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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.


MARTIN, Sir William


First Chief Justice of New Zealand.

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

William Martin was born in Birmingham, England, in 1807, the youngest son of Henry Martin, and was educated first at King Edward VI Grammar School in Birmingham. In 1826 he proceeded to St. John's College, Cambridge, where he graduated B.A. in 1829, with the Second Chancellor's Gold Medal in law. In 1831 he was elected a fellow and tutor of his college and in the following year he took his M.A. In June 1832 he entered Lincolns Inn to study law and was called to the Bar in 1836, but he did not undertake common-law work, specialising instead in drafting and conveyancing in equity chambers.

In January 1841 William Martin was appointed Chief Judge for the colony of New Zealand, taking up his duties at Auckland in September of that year. For over two years Martin was the only Judge in New Zealand and administered justice throughout the colony, but in 1843 a further Judge was appointed who become responsible for the administration of justice in the Wellington district and the South Island, although Martin, as Chief Justice, still retained general administrative control of justice over the whole colony.

Besides his purely judicial duties William Martin also considerably assisted the Government, especially in the first few years, in formulating the legislation necessary for the new colony which at the time of his arrival had merely adopted in quite general terms the law of New South Wales. Martin and the Attorney-General for the colony, William Swainson, laboured to design and formulate legislation specifically adapted for New Zealand conditions. Of special significance, so far as Martin was concerned, were the ordinances setting up the judicial system by way of sessions of Justices of the Peace, Police Magistrates' Courts, Courts of Requests, County Courts, a Supreme Court, and trial by jury. Moreover, from 1844 until 1856 Martin was one of the Commissioners appointed to formulate rules regulating the procedure of the Supreme Court.

Martin's delicate constitution was steadily debilitated by his official duties and the physical rigours of life in early New Zealand and in March 1856 he and his wife left the colony to spend the winter of 1856–57 in Rome. His health, however, still remained weak and on 12 June 1857 Martin formally tendered his resignation to the Colonial Office on that account. After a further year in England he returned to New Zealand, arriving late in December 1858, and entered into a life of official retirement at Tauraroa. Whilst he was in England, Martin was honoured with a doctorate of civil law conferred by the University of Oxford, and the New Zealand Parliament had in 1858 enacted a statute to provide him with a pension. After his return he was further honoured in 1860 with a knighthood. In 1874 Martin returned permanently to England and settled in Torquay, devoting himself to his interests in religion and languages. In his Cambridge days he had excelled in ancient languages and to these he had, whilst in New Zealand, added Maori and other Polynesian and Melanesian dialects. In 1876 he published the first volume of a work entitled Inquiries Concerning the Structure of Semitic Languages, and completed the second volume in 1878. Martin continued to reside at Torquay until his death there on 8 November 1880. He was survived by his wife, Mary Ann, whom he had married in 1841, and who was the daughter of the Rev. W. Parker, Rector of St. Ethelburga, Bishopsgate, London, and Prebendary of St. Paul's.

Apart from the official duties of his office, Martin also took a deep interest in education and the providing of educational facilities for Europeans and Maoris, and in the establishment and development of the Church of England in New Zealand, particularly in the formulation of its constitution and in its missionary activities amongst the Maoris. From the time of his arrival in New Zealand, Martin had shown a deep regard and sympathy for the Maori people, and was prepared to champion their interests whenever it seemed to him that these were endangered. Thus in 1846 he published his views on the amended constitution enacted by the British Government in a pamphlet entitled England and the New Zealanders, and he joined with Bishop Selwyn, and others in presenting a petition to the Queen against the Government's measure on the ground that it prejudiced the Maori people. Again, after his retirement and return to New Zealand in 1859, Martin vigorously opposed the action of the New Zealand Government in the securing of certain lands in Taranaki from the Maoris. His views were incorporated in a pamphlet entitled The Taranaki Question, and in a further pamphlet, Remarks on the Notes, which was an answer to a Government-sponsored pamphlet entitled Notes on Sir William Martin's Pamphlet. In 1863 Sir William further championed the Maori cause in a pamphlet entitled Observations on the Proposal to Take Native Lands Under an Act of the Assembly. In succeeding years Sir William Martin was consulted by Ministers on various aspects of the Maori problem, but his advice, designed to secure the welfare of the Maoris, was not always followed.

As only one of Martin's judgments is available to us today, it is not possible to make an accurate assessment of his position as an exponent of the law; but it is clear that during his tenure of office his contemporaries considered that as a judge of men he was honourable, able, and just. As a man, it appears that Martin was of quiet and modest disposition, avoiding social ostentation and publicity but resolutely seeking what was fair and honourable in all things. It is significant and indicative of his character and temperament that, although he never took holy orders, he often wore clerical attire and constantly participated in the practices and observances of the church, and that at the time of his death he was preparing notes on the New Testament.

by Donald Edgar Paterson, B.A., LL.M.(N.Z.), LL.M., J.S.D.(YALE), Lecturer in Jurisprudence and Constitutional Law, Victoria University of Wellington.

  • Crown Colony Government in New Zealand, McLintock, A. H. (1958)
  • History of New Zealand, Rusden, G. W. (3 vols., 1895)
  • New Zealand Rulers and Statesmen, Gisborne, W. (1897).


Donald Edgar Paterson, B.A., LL.M.(N.Z.), LL.M., J.S.D.(YALE), Lecturer in Jurisprudence and Constitutional Law, Victoria University of Wellington.