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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.


MOORHOUSE, William Sefton


Canterbury pioneer.

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

Moorhouse was born at Knottingley House, Yorkshire, the eldest son of William Moorhouse, a Magistrate of the county. He received a good education and then decided to go to sea. He once said, in a speech, that he had been second mate in a vessel which called at Hobart in 1843. When he returned to England he turned to the study of law and became a member of the Middle Temple, being called to the Bar in 1849, and he practised on the Northern Circuit. With his two brothers, Ben and Tom, Moorhouse sailed in the Cornwall and arrived at Lyttelton on 10 December 1851; among the passengers were the Bealey brothers. He went to Wellington and was admitted as barrister and solicitor on 21 January 1852.

At the first election for the Superintendency of Canterbury in 1853, he nominated Colonel Campbell, a rather farcical candidate whose chief plank was cheap land; in later years he looked back, he said, “to his shame” on this incident. So it need not be taken too seriously. In that same year he was elected for Akaroa to the General Assembly, being the first member elected. He and his brothers decided to go to the Victorian goldfields but while they were waiting at Wellington for a ship, there arrived, by the ship Northfleet, the girl to whom he was engaged to be married. She was Jane Anne Collins, the daughter of an official in the Prisons Department whom he had met when she was governess to his sisters. They were married immediately and the party left for Port Phillip in the Tory. Mrs Moorhouse's first home was a tent on the Yan Yean where the Moorhouse brothers took a contract to construct waterworks. She has left a fragmentary diary, rather a pathetic document, which is in the Turnbull Library, Wellington. She had spent four or five years in Paris and had a good knowledge of French, and the diary, under stress, lapses into French. She catalogues the 10 different homes in which they lived during the first 14 years of their married life. She always refers to Moorhouse as “Mon Mari” and never blames him nor complains. Once, when particularly harassed, she bursts out, “God alone knows where will be our next resting place. Oh! Dieu! Dirige moi”.

For a time Moorhouse owned the brig Gratitude and made speculative shipments of horses. On one disastrous trip which took 58 days and on which he had 70 horses and 27 men on board, all except three of the horses were either thrown overboard or eaten by the passengers. On his way back from Australia Moorhouse stopped at Auckland and attended the first meeting of the General Assembly. In 1857 he stood for Superintendent against Joseph Brittan and received more than twice as many votes as his opponent. His policy was to improve communications, so that Canterbury could make the most of those products for which it was so well adapted. His tunnel scheme, which also included widespread building of railways, was incredibly daring and for a time did not gain much support in Canterbury from men of weight. FitzGerald thought he was a dangerous man, to be opposed in every way possible, and founded the Press for that purpose.

The history of Canterbury for the next few years was influenced not a little by the antagonism and lack of understanding between these two men. They were the two leading figures of the time in provincial politics but were separated by no essential differences in political opinions. FitzGerald was a man of family, of university education, and of intelligence which would have made him a man of mark anywhere; and his personality was so strong that he was almost automatically elected the first Superintendent, whereas Moorhouse had graduated through the tough school of the Merchant Navy and the goldfields and, although a qualified lawyer, was rather better known for his skill with his fists than for his forensic gifts. Moorhouse's enterprise and daring were inclined to deteriorate into recklessness. His methods were at times questionable and laid him wide open to attack by the Press; he might have been called an adventurer but that his carelessness over money never led to personal gain. FitzGerald was probably jealous of him for he had two qualities which FitzGerald conspicuously lacked. He was able to win and retain the continuing affection of his numerous friends; and he could address a mixed audience from the hustings and convince working men that he had their true interests at heart. Two of the most distinguished men of the time in Canterbury, Samuel Butler and Joshua Strange Williams, gave evidence long after of their continuing regard and admiration for him. His friend Marshman said that during the depths of his bankruptcy he offered his unsecured creditors, to whom he owed £19,000, a shilling in the pound. “And where are you going to get it?” they asked. “Oh! I shall borrow it,” he jauntily replied. He told Marshman he had spent £10,000 in “buying popularity”. C. O. Torlesse has left a thumbnail sketch of him. “The ‘Super’, as he is known, in rough shooting coat, hat on head, pipe in mouth; his conversation, when warm on his subject, Yankee in style while walking up and down the room at a fast pace”. When the English firm, Smith and Knight, which had undertaken the tunnel contract, met with hard volcanic rock, they abandoned the project. Moorhouse immediately left for Australia and returned with a contract with the firm of Holmes and Richardson in his pocket. They completed the work without further misadventure. The Lyttelton tunnel was opened for traffic on 9 December 1867.

Moorhouse was extremely lucky in that the early sixties were prosperous times. Otherwise his project must have dragged on for years as did two other great Canterbury works, the Christchurch Cathedral, and the West Coast railway. He won the contest for the Superintendency in 1866, easily defeating J. D. Lance, but times of depression did not suit his particular gifts and he resigned in April 1868. He accepted the position of Secretary of Lands (later, Registrar-General of Lands) and went to live in Wellington. He was elected Mayor of Wellington in 1874, defeating Dransfield, a strong candidate, by 400 votes. Typically, he declined the honorarium of £200.

He contested various elections unsuccessfully but at the time of his death at Molesworth Street, Wellington, on 1 September 1881, he was member for Ashley. He had so neglected the interests of his constituency that they requested C. C. Bowen to look after their affairs.

by George Ranald Macdonald, Retired Farmer, Kaiapoi R.D.

  • H. S. Selfe Letters (MSS), Hocken Library, Dunedin
  • C. O. Torlesse Journal (MSS), Canterbury Museum, Christchurch.


George Ranald Macdonald, Retired Farmer, Kaiapoi R.D.