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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman

Chapter XXI — Rolleston's Last Fight

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Chapter XXI
Rolleston's Last Fight

"It was his fortune to be engaged in incessant conflict all through his life…. Politics was the one consuming interest of his life"

Morley on Cobden.


At the election of 1899 Rolleston was again defeated. His successful opponent was G. W. Russell, who raised the cry that Rolleston was "too much of a colonial politician". By this he meant that Rolleston was too much absorbed in high questions of general politics, and did not devote enough time to local affairs. "Apparently", said one paper, "the people of Riccarton agreed with Mr Russell in his dislike of broadminded statesmanship, and preferred the smaller to the greater man."

A. R. Atkinson to William Rolleston, 18 December 1899:

Almost incredible in its naivete was your opponent's accusation that you were too much of a colonial politician. Too much of the statesman and too little of the commission agent, too much of the patriot and too little of the pedlar, too much backbone and conscience and too little capacity to grovel or to lie, too erect, too broadminded, too honest—what a glorious charge upon one to be found guilty by a shearer's casting vote and driven from political life.

The contest was so close that Rolleston was only beaten by one vote. His friends urged him to apply for a recount; but he said that, even if the result was reversed, he had no desire to be elected by a small majority.

Even in the hour of his defeat, there were still Radicals who hoped that, when the public tired of Seddon, Rolleston page 200would be called on some day to lead a better Radical party than Seddon's.

Mr Samuel Saunders, Editor of the Lyttelton Times, said:

I trust without any disloyalty to my party I may say how much I regret that the country has lost for a time your services in Parliament. If you were in the House of Representatives to-day as leader of the Opposition, we ardent young Radicals who hope for something even-better than the present Government might look to you for valuable assistance in realising our aspirations. But that will come in good time. Happily you are still young enough to create a new political party and lead it to success.

Whether you do that or not, there are thousands of men and women in the country who will remember with the deepest gratitude your years of unselfish labour on their behalf. Their esteem is a greater prize—a thousand times greater—than any seat in Parliament, and it cannot be taken away by a fickle constituency or by the mistakes of your political friends.

During the last decade of his public career, Rolleston was not only depressed by the fact that the new surge of political thought had left him—the one-time Radical—stranded as a "prisoner of the right", but he felt lonely owing to the death of so many of his old colleagues and intimate friends. His great leader, Sir Harry Atkinson, in whose company he had fought many a hard-fought fight, had died in 1892. The last words of this fine old soldier-statesman as he lay dying were: "I have received my marching orders."

Another old and intimate friend, Judge Richmond, died in 1895. He had married a sister of Sir Harry Atkinson. He left politics for the bench in 1862—before Rolleston entered politics—and was for thirty-three years the most erudite and distinguished of all New Zealand judges.

The following year saw the loss of another of this fine band of pioneer statesmen, James Edward Fitzgerald. He had been the first Superintendent of Canterbury and the first Prime Minister of New Zealand. His brilliant oratory page 201caused him to be regarded as the finest public speaker in our history. Rolleston had maintained a close friendship with Fitzgerald since their early days in Canterbury, and his death was a sore loss to Rolleston.

Two years before his death Fitzgerald wrote to Rolleston (2 June 1894):

I am very sad about affairs—as a socialist I see a course being taken which will only result in stormy reaction. The public service is being simply destroyed, honour and loyalty in the service prostituted to political ends. I must reverse all my former opinions and am beginning to hold that, as elsewhere, the Public Service must be removed from the control of Ministers altogether.

There were others, such as Sir Dillon Bell, who died in 1896, and the passing of such men made him feel that on himself too the shadows were falling.


"It is a good thing", said Rolleston, "to have an interval between a man's life work and the reaching of those 'dark gates across the wild that no man knows'."

He was speaking at a banquet tendered to him and his wife by the citizens of Christchurch in February 1900 on the eve of their departure on a trip to England. At this banquet eloquent tributes were paid to Rolleston's long and eminent services by his old friends, the Hon. C. C. Bowen, Sir John Hall, and others. In his reply Rolleston referred to past scenes and the many men he had served with, and he spoke optimistically as to the future.

During his visit to England he spent some weeks in his native village of Maltby, where he was received with a cordiality which he described as extraordinary.

He also visited old friends and relatives at Oxford and Cambridge, Eton and Shrewsbury, and more particularly his old school at Rossall, where he was received as a guest of honour.

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In London he spoke at various banquets and renewed friendships with many old New Zealanders resident in England. After his return to New Zealand, he was still in the public eye and deference was paid to his opinion on questions of the day. He was invited to stand for Patea, but he replied:

I feel that I would not be able within any reasonable time to look for a realisation of my hopes in respect to the main questions of public interest. The people's eyes are blinded with glamour, and the period of unparalleled prosperity leads them to be careless upon subjects which less easy times would force upon their consideration.

But even as late as 1900 Mr Saunders wrote to Rolleston:

I must protest against your describing yourself as a man who has lived his life. There are many years of good service before you yet, and I am quite sure that a large part of them will be devoted to the public interest…. It is easy to understand why in the past you drifted into the Conservative camp, but there is really no reason now why you should not be associated with some of the advanced Liberals. Your old party, with whom you cannot have been in full sympathy, is now practically dead, and there is a band of younger politicians who would gladly welcome you as their leader. Your land policy and administration are quite as popular as those of Jock McKenzie, and there are many other questions too upon which the public are in full sympathy with your views.

August 4th, 1899.

None of us find fault with your liberalism. It is good enough for anything. But, under the wretched party system which you persist in defending, we cannot get your liberalism without accepting other people's conservatism. If you were separated from your present political association, there is not a constituency in Canterbury which you could not command. It is this fact that makes you such a difficult man for decent Liberal journals to oppose.

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The Rolleston Statue

The Rolleston Statue

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So he retired to his farm on the sea coast at the Rangitata mouth. It consisted of about 1600 acres which he had bought in 1879. He had gradually turned it into what someone called "as nice a piece of land as any man might wish to farm". Here he spent the short remaining time left to him among those of his family not yet married and dispersed.

He had married in 1865 Mary Elizabeth Brittan, born in Sherborne, Dorset, in 1845, the daughter of Joseph Brittan, one of the early settlers of Canterbury, who arrived with her parents in 1852. This happy marriage realised his hope expressed in a letter written before he left England, that he would be a married man before he was thirty-five.

Mrs Rolleston's life of devotion to her husband's interests, the self-sacrifice demanded of her to bring up in the right way the nine children of the marriage, her vitality and beauty, and her triumph for so many years over the disabilities of age, is a story which demands a place of its own to be told adequately. She lived till the age of ninety-five, deeply interested in her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Of their sons, two were members of the New Zealand Parliament, one being Attorney-General, and Minister of Justice and Defence in the Coates administration, 1925-28. Two other sons left New Zealand, one eventually to occupy important administrative posts in the medical profession in England, and the other to be resident magistrate in the Transvaal after the Boer War, and later the first British Trade Commissioner in New Zealand. Three of the daughters married New Zealanders, one of whom was a son of Sir Charles Bowen, Rolleston's lifelong friend.

He was happy in his domestic circle, and all the happenings on the farm were of intense interest and importance to him. As his strength failed he often sat gazing silently at the page 204distant mountains and at his beloved trees. He loved animals, flowers and trees—especially trees. His favourite saint was St Francis of Assisi, and he said he would like to found an order of St Francis for all people who love flowers and birds. His mind seemed to turn with wistful longing more and more to his early home in England. Bulbs of the wild daffodils which grew in the woods round Maltby Hall were sent to him and planted and watched over with great care. As far back as 1871 he had been instrumental in having some rooks imported which were used to establish a rookery at Riccarton near Christchurch. One of his great pleasures was to listen to the cawing of rooks, for they carried him in spirit back to his native land. During his last illness, at his earnest request, some of the birds were brought with great difficulty to his farm in an unsuccessful attempt to acclimatise them there.

His old friends did not forget him in his retirement and on 30 June 1902 he wrote to Sir Robert Stout:

It is very pleasant to find as I have found that one's old friends do not forget one when the days darken round one and the years. Your letter was particularly gratifying to me and my wife. I have little to complain of in my seventy-first year. No active physical pain, simply a decay of the powers of nature which has stood me in such good stead for so many years. Six months on one's back with sleepless nights, no appetite and a general failure of the system is of course a trial. I think however my strong constitution will rally within certain limits, and the interval between one's active life and the end may be well spent in a not unpleasant retrospect, nothing doubting that "good will be the final goal of ill".

He still kept up his love of the classics. A few months before his death he suggested to his old friend, Professor Sale, a new interpretation of a passage in one of Horace's Odes. Throughout his last illness, when he was unable to read, he frequently recalled to his mind the noblest passages from the works of this, his favourite, author.

After a long illness, he died on 8 February 1903.