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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman

Chapter IV — Rolleston as Superintendent, 1868-76

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Chapter IV
Rolleston as Superintendent, 1868-76

"If the work of other Provinces had been as well done as that of Canterbury provincial institutions might have remained in existence to the present day"

Sir John Hall, speech at Leeston, 7 March 1894.


In 1868 Rolleston gave up his position as Under-Secretary of Native Affairs, and returned to Canterbury. He must have made up his mind to this course some twelve months previously, judging by the following letter:

Dr James Turnbull (Christchurch) to Rolleston (Wellington), 26 February 1867:

I am surprised at your entertaining an idea of again settling here. The opinion is gradually gaining ground that the North Island is the proper spot nowadays. Native leases and native freeholds have an attraction…. At any rate, it is an idea that good things are only to be done in the North. But, for any sake, don't let anything I say influence your movements towards here. You will be very welcome when you do come. I do not think your old popularity is much to boast of with the mob. In fact, I cannot ever remember your ever having much in that line.

"Mob" is not now regarded as a polite term to apply to a democratic electorate—it has a taint of snobbishness and superiority. But this statement by Turnbull that Rolleston's popularity was "not much to boast of with the mob" is interesting, for, as we shall see later, while his local popularity was never sufficient to make his seat continuously safe in Parliament, his reputation as a public man was always rising in the eyes of the nation. Victor Hugo, in one of his novels, describes Louis Phillipe as "always popular page 29with the mob but never with the nation". The exact reverse of this seems to have been the case with Rolleston. It may be that he never sought popularity, and in later years he was accused of devoting himself too much to national affairs and neglecting his constituency. But the truth was that he had none of the showy arts of popular appeal, and even when he could have shown his electors that he had fought in the Cabinet against some decision that aroused public hostility, he remained silent and accepted the blame. Nevertheless, he attained something more valuable than mere popularity. As Superintendent of Canterbury he earned the confidence and admiration of the people, and came to be trusted as a safe pilot in a storm. This was a greater achievement than that of acting the easy part of a fair-weather leader.


The position of Superintendent of a Province was one of great responsibility. It was rendered difficult by the fact that, like the President of the United States of America, he had no seat in the Council. He could not therefore explain his proposals in person, and could communicate them only by message.

It is easy to appreciate the fact that, under this system, the Superintendent was apt to be thrown at times into conflict with his Council. Hence it is not surprising that Rolleston's papers show evidence of frequent quarrelling and bickering with his Council, and even with his executive. Rolleston made various proposals for improving the machinery of government so as to make it work more smoothly, but without success. "The Superintendent", says Morrell, "had a threefold leadership—he was the principal dignatory of the Province, he was the real as well as the executive head of the Government and performed important administrative functions, and he was its chief political leader."

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It was on 22 May 1868, from the balcony of the quaint wooden building known as the old Christchurch Town Hall, that Rolleston was proposed as Superintendent. There was no other nomination, and he was accordingly declared elected. His predecessor, William Sefton Moorhouse, had resigned a few weeks before in the middle of his term on account of pressure of private affairs.

As Rolleston and Moorhouse were the two leading figures of that period in the provincial history of Canterbury, a brief comparison of their aims and methods will be some guide to the reader in forming a true picture of Rolleston.1

The fame of Moorhouse chiefly rests on his initiation of the Lyttelton Tunnel, which, with fine vision and tireless energy, he caused to be undertaken against strong opposition.

But the alarm with which his spectacular policies were viewed by old colonists is well seen in Sewell's Journal, 10 May 1863:

We have frittered away our strength on these provincial loans, the effect of which locally is mischievous. They give an artificial stimulus to everything. This is the Moorhouse policy which has had such a run of luck that it has beguiled the whole country into following his example.2

Rolleston, on the other hand, was cautious, prudent, and steady, and, while his mind was full of constructive ideas, he was constantly on guard against extravagance and indiscriminate borrowing. In this respect, he was akin to men like Donald Reid, Atkinson, and Sir James Allen. Moorhouse, on the other hand, was always exuberant, spectacular, ultra-progressive, and a super-optimist. In his page 31attitude towards public expenditure, he was the forerunner of Vogel, Macandrew, and Ward.

This division of public men, based on the degree of speed which they wished to be applied in public expenditure, is a handy guide to the student. It runs persistently through all our politics, both provincial and national. In fact, until party lines gradually emerged in later years, it is the only practical generalisation that is of service to us. Other means of classification, such as centralist versus provincialist, or freeholder versus leaseholder, have all been transitory and temporary, and ceased to have much meaning once the issue was settled. A public man who would be branded one day with one of these titles would at a later date find himself forced to compromise or change in order to gain some wider or more immediate objective. But the types I have mentioned—the men of the Moorhouse and Vogel type on the one hand and the men of the Rolleston and Atkinson type on the other—seem both to have been necessary at different times to fit the changing moods of the modern democracy, and both had their uses. Sometimes the pendulum swings towards the one and sometimes towards the other.

1 It is an interesting coincidence that three leading Canterbury statesmen—Rolleston, Moorhouse, and Sir John Hall—were all Yorkshire men.

2 Quoted by Morrell, p. 127.


Thus it was that, when Rolleston took office in 1868 as Superintendent, his accession was welcomed by many who believed that "his natural caution and steadiness would counteract the ultra-progressive policy of Moorhouse".1 It was when prices fell and bad times came that the public turned to Rolleston as their leader. So well did he carry out his onerous task that, in 1870, the public re-elected him, and turned a deaf ear to Moorhouse who loudly proclaimed that he was "the friend of progress" and Rolleston "the friend of stagnation". Moorhouse urged the claim that has since grown so familiar, that "as we increase indebtedness,

1 Encyclopedia of New Zealand.

page 32we are certain to have a more than equally increased power of paying taxes". In like manner, Vogel said in 1870, "we shall be told that these proposals will impose on posterity an enormous burden, but they will give to posterity an enormous means out of which to meet them"1 In Vogel's case this might have been true, if his ideas had been carried out in their entirety. But they were mutilated and mangled by the cupidity of the Provinces. Rolleston expressed his views very clearly in writing to Stafford on 20 July 1871: "I believe there is a common 'platform' on which yourself and others who really are in earnest may meet and effect much good. The two cries under which all political parties sooner or later range themselves are those of the prudent (slowgoing conservative so called by their opponents) and the speculative (calling themselves progressive, but otherwise called gamblers)."

The first session of the Provincial Council lasted only six days, 3 July to 9 July, as business was expedited to enable Rolleston and other Members of Parliament to attend a meeting of the General Assembly. There was a wrangle with the contractors for the Lyttelton-Christchurch Railway, in the course of which the contractors closed the tunnel until the Council agreed to a settlement of their claims.

While in Wellington attending Parliament in 1868, Rolleston had a serious illness, and the Provincial Council did not meet again until November.

E. C. Stevens, Christchurch, to Rolleston, Wellington, 10 October 1868:

We only heard on Friday that you were so ill. Report now says that you are out of danger and only weak, so it only remains to give praise wherever it may be due for your recovery. I have come to the conclusion that Wellington is a pestilential hole. The very water is suggestive of deadly poison while one is drinking it, and every street is a cess-pool. Everything—trade etc.—is

1 Morrell, p. 180.

page 33very depressed here now, but no worse than three months ago. In short, the place is well enough. The fact is simply that there are too many people doing business in almost everything. This fall in wool is very serious. Congratulate yourself on having sold your run. I have thought for nearly two years that wool would sink, and, should Germany or Prussia go to war with France, it would temporarily fall lower. I believe that the only thing to do in wool is to grow for exportation a high class of it; but I am convinced that we must do something towards utilising our own inferior wool in the Colony and so save exchange, freight, and expense. Blanket manufacture I have thought of.

This serious illness of Rolleston's delayed the calling together of the Council for some weeks. But when the opening took place, he urged the importance of obtaining immigrants. Parliament had just passed the Immigration Act 1868, enabling Provincial Councils to use land revenue for this object. "The present and future prosperity of the province", he said, "depend so largely upon the introduction of population and the supply of labour suited to the requirements of existing industries that I have no hesitation in recommending you to make liberal provision for this purpose."

I have already stated that, when Rolleston took office in 1868, financial stringency prevailed. Several special factors contributed to this in Canterbury, including the separation of the West Coast goldfields and the catastrophic fall in land revenue from £200,000 to about £50,000.1 Hence, when Rolleston announced his policy, as one of patient economy, active administration, and unflinching retrenchment, it was well received by the public as being more suited to the times than Moorhouse's ultra-expansionist policy.

But it would be wrong to assume that his policy was purely negative. He merely wished to avoid what he called speculative schemes, so that, by a steady course of economy, they might recover a measure of permanent prosperity.

1 Morrell, p. 177.

page 34He considered it reasonable, in spite of the depression, to carry on public works, and he urged the need for various public institutions, such as an orphan asylum, a museum, and other necessary works. During his eight years of office, he pushed on vigorously with roads and railways, and constructed bridges over the great rivers so as to give access to the south. In short, remarkable progress was made in developing the rich resources of Canterbury, settling the land, and providing for education, immigration, and the various public requirements of an expanding community.

When Parliament passed the Immigration and Public Works Act 1870, the Provinces were largely relieved of the duty of constructing railways and bringing in immigrants. The idea contained in this legislation was that the Provinces should be consulted as to what railways ought to be constructed and immigrants brought into each province at the request of its Superintendent. Rolleston took a friendly view of this new move by the Central Government, and he anticipated that the construction of railways and the increase in population would have most beneficial effects on the commercial prosperity of the Province. Nevertheless, he apprehended that the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in Europe might cause the Government to postpone railway construction, and he therefore decided to push on the railways out of provincial funds which could be recouped by the Central Government later on.


At an early date, Rolleston saw clearly that the Provincial system would soon require modification. In his first year of office he suggested that the Council should discuss "what constitutional changes you may consider desirable or which there is reason to believe are contemplated by the general Government". The next year he urged that the machinery created in more prosperous times had outgrown the neces-page 35sities of government now that its legislative powers had been curtailed and many functions transferred to municipalities and road boards. They should not wait for reform to be forced on them from without.

The fact is that the Provincial system was now being threatened externally by the growing power of the General Government and internally by outlying districts within each Province which were dissatisfied with their representation.

In all the work of the Province Rolleston took a deep pride. Indeed, in many respects, his career in provincial politics was the most interesting, satisfactory, and successful of his whole public life. The depression which existed at the time when he took office soon lifted, and the confidence inspired by his careful handling of affairs enhanced his reputation. By 1870 his finances were flourishing, and both land revenue and ordinary revenue exceeded the estimates. In fact, he was now able to charge his education vote to ordinary revenue instead of land revenue. Moreover, local industries were springing up. The process of meat-preserving proved a great boon to farmers by providing a certain market for surplus stock. The grain industry was expanding, and flax export was under trial. How successful his railway policy had been is shown by the fact that working expenses for the year amounted to only 58 per cent of the gross revenue on a total capital of £611,000, and the net profit, after a contribution of 5 per cent to the Renewal Fund, was over 3 per cent of the total capital. In comparing these admirable results with presentday figures for the whole Dominion, we must allow for the low construction cost per mile on the open and level plains of Canterbury, except for the lengthy bridges over wide river beds.

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Sir John Hall once declared that Rolleston combined in his administration all the virtues of all the preceding Superintendents. At any rate, the conspicuous success which attended his efforts as Superintendent makes a pleasing picture. But his long term of office was not one of unalloyed triumph, and there were two things that marred his happiness. One was that each year quarrels and conflict with his Council became more and more frequent and serious. On more than one occasion his executive resigned, and left him to carry on the Government. We have already seen that these conflicts were almost inevitable under the peculiar system whereby the Superintendent had no means of personally defending his views in the Council meetings, and the same discord occurred in other Provinces. Rolleston tried to improve the machinery of government. He urged that the Superintendent should have frequent conferences with committees of the Council, or that legislation should be obtained to give him a seat in the Council. He sought for more direct and unfettered responsibility to the Council. But nothing came of these suggestions. No doubt these quarrels might have been avoided had Rolleston chosen to regard himself as a figurehead, and left his executive to construct the policy and carry out the administration. But he claimed, with good reason, that under the constitution the task of governing the Province was entrusted to the Superintendent, and that the function of the Council and the executive was merely to furnish advice and assistance. In fact, he expressly stated that he refused to be a mere cypher.

A study of these long-forgotten disputes would probably lead to the conclusion that Rolleston was unduly fastidious and sensitive. His later career in Parliament confirms this view. Sometimes trifling misunderstandings expand into quarrels that seem ludicrous in retrospect. For example, page 37when the Governor visited the Christchurch Races in 1873, Rolleston entertained him at lunch. His executive objected to the cost, not on the ground that it was excessive, but because it had not been authorised by them. In reply to which complaint Rolleston transmitted a formal memorandum gravely pointing out, first, that, as head of the executive, he had not called the Cabinet meeting at which the expenditure was objected to and the Cabinet had not conferred with him; secondly, that, on every previous occasion when a Governor had visited the Races, such expenditure had been authorised. He agreed with his executive that it would be better if the Jockey Club did the entertaining, "but, unless the country make over the course to them and enable them to charge for entrance so as to cover all expenses, they cannot fairly be expected to make such payments". Thirdly, that he had an understanding with the executive that any usual or necessary expense for His Excellency's visit would be concurred in. Fourthly, that he invited no one but the Governor's party, among whom Ministers must be reckoned. "I was asked by a member of the Jockey Club what places should be reserved, and I counted up the number and told him. The places were accordingly reserved, and the party went in at the proper time." All this seems a storm in a tea-cup, and perhaps if the executive had also been asked to the lunch they might have acquiesced in the cost.

But usually the disputes were more serious and protracted. One which caused Rolleston much vexation and distress occurred over a claim by the Bank of New Zealand over charges for interest and commission on financial transactions with London. Rolleston, after taking the advice of the Attorney-General and the Provincial Solicitor and with the concurrence of his executive, decided to sue for a refund of the amounts deducted. But, meanwhile, a new Council was elected which, after full inquiry, dissented from his views, and decided to resort to arbitration. Relations page 38between Rolleston and his Council became highly strained. In the course of long correspondence, the executive declared that Rolleston was striking at the root of responsible government. He tartly replied that, if they desired to follow that system, they should give him the opportunity of having advice from other members—which was an oblique way of saying they should resign. Finally, the claim was compromised, but how deeply Rolleston resented the disavowal of his action appears from some of his letters.

Rolleston to Gillies, 4 February 1871:

I am still standing between the Province and the blackguard attempt to plunder it by the Bank of New Zealand, and also preventing other little jobs, and the effort of Canterbury members on whose toes I have trodden will be to make the Superintendent the creature of their Councils. I can imagine no worse evil. The Bank here would have its own nominee in the most important positions. I wish you would write and tell me what you think of these things. Unless the thinking and decent men are prepared to work together against the unthinking and indecent men next session, we may write Ichabod on the Colony.

My executive have just given me formal advice to carry out the resolution of the Provincial Council about the Bank of New Zealand claim. I have asked them for reasons, which they won't give. I am going to refuse. So I am in for a good fight. Pray for me that my strength fail not.

It is difficult at this distant date and without a full knowledge of the acts to know what lay behind Rolleston's intense hostility to the settlement of the Bank's claim. Nor would it be profitable for the reader to have set out for him the lengthy statements and correspondence recorded in the proceedings of the Council. Rolleston may have had knowledge of some scandal that does not appear in the papers. What is more likely is that he had not fully recovered from the serious illness that had left him irritable and more sensitive than usual. There must have been some such reason to explain the fact that such eminent men as J. S. Williams (afterwards the famous Sir Joshua Williams, page 39P.C.), who was then on the Provincial Council, took the opposite view to Rolleston.

To add to Rolleston's vexation, the Council voted a sum of £5000 (later reduced to £2500) as a grant to Moorhouse, and only £500 to the widow of Selfe who had given splendid service to the Province as its agent in London. This latter grant Rolleston considered entirely inadequate.

These details are necessary to explain the following extracts from a letter written by Rolleston to Fitzgerald on 4 December 1870:

I think it was Lord Palmerston who said he did not care for men who supported him when he was right; what he wanted was men who would vote for him when he was wrong. Your kind letter was accordingly all the more welcome that you don't altogether agree with me. On this point, however, I console myself with the thought that you don't know all.

First, with regard to Mr Selfe's death, I had intended to write to you about it, but I felt that I could not express myself in any way that would not be likely to fall far short of your feelings, and that "words weaker than your grief would make grief worse". Moreover, even in this matter, I have been horribly annoyed, and have been endeavouring to lose every thought but that of satisfaction that our friend has been spared much that would have annoyed him even in his connection with us, and that it is well that he should have passed from this wretched strife of tongues "to where beyond these voices there is peace" before his enthusiasm had been damaged by the change which is coming over all that we had here so hopefully worked for.

It is cruel to think that the public notice of him should amount to little more than an incorrect statement of his relationship to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and that in Jollie's case it should content itself with a statement that he "introduced hops and had a model farm at some place in Nelson". I dd not compare the two men, but in both "Justitiae soror incorrupta fides nudaque Veritas" [uncorrupted good faith, the sister of justice, and downright truth] were conspicuous, and they wrought and fought for what they thought best for the Colony with an earnestness of purpose which was only rendered less effective in Jollie's page 40case by the absence of the enthusiasm and ability which belonged to the other.

The Government (i.e. the Provincial Executive) bought the House with this job and the arbitration job (Bank of New Zealand claim). They lent themselves to gross misrepresentation of an absent man who had no one to represent him, in order to obtain a political victory, and violated every principle which guides men in their ordinary intercourse as gentlemen, branding with the crime of indiscretion the two men who, knowing the facts, would not sit still and allow them to imply and state untruths to my prejudice…. However, the people are with me, and, on two public occasions since, have taken occasion to show this very demonstratively. As to my future course, you seem to think I have given way. I have not, and, what is more, don't intend. The Bank case will not go to arbitration. The wages of iniquity will be paid to Moorhouse and by him to his creditors. This I cannot help now, but I don't feel happy about it. I doubted about vetoing it and was damned. How horribly one suffers for these sins of weakness.

So difficult did his position become that in some letters he talks of quitting New Zealand and going to New Guinea. Evidently Fitzgerald had encouraged him in this idea, but Rolleston replies:

With regard to taking refuge elsewhere, I am not prepared to give in now I am in for a fight tho' I feel I may be driven into a corner any day, in which case I should like to go in for carrying out the old idea we had talked of. I have just had £600 left me, and I suppose in bad times my property here would realise about £3000-£4000. I don't like either encouraging you in isolating yourself. You are exercising your sane influence for good more than you can have any idea of yourself. What I might do a few months hence I don't know, but, if you have made up your mind, of course you must make up your party immediately. I am grateful to you for thinking of me.


The rights and wrongs of these old quarrels are no longer of interest. But some reference to them has been necessary for the light they throw on Rolleston's character. His page 41anxious solicitude to do the right thing was interpreted by his admirers as the attitude of a firm and upright man, and by his enemies as due to an aloofness and obstinacy that exasperated them. One of his deepest disappointments occurred in 1875 when the Council passed an Education Ordinance running counter to his most cherished ideas on sound principles of education. But his views on this and other questions must be reserved for later chapters.

Of the general success of his policy as Superintendent there can be no question. During his eight years of office his candidature was only once challenged, and on that occasion his opponent was Moorhouse, whom he handsomely defeated. The policy he laid down when he assumed office was rigorously adhered to. He reformed the railway management; he cut down administrative expenses; he imposed strict economy and discipline in all departments, and at one stage reduced his own salary from £1500 to £800.

When he was elected unopposed in 1874 his proposer, Mr R. J. S. Harman, drew a striking contrast between the state of affairs when he first assumed office and those existing when he entered on his last term. Harman said that, by his economy and close retrenchment, he had put the Province in "a hard fighting condition". Prosperity and indeed great affluence had now come upon them. His careful proposals and active administration of a wise immigration policy had produced magnificent results, and indeed the Canterbury regulations for immigration had been copied by the General Government.

In spite of all the conflicts and disappointments of his life as Superintendent, Rolleston must have been gratified at the public recognition of his work by the people of Canterbury when the Provinces were abolished in 1876. On Anniversary Day a great fête was held in Latimer Square, and, in the presence of 12,000 people, Rolleston was presented with a gift of plate and money valued at page 42£800. He was described as the man who had watched over much of the progress of Canterbury "with the breadth of view of a statesman and the fidelity of a patriot". The Lyttelton Times said: "The educational system of Canterbury the records of the Native Office, and the history of the Legislatures, General and Provincial, bear ample testimony to his great industry, his skill in administration, his zeal for the public service and the store of information and thinking power that he brought to it."