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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.


CLIFFORD, Sir Charles, Bt.


First Speaker, House of Representatives.

A new biography of Clifford, Charles appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Charles Clifford was born on 1 January 1813, near Liverpool, England, the son of George Lambert Clifford, a Roman Catholic of aristocratic descent. He was educated at Stonyhurst and gained some knowledge of surveying before being employed as an engineer by the London and North West Railway. Seeing little opportunity of advancement he decided to emigrate and, with his cousin William Vavasour, arrived at Wellington by the George Fyfe in 1842. The pair had formed a partnership before leaving England, but after spending some time clearing their land near Ngaio and Clifford's finding such hard work was not to his taste, they ran a land, shipping, and commission agency. Conditions were bad and, convinced that New Zealand was exceptionally suitable for sheep, Clifford explored the Wairarapa and leased some 20,000 acres from the Maoris. With another cousin, Frederick Weld, he drove his first sheep obtained from Sydney, and in May 1844 began a run in the Wairarapa. The undertaking developed satisfactorily but because of increased rent Clifford looked for land elsewhere. He found it near Cape Campbell in Marlborough where he leased over 200,000 acres which, although later reduced to 66,000 acres freehold and 12,000 acres leasehold, gave ample scope for development. Sheep were again purchased in Sydney and in August 1847 were on the Flaxbourne estate under the care of Weld. In December 1850 further land for a run of nearly 60,000 acres was taken up at Stonyhurst in North Canterbury and this was stocked two years later.

While he did not believe it was wise for his private affairs to suffer for the public good, Clifford was keenly interested in politics and, whenever he could satisfactorily combine the two, never hesitated to do so. He was one of the leading figures in the Port Nicholson settlement and was appointed a Justice of the Peace in 1844, in which capacity he was called on to attend meetings of the Legislative Council in Auckland. He found, however, that Governor FitzRoy would not brook opposition and used the official majority to ensure the passage of legislation. Clifford refused to attend the 1845 session and resigned stating that the meetings were an idle and useless formality. During the Maori troubles of 1846 he took an active part in the organisation of the militia.

Vavasour returned to England in 1845 and in 1847 the partnership was dissolved. Clifford visited England between 1848 and 1850 to obtain finance for his ventures. As a member of the Wellington Constitutional Association, he had begun to play an increasing part in the campaign for self-government and now he did his best to lay before the Colonial Office the settlers' view on the Government of New Zealand. He met with little success and became associated with the Colonial Reform Society, interested in the reform of colonial government and securing for the colonies control of their own affairs.

After the coming into force of the Constitution Act of 1852 Clifford was elected to the Wellington Provincial Council, heading the poll despite an attempt to stir up anti-Catholic feeling. He was made Speaker, an office he held throughout the first Council. He was also elected as one of the members of the General Assembly for Wellington, attending the session in Auckland despite his reluctance to be so long away from his home. Here, as expected, he was unanimously elected Speaker of the House of Representatives and immediately had to face the question of prayers at the opening of each meeting, an issue raised by James Macandrew Although Clifford was a religious man, he was not prepared to support an observance which might favour one sect or give the impression of an “established” or State religion, and this view was supported by the House. Later, Clifford was a member of the Committee which recommended that the Speaker should read prayers, and drew up the first prayer used regularly by the House.

Clifford was also one of the Committee to lay down the Standing Orders. He drew on the precedents of the House of Commons in his conduct of affairs but so great was his feeling on the subject of responsible government that, despite the growing custom in Britain against this practice, he spoke in debate in Committee. Later he had to handle the very difficult situation when the Administrator, Wynyard, prorogued the House without notice in order to put an end temporarily to the demand for responsible government. While Clifford's feelings were with the House, he carried out the Standing Orders and at the same time allowed the House to protest against an infringement of its privileges by the Executive.

A strong provincialist, Clifford did all possible to assist Wellington. He was re-elected Speaker for the second Parliament, and was knighted in 1858. During 1859 he decided to retire from politics and left New Zealand at the end of 1860 to live in England. He did not, however, lose interest in the colony and during the early years of the Maori Wars did much to represent the opinions of the New Zealand Government to the notice of the British authorities. When the House of Representatives decided to purchase a mace, Clifford was asked to act as its agent. He decided on the design and finally purchased it at his own expense. He was also responsible for the design of costumes for the Speaker and the Clerks. In 1871 he presented his portrait to the House as the first of what was hoped would be a gallery of Speakers. Unfortunately both the portrait and the mace were destroyed by fire in 1907.

Clifford interested himself in financial matters and was created a baronet in 1887. He died on 27 February 1893. Clifford married in 1847 Mary Anne (died 1899), daughter of John Hercy, deputy Lieutenant of Berkshire. There were four sons and a daughter by the marriage. He was succeeded by Sir George Hugh Clifford (1847–1930) who managed the Flaxbourne and Stonyhurst estates and took a keen interest in sheep breeding and horse racing.

Clifford established the high standard of the New Zealand speakership. He was just and firm and at the same time conciliatory, and did his utmost to see that the House obtained and maintained the privileges to which it was entitled. He was a successful business man and settler and also did much for the economic development of the colony.

by James Oakley Wilson, D.S.C., M.COM., A.L.A., Chief Librarian, General Assembly Library, Wellington.

  • Early New Zealand Families, Cresswell, D., 1952
  • Crown Colony Government in New Zealand, McLintock, A. H. (1958)
  • Clifford Papers (1848–54) (MSS), Canterbury Museum.


James Oakley Wilson, D.S.C., M.COM., A.L.A., Chief Librarian, General Assembly Library, Wellington.