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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.




Politician, public servant, and author.

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

Gisborne was born in England in 1825, the third son of Thomas John Gisborne of Home Hall, Bakewell, Derbyshire, and Sarah, the daughter of J. A. Krehmer of St. Petersburg. His family came originally from Hartington, Derbyshire, and migrated to the county town of Derby, where for more than 200 years the office of Mayor was filled almost without exception by a member of the family. He was educated at Rugby.

At the age of 17 Gisborne emigrated to South Australia. A cousin, Henry Fyshe Gisborne (1815–41), had left seven years earlier for New South Wales where he held with distinction the offices of Police Magistrate, private secretary to the Governor, and Commissioner of Crown Lands. In 1847 Gisborne came to New Zealand and was appointed private secretary to the Lieutenant Governor of New Munster. In the following year he moved to Auckland and became Commissioner of Crown Lands for the Province of New Ulster. In 1852 he went to England on 18 months' leave of absence and in 1853, on his return to the colony, joined the Colonial Secretary's Office as chief clerk. In July 1856, on the inauguration of responsible Government and the retirement of the old permanent officials, he succeeded Sinclair as Under-Secretary in the Colonial Secretary's Office, thus becoming the senior public servant in the colony and the principal adviser to Cabinet on the organisation and staffing of the Service. His advice on Service questions was sound and progressive. He pressed, without success, for orderly and adequate salary scales, and in 1858 was influential in securing pensions for retiring officials. For a short time in 1857 and 1858 Gisborne was also Secretary to the Treasury. His appointment as Secretary to the Cabinet was confirmed in 1864. Two years later he was a member of a Royal Commission which inquired into the clerical strength and efficiency of the Public Service. The Commission's recommendations were sensible and well suited to the needs of the day, but successive Governments failed to enforce them even though they were incorporated in the Civil Service Act 1866. The Public Service Act 1912, which created the framework of present-day personnel administration in Government Departments, contained provisions substantially the same as those recommended by the 1866 Royal Commission.

In July 1869 Gisborne resigned from his official posts when he was appointed, on the nomination of the Premier, Sir William Fox, to a seat in the Legislative Council and elevated to the Ministry as Colonial Secretary. In 1871 he resigned from the Legislative Council and was elected unopposed to the House of Representatives as member for Egmont. When the Fox Government was defeated in September 1872, Gisborne resigned his seat in Parliament and became permanent head of the Government Life Insurance Office, which he administered for five years. In 1877 he was again returned to Parliament by the electors of Totara (Westland) – this time as a supporter of Sir George Grey – and during the last months of the Grey Ministry was Minister of Lands, Immigration, and Mines. The practice of alternating between membership of Parliament and Government employment was not uncommon at the time, although it was commented upon adversely in the House of Representatives.

For several years Gisborne took an active interest in the management of Wellington College. He was a member of the Board of Governors (including a term as chairman) and also the college examiner in history, geography, and English grammar. In 1881 Gisborne returned to England to manage family property which came into his possession on the death of his brother. He devoted his later life to this work, to literature, and to county affairs. In 1886 he published Rulers and Statesmen of New Zealand, and in 1888 The Colony of New Zealand. An enlarged and revised edition of The Colony of New Zealand was published in 1891 and of Rulers and Statesmen of New Zealand in 1897. In 1886 Gisborne acted as a member of the New Zealand Commission for the Colonial and India Exhibition. In 1892, as heir to his cousin, Sir Thomas W. Evans, he came into the possession of Allestree Hall, Derby, and for a time was a Magistrate for Herefordshire. In 1861 he married Caroline Gertrude, daughter of Assistant Commissary-General Charles Brigden, by whom he had one son and three daughters. He died on 7 January 1898 at one of his residences, Lingen, Brampton Bryan, Herefordshire.

Gisborne was an able and high-spirited youth, quick to react to real or imagined insults. In 1850, as a result of an orange being thrown at a social gathering, he fought a duel with a fellow public servant. The Executive Council expressed the “greatest regret” that “neither one of the parties concerned had recourse to the advice or mediation of brother Officers in their own branch of the Public Service”. On the Council's recommendation, he was reprimanded and (temporarily) removed from the Commission of the Peace. As he grew older, Gisborne became aloof and reserved. He had a wide range of interests, and wrote or spoke on subjects as varied as socialism, public works, imperial federation, Maori affairs, defence, poetry, and tourist attractions. He was a sound judge of character and a good financier.

Gisborne was a versatile and able public servant of high administrative capacity, although his political impartiality was suspect because of his close association with Fox and Grey. He had sound ideas on the management of the Public Service, but they were in advance of the time. As a Minister of the Crown, he was proficient although unspectacular, lacking both in debate and in personality those qualities which would have fired the popular imagination. He was liberal in outlook, and his writings give a shrewd, good-natured, and invaluable account of early events in New Zealand and of the politicians and officials who took part in them. He was popular and successful in the management of his estates in England.

by Raymond Joseph Polaschek, M.COM., B.A., D.P.A., Commissioner of Transport, Wellington.

  • The Colony of New Zealand, Gisborne, W. (1897)
  • Rulers and Statesmen of New Zealand, Gisborne, W. (1891)
  • The Times (London), 11 Jan 1898 (Obit).


Raymond Joseph Polaschek, M.COM., B.A., D.P.A., Commissioner of Transport, Wellington.