CHAPMAN, Henry Samuel
Judge, politician, journalist.
A new biography of Chapman, Henry Samuel appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Henry Samuel Chapman was born at Kennington, London, on 21 July 1803, the son of Henry Chapman, a military contractor, and, later, an executive officer of the American Loyalist leader, General Oliver de Lancey. He was educated privately at Bromley, Kent, and afterwards on the Continent, where he attained proficiency in several European languages, notably German, Dutch, and French. His career began in the countinghouse of Esdaile's Bank in London in 1821, and from his teens he proved himself a man of many and varied parts, with a healthy belief in his own capabilities and a robust faculty for adapting himself to circumstances and opportunities. In spite of frustration and disillusionment, much of it of his own making, he achieved distinction in the law and in politics. He also exerted a not inconsiderable influence on two hemispheres in the realms of journalism and letters. He was an expert pamphleteer and a critical observer of the life and conduct of his contemporaries.
While still in his teens Chapman was entrusted with a financial mission to Holland, but a year later, in 1822, he forsook banking and established himself as a merchant in Canada. Before he returned to England in 1834 he had founded the Montreal Daily Advertiser, one of the first Canadian newspapers, in association with Samuel Revans who as a journalist and a pastoralist, was to be closely, if not always helpfully, associated with him again in New Zealand a decade later. It was in Canada that Chapman began the dabbling in politics which to a large degree coloured much of his subsequent life. He had extraordinary mental stamina and always lent the greatest vigour to his many enthusiasms. A liberal outlook was developed through his close association with the Canadian Liberal leaders, Papineau and J. A. Roebuck, and by the time he was back in England he had become almost a radical. Here he flung himself with great earnestness into various Liberal reform movements, such as the anti-corn law agitations and schemes for industrial improvement. He served on several Royal Commissions on industry, one of the most important of which dealt with the Yorkshire wool industry, and at the same time did a great deal of pamphleteering and journalism. His capacity for sustained effort may be gauged by the fact that during these busy years he also read for the Bar. Even after he was called to the Middle Temple, in 1840, he continued in journalism, and may be said to have set the seal on his destiny when, inspired by the scheme of Edward Gibbon Wakefield for the colonisation of the then extremely infant colony of New Zealand, he founded the New Zealand Journal, and edited it in London from 1840 till 1843. A passion for the principles of colonial self-government, born of his experiences in Canada, impelled him, long before he had any serious prospect of emigrating, to propound a system of constitutional government for New Zealand in substitution for what he regarded as the existing quasi-autocratic control. He was a strong advocate for ministerial responsibility in the colony and published several treatises on the subject.
In 1843 Lord Derby, the then Secretary for the Colonies, offered him a judgeship in New Zealand, an opportunity which he accepted with alacrity. In June of that year he sailed from London in the ship Bangalore with his wife, formerly Miss Catherine Brewer, the daughter of a Nottingham barrister. The voyage took six months, and it was not until Boxing Day, 1843, that he was sworn in as New Zealand's first puisne Judge, almost simultaneously with the taking of the oath of office of FitzRoy, the new Governor, who had sailed out with him, and who was later to become the target for the new Judge's bitterest criticism. Chapman took up residence at Karori and opened his Court in Wellington. He sat there as resident Judge for eight years, during which time he assisted the Chief Justice, Sir William Martin, with the production of the 1852 Report on Supreme Court Procedure for New Zealand. He had a wide district and is credited with having covered such distances as Kawhia to New Plymouth (150 miles), and New Plymouth to Wellington (200 miles) on foot.
But he was not long satisfied with his prospects in New Zealand, and kept his eyes steadfastly on the other side of the Tasman. As Charlotte Godley wrote of him, he always considered himself “too good for his present position”; and in 1852 not very optimistically, he accepted the Colonial Treasurership of Van Diemen's Land, which at the time was chafing under the indignity of being a convict settlement. He joined the anti-transportationists a little too wholeheartedly, and soon found himself in trouble. He went to London to put his case before the Colonial Office, but failed to make his point and lost his post. He declined a governorship in the West Indies and returned to Australia where he commenced practice in Melbourne. Politics again beckoned and he ranged himself on the side of reform as in Canada and England years before. In 1857 he became Attorney-General for Victoria in the O'Shanassy Government, but the administration lasted only a few weeks. Within a year, however, it was again returned and Chapman was entrusted with the formation of a Ministry. O'Shanassy was once more Premier, but the Government was virtually held together by Chapman until its final eclipse in 1859. Chapman continued in Parliament until 1861 and then followed a period as a puisne Judge. Finally he returned to practice and journalism, as well as teaching at Melbourne University. In 1864 he was offered reappointment to the New Zealand Judiciary. He went to Dunedin and presided over the Court there until his retirement in 1875. Meanwhile his wife and two sons and a daughter, returning to England, were drowned when their ship foundered in the Bay of Biscay. Chapman revisited England in 1868 and there married the daughter of the Rev. T. C. Carr, rector of Aghavol, Queen's County, Ireland. He returned to New Zealand in 1870.
In Dunedin Chapman associated himself actively with the Otago University and the Otago Institute, and on his retirement entered into commerce and sheep farming in Central Otago until his death. He died at Dunedin on 27 December 1881.
Throughout his life it became the concern of H. S. Chapman to explain himself to his friends and even to the public, and as a result, through his letters and other writings, he has contributed largely to the early colonial history of New Zealand, at least in the matter of atmosphere and background, if not always in the sphere of strictly accurate fact. He was a man of principles and ideas, and to him it was the lucid and forcible exposition of these that mattered urgently and intensely, even though he often blurred his own personality in a fog of apparent contradictions. The use of the adjective “apparent” is compelled by the fact that, despite contradictions, the dominant impression he left with his contemporaries was a conviction of his integrity. An easy assessment of his qualities is difficult because different elements dominated different phases of his life – phases which could be classified as, first, the conventional, then the rebellious, and, finally, the period of responsibility which covered both politics and law. He was a man dedicated to his own purposes, and utterly independent in mind and action. He constantly insisted on the importance of every man being expected to look out for himself, an attitude of mind that had a formidable influence on nineteenth century jurisprudence both in the colonies and in England. It also explained, though it did not entirely excuse, the crusty intolerance and often extravagant inaccuracy of many of his comments and observations on the habits and the professional and political worth of his contemporaries in the middle years of his life. Of FitzRoy, Grey, Domett, the Wakefields and Eyre he could find nothing to say to their advantage, but it was characteristic of him that on the Bench he preserved a judicial balance and understanding, and a fine sense of proportion and of the principles of law.
by Ronald Jones, Journalist and Script Writer, New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, Wellington.
- Chapman Letters (MSS), Turnbull Library
- Crown Colony Government in New Zealand, McLintock, A. H. (1958)
- Letters from Early New Zealand, Godley, Charlotte (1951)
- New Zealand Jurist, Vol. 2 (new series), 1876
- New Zealand Law Journal, 23 Aug 1949
- Otago Daily Times, 28 Dec 1881 (Obit), 24 Jan 1894, 12 Sep 1930.