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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.




Canterbury Superintendent and colonial statesman.

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

William Rolleston was born at Maltby, Yorkshire, on 19 September 1831, the youngest but one among the 10 children of the Rev. George Rolleston, rector and squire of Maltby. William was educated at Rossall School and at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where, in 1855, he graduated with second-class honours in the classical tripos. Writing in 1898, Rolleston explained his decision to emigrate 50 years before as a revolt against “Conservatives and Ecclesiastics” and as a desire for “the freer life of a colony”. A contemporary letter suggests the frustration of a younger and less gifted son: “Home and the University are the only society I care for. In England I am precluded from both. That is, unless I choose to do nothing, which I don't”.

Rolleston arrived at Lyttelton in the Regina on 15 November 1858. He briefly considered “pen work” in the Customs Office, but decided to “turn shepherd at once” on the Lake Coleridge run of G. A. E. Ross. In 1861 he took up on his own account a Rakaia run, later called Mount Algidus. G. S. Sale and Samuel Butler have left vivid pictures of the tough but not unrelieved high-country life that Rolleston lived – the “spartan fare”, the morning wash in the chilly waters of the lake, the classically named peaks and rivers, the copy of Tennyson under the pillow, the examining at Christ's College which kept his Latin and Greek from getting rusty.

Rolleston was soon at home among an educated group of the province's leading politicians. His first essay in public affairs was as a member of a committee on education, out of whose report arose a proper system of schooling under a provincial board, to which Rolleston was appointed. In the same year (1863) a somewhat farcical episode brought him into politics. Seeking to elbow his way back into power Moorhouse treated his stopgap Superintendent, Samuel Bealey, with little regard for his feelings or for public opinion. He sought to force Bealey out of office, but the mild Superintendent's resolution stiffened to the point where he rode up the Rakaia to seek Rolleston's assistance in forming a new executive. The latter thus entered politics not as “representative” but as “minister”. Soon afterwards he contested his first election in Heathcote, winning by 119 votes to 94. For nearly two years Rolleston was virtually head of the Executive, demonstrating that he belonged to the “prudent” anti-borrowing party, and that he was a sound reliable administrator. When his colleagues proposed to extend the main south railway by means of loans, Rolleston resigned (June 1865). There is doubt that he stood down solely on principle, as he had shortly before been offered by Weld the newly created post of Under-Secretary of Native Affairs.

His greatest work in this position was his report on 13 native schools (June 1867), which led to the establishment of a new system of Maori education, based on his recommendations on teaching in English, on Maori initiative and cooperation, and on proper inspection. By 1868 Moorhouse's bold policies were frustrated by depression and he himself was again in financial troubles. On his resignation the Council reduced the superintendent's salary from £1,500 to 600. The Lyttelton Times hoped it would “be found possible to induce a rich man who has the brains and education to fit him for” the office. C. C. Bowen, Rolleston's friend, was approached, but declined on financial grounds. Rolleston, who had shortly before resigned his Wellington post, thus obtained the office with which he is primarily associated almost by default. He was regarded as “very decidedly a safe man” fitted to administer in depression. The new Superintendent without contest soon became member of the House of Representatives for Avon unopposed, asserting that “he nailed his colours to the mast, and avowed himself a Provincialist”. In 1870 Rolleston was opposed at the last moment by Moorhouse, who came forward in continuing bad times proclaiming himself “the friend of progress” and Rolleston “the friend of stagnation”. Rolleston pronounced the contest as one between “the speculative” and “the prudent”. Election day, 2 May 1870, saw his greatest (though not most hard fought) political triumph. He obtained over twice as many votes as Moorhouse, whom he beat even in Christchurch and Lyttelton. During the early 1870s Canterbury prospered greatly – partly “the result of a policy (Vogel's) which Mr Rolleston opposed when it was first put forward”, the Lyttelton Times commented. Rolleston was content, in the main, to administer soundly and fairly the policies of his predecessors. Provincial public works and immigration – the latter a special interest of his – made great strides. Canterbury stood out as the model province and Rolleston as the model Superintendent. He administered provincial land regulations so as to balance between runholder and small settler, seeking to restrain speculators and land grabbers. Prosperous Canterbury returned him unopposed in 1874.

In the House he spoke strongly against the abolition of the provinces and even declared himself a separationist in 1875. Canterbury electors, however, were less interested in provincial institutions than in retaining the buoyant provincial land fund, and Rolleston gained the major point by the continued localisation of it. He did not conduct any last-ditch battle for institutions to which he had, in fact, given more than Sir George Grey, but the most popular moment in his career came on 17 December 1876 when a crowd of 12,000 assembled in Christchurch to see him presented with plate valued at £400 and a cheque for the same amount.

It would be hard to point to a more successful provincial record. In 1876–77 Rolleston, at the age of 45, stood poised between provincial success and the promise of a new colonial career. Yet this promise was to be only partially fulfilled. Rolleston had made his name as an administrator, and party politics had died away in Canterbury after the eclipse of Moorhouse. Although he was ostensibly the very man to lead a middle party between Atkinson's “political rest” and Grey's irresponsible radicalism, he showed himself lacking in the gifts and training to seize his golden opportunity. He was heard with respect, but without enjoyment (his style was involved and even tedious) as critic of administration and in his own special fields of policy, but not as a potential party leader. He helped to defeat Atkinson, but refused to join Grey, whose stump tours and muddled administration he detested. When Grey was turned out by Fox's mordant eloquence in 1879, the fruits of victory fell to the nervous but more resilient and fluent Hall. The latter took Rolleston into his Ministry (October 1879) as Minister of Lands, Immigration, and Education – his three fields of greatest experience. Rolleston soon proclaimed his belief that “the settlement of the people in the land had not been sufficiently attended to”, and his 1879 Land Bill introduced deferred payment for small-holders. He was able to point to the example of successful special settlements established in South Canterbury in 1874–75. In 1882 he undertook his most important work as legislator – the introduction of a Land Bill incorporating “perpetual lease” of crown lands as a means of promoting small-farm settlement. The intention of the Bill was defeated in the Council by the insertion of the right of purchase. Rolleston's counter-attack in 1883 failed and his measure remains one of the great “might have beens” in New Zealand history, a victim of a precarious political situation and, to some extent, of its author's lack of resolution.

Rolleston had already taken a controversial part in the Parihaka affair. He favoured a policy of clemency and sought to implement it as Native Minister when he briefly took office in place of the bellicose Bryce (February-October 1881). As Te Whiti's attitude remained equivocal and colonial opinion hardened, Rolleston gave way to Bryce, but remained in the Cabinet and actually shared full responsibility for Bryce's “thorough” policy of 1881–82. Rolleston's stocks sank rapidly in Canterbury in 1883–84, when he defended increases made by Atkinson in railway grain rates and opposed the construction of the Midland Railway. He evaded defeat in Avon in the 1884 election by standing for Geraldine, where he won a fairly close contest, being one of the few opponents of Vogel returned in Canterbury. Rolleston's caution had seemed appropriate in the late 1870s, but in the middle and late 1880s the province responded to the bolder policies of Vogel and the radicalism of Stout, skilfully presented by W. P. Reeves. In 1887 Rolleston suffered his first defeat in Rangitata, but, paradoxically, thus avoided the odium which attached to Atkinson's last Ministry. In 1890 he contested Halswell, winning comfortably.

After Bryce's resignation, in August 1891, Rolleston was elected Leader of the Opposition. Party leadership had come to him too late and under unfavourable circumstances. He was now somewhat heavy and slow from a thyroid complaint; he was surrounded mainly by the surviving right wing of his party; Opposition strategy was unimaginative and its discipline too loose by comparison with the Liberals. Rolleston's position in opposing land legislation of a type he had earlier advocated seemed inconsistent to many, but he maintained it. Defeated in 1893, Rolleston was returned in 1896. Though some considered Captain W. R. Russell merely a locum tenens for Rolleston as Leader of the Opposition, the former continued to lead in the 1897–99 Parliament. At 68, Rolleston was still talked of as a possible leader, but his electoral career ended in 1899 when he went down by one vote to G. W. Russell, in Riccarton. It was a bitter and frustrating end to his political service: Russell made a sin out of Rolleston's refusal to cultivate local demands and decried him as too much of a “colonial politician”.

Rolleston's career appears in retrospect in some measure as a series of paradoxes and frustrations, explicable only in terms of his own complex character and the complex politics of his times. Preferring liberal policies, he disliked the politicians who called themselves Liberals and abhorred what he regarded as their unscrupulous demagogic appeals and spurious party labels of “Liberal” and “Conservative”. He was both too conscientious and too fastidious to succeed as popular politician; indeed, his antipathy to Grey's stump oratory moved him nearer to fighting fury than anything else. It is not unfair to point out that he himself was hardly a successful speaker, being somewhat ponderous and didactic. Though there was some attempt to dub him “the people's William”, this title did not catch on. Rolleston was a Whig born out of due time and place, interested in restraining “class selfishness” rather than in abolishing classes, or what passed for them in the colony. His long success as provincial administrator concealed his political shortcomings and gave rise to hopes which he could not fulfil. Further, his electoral triumphs until 1884 were either too easy or were won by default. Earlier defeat might have given him greater determination and resilience. Gisborne's judgment of him substantially still stands: “He is a very good administrator … clear, methodical, and industrious. He is intelligent, well educated, earnest, and animated by the highest motives. What he lacks is decision of character and definiteness of purpose”. Clearly Rolleston placed the administrator's judgment above the politician's advocacy. As he wrote in 1896 to another sensitive politician, Reeves, on the latter's retirement from the House: “I fancy that like myself you have a greater love for the practical and the administrative side of Public Life than for the political”. Rolleston died at Kapunatiki, his Rangitata homestead, on 8 February 1903.

In 1865, at Avonside, Christchurch, Rolleston married Elizabeth Mary Brittain and, by her, he had five sons and four daughters.

by William James Gardner, M.A., Senior Lecturer, History Department, University of Canterbury.

  • Rolleston Papers (MSS), General Assembly Library
  • Hall Papers (MSS), General Assembly Library
  • William Rolleston – a New Zealand Statesman, Downie Stewart, W. (1940).


William James Gardner, M.A., Senior Lecturer, History Department, University of Canterbury.