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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.


FENTON, Francis Dart


Chief Judge of the Native Land Court.

A new biography of Fenton, Francis Dart appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Francis Dart Fenton was born in 1821 at Huddersfield, Yorkshire, and was the son of Francis Tarrant Fenton, a London solicitor, and Frances, née Ashby. He was educated at Sheffield Collegiate School and afterwards studied law in his uncle's office at Huddersfield. Fenton practised in England for a few years, but, because his health was failing, he decided to emigrate to New Zealand. In 1850 he sailed for the Canterbury settlement in the Barbara Gordon; however, he broke his voyage at Auckland, where his cousin, James Armitage, was living. At first Fenton rented land on the south bank of the Waikato River. In 1852 he became music teacher at Maunsell's mission at Maraetai. While at the mission he attracted Sir George Grey's attention and, shortly afterwards, received a position in the Deeds Office in Auckland. In February 1854 Fenton was appointed Resident Magistrate for Kaipara district. He remained there until March 1856, when Governor Gore Brown promoted him temporarily to the Native Secretaryship. At this time the Native Department was about to be integrated with the Land Purchase Department. Fenton disagreed with the proposed merger because, as he saw it, it could mean that every political question referred to the Native Department would tend to be evaluated according to its possible impact upon the sale of land. Such views naturally involved him in a bitter clash with McLean, the Government Land Purchase Commissioner, and, as a result, Fenton's appointment as Native Secretary terminated abruptly. Early in 1857 the Ministry appointed him Resident Magistrate at Whaingaroa, but he was transferred to the Waikato-Waipa district in a similar capacity a few months later. Fenton's appointment to the latter district was made pending the passing of the Native Districts Regulation Act of 1858, and his duties were to prepare the way for the institutions envisaged by the Act. In 1857 he toured the Waikato, holding Courts and meetings at which he explained the proposed system of magistrates, native assessors, and runangas (councils), and arranging for the erection of permanent courthouses in various tribal centres.

As a result of his tour, Fenton submitted several unusually preceptive reports on the situation he found there. In these he made three suggestions covering important facets of the problems posed by the “King” movement. Working from the assumption that the Maoris' discontent derived from economic causes, Fenton noted that much of the land, which was formerly under cultivation, had become a wilderness of noxious weeds. He suggested, therefore, that the Government should encourage the Maoris to sow grass on their former cultivations in order that good pasture lands, with their associated industries, might be established. In connection with the Government's attempt to introduce new institutions and a written legal code into Maori districts, Fenton showed that means were needed to enforce the judicial decisions passed down by the Courts. As European methods of law enforcement appeared unsuitable to the situation, he suggested that the native assessors and influential chiefs should be given this duty. Fenton's third suggestion concerned the administrative practices of the Native Department. He deprecated the Department's habit of corresponding on important matters directly with the Maori chiefs without any reference to their local officers. This practice led to much unnecessary confusion and, when the Maoris discovered that their local officer possessed little or no influence with the Governor, their respect for his authority declined rapidly. The Government, however, did nothing about Fenton's reports because McLean believed that the “King” movement was unstable and would collapse if it were left to its own devices. In other respects Fenton's work in the Waikato was not so successful. He neglected to visit Potatau Te Wherowhero, and took no steps to reconcile him to the Government's policies. Instead, Fenton organised a “Queen's” party in opposition to the “King” and, although the Colonial Office was inclined to applaud this, it was a politically unsafe move which tended to strengthen the “Kingite” extremists. Early in 1858 Fenton made a second tour of his district and took the first (very incomplete) Maori census.

Shortly afterwards Fenton was withdrawn from the Waikato. He was given the post of Assistant Law Officer in Auckland and, in 1862, became a parliamentary agent. He drafted much of the native legislation during this period and was often consulted by the Governor. In 1864, when Ministers assumed responsibility for Native Affairs, Fenton was recalled for consultations. He found defects in the Native Lands Act of 1862 and drafted the amending Act of 1865. In the latter year he became Chief Judge of the Native Land Court, which post he retained until his retirement in 1881. As Chief Judge he had to administer the New Zealand Settlements Act of 1869 and distributed the £200,000 which Parliament voted to compensate the Taranaki settlers for losses sustained during the Maori Wars. In 1869 Fenton was summoned to the Legislative Council, but his appointment was invalidated by the Disqualification Act passed the following year. He was later appointed Circuit Judge for Auckland district, and for two years held this concurrently with his Chief Judgeship.

Fenton drafted the Domain Act of 1861 and served as chairman of the Auckland Domain Board for many years. He was also a member of the Board of (Auckland) City Improvement Commissioners and, from 1868 to 1886, a member of the Auckland Grammar School Board. He founded the Auckland Choral Society and bame its life president. In 1885 Fenton took up land near Helensville and planted one of the first vineyards in the district. He was an enthusiastic viticulturist and believed that wine-making would become a major industry. He retired to Auckland in 1895 and died at his home in Jermyn Street on 23 April 1898.

On 9 December 1858, at St. Matthew's Church, Auckland, Fenton married Martha, daughter of William Connell, an Auckland auctioneer. By her he had two sons and four daughters.

Fenton was considered by some to have been one of the finest New Zealand social anthropologists of his day. He wrote little in this field, however, and most of his work remains among the unpublished records of the Native Department. His first publication – Observations on the State of the Aboriginal Inhabitants of New Zealand (1859) – is a study of the first Maori census and contains many pertinent comments about the reasons for the then declining Maori population. In 1884 he delivered a series of lectures, which were afterwards printed as Suggestions for a History of the Origins and Migrations of the Maori People. This is, as Fenton said, a collation of contemporary opinions on the subject, but he favoured the theory of a migration from the Malayan Archipelago. These, together with a volume of Native Land Court judgments, constitute his published work. Because of his feud with McLean, much of Fenton's work as a civil servant has been forgotten. K. Sinclair, who compares the relative merits of the two men, says that Fenton was the ideal man to frame a native policy, while McLean was well fitted to carry it out.

by Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.

  • The Maori King, Gorst, J. E. (1959)
  • The Origins of the Maori Wars, Sinclair, K. (1957)
  • New Zealand Herald, 25 Apr 1898 (Obit).


Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.