Pioneer of tourist industry.
A new biography of Graham, Robert appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Robert Graham was born about 1820 near Glasgow, Scotland, the son of Robert Graham, a Lanark farmer and coal-mine owner, and Barbara, née Rennie. He was educated at the parish school and, from the age of 16, managed the family coal mine until a serious accident obliged him to change his occupation. He came to New Zealand in the Jane Gifford, arriving in Auckland on 9 October 1842. There he chartered the Black Hawk, which he loaded with merchandise, and sailed for Kororareka, where he went into partnership with his brother David. Through his ability to understand the native mind, Graham came to exert a strong influence among the Maoris. The first sign of this mana occurred when Heke personally warned him of the impending troubles which led to the northern war. As a result, the Grahams were able to evacuate their whole stock before the sacking of Kororareka. The brothers then opened a store in Auckland, where they continued until 1850 when they dissolved partnership. From 1850 till 1853 Graham shipped potatoes and wheat to California and spent some time on the goldfields there. On his return to New Zealand he bought 565 acres on the Great South Road, Auckland. He called this estate “Ellerslie”, after his home in Scotland, and laid out the famous Ellerslie Gardens. In 1857 he bought Motutapu Island and, in 1858, Motuihi Island which he farmed in association with another brother. He turned his Ellerslie property into a stud farm and imported pedigree cattle and sheep to stock it.
Graham served in the House of Representatives from 1855 until 1868 and was also a member of the Auckland Provincial Council for two terms during the same period. In the 1860s he favoured a strong native policy and was one of the four Auckland members who unsuccessfully resisted the land compact of 1856. In December 1862 he defeated Williamson for the Auckland Superintendency. Graham held office until 1865, during the most difficult period of the Waikato War, and his term was marked by a number of vigorous and far-sighted policy measures. These included raising a £500,000 loan for public works and buildings, the inauguration of the Auckland water supply, the railway to Drury, and the Auckland Mental Hospital. He also arranged for the prospecting and purchase by the Government of the Kawakawa coalfield. When the Thames goldfields were proclaimed, he laid out the Grahamstown and Tararu settlements on land belonging to his niece and built the steam tramway connecting these.
In 1862 Graham was a passenger on the White Swan when she was wrecked near Castle Point. He found a landing place for the survivors and then walked overland to Wellington to bring help. He sailed again for Auckland in the Lord Worsley, but was wrecked off Te Namu. On this occasion he used his command of the Maori language to prevent hostile natives from massacring the survivors and persuaded Matakatea to escort them to New Plymouth. He also intervened to stop the Maoris looting a large quantity of gold from the ship.
The ill health which he suffered in his early years convinced Graham of the benefits of mineral waters and thermal spas. As early as 1845 he had acquired land which contained the Waiwera Springs and, after his retirement from politics, he developed the area as a health spa. He was also the first to realise the value of the Rotorua thermal district and, in the early 1870s, built Lake House at Ohinemutu — which soon became one of the most famous tourist resorts in the Australasian colonies. In 1878 he settled a tribal feud at Maketu and received from the Arawas, as a token of gratitude, a block of land near Taupo containing the now famous Wairakei Valley thermal area. At about the time of his death Graham had begun to develop this as a tourist and health resort. He died on 26 May 1885 at Emily Place, Auckland. Robert Graham was twice married: first, in 1856, to Sophia Swann; and secondly, on 2 June 1870, at Auckland, to Jane Horne. He left four sons and two daughters.
Although Robert Graham proved his ability as a successful trader, farmer, and politician, it was his influence with the Maoris which enabled him to pioneer the development of New Zealand's thermal areas.
by Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.
- New Zealand Herald, 27 May 1885 (Obit), Ibid. 12 Jul 1929.