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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman

Chapter XV — Rolleston in Office, 1879-84

page 137

Chapter XV
Rolleston in Office, 1879-84

"Nothing reveals the quality of men like giving them authority and things to do. Place discovers a man's capacity and his character. Office shows the man"—



When, after a dissolution and a General Election, Sir George Grey's Ministry was defeated in October 1879, the Governor sent for Sir John Hall. But the parties were so evenly divided that a political stalemate existed. At one stage it appeared as if another appeal to the country would afford the only solution of the deadlock.

At this stage, however, there occurred one of the most sensational incidents in our political history. Four Auckland members (Wood, Swanson, Hurst and Colbeck) who were supporters of Sir George Grey offered Hall their support on condition that he passed certain measures to which they were pledged. They also stipulated that an Auckland member should be in the Ministry, but to make clear that they were not actuated by personal motives they expressly stipulated that the Auckland Minister should not be one of themselves.

This plan enabled Hall to form a stable Ministry. The four bold members who had cut the Gordian knot were violently maligned for some time as traitors and they were called the "four Auckland rats". But later on they came to be regarded as patriots who had changed their party as the only means of furthering their principles.

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In Hall's Ministry Rolleston was entrusted with the important portfolios of lands, immigration and education.

One would like to know why he did not become Prime Minister. According to the letters quoted in the preceding chapter the party would have welcomed Rolleston as leader. Did he make way for Hall out of diffidence or generosity, or did he consider that Atkinson had a better claim? Or was he too busy by reason of the fact that about this time he had bought a new farm at Rangitata in South Canterbury? Unfortunately, I have no letters from Rolleston to indicate what decisions he had to make or what influenced him in the course he took.

Turning now to Sir Harry Atkinson, who had already proved himself a statesman, for some reason equally obscure he was not a candidate for the leadership. It has been shown in the last chapter that he seems from time to time to have buried himself in his farm, and to have ignored all letters from members of his party. Whatever his motive may have been his conduct seems to refute the accusation (so frequently made) that he was always hungry for office. On the other hand there is evidence that the party feared that Atkinson would prove too radical. This is not improbable as, although by the irony of history Atkinson has come down to us as a conservative, he was in reality a socialist. The only reason why his socialistic views were never promulgated was that during all his years of office he was engaged in a constant struggle against falling prices and hard times. Under such conditions he was forced to subordinate his theoretical views to the practical necessities of fiscal stringency.


When Sir George Grey was driven from office he boasted that he would drag the new Ministry at his chariot wheels and compel them to pass his proposed legislation. These page 139measures were certainly passed, but it was probably Atkinson's influence that induced Sir John Hall to take up the reforms of triennial parliaments and other measures which Grey had promoted.

Hall remained as Prime Minister until 1883 and was succeeded by Whitaker. A few months later Atkinson took over and remained in office until the downfall of the Ministry in 1884.

Ill-health has always been alleged as the reason for Hall's resignation. But the following letter seems to indicate that there were serious differences of opinion in Cabinet.

J. C. Richmond to Rolleston, 3 April 1882:

On my way through Wellington I saw Hall and discussed the political situation. That Hall should retire on grounds of bad health even at so inconvenient a moment would cast no shadow on his character as a public man or on that of any of his colleagues. That a breakdown should take place at the very eve of the session on grounds of an ill-advised expression on one side or irritability on the other among your Cabinet would be in my opinion deplorable. For this reason and because I would not have the honourable and prudent party in the country suffer from the reflected discredit of such an event I write to say that it appears to me, without taking counsel with anyone, that Hall should withdraw his unfortunate word and you and Bryce your resignations in order to meet the House as a ministry and that Hall should be liberated after the vote on the address, which happily it is proposed to make a trial of strength. If you carry it the Government would on Hall's resignation naturally send for Atkinson. If you lose, then the question falls and you part as gentlemen able to accommodate small differences arising out of faults of manner should do.

I do not know Bryce well enough to have a right to address him, but if you think well let him read this letter.

Nevertheless there is no reference in Rolleston's letters to the Cabinet quarrels mentioned by Richmond. Writing to his brother, the Reverend Robert Rolleston, Rector of Stanton Rivers, on 18 April 1882, Rolleston merely says:

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"We have a ministerial crisis here just now in consequence of the Prime Minister's resignation through ill health. I don't know yet what the issue will be. I will probably continue as Minister of Lands, which is the portfolio I have held throughout. I only took the native portfolio temporarily. Whenever I do go out I am going to live on the farm, which is doing very well just now."


Rolleston's fame and reputation rest chiefly on his land legislation and administration, and we must now give a brief account of his work as revealed in his letters and speeches.

Within a few weeks of taking office he introduced a Land Bill which had been prepared but not passed by the previous Government. This Bill was, however, approved of by himself and his colleagues. It did not involve any large change in policy, as its main object was to increase the facilities for disposing of land under the existing deferred payment system. The principle of the deferred payment system was to enable people with small capital to take up land. It owed its origin to another notable land reformer—Donald Reid of Otago—and under that system in Otago, since it was established in 1873, ten thousand people had been settled on a million acres.1

In putting forward this Bill Rolleston emphasised the importance of carrying on land settlement in conjunction with public works and immigration, and he declared that otherwise "they would have a floating population wandering about the country, having no interest in the Colony and never becoming good citizens". He quoted a maxim which

1 See Hansard, vol. xliv, p. 626. Vincent Pyke claimed that he was the originator of the deferred payment system and not Donald Reid. But Pyke's system was restricted to the goldfields, and what Donald Reid did was to extend the system to land outside the goldfields; and he added a condition requiring the holder to reside on the property. See ibid. vol. xlii, p. 349.

page 141dated from four hundred years before the Christian era to the effect that "the greatest teacher of morality was the possession of land". He showed how admirably the system of village settlements promoted by himself in Canterbury had worked in the Temuka district. The main features of this scheme were that sections of from one-half to two acres near the railway were allotted to immigrant families. On each section was a hut with sod walls costing about £10. For the first year those huts were let free of rent and during the second and third year were let at 2s. a week. This seems a modest effort in view of more modern schemes, but the official report shows that its result was most beneficial. It saved working men from having to hang about town and pay high rents, and although unemployment and distress were widespread in 1879 the official report showed that not one of the men located in this manner was amongst the unemployed.

Many aspects of the land question came up for discussion at this period, but for the first two years Rolleston's efforts were concentrated on increasing land settlement in all parts of the Colony, and systematically laying out roads to provide convenient access. In this work he was highly successful, and owing in part at least to his vigorous administration of the existing land laws, distress among the working classes disappeared and renewed confidence was manifest in all classes of the community.1

Grey alleged that in land settlement New Zealand was situated worse than any country in the world. Rolleston stoutly denied this and maintained that the number of settlers in New Zealand in proportion to the population bore favourable comparison with any country in the world. There were about sixty thousand freeholders in New Zealand out of a population of half a million. "In 1872 we found that the system of pre-emptive rights—the system

1 See Governor's speech on opening Parliament, 19 May 1882: Hansard, vol. xli, p. 4.

page 142of spotting and what is called gridironing—was injuriously affecting the settlement of the country. I sent a memorandum to the Provincial Council pointing out the evils. I brought in a Bill to Parliament to remedy these evils and it was passed."


It was not until 1882 that Rolleston launched a major change in policy which was to arouse fierce controversy and a degree of alarm which seems strange in retrospect at a distance of more than half a century. "My advisers are of opinion", said the Governor's speech in 1882, "that a plan for leasing agricultural lands, with fixity of tenure upon reasonable terms, may with advantage be incorporated into the general system of administering the Crown Lands of the Colony, and a measure will be submitted to you with this object." This intimation of Rolleston's new land proposals seems innocent and harmless enough. But without waiting for the Bill to be produced a debate began a few days later on the Address-in-Reply, from which it was clear that these leasing proposals were regarded as a revolutionary change. It was said that Rolleston "had thrown himself into the arms of the Radicals",1 and he was denounced as a faddist. "We know very well", said Mr Montgomery, "that what are called the advanced Liberals or Radicals have advocated the leasing of public lands, and we know that the Government were opposed to it." A typical sentence from the speech of a freeholder will suffice to exemplify the line of opposition. "I believe", said one speaker, "in a man having a place of his own. A place on which he can spend the best strength and effort of his manhood. His toil is meanwhile sweetened by the knowledge that he will enjoy it in his declining years and that those dear to him will inherit the fruit of his labours. A place around which will clutter happy memories and sacred

1 Hansard, vol. xli, p. 32.

page 143associations, unblighted by the withering thought that strangers may intermeddle therewith and the link of connection be severed."

On these lines the subject was thrashed threadbare before the Bill was introduced. One of the strongest critics of the new policy was the Premier Sir John Hall, and perhaps this was the real cause of his resignation. For shortly before he resigned he said that a system whereby the cultivators of the soil were Crown tenants would be exceedingly injurious to the country. He made a long and vigorous protest against the idea to his constituents at Leeston. On the other hand, Atkinson pointed out that some of the Ministers, including himself, had long held the opinion that it was better to lease the lands instead of selling them and he said: "There are amongst us members who held that opinion for many years and have fought and worked to give it effect."

When Rolleston finally introduced the Bill on 7 July, it was clear that there was nothing revolutionary in the measure, and that he did not ignore the desire of settlers for a freehold home. He said:

Nobody who knows and realises the feeling of pleasure that exists in a freehold would willingly ignore that desire so far as it can be reasonably gratified, and I think in administering the Act the system of alternation of sections of freehold upon which people could live and thus gratify the desire for freehold, and the attachment of leasehold sections to the freehold would be the form which would meet very largely the wants of the country.1

In fact he suggested that the leasehold should bear a certain proportion to the freehold and deferred payment land in any district not exceeding one-third or one-fourth. The speech in which he set out his proposals is one of the most forceful and earnest speeches that he ever made. He paid a tribute to the great work of Donald Reid, whose Deferred Payment

1 Hansard, vol. xli, p. 170.

page 144Bill of 1876 he described as "a Bill of true liberality introduced by a gentleman whose name will be for ever prominent in this Colony as one of the first to take a liberal view of the land question, and who worked it out with an earnestness and zeal that will not be readily forgotten".

His criticism of the deferred payment system was that while it was meant to enable people who had no capital except their industry, knowledge and experience to settle on the land yet the danger was that capitalists, storekeepers and moneylenders would step in and really become the landlords of the deferred payment settlements. The question was whether it was better to establish a tenantry of the moneylenders or a tenantry under the Crown. His object was not to displace the deferred payment system or purchase for cash, but he wanted settlement to go on at a greater pace.

This leasing system had a particular application to mining districts. There great difficulties had arisen from the occupation by agriculturists of auriferous country, without any provision for resumption when it was required for mining. At that time gold mining was the main industry of some parts of the country. The remedy was therefore to lease land for agriculture but with the power of resumption when it was required for mining. The system would also enable endowments to be set aside for educational purposes. "I always thought", he said, "that the country throughout its length and breadth should set aside land which would increase in value, and as the numbers requiring education increased, would lessen the weight of taxation."


To the modern mind there seems nothing revolutionary in these proposals. Rolleston himself deprecated the idea that he was indulging in doctrinaire theories. "What I do feel myself at home in", he says, "is the practical work of administration." And the Bill was merely the result of his page 145experience as an administrator who had travelled through the length and breadth of the Colony, making himself conversant with the working of the land laws in the different provinces. He would not agree that the Bill discouraged improvements, provided the terms of the lease were satisfactory. The objection raised by many speakers, notably Sir John Hall, was that under the leasing principle, a large state tenantry would become a discontented body and would make up their minds that although they began as leaseholders they should end as freeholders.1 This criticism was repeated again and again, and even John McKenzie, who in later years was to become famous as a land reformer, said:

With regard to the leasing clauses I do not think they will be such a success as the Government and those who favour the leasing system seem to imagine. I am sure that if we pass this Bill and grant these thirty-one year leases, long before that time every one of these leaseholders will become a freeholder. If they are successful and make money they will want to purchase, and they will bring such pressure to bear that they will succeed in their object. If they are not successful they cannot benefit either themselves or the country.

This criticism is of great interest because when many years later John McKenzie created the lease in perpetuity, the same warning that he uttered against Rolleston's Bill was put forward against his own proposals. In fact, it was on the demand of the Crown tenants for the freehold that Mr Massey finally rode into power in 1912. The only difference between McKenzie's fate and Rolleston's was that in the case of the former it was the pressure from Crown tenants that compelled Parliament to grant them the right to the freehold, whereas in Rolleston's case it was the Legislative Council that insisted on the right of purchase being inserted in Rolleston's perpetual leases. It is an interesting example of how history repeats itself.

1 Hansard, vol. xli, p. 338.

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On Rolleston's Bill of 1882 Macandrew said:

So surely as you multiply the Crown tenants they will become a power in the State, and will demand that the leaseholds shall be changed into freeholds on their own terms. You may regard that as prophetic.

Rolleston's reply to this threat of political pressure by tenants was to say:

It is infinitely better to have Parliamentary pressure and agitation than growing discontent between class and class and that social feeling of unrest that will pervade the community, where wealth and poverty stand in great contrast, and where there are the jealousy and hatred that cover class animosity.

In his view the business of the legislature was to lay down such provisions with regard to the occupation of land as would afford the largest facilities for all people capable of using their bone and sinew, their industry and their knowledge of agriculture to go upon the land. As to the demand for the right to purchase, he quoted the existing education endowments and the Presbyterian Church endowments of Otago, where no right of purchase was conceded. In his final reply he said:

What I believe this Bill will do is to diffuse population over the country and also promote the distribution of land among a much larger number of the population than has hitherto been the case. It will prevent the aggregation of large estates. It will prevent, as I believe in the future, those extremes of poverty and wealth which are the curses of older countries. It will provide for the relief of local taxation. It will further induce people to come from the Home country to settle with their families here, and generally I believe if this Bill has fair play it will, in the future, be a thorough blessing to the country.1

The Legislative Council, however, insisted on inserting a clause giving the tenant the right to purchase. One of the main principles of Rolleston's Bill was thus frustrated. After long conferences between the two Houses it was

1 Hansard, vol. xlii, p. 515.

page 147agreed to restrict the leasehold principle to education endowments and land in mining districts; but otherwise the leasing clauses should not operate till after the close of the next session of Parliament. Rolleston quite correctly pointed out that if the right of purchase was inserted they were really merely creating another form of deferred payment.1

1 Hansard, 1883, vol. xlvi, p. 530.


The following year, 1883, Rolleston made another effort to establish his system of perpetual leases, without the right to purchase, but on this occasion the Bill was rejected by the Legislative Council. Rolleston was deeply chagrined. He never faltered in his plea that the system of perpetual leasing of at least one-third of the lands would be in the best interests of the Colony. He pointed out that a Royal Commission in New South Wales had recently insisted that it was impossible to prevent aggregation once the land was freehold, and under his proposals no more than one section could be held by one occupier. During the recess he said:

I stood on the top of a high range of hills, looking over a large extent of country reaching as far as the eye could see, and the whole of that country under the free selection scheme was in the hands, not of small holders, but of large companies and large landholders. That is what I trust to avoid in the future.2

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Although Rolleston was defeated in one of his main proposals, his efforts towards land reform earned for him an outstanding reputation. "No man", said Mr Hursthouse, "has made himself so popular throughout New Zealand as the Minister of Lands by his journeyings throughout the country during the recess." And Vincent Pyke said: "He has had the noble audacity to advocate principles which if not at the present time altogether popular are entirety just."

2 The system of free selection before survey had operated in the early days of Canterbury. It consisted in selling the land for what it would fetch and afterwards devoting a certain proportion of the proceeds to making roads. Rolleston said that for some time this system had worked well in Canterbury and caused land settlement to advance there more freely than in any other part of New Zealand, partly owing to the fact that the whole country was open and roads required little making, and partly because of the ease with which title was obtained. But the result of it was that of 2,800,000 acres of Canterbury land, 1,352,370 acres or nearly 47 per cent had been purchased by 91 persons. "That is not my idea", said Rolleston, "of what settlement should be" (Hansard, 1883, vol. xliv, p. 626).


In concluding this chapter it will be of interest to the reader if I insert some extracts from Rolleston's letters dealing with his views on land tenure. These throw an interesting light on the origin of his ideas. They were written to the Agent-General in London, Sir Dillon Bell. From their tenor it is clear that Bell was not in sympathy with Rolleston's views.

December 1st, 1882.

If you have read Hansard I will not trouble you with my Land Bill—my mind has undergone a complete change in respect of Canterbury Land Laws in particular and as to the duty of the State in respect of the distribution of land generally. This change has not come by inspiration or by reading modern theorists, but by practical experience.

I rode a week ago from Albury through the Mackenzie Country, through the valley of the Hakataramea and then back over the range to the back of Rutherford's country, and then through Wigley's and Studholme's country, and as far as human eye could see, I saw the country in the hands of about a dozen people exclusive of two companies, and I prayed "Lord, lay not this sin to my charge". I have a weak consolation in thinking that circumstances were too much for me when in 1873 I protested against the greedy iniquity which was going on in Canterbury—however you need not think that I shall do anything vindictive or strive to build myself up on the ruins of the past. page 149The fact that I fought against Stout and his party when they endeavoured to postpone the operation of the Land Act 1877 last year notwithstanding strong pressure is, I think, sufficient evidence of this. I don't know what you meant by a sentence in a letter to McKerrow that I have given up the issue, or some such phrase, and though it grieved me I don't care to enquire.

July 13th, 1883.

I commend the new Land Bill to your merciful consideration. It is only a step or two further in the direction of preventing the accumulation of large landed estates or rather of so disposing of the natural estate that accumulation is not fostered in the first disposal of it by the State. The New South Wales report is very strong on the point of the impossibility of preventing the shutting up of the country if you alienate the public estate in absolute freehold. However, I don't suppose I shall convert you.

September 8th, 1883.

I send you the dead body of the new Land Bill over which you will drop a silent tear. It died on going into Committee in the Lords. Its loss will be much felt, but it rests in hope of a glorious resurrection to life.

To Wynne Williams (Christchurch):

September 27th, 1883.

I wish you would study my land proposals critically and not only cynically and give a hand in staving off the evils which are holding the old country on the brink of revolution. You are altogether wrong about Whitaker. I have only to say "If you don't help me, don't help the bear". I am not going to be bullied entirely by Montgomery, Reeves and co.

Again and again in various letters he points out that his sympathies are not with the land monopolist and speculators. Writing to a correspondent on 12 March 1884, he says:

If in immigration matters the opinion of today is changed by changing circumstances tomorrow, why not in land matters? What is strangest to me is that which Fawcett and all your best page 150men who are opposed to Henry George's theories of confiscation admit, that in new countries the State (the great borrowing body) should retain its joint interest in the land it has not parted with, while every review teems with admissions from the leaders of public thought at home of the necessity for change in the land laws if we are to avoid class conflict.

With the Irish Land Law and the Agricultural Holdings Act before your eyes, measures which would have been deemed confiscation a few years ago, you sit still and think that "as it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be". You eat and drink as in the days of Noah. My desire is to see a firmer basis for property in land on a fair apportionment of the threefold interest of the State, the so-called proprietor, and the tenant. The conflict may be avoided in these new countries at any rate to a great extent by the proper treatment of the lands still unalienated.

How strongly Sir Dillon Bell dissented from Rolleston's views can be seen from the following extract. No doubt this outburst would have met with support from many large landowners.

Dillon Bell to Rolleston, 3 January 1884:

You said in your November letter how selfish the large landholders were about not having married people and so forth. What you forget is that you are the chief crusader against the large holders and are doing your very best to drive them and their capital out of the country. That you will succeed to your heart's content isn't likely; but that you will succeed to a very great extent is certain.

I do not include myself in the class. Nevertheless I hold a good many sheep. Now I don't hesitate to tell you that I am only waiting for an opportunity to clear out and pending that happy event I am ordering the rigidest economies. Is that my own wish? No. At a meeting in my own valley before I left for England it was shown that I had spent £100,000 in wages. That in your view is a big crime. Let me ask you this. What harm have I done the country I helped to found that you should take the squatting property I got together for my children and confiscate it? I am not speaking of land you may take for agricultural or for pastoral settlement or for any of your experiments in the art of page 151make believe over your friend "the poor man". I speak of an iniquity such as the Mackenzie Clause, which tells me that because I happened to have established myself with 20,000 sheep in Ida Valley when it was a howling wilderness I am to be ruined by being precluded from reacquiring it now or any other country wherewith to "feed my flocks upon my Grampian hills, a frugal swain". Yes, a frugal swain you have made the likes of me who was for years and years a generous employer (the adjective is really right) of labour and who has learnt by bitter lessons that to be so in your eyes is a crime.