwater from which we bathed. At times we saw the page 6blue outline of Blackcombe "lone sentinel", at times the Isle of Man at sundown. For the most part, the outlook was bleak and invigorating rather than beautiful. The sea was everything to me. There it was that my purpose was formed to "sail beyond the sunset and the paths of all the western stars".

An emigrant ship, "Ocean Monarch", outward bound from Liverpool, was burnt at sea. The beach near Rossall was strewn with the wreckage and the corpses of those who were seeking a better country. The sad sight haunts my dreams to this day.

The trees about the old Hall were all stunted and storm-bent by the prevalent winds. They grew little taller than the high wall of boulders which sheltered them running from the old pigeoncote (afterwards the first sanatorium) in the direction towards the lodge on the Poulton and Bispham Road. The whole had a wild and weird look to one who came from one of the prettiest villages in Yorkshire.

He relates that "the playground of the future was full of hares, and we amused ourselves by trying to surround them". Elsewhere in the same article he says:

I have wandered for nearly forty years away from early friends and early associations, and in my seventh decade the truth of what the grand old poet who was present at our first prize-giving sang is more than ever borne in upon me—

"The child is father of the man
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety."

This can only mean that Wordsworth was present, and it is interesting to reflect that Rolleston should have seen the great poet in the flesh.

At this school Rolleston was taught by the Reverend Dr Woolley, who later became Principal of Sydney University. The Reverend J. C. Andrew was also on the staff. In later years, Andrew came to Canterbury, where Rolleston renewed their early friendship.

Rolleston rose to be Captain of the School. He left it in 1851.

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All through his later life Rolleston maintained his interest in his old School. In 1900, while on a visit to England, he attended the prize-day ceremony, and was described in the local papers as the most notable of the old Rossallians present. He himself described the school as "the Marlborough of the North". On the platform were many eminent clergymen and the Headmaster of Rugby, Dr James, who was an old boy of Rossall.

In a year (said the Headmaster) when the self-governing Colonies had done so much to help England in her hour of need, it is an additional privilege to welcome an old Rossallian from one of the Colonies, the Hon. W. Rolleston, an ex-Minister of New Zealand.

At this ceremony Viscount Cross, in presenting the prizes, told a story which is too good to omit about the Queen Dowager, Queen Adelaide. She had been watching a game of football at Rugby, and later on went to supper with Dr Arnold, who told Lord Cross that the Queen said: "Dr Arnold, all those boys are apparently so very anxious to kick at the ball, could not they afford to have two?"


In 1851, at the age of twenty, Rolleston entered Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He became a Foundation Scholar in the next year, and gained a second class in the classical tripos for 1855. His two brothers had gone to Oxford, and it is said that his choice of Cambridge was due to the fact that he felt overshadowed by their achievements at Oxford, and wished to make his own effort under different auspices.

After leaving Cambridge, Rolleston made use of his scholarly attainments to become tutor to Cecil Foljambe, afterwards Lord Liverpool, whose son was Governor of New Zealand from 1912 to 1917 and Governor-General of New Zealand from 1917 to 1920.