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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.


GRESSON, Henry Barnes


Judge of the Supreme Court of New Zealand.

Henry Barnes Gresson was born in County Meath, Ireland. He was educated privately and at Trinity College, Dublin, where he graduated B.A. before reading law in the Irish capital. He was called to the Irish Bar in the Trinity Term of 1833 and went to London for a period for experience. On his return to Dublin he practised for eight years as an equity barrister at the Chancery Bar, where he quickly made a considerable reputation as a diligent and reliable practitioner. He found, however, that competition at the Irish Bar was very fierce and in 1854 he decided to emigrate. His standing in the profession at the time is demonstrated by the fact that, before he left Dublin, he was presented with a testimonial signed by at least a score of Irish Q.C.s, half a dozen doctors of law, and most of the rank and file of practitioners.

Being an enthusiastic churchman, Gresson chose the new Canterbury Settlement in New Zealand for his destination, and he was 45 years of age when with his wife, Anne, daughter of Andrew Beatty of Londonderry, and his three children, he sailed from London in the ship Nelson (688 tons). He arrived at Auckland after a voyage of four months and went straight to Christchurch. The family took the bridle path over the Port Hills, but their heavy baggage, all their household goods, and personal possessions were dispatched by small steamer from Lyttelton to Sumner. The craft, however, foundered on the Sumner bar, and everything was lost, even Gresson's complete law library, a rare possession in New Zealand in those days. As his marine insurance covered only the voyage to Lyttelton, the family suffered a severe blow and started life in a strange country in a house in Madras Street, Christchurch, where the rain poured in through the kitchen ceiling and the children slept in the loft. With the population of Christchurch only 710 (46 fewer than that of Lyttelton), and with that of the Canterbury Provincial District a mere 5,347, Gresson was appointed Crown Prosecutor. While in practice, he associated himself closely with the life of the community. He was one of the first fellows of Christ's College, Christchurch, being “nominated, constituted, and appointed” in the Deed of Foundation. He was also intimately connected with the movement for the erection of the Christchurch Cathedral.

It was barely three years after his arrival in New Zealand that he was invited to accept a Judgeship, and in December 1857 he received his Commission. He forsook the Bar with some diffidence but, as he said on his retirement 18 years later, his lively sense of personal inadequacy was stifled by the realisation that there were then only two Judges in the colony, the Acting Chief Justice, Sidney Stephen (see alsoDuels), and Mr Justice Daniel Wakefield, both of whom were very much in arrears with their work and in indifferent health. Indeed, these Judges died within a week of each other in January 1858, the month after Gresson's appointment. Thus it was that Mr Justice Gresson carried out his duties in splendid isolation for two months as the sole Judge in the colony. Even after the appointment of Sir George Arney, in March 1858, it was to be eight months before a second puisne Judge, Mr Justice Johnston, took his seat on the Bench.

Gresson's outstanding qualities were courage and singleness of purpose and a consuming sincerity. He was completely modest, an indefatigable worker, and his legal attainments were beyond question. Independence, personal and professional, was to him a sacred cause, and he eventually sacrificed his career to it. Once when he was the guest of the Chief Justice, Sir George Arney, after a Court of Appeal sitting, his host, over dinner, described him as “the most extraordinary Irishman I ever saw”. When Gresson asked him to explain, Arney's reply was: “Because you are sober, hard-working, contented, moderately economical, and you never blow your own trumpet”. In the light of that candid contemporary opinion it is interesting to recall Gresson's determination on the point of judicial independence. In 1875 he resigned his Commission when, as he said himself, “it was my desire to continue my work as long as I could discharge my duties efficiently”.

The trouble arose out of the adoption by the Government of an irrelevant recommendation by the Ward-Chapman Committee of Inquiry that a periodical shifting round of Supreme Court Judges was desirable. Gresson objected because the Committee had been set up to investigate allegations of partiality on the part of Mr Justice H. S. Chapman. Chapman was completely exonerated, but Gresson maintained that the public could hardly be blamed for interpreting the Committee's recommendation after its investigations as a reflection on the Judges as a whole. But his principal objection was that such a policy must be a retrograde step as it placed Judges at the mercy of the Minister of the day, notwithstanding that the legislation of the colony for the previous 16 years had been in the opposite direction. He argued that the change was particularly inopportune and described it as “a foul and most unjust imputation against the Judges”. When he was ordered to transfer from Christchurch to Nelson he protested and, after discussion with other Judges who were also under orders to move, he took the matter up with the Government at the highest level. He was ignored, and immediately he asked to be relieved of his Commission as from 31 March 1875. It was significant that the resignation of two other Judges, the Chief Justice, Sir George Arney, and Mr Justice H. S. Chapman, took effect from the same day. Explaining his retirement at a farewell sitting of the Supreme Court in Christchurch on 31 March 1875, he said, after traversing the events leading up to his decision: “What then becomes of the independence of Judges if they may be ordered by the Minister for the time being, as often as he pleases, to remove from one part of the Colony to the other? It is obvious that such a power is open to gross abuse, and if these be the terms under which they hold office, the Judges are not better off than when their Commissions were only during pleasure, a form which was wisely altered by the Legislature to a good conduct tenure as long ago as 1858”. One of the results of Gresson's action has been an official realisation ever since of the necessity for preserving unimpaired the independence of Judges.

After leaving the Bench, Mr Justice Gresson paid a visit to England and Ireland in 1876–77, and on his return retired to his farming property in Canterbury and devoted himself to sheep raising and agriculture. Like a later Chief Justice, Sir James Prendergast, he was keenly interested in breeding and exhibiting livestock, the first show of the Canterbury Agricultural and Pastoral Association being held in his paddock in Latimer Square, Christchurch. Mr Justice Gresson died at Fendalton on 31 January 1901, but the Gresson legal tradition is being carried on by his grandson, Sir Kenneth Gresson, the present president of the Court of Appeal, and by his great-grandson, Mr Justice T. A. Gresson, one of the resident puisne Judges for the Auckland judicial district.

Gresson always took a keen interest in education and, until his appointment to the Bench, he was a fellow of Christ's College. He was an original governor of Canterbury College (1873–76), and chairman in 1875. In 1872 he was president of the Canterbury Philosophical Institute. As a keen churchman he was a moving spirit in the erection of Christchurch Cathedral, was for many years synodsman of the diocese and, for a time, gave his services as diocesan chancellor.

by Ronald Jones, Journalist and Script Writer, New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, Wellington.

  • Family Letters (MSS)
  • New Zealand Law Journal, Vol. 34, p. 165 (1958)
  • New Zealand Jurist (1875).


Ronald Jones, Journalist and Script Writer, New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, Wellington.