MENZIES, James Alexander Robertson
Runholder and administrator.
A new biography of Menzies, James Alexander Robertson appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
James Alexander Robertson Menzies was born on 21 February 1821 at Kinloch Rannoch, Perthshire, deep in the Highlands of Scotland. His father, William Menzies, was a local doctor. Menzies decided to follow his father's profession and secured a diploma at the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh. He then practised for some years in his home town. In 1853, however, he decided to emigrate to New Zealand. He joined the party accompanying W. B. D. Mantell when he journeyed to Bluff to make the final payment for the Murihiku block to the Maoris. Selecting for himself a run of 38,000 acres on the Lower Mataura River, Menzies named it Dunalister after his Scottish home. The earliest settlers in Southland, finding transport and communication a difficult problem, soon felt that the Otago Provincial Council was not pushing on fast enough with public works. A desire for separation – that is, to detach Southland from the Otago Province -was intensified when, by the Land Sales and Leases Ordinance of 1856, the Council decided to sell, in the southern district, blocks of land each not less than 2,000 acres, at 10s. per acre.
Menzies became leader of the separatist movement and supported it in the Legislative Council. When the new province was proclaimed in 1861 he became its first Superintendent. Under his guidance the infant province was soon committed to two expensive undertakings – a railway to link Invercargill with its port at Bluff, and a tramway to Winton to circumvent the Great North Road quagmire. There was no doubt about the need for the railway, but in planning the tramway Menzies was fascinated with the idea that Invercargill might become a supply town to the diggers on the Otago goldfields. Menzies was unlucky, for the year 1864 found the output of gold declining, with men leaving Otago and Southland. Financial stringency affected the whole country. The Provincial Council became critical of Menzies' schemes and he retired from office with Southland owing £400,000 on public works. In 1870 Dr Menzies unsuccessfully fought the proposal to reunite with Otago. He continued to represent his district on the Southland and, later, the Otago Provincial Council. Until his death he was a member of the Legislative Council where he spoke vigorously on questions of special interest to himself. Described as “a Presbyterian of the old school”, Menzies was an early advocate, both in and out of the Council, of Bible-in-Schools, and he served as superintendent of Sunday schools. According to G. H. Scholefield he was “a man of infinite charity and inexhaustible sympathy”. In 1865 he married Laetitia Ann, daughter of Dr Isaac E. Featherston, Superintendent of Wellington, by whom he had one son and two daughters. Menzies died in Southland on 18 August 1888 and was buried at Wyndham.
Menzies, a Scottish Highlander with imagination, integrity of character, and an optimistic temperament, came to Southland when the settlers needed a leader. He led their fight for independence and won a victory over Captain Cargill and James Macandrew, the Otago Superintendents. He was at his best when advocating a cause. He was less successful in the detailed work of administration. Menzies saw what was needed in the south and in different circumstances his courage might have met with the success it deserved.
by Arthur Joseph Deaker, M.A., Secondary-school Teacher (retired), Invercargill.
- The History of Otago, McLintock, A. H. (1949)
- Historical Southland, Hall-Jones, F. G. (1945)
- Invercargill Pioneers, Hall-Jones, F. G. (1946).