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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman



In view of the prospects that lay before Rolleston of a life of comfort and security in the English countryside among influential connections, the reader may be curious to know why he should have foregone these prospects for the hazards and hardships of New Zealand pioneering life. Fortunately, we have on record a clear statement of the motives that influenced him.

Shortly before leaving England in 1858, he wrote to an old College friend, Duncan Mathias, who was a master at Uppingham School, confiding to him his hopes and plans. Duncan Mathias had a number of relatives who had already settled in Canterbury. He must have made a sympathetic response to Rolleston's confidences, for there is in existence an undated reply written by Rolleston which is worth quoting:

Your letter pleases me more than I can tell you, both as regards yourself and myself. It is most gratifying to find a man like yourself, rich in saving common sense, of greater mental endowments than myself, and far greater appreciation of and capability of enjoying all that is comprehended in the conventional terms—"Society and Civilisation"—approving my plan. You have no notion of the cant and rant and nonsense with which I have been deluged by people who at least might have known me to be tenacem propositi virum, and save themselves the trouble…. I know directly and indirectly at least a dozen edu-page break
William Rolleston with his father outside Maltby Hall,1852

William Rolleston with his father outside Maltby Hall,1852

page 9cated
men in the Colony. I shall meet better heads, and, what I value more, better hearts than are to be met with in any county district of the Mother Country. Home and the University are the only society I care for. In England I am precluded from both. That is, unless I choose to do nothing, which I don't.

He goes on to say that he has a justifiable longing to make a home for himself,

and, if hard work and steadiness will do it, I will be a married man before I am thirty-five.1 I am a great believer in the union of youth, marriage, and happiness. Mind you, this is written in cold blood. I am not in love, nor will I be till I see I can marry at once. What crimes society, respectability, position, and, not least of all, the intellectual mania of the present day have to answer for to him who looks on the heart.

But at a much later date Rolleston states in retrospect even more clearly the reasons that prompted him to come to New Zealand. In a letter dated 27 April 1898, written to a journalist who had criticised one of his speeches, he says:

I notice that the article falls in with Gisborne's conception of my early views.2 The truth is really somewhat different. I was brought up in the Old World among Conservatives and Ecclesiastics. I revolted from both at an early date, and was ill at ease among my surroundings. This had much to do with my desire for the freer life of a colony. Then, in the year 1873, I set myself as Superintendent of Canterbury to prevent aggregation of large properties by what I thought unfair wresting of the land regulations. (The records of this are Provincial, but there is a letter on the subject in the Journals of the Legislative Council, 1876.) In 1875-76, I was the first in a message to the Provincial Council to preach free, secular, and compulsory education. Where my conservatism comes in I have never made out. The Vogel era, with its worship of the Golden Calf, confused the issues of Conservatism and Liberalism. Since that, the socialistic phase has

1 As he was then twenty-seven, and married seven years later in 1865, he achieved marriage at thirty-four.

2 See Gisborne's New Zealand Rulers and Statesmen.

page 10again confused issues. A new era, in which I shall be a looker-on, is coming and with, I trust, a broader, brighter light of day.

For some reason this letter was never sent to his journalistic critic, but it shows very clearly what actuated Rolleston in emigrating.

This craving to escape from Old World conventions was not peculiar to Rolleston. It was demonstrated in an amusing way by the conduct of G. S. Sale and some other young Englishmen who arrived at Lyttelton some time before Rolleston:

They were all so delighted with the prospect of the untrammelled life before them that they felt it necessary to make some gesture of contempt for the conventions they had left behind, so the first evening ashore they built a huge bonfire, piled on it their top hats and tail coats, and danced in a ring round the blazing fire.1

1 Extract from a letter from Mrs M. E. Orr, now living at Beaconsfield, Bucks, to the author, dated 29 December 1937. Mrs Orr is a daughter of the late Professor Sale.