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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.


FOX, Sir William


Statesman and social reformer.

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

William Fox was the third son of George Townshend Fox, of Durham, a deputy lieutenant of the county, and was born on 20 January 1812 at Westoe, near South Shields, Durham. He was educated at Durham School. He went up to Wadham College, Oxford, in 1828 and took his B.A. degree in 1832 and his M.A. in 1839. He read law at the Inner Temple, London, and in 1842 was called to the Bar. On 3 May of that year he married Sarah, daughter of William Halcombe, of Poulton, Wiltshire. A few months later they set sail for New Zealand, arriving at Wellington on 7 November. He became editor of the New Zealand Gazette and Britannia Spectator. In 1843, with three companions, he made an exploration of the Wairarapa in search of land for settlers. Soon afterwards he was offered the post of resident agent of the New Zealand Company at Nelson in succession to Arthur Wakefield, who had been killed in the Wairau Affray. He took up the position in September 1843. The labourers brought out in the Company's ships were aggrieved at their inability to find work except with the Company, and that at low wages. Fox employed them on ditching contracts, paid them a better wage, and allowed them when they had finished their weekly assignment to spend their time on allotments sold or leased to them by the Company. In 1846, with Brunner, Heaphy, and a Maori guide, Kehu, Fox explored the country round Lakes Rotoiti and Rotoroa and the Matakitaki Valley, Nelson. Encumbered with a heavy pack, he was nearly drowned in the Matakitaki. In February 1848, when the province of New Munster was proclaimed, Fox accepted the attorney-generalship but he withdrew his acceptance when he heard there was to be delay in the introduction of representative institutions. In September, on the death of William Wakefield, he became principal agent of the New Zealand Company in Wellington. In 1849, foreseeing the end of the Company, he purchased a block of land on the lower Rangitikei, which he named Westoe.

The Company's charter was to be surrendered in 1851 and Fox went to England to hand over its accounts and papers. He also acted as political agent of the Wellington Settlers' Constitutional Association. It was known that the Colonial Office was drafting a New Zealand Constitution Bill, but Edward Gibbon Wakefield and his associates suspected that they might not like it and Fox was drawn into their constitutional discussions. The nature of his views is revealed in the title and contents of the book he wrote at this time, The Six Colonies of New Zealand. The Colonial Office draft, based on the proposals of Sir George Grey, was the basis of the Act passed in 1852, but Fox was probably responsible for the addition of Taranaki to the five provinces Grey had proposed to create.

Before returning to New Zealand, Fox visited Canada and the United States. He was absent when the first provincial and general elections were held, but on 26 June 1854 he was elected to the Wellington Provincial Council for the city of Wellington. A month earlier the Superintendent, Dr Featherston, had appointed him to the Executive Council. He remained a member of the Provincial Council until 1862, though in 1857 he transferred to the constituency of Wanganui and Rangitikei. In the general election late in 1855 he was elected to the General Assembly for Wanganui district. He soon became the leader of the Provincialist Party in the House and the passage on 14 May 1856 of a series of resolutions moved by him led to the resignation of the Ministry formed by H. Sewell on 18 April. Fox proposed to allot the provinces two-thirds of the customs revenue and the land revenue subject to a contribution of 2s. 6d. per acre to the General Government. His majority, however, was precarious and his Ministry weak, for the ablest of his political friends, Featherston and W. Fitzherbert, preferred provincial to ministerial office. On 2 June he was defeated. Though he remained in the House, he did not attend the General Assembly of 1858.

Fox had apparently contemplated retirement from politics, but was drawn back by his opposition to the Taranaki War. He distrusted Whitaker and C. W. Richmond (who on his side thought Fox unscrupulous) and demanded an impartial inquiry into the causes of the war. These views were not acceptable in the Assembly of 1860; but, after he had been returned at a general election for Rangitikei, Fox carried by one vote, on 5 July 1861, a motion of no confidence in the Stafford Ministry, and a week later formed a Ministry of his own. Featherston and John Williamson, Superintendent of Auckland, accepted office for a few weeks only; after their retirement Fox's colleagues were Sewell, Reader Wood, T. Henderson and D. Pollen, of Auckland; Crosbie Ward, of Canterbury; and W. B. D. Mantell, then member for Wallace. Fox promised to support the provincial governments in “the full and useful exercise of the powers bestowed on them by the Constitution Act” and made it more difficult to weaken them by the creation of new provinces. But relations with the Maoris claimed most of the attention of the Ministry. The fighting had died down and this afforded an opportunity for Fox to develop his policy of pacification and civil institutions for the government of the Maoris, especially when Sir George Grey returned to New Zealand in October as Governor. Fox had been one of the keenest critics of Grey's autocracy; but Grey now announced his intention “to consult my responsible ministers in relation to native affairs in the same manner as upon all other subjects and in like manner to act through them in relation to all native matters”. Fox accompanied Grey on his tours of the Maori districts. But the policy which was being tried was for all practical purposes Grey's, not Fox's, and it did not stop the drift to war. Moreover, the chief appeal of the policy to the Imperial Government was that, as Grey had pointed out, it threw “a greater responsibility on the general assembly in regard to the expenditure on account of any war which their acts might bring on”. In accepting it, the Secretary of State, the Duke of Newcastle, announced the intention of the Government to withdraw, though not immediately, the greater part of the Imperial troops in New Zealand. Neither Fox nor Grey had foreseen such a consequence. When the Assembly met again, in 1862, Fox failed on 28 July to carry a resolution which asserted that the colony could not afford to bear either the whole cost of governing the Maoris or the main cost of defence but still claimed that “(reserving to the governor both the initiation and the decisions of questions where Imperial interests are concerned) the ordinary conduct of native affairs should be placed under the administration of responsible ministers”. He accordingly resigned. Three of his colleagues, Wood, Ward, and Mantell, joined the new Ministry formed by Domett, but Fox declined Domett's overtures.

Domett was a failure as Premier. The Imperial Government would not reconsider its policy. The return of Waitara, pressed by Grey upon his Ministers, failed to avert a new outbreak in Taranaki. Fearing an attack on Auckland, Grey sent General Cameron into the Waikato with a strong force in July 1863. The preference of his colleagues for Whitaker forced Domett to resign in October. To the general surprise, Grey sent for Fox; but the Ministry he formed on 30 October was a coalition headed by Whitaker, who was in the Legislative Council, Fox being merely leader of the House of Representatives, Colonial Secretary and Native Minister. Whitaker, a strong supporter of the war, formally accepted full responsibility for native affairs and proposed to raise a large loan and carry out an extensive scheme of military settlement on lands confiscated from the Maoris. It was a very different policy from the one with which Fox had previously been associated; but he believed the war was justified and took his full share in the fierce controversies with Grey which arose over the confiscation scheme and the treatment of Maori prisoners. By September 1864 these differences had become so deep that the Ministry resigned, though no new one could be formed until the Assembly met in November.

Fox resigned his seat in the House in May 1865 and left New Zealand for a long visit to England in the first instance and, later, the United States. He defended the colony against its English critics in The War in New Zealand (1866). In the United States he was particularly interested in the Maine experiment in liquor prohibition. When he returned in 1868 he was soon re-elected to the House of Representatives for his old seat of Rangitikei and became the leader of the provincialist opposition to the Stafford Ministry. The revival of the Maori wars by Titokowaru on the west coast and Te Kooti on the east also made it vulnerable to Fox's attacks, but Stafford defended himself successfully. The Poverty Bay massacre on 10 November weakened the prestige of the Ministry, however, and the withdrawal of powers from McLean, Government Agent on the east coast, for his refusal in March 1869 to allow Ropata to proceed to the west coast, alienated those who looked to him as the best guide in Maori affairs. In the next session Fox moved a vote of no confidence, which was carried on 24 June 1869 by 40 to 29. On 29 June he assumed office as Premier with Julius Vogel as Colonial Treasurer and McLean as Native Minister and Minister of Colonial Defence. A few days later W. Gisborne became Colonial Secretary and Francis Dillon Bell also joined the Ministry.

There is something characteristic of Fox in the Ministry's frank appeal for Imperial military assistance and the dispatch of Dillon Bell and Featherston to England to secure a guaranteed loan and improve relations with the Imperial Government. But the main policymakers of the Ministry were Vogel in finance and McLean in Maori affairs. Fox became merely the titular leader, especially after Vogel had launched his public works policy in the budget of 28 June 1870. But Fox introduced and passed the first New Zealand University Act in 1870 and was in charge in 1871 of the first colonial Education Bill, though this was abandoned at the committee stage. He also introduced a Bill for local option in liquor licensing. These measures suggest that his interests were shifting from politics to social reform. The Ministry was defeated on 6 September 1872 on a motion of no confidence moved by Stafford, and thereupon resigned. But when this Ministry in its turn was defeated on 4 October, Vogel was the mover of the motion and Fox did not take office in the new Ministry, of which G. M. Waterhouse was the nominal Premier. When Waterhouse found himself unable to work with Vogel and resigned on 3 March 1873, Fox, at the urgent request of Governor Sir George Bowen, agreed to assume the premiership for a few weeks, but only to keep the seat warm for Vogel, who was absent from the colony. When Vogel formed his Ministry on 8 April, Fox had no place in it. He never held ministerial office again.

Fox resigned his seat in March 1875 and proceeded to England by way of the United States, interesting himself in both countries in liquor licensing questions. In his absence he was elected member for Wanganui, which Vogel had resigned on appointment as Agent-General, but he did not return to New Zealand until 1878, when he threw himself into opposition to Sir George Grey. Grey in his turn criticised as unconstitutional the conferment on Fox in 1879 of the honour of K.C.M.G. Fox moved a motion of censure on Sheehan, Grey's Native Minister, which led to the defeat of the Ministry by 48 to 34 on 29 July 1879; but in the general election which followed he was defeated for Wanganui. He was returned for Rangitikei at a by-election on 8 May 1880; but for the next three and a half years he was chiefly occupied as Commissioner, at first with Dillon Bell, but from 1881 alone, with the investigation and settlement of the claims arising from the confiscation of Maori lands on the west coast and in Taranaki. This signal service was recognised in 1885 by a parliamentary vote of £2,000. In that year Fox sold Westoe and went to live in Auckland.

Fox's main interest now lay in liquor law reform. He was the principal founder of the New Zealand Alliance in 1886 and worked for prohibition without compensation. Lady Fox died on 23 June 1892, a few weeks after their golden wedding. Fox, who had been a man of great physical strength and had climbed Mount Egmont at the age of 80, then became ill and died in Auckland on 23 June 1893. Sir George Grey, forgetting old enmities, visited him often in his last illness.

Fox was a born leader of opposition, unequalled in his time in sarcasm and invective, eloquent and well-informed; but his impulsiveness led him to extremes. He often headed governments but never ruled them, falling under the influence of stronger or subtler men. In spite of his intelligence and political knowledge, he left little mark on New Zealand policy or legislation. Even though he was a friend of the Maori, his achievement fell far short of his aims, though after the wars he made no small contribution to conciliation. In private life he was unselfish, courteous, considerate, and philanthropic. He was an incisive writer and an accomplished artist in water colours.

by William Parker Morrell, M.A.(N.Z.), D.PHIL.(OXON.), Professorial Fellow, History and Political Science Department, University of Otago.

  • New Zealand Rulers and Statesmen, Gisborne, W. (1886)
  • The Provincial System in New Zealand, Morrell, W. P. (1964)
  • Sir George Grey, Rutherford, J. (1961).


William Parker Morrell, M.A.(N.Z.), D.PHIL.(OXON.), Professorial Fellow, History and Political Science Department, University of Otago.