Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman

Chapter III — Rolleston In Provincial Politics

page 20

Chapter III
Rolleston In Provincial Politics

"There is so great a vitality in local self-government that in spite of all obstacles it cannot but do much good"—



One day near the end of 1863, while Rolleston was working on his run at Mount Algidus, he was surprised to receive a visit from Mr Samuel Bealey, the Superintendent of Canterbury. He appealed to Rolleston to help him in his difficulties with the Provincial Council. He alleged that those members of the Council who had pledged themselves to support him as Superintendent had now deserted him and left him in the lurch. Rolleston seems to have been convinced that there had been an absence of fair play and justice and accordingly he forthwith joined the Executive as Provincial Secretary and Treasurer. This in effect meant that he became the head of the Government under Bealey as Superintendent. Bealey is described as having been "a scholar and a gentleman with a large income". He was, like Rolleston, a Cambridge graduate.1 Rolleston's new duties kept him fully occupied and thence-forward his visits to his run became more and more infrequent. He was now almost by accident launched on his long public career in provincial and general politics.

1 A large proportion of the early leaders of Canterbury were University men. J. E. Fitzgerald, Samuel Bealey, C. C. Bowen, and (Sir) Joshua Williams were Cambridge graduates; E. W. Stafford, Crosbie Ward, and Judge Gresson were of Trinity College, Dublin; Bishop Harper and J. R. Godley were Oxonians.


People who are inclined to think that New Zealand is overgoverned at the present day should remind themselves page break
William Rolleston before leaving England

William Rolleston before leaving England

page 21of the astonishing fact that, at a time when our total population was less than one hundred thousand, we had one Central Parliament and six Provincial Parliaments. Indeed, at one stage, when three new provinces had been created, we had ten separate Governments all operating at the same time. These Provincial Councils, which were really Parliaments in miniature, had for many years a more real power and influence than the Central Government. They built all their own roads, bridges, and railways, they were entitled to the proceeds of all land sales, and they maintained their own educational system and their own Civil Service. At the same time, they were entitled by law to a share of the Customs Revenue received by the New Zealand Government, and they watched with a jealous eye every incursion by that Government into the domain of provincial affairs.

The reader may smile at the pomp and ceremony with which these little Parliaments were carried on.

Anthony Trollope, when he visited New Zealand in 1872, thought the Provincial Councils in many cases better housed than the State Legislators in the United States, and was struck by the way in which they had imitated the British House of Commons with a Speaker's Chair, Reporters' Gallery, Strangers' Galleries, a Bar of the House, Cross Benches, Library, Smokeroom, and a "Bellamy".1

In 1856 a paper, called The Auckland New Zealander, described the Provincial Governments as "puerile imitations of the petty sovereignties of the long-defunct heptarchy assuming a semi-monarchial style for the democratic office of Superintendent".

This apparent redundancy of political machinery was not due to any haphazard choice or local vanity. On the contrary, it was the result of long thought and talk by the Imperial Parliament, and of innumerable, closely reasoned despatches between Sir George Grey and Gladstone and

1 Morrell, The Provincial System of Government in New Zealand, p. 81.

page 22other British statesmen. Before a final plan was achieved many alternatives were discussed, sometimes tending towards municipal self-government and sometimes towards two Parliaments—one for the northern part of the North Island, and the other for Wellington and the South Island; but these alternatives were all laid aside for the elaborate scheme which actually operated from 1853 to 1876.

The real reason which rendered necessary the Provincial system was that the various New Zealand settlements were widely scattered and geographically isolated by mountain ranges and rapid and dangerous rivers. In addition to this, they appeared for a long time to have no real community of interests, and centralised government was virtually impossible.1

Under this system, as Sir George Grey said, "Every great city had its Parliament, in which men were trained in the knowledge of affairs, in the knowledge of legislation, a Parliament which bred up and educated the men who have governed you to this day". There is great force in this statement. Most of the public men who afterwards played a leading part in New Zealand politics or in professional or civic life had first served in provincial politics. Moreover, the Provincial Councils had a great educational value; the citizens were initiated into public questions which they could hear debated in their midst, and it was many years before the proceedings of the Central Parliament could arouse the same degree of interest.

1 In 1851, Canterbury had no news from Otago for over six months; in 1852, Nelson, which was only 150 miles from Wellington, was without news for three months. Morrell, pp. 13, 14.


During his brief period (December 1863-August 1865) as Provincial Secretary, Rolleston carried much responsibility, and, in the debates, he is often referred to as the Head of the Government. As Provincial Treasurer, he prepared page 23and presented the financial statements of the Province to the Council, he controlled the important Department of Immigration, and he occasionally sat as a Justice of the Peace. The multifarious administrative tasks that fell to his lot provided him with valuable experience which, a few years later, was to serve him in good stead in the wider sphere of Parliament.

What astonishes the modern reader is the variety and magnitude of the tasks undertaken by the Provincial Council at a time when the whole population of Canterbury was no larger than a secondary town of the present day. In 1864, the total population was only 28,000, yet it found monies for a vigorous scheme of road construction, public works, harbour works, railways, and immigration. There was even a vote for defence "to provide modern ordnance", and volunteer corps flourished in and around Christchurch. At the same time the Lyttelton Tunnel was under construction, and even the Christchurch Cathedral was being boldly proceeded with.

To complete the bewilderment of the reader, it appears that, up to 1864, in spite of all these heavy undertakings, there was, as yet, imposed no direct taxation by way of Land or Income Tax. For Rolleston in his Budget, after indicating that the voluntary system of hospital maintenance was proving inadequate, says: "A new feature of revenue was rates. He was perfectly aware that there existed a natural repugnance to the introduction of taxation in the minds of most people, but there was no doubt that, sooner or later, there must be a system of taxation introduced into the Province."

This financial mystery of how so small a population could carry on so extensive a programme is partly solved if we remember that the proceeds of land sales belonged to the province within whose boundaries the land was sold. For, under the famous "Compact of 1856", the General Government had been forced to make this concession to the Provinces.

page 24


It was during his first short tenure of office that Rolleston was entrusted with the responsible task of organising the machinery for the government of the West Coast goldfields, for at that time Westland was still part of Canterbury and did not achieve separation until 1868. The outbreak of the gold rush in Westland in 1864-65 differed in its environment from all other gold rushes in Australia, California, or Otago. These took place in wide and easily accessible country. But in the rush to Westland thousands of miners landed on a wild and practically uninhabited coast clothed in dense and impenetrable forest with no means of access to the interior except by a few rapid and dangerous rivers. Nevertheless, within a short space of time, a township sprang up at Hokitika, whose population rose to 16,000 in the first year and reached 50,000 by the end of 1866.

This sensational development imposed an immense task on the Provincial Council of Canterbury. For the West Coast was separated from the rest of the Provinces by the high range of the Southern Alps, over which no certain route had yet been decided on. The old route used by the Maoris and the early mining explorers was by a pass in North Canterbury (known later as Harper's Pass) at the head of the Hurunui River. But this was a very circuitous pass. Hence constant search was made for more direct means of access.

It was therefore necessary not merely to establish law and order in the large and picturesque mining population that had suddenly flooded the West Coast, but to lay out townships and decide on the best route over the Alps for mails and transport. Valuable preliminary work had already been carried out by Mr W. H. Revell. In January 1864 he had been despatched to act as Government Agent at the mouth of the Grey River. When the rush broke out at Hokitika, he marked out the business sections for that page 25township, and, on the proclamation of the goldfields, he was appointed Warden and Resident Magistrate.

But Mr Samuel Bealey, the Provincial Superintendent, recognised that more elaborate provision must be made for the good government of the goldfields. Accordingly, in the same month as Revell was appointed Warden, he commissioned Rolleston to proceed to Hokitika with full authority to organise the machinery of government.

Rolleston arrived at Hokitika on 19 March 1865, accompanied by Messrs W. Seed and W. H. Revell. I have no detailed record of his activities in this novel task, but he could not have had time to do much as, hard on his heels in the same month, came the man who was to take over the permanent duties of General Agent or Commissioner for the Provincial Council. This was Mr G. S. Sale, who had probably been recommended by Rolleston for the post. Sale has already been referred to in the preceding chapter. On the goldfields to which he was now appointed he was a sort of dictator. Owing to his great ability and outstanding force of character, he came to be known as "King Sale". It is said that, when any miner refused to accept his ruling or proved unduly turbulent, Sale would knock him down with his fists. On one occasion he disciplined the future Prime Minister, Richard John Seddon, who was then a publican at Kumara. Many years later, when these two strong characters met again, Seddon greeted him with: "Well, King Sale—we meet again."

The following letter from Sir John Hall to Rolleston at Hokitika, dated 29 March 1865, gives further details of the steps then taken:

Our arrangements are nicely completed for sending you Sale. He will probably start next week. We do not, however, quite understand what you wish us to do with Revell when you suggest that Sale should be appointed Warden and Resident Magistrate for the West Coast. We cannot depose the existing functionary without good cause. We purpose, therefore, to appoint Sale to be page 26another Warden for the West Coast goldfields, and to obtain for him a Resident Magistrate's commission, leaving you to locate both Revell and Sale as you may think best, Sale's salary to be £500 and actual expenses. We shall also write a letter to him, asking him to act as General Agent or Commissioner for the Provincial Government on the West Coast, leaving you before you leave the Coast to give him such authority or authorities as you may think fit, and also to give instructions to all heads of departments there to consider Sale as the representative of the Provincial Government, and either to report and receive instructions and authority from him, or to send him copies of their reports, as you may deem fit.

…As to the road, you will see by the papers that young Dobson having failed to find one, we have sent him back with his father, not to return till he does find one. In the meantime, the Hurunui track has got into such a state that we have sent forty men to repair it. Fitzgerald talks about getting drays through from the Waimakariri to the Arahura, and of starting with Harman and Browning to find a road himself. I believe that a Waimakariri route of some kind will be found. Actually greater difficulties than we had anticipated have presented themselves. Several private exploring parties have gone up the Rakaia; you may hear of them before we do. You will find that, on Pender's requisition, we have authorised five more constables for the goldfields.

Rolleston's work in the Provincial Council must have impressed his colleagues with a realisation of his abilities as an administrator, for, while he was still absent on the West Coast, a movement was on foot in Christchurch to urge him to become a candidate for the high office of Superintendent of the Province, which had fallen vacant through the resignation of Mr Bealey. Sir John Hall, in the letter previously quoted, says that, at Fitzgerald's instigation, a meeting had been held as to the next Superintendent "as Moorhouse and his satellites were canvassing hard". At first four men had been suggested—Fitzgerald, J. D. Lance, Cox, and Hall. It was decided that Fitzgerald had no chance, and Hall declined, and finally Rolleston had page 27been chosen as a candidate by a large majority. Requisitions were being prepared. Rolleston declined this flattering proposal, and finally Mr J. D. Lance was selected to oppose Moorhouse.

It is worth referring for a moment to the election for Superintendent held in 1866, not merely because Rolleston might have been a candidate had he so desired, but because it illustrates very graphically the old method of election by open voting.1 Lance was defeated. Moorhouse 1479 votes, Lance 742, Travers 176. And, in an undated letter to Rolleston, Lance says:

It was a curious election. If our men had polled earlier, as we wanted them, we should have run Moorhouse pretty close; but he had such a strong lead at 12 o'clock that some two hundred of my men who came there after that walked away without voting at all. Fancy educated men doing that sort of thing! But the pothouse influence was too strong for us. We were weak in blackguards—a most important element in an election; we had a few, but not enough. Every doubtful vote, of course, went with the winning horse, and there were some half-dozen men of whom we could find no trace and at last returned them as missing. These beggars all turned up, and the dead rose from their graves and voted for Moorhouse.

In the middle of 1865, Rolleston laid aside his work in provincial politics to become Under-Secretary for Native Affairs. This new and important post occupied his energies till 1868. But it will be convenient to postpone consideration of his work in that office until we complete the story of his service in provincial politics as Superintendent of Canterbury from 1868 till the abolition of the Province in 1876.

1 Alfred Saunders described it as the most highly organised and expensive contest for Superintendent ever held in Canterbury. See Saunders's History.