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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.


GORST, Sir John Eldon


Politician, lawyer, author, and reformer.

A new biography of Gorst, John Eldon appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Gorst was born in Preston, Lancashire, on 24 May 1835, the second son of Edward Chaddock Gorst. His father, according to the dictates of a curious will, took the surname Lowndes on succeeding to the family property, a name also adopted as an additional christian name by J. E. Gorst's son, Sir John Eldon Gorst (1861–1911; Consul-General in Egypt, 1907–1911), to distinguish him from his father.

J. E. Gorst's mother was Elizabeth, daughter of John Douthwaite Nesham, of Houghton-le-Spring, Durham. He was educated at Preston Grammar School and matriculated at St. John's College, Cambridge, in 1853. In 1857 he was third wrangler, to the disappointment of his relatives and his college, who had expected him to be first, and he was elected a fellow of St. John's (1857–60; honorary fellow, 1890). After months of hunting and then travel in Europe, he began to read law, but soon took a post teaching mathematics at Rossal School to be near his father, who was critically ill. When his father died he inherited a considerable fortune and, tired of a “tame and unadventurous life in England”, sailed for New Zealand in the White Star vessel Red Jacket.

Gorst landed at Auckland on 17 May 1860, during the first Taranaki campaign, where he met Bishop Selwyn, another fellow of St. John's whom he assisted for a few weeks. He then went to Australia to marry his fiancee (whom he had met in the Red Jacket), Mary Elizabeth, daughter of the Reverend Lorenzo Moore, once an Indian Army major, who later settled in Christchurch. In October 1860, Gorst and his wife went to the Waikato, where they stayed for some months among Maoris, some of whom were hostile to Europeans because of the fighting in Taranaki, in which sections of the Waikato tribes joined. Gorst taught a Maori boys' school at Hopuhopu, near Taupiri, and in June wrote three letters to the New Zealander, an Auckland newspaper, under the pseudonym Fabius, in which he adumbrated the ideas he was later to express in his book, The Maori King, criticising the failure of the Government to introduce law and order in the Waikato: “It is absolutely essential that men should go and reside among the Maori; the race can never be civilised by men sitting at mahogany tables in Auckland”. Governor Gore Browne offered him an opportunity to try his hand as a Government officer, but being superseded, recommended him to his successor, Sir George Grey. In November the Premier, William Fox, sent him to inspect Government-subsidised mission schools in the Waikato, and shortly afterwards he was appointed Resident Magistrate there.

Until June 1862 he and his wife (and their baby, John Eldon) lived at Te Tomo, near Te Awamutu. Gorst found that though he won the confidence and affection of many Maoris, including Wiremu Tamihana, it was impossible in the prevailing anarchy to carry out his duties as a Magistrate, and he therefore wished to resign. Grey induced him to carry on as the Civil Commissioner, whose task was to introduce the Government's new Maori policy, a scheme of local government based on cooperation with Maori Runanga (Assemblies). Because of the growing disaffection of the King Party and their fear that Grey meant to attack them, it was impossible to introduce the intended measures, and no official Runanga met in Gorst's district. In 1863 Gorst edited a Government paper Te Pihoihoi Mokemoke “The Sparrow that sitteth alone upon the House Top” (see Psalm 102, 6) in opposition to the Maori King paper, Te Hokioi (a legendary bird of ill omen). Te Pihoihoi gave great offence to the Kingites and some of them broke up the press and returned it to the Queen's land at Te Ia — at Preston Grammar School Gorst had edited The Scholar, a periodical which was similarly suppressed by the authorities because of its mocking spirit. With war threatening in Taranaki, he was obliged by hostile Maoris to leave the Waikato. He acted as private secretary to F. D. Bell, the Minister of Native Affairs, during the next few months, while the second Taranaki campaign began and Grey invaded the Waikato. In August he went to Australia with Bell to assist in the distasteful task of recruiting military settlers, and then returned to England, where he publicly attacked a policy which, he believed, was one of conquest in New Zealand.

Gorst's views are expressed at length in his book, The Maori King (1864; 2nd ed. 1959), in which he relates in detail events in the Waikato 1860–63, analyses the reasons for the rise of the King movement and the weaknesses of British policy, and describes with wonderful vividness the state of Maori opinion. This is perhaps the finest book written on the nineteenth century Maori, written with understanding, with love and, for leaders such as Ti Oriori and Wiremu Tamihana, with admiration.

Gorst's career in England was a disappointment — the more so since he had the misfortune to have it described, while he was alive, in terms which make it seem a failure, by his son Harold E. Gorst, in The Fourth Party (1906). But failure it was not, though his radical views, his independence, and his lack of aristocratic connections prevented him from achieving the glittering prizes to which service to the Conservative Party and ability gave him claims.

He was called to the Bar at the Inner Temple in 1865, stood unsuccessfully as Conservative candidate for Hastings in 1865, and was returned for the borough of Cambridge in 1866. He favourably impressed Disraeli, who asked him, when he lost his seat in 1868, to reorganise the party machinery on a popular basis. He spent five years on this task, without salary, and the Conservative victory of 1874 has been partly attributed to his efforts, which brought, however, no rewards. The titled leaders descended from aloof heights upon the spoils of victory. Later Disraeli asked Gorst why he had not, like everyone else, solicited office. From this time, if not earlier, Gorst's relations with the party leaders, other than Disraeli, were strained, as is evident from Gorst's occasional attacks on the Conservative Government after he was re-elected in 1875. During the years 1880–84, with Lord Randolph Churchill, Arthur Balfour, and Henry Drummond Wolff, Gorst formed a free-lance opposition, which was called “the Fourth Party”, to the Liberal Government. Its tactics of guerilla warfare, which Harold E. Gorst called “political ingenuities bordering upon practical joking”, were based often upon Gorst's considerable knowledge of parliamentary procedure. They gave pain to the Conservative leaders almost as often as to the Government. The four allies were not merely insubordinate; they increasingly came to represent a “Tory democracy” which was, at times, indistinguishable from radicalism. They gained control of the popular National Union of Conservative Associations, and made a bid for the direction of party policy, and on the part of Lord Randolph Churchill, for leadership. Then suddenly, while Gorst was away on holiday, Churchill made his peace with the party leaders, leaving Gorst, as Sir Winston Churchill later wrote, “in a position of much weakness and isolation. He had incurred very bitter enmities by the part he had taken in the quarrel”.

In 1885, when the Conservatives took office, Lord Randolph Churchill became Secretary of State for India, and secured for Gorst the post of Solicitor-General, which carried with it a knighthood. But Gorst never recovered politically from Churchill's desertion and surrender in 1884. He was to be Under-Secretary of State for India and later Financial Secretary to the Treasury, but he drew away from his party. In 1902, during Chamberlain's fiscal reform campaign, he broke with it altogether, declared himself a free trader, and in 1910 stood unsuccessfully as a Liberal.

Gorst was a radical by temperament, who took Disraeli's “Tory democracy” too seriously for his party, and drifted naturally to the left. His later years were spent in speaking and writing on social reform, especially education and health. In 1906 he revisited New Zealand, where he was much impressed by the improvement in racial relations and the progress of “assimilation”. He died on 4 April 1916 and was buried in the family vault at Castle Combe, Wiltshire. He was survived by two sons and six daughters by his first wife (d. 1914), and by his second wife, Ethel, daughter of Edward Johnson.

by Keith Sinclair, M.A., PH.D., Professor of History, University of Auckland.

  • The Maori King, Gorst, J. E. (1864, 1959)
  • New Zealand Revisited, Gorst, J. E. (1908)
  • Lord Randolph Churchill, Churchill, W. S. (1906)
  • The Life of Benjamin Disraeli, Moneypenny, W. F., and Buckle, G. E. (1910–20).


Keith Sinclair, M.A., PH.D., Professor of History, University of Auckland.