William Rolleston, 1831-1903
The fourth and last Superintendent of Canterbury, William Rolleston, was one of the large class of classical scholars who came to the settlements of the New Zealand Company and did such good service in the foundation of the colony.
Born at Maltby, near Doncaster, Yorkshire, on September 19th, 1831, Rolleston was a son of the Rev. George Rolleston, M.A., rector of the parish and squire. He was educated at Rossall, one of the principal public schools in the north of England, under the headmastership of Dr. Woolley, who was afterwards principal of the University of Sydney. He then passed on to Cambridge, entering at Emmanuel College in 1851. Next year he won a foundation scholarship, and in 1855 he graduated B.A. with honours in the classical tripos. A brother, Dr. George Rolleston, M.D., F.R.S., was a distinguished professor of physiology at Oxford, and died in 1881.
After leaving Cambridge Rolleston spent some time in private tuition, and in 1858 sailed for New Zealand in the Regina, arriving at Lyttelton on November 15th. He had made up his mind to go on the land, and without delay took up a run at Mount Algidus, in the forks of the Rakaia, close to Lake Coleridge. Despite his classical education, Rolleston threw himself heart and soul into the arduous and anxious work of landowning in those days. He took a great interest in farming, and did everything possible to improve his property, particularly in the treatment of the soil and the planting of trees. His was soon one of the best-planted stations in Canterbury. The fact that many of the surrounding natural features were explored by Rolleston accounts for the prevalence of classical names in the neighbourhood. It is even said facetiously that he was able to employ the language of the Greeks and the invective of Homer in place of the more homely and forceful words generally used in the driving of bullock teams. Later he took up the property on the sea coast near the mouth of the Rangitata River, where he lived during most of his public life in Canterbury.
Rolleston naturally found himself taking an interest, in the public affairs of the province almost as soon as he came here. In those days the Provincial Council was much exercised over the best system of education to adopt, and in 1863 Rolleston was appointed a member of a Select Commission to suggest a scheme. His colleagues were Tancred, Dr. Lillie, and Saunders. They visited all the existing schools in the province and brought down a report which recommended placing the whole of the schools under the control of a Board of Education. Rolleston thus early had strong convictions on the subject of education. In 1875, when he held the more responsible position of superintendent and had a Colonial position as well, he said: "Our best policy would be to make education free in all Government schools; and such a result is, as I think, but the corollary upon the adoption of any responsibility by the State in the matter of education." Two years later, when the Colonial system was under discussion, he declared himself convinced that the education provided by the State should also be secular.
At the end of 1863 when Bealey was superintendent, Rolleston was persuaded to let himself be elected member for Heathcote in the Provincial Council, and to assume the office of provincial secretary, which he held until June, 1865. In that year a great change came over the province. Before that gold, had been discovered at various points on the western side of the range, but it was not until March, 1865 that a great rush of miners set in to Westland from other provinces of New Zealand and from the ports of Australia. Though Canterbury was a quiet pastoral province, it was essential that she should take cognisance of such a portentous happening within her borders and see that her people on both sides of the range reaped the fruits of the new prosperity. As provincial secretary, Rolleston promptly proceeded across the range with Rochfort and other officers to set up the machinery of government there. Whatever may be said of the treatment accorded to Westland by Canterbury in later days, there can be no question that Rolleston and Hall, as representing the Canterbury Government, and Dobson, Rochfort and the other officials who went with them, did everything they possibly could to meet the sudden emergency. Rolleston's part was so well done that when Bealey retired from the superintendency in the middle of 1866 he was requested, but declined, to stand for the Chief Magistracy. He had, in fact, become deeply engrossed in the duties of Under-Secretary for Native Affairs, which he accepted in June, 1865, at the invitation of his old friend Weld and carried out with zeal and efficiency for three years. In this post he demonstrated not merely his interest in education and sympathy with the Maori people, but his capacity for administration. His term of office had a most beneficial effect upon the Native village school system. He resigned in May, 1868, to devote his attention to provincial affairs once more.
The Superintendency again becoming vacant in 1868, Rolleston's supporters, more than ever convinced that his natural caution and steadiness would be a useful antidote to the undue progressiveness in expenditure which they feared from Moorhouse, persuaded him to stand. He was proposed by Montgomery and E. C. J. Stevens, duly elected, and took office as a strong provincialist, but filled with uneasiness as to the inefficiency of the provincial system as it then existed. He frankly wanted it simplified, but that did not cause him to look with any favour on the proposal which was before the country at the moment for the severance of the whole of the province south of the Rangitata and its erection, for all Practical purposes, into a separate province. He was quite willing to give the southern district the who of its revenue for local works, but unity of government" (he declared) "is essential to our future greatness as a nation." He took a very strong stand also upon the administration of the railways, which he contended must be independent of the changing politics of the day.
On the constitutional question Rolleston strove hard for a solution of the friction that existed between Council, Superintendent, and executive. In common with such shrewd provincialists as Ormond and McLean, he believed that the Superintendent should have a seat in the Council so that he might be in close touch with it instead of communicating by means of messages and addresses. He actually went so far as to be nominated for a seat in the Council, but at the last moment withdrew. He then sought a solution in another direction by offering to regard the whole Council as his executive and to carry on the administration himself with the assistance of a clerk or two. From the outset of his Superintendency he saw clearly the spectre of abolition in the future and urged his Council to take steps betimes to simplify and improve a system which had enabled Canterbury to do so much for herself rather than allow its imperfections to be used as an argument for abolition. During his Superintendency Rolleston strongly promoted immigration, shrewdly arguing that the best precaution against slumps in the future was to increase the population, and so enlarge the market for the farmers and operatives of the province. Hence, though he strongly opposed the Vogel policy of borrowing, he entered heart and soul into the immigration aspect of it and was proud of the fact that whereas in 1870 the population of Canterbury was only 45,000 it had increased by 1874 to 59,000.
Rolleston had to fight for his seat in April, 1870 (when Moorhouse came out unexpectedly as a candidate for the Superintendency, and was defeated by 1800 votes to 897). At the end of that term he was re-elected unopposed, and saw the provincial system to its close. He strongly prosecuted public works throughout the province, especially the harbour works at Lyttelton and Timaru and the railways, which, however, were taken over by the General Government before the abolition. In February, 1876, he presided at the opening of the railway from Christchurch to Timaru and a few days later at the opening of the Amberley line. To meet the discontent of the out districts Rolleston agreed to the setting up of the Timaru and Gladstone Board of Works, which for several years before the abolition, had the spending of the whole of the revenues raised in its district. He took a leading interest in the establishment of the museum at Christchurch, which, as Superintendent, he opened. The words cut into the stone over the entrance door were placed there by him at a later date. A provincial exhibition was held in the drill shed during his Superintendency.
The question of education was never at rest for long. In 1870, and again in 1874, bills were passed by the Provincial Council dealing with the Canterbury system, which was one of the most successful in the colony. Rolleston strongly opposed the suggestion that the administration of education should be entrusted to the executive of the day. He felt strongly that salaries of teachers and administration should be entirely removed from the vicissitudes of party politics, and when an ordinance was presented to him in 1875, which proposed to hand over the administration to the executive, he refused to sign it.
In the Parliamentary struggles on the abolition, Rolleston staunchly defended the provinces, and was able to adduce good evidence from the case of Canterbury that they had justified themselves; but it was impossible to put back the clock. When at length the provinces were extinguished in 1876 he received a valuable service of plate, as a mark of the esteem of the people of Canterbury.
A few weeks after his election to the Superintendency in 1868 Rolleston was also elected unopposed to succeed Reeves as member for Avon in the General Assembly. He went to Wellington as a member well equipped by his official experience in native matters and by his long interest in education. No sooner had he entered the House than he launched a well-informed attack upon the native policy of the Stafford Government, which he declared could never produce peace on the West Coast of the North Island. Next year he moved for the appointment of a commission to visit every native district and ascertain the position of the Natives.
During the next few years Rolleston's position in the House constantly improved; he was plainly marked out for office as soon as the party which he supported gained the ascendancy. The great popularity of Grey staved this off for a while. Many supporters of Rolleston, who had come out in 1873 as a champion against the "gridironers" in Canterbury, could not understand how he could be opposed to Grey in 1877. Still Rolleston was “our William," and he received a hearing, if not an enthusiastic one, even at a meeting in Christchurch, which expressed its "unbounded confidence" in Grey. When at length Grey's Government came to an end in October, 1879, and Hall took office, Rolleston was entrusted most appropriately with the Departments of Lands, Immigration, and Education, for each of which he had acquired special qualifications in his own province. Later he took also Justice and Mines, and for a few months in 1881 during the retirement of Bryce from the Ministry, he administered his old love - Native Affairs. Always cautious, and leaning towards clemency to the Maori, he would have been the last man to put into effect the Parihaka policy which was eventually adopted by the Government and carried through by Bryce. But though he had to bear the odium which it excited in a South Island constituency, he was returned unopposed for Avon at the general election of 1881.
This question out of the road, Rolleston had a chance in the next year or two of putting into effect some of his liberal ideas in land legislation. He believed in deferred payments, but he feared to establish a tenantry either of the moneylenders or of the Crown. Preferring the latter as the less evil, he introduced the perpetual lease into his Land Bill of 1882. Continuing to hold the portfolios of Lands, Mines, and Immigration in the Whitaker and Atkinson Governments, he got the perpetual lease extended in 1884. At the General Election in that year he defeated A. Cox for Geraldine, but on the retirement of the Atkinson Government a few weeks later he went into the ranks of the private members. At the election of 1887 he was defeated for the Rangitata seat by S. Buxton. In 1890 he fought the Halswell seat against F. S. Parker, and won and during this Parliament he was Leader of the Opposition. In 1893 he again sustained defeat in the Ellesmere electorate, his opponent being a son of his old friend Montgomery. At the next General Election, in 1896 he defeated G. W. Russell for Riccarton by 1834 to 1443. In 1899 the tables were turned. Russell winning by a single vote (1867 to 1866).
Rolleston then retired definitely from politics. Of his activities outside of Parliament, much might be said. Education always had him as its servant. For many years he acted on the Canterbury Education Board. For a few years (1873-75) he was a member of the Board of Governors of Canterbury College. From the foundation of the New Zealand University in 1871 until his death he was a member of the Senate. He was also of the governing body of Christ's College from its early years until his death. The foundation of the Deaf and Dumb Institution at Sumner in 1880 was due entirely to the interest which he took in the matter as Minister for Education. Many Canterbury educational buildings came into existence during his administration as Superintendent and as Minister, and he took active steps to endow them from the landed estate of the province.
After the election of 1899 Rolleston lived quietly at his home at Rangitata, where he died on February 8th, 1903. He was married in 1865 to Elizabeth Mary, daughter of Joseph Brittan, one of the most prominent of the Canterbury Pilgrims, and was survived by his wife and a family of five sons and four daughters. Two of his sons, Francis Joseph and John Christopher, became members of the House of Representatives in 1922, and the former was Attorney-General and Minister for Justice and Defence in the Coates Ministry.
Gisborne says of Rolleston: "There is nothing volatile, in the ordinary sense about Rolleston; on the contrary a vein of doggedness runs through his nature. When he wavers it is from excess of conscientious doubt as to what is right, but he is firm enough in trying to do it when convinced, and that quality has made him from time to time amenable to the logic of facts. As Minister for Lands, he has been liberal, prudent, and far-sighted, and has done much to discourage mere speculation and to promote real settlement. He is a very good administrator. He dislikes red tape and procrastination, and has a horror of the system of how not to do a thing which he thinks should be done. He has a great aptitude for official business, and in its transaction he is clear, methodical, and industrious. He is intelligent, well-educated, energetic, earnest, and animated by the highest motives. What he lacks is decision of character and definiteness of purpose. He is too sensitive and emotional. His feelings are too highly charged, and move him to and fro by jerks and starts. He is so anxious to do what is right that he is more afraid of doing what is wrong; and he wavers between opposite poles. These dual forces make his political motives somewhat unsteady, and, in a party view, irregular."
Saunders says: "He was the most profound thinker, the most highly educated, the best read, and the most experienced, and well-informed Minister upon practical political questions. His fastidious determination to say exactly the right thing in exactly the right words made him usually hesitate over the selection until the main effect of his speech was spoiled; so that it was only on the few occasions on which he was sufficiently excited to risk some inaccuracy that he spoke really well. As a writer or conversationalist he was effective, interesting, and very original."
Sir Robert Stout once said of Rolleston: "I do not know anyone who gave a better example of what classical culture could do in humanising mankind. It was an education in itself to discuss with him some literary, historical, or political subject.
Press, Volume LXVI, Issue 19872, 8 March 1930
William Rolleston. Making New Zealand: Negatives and prints from the Making New Zealand Centennial collection. Ref: MNZ-0437-1/4-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22865076
1866/14342 Rolleston Rosamond Mary Elizabeth Mary William1867/17699 Rolleston Arthur Cecil Elizabeth Mary William
1869/29462 Rolleston Lancelot William Elizabeth Mary William
1871/30800 Rolleston NR Elizabeth Mary William
1873/25510 Rolleston Francis Joseph Elizabeth Mary William
1874/229 Rolleston Dorothy Josephine Elizabeth Mary William
1878/1944 Rolleston John Christopher Elizabeth Mary William
1881/6754 Rolleston Margaret Florence Elizabeth Mary William
1889/9793 Rolleston Helen Mary Elizabeth Mary William