Surveyor and runholder.
Very little is known of Robert Stokes' antecedents and early life. He was born in England about 1810 and trained as a surveyor – probably specialising as a building surveyor. For some years he practised as an architect in Cheltenham and London. On 10 April 1839 he approached the New Zealand Company for a position and was attached to Mein Smith's survey staff. Stokes sailed for New Zealand on the Cuba, arriving at Port Nicholson on 3 January 1840. During the next few months he carried out surveys in Wellington -Hutt Valley district, where he gave his name to Stokes Valley. In August 1840 Colonel Wakefield sent him, together with Heaphy and E. J. Wakefield, to report on the potentialities of the Wanganui district for settlement. Early in 1842 Stokes resigned from the Company's service in order to enter business on his own account. He visited South America in 1843, but returned to Wellington in time to join Petre and Clifford as founders of the New Zealand Spectator and Cook's Straits Guardian. According to McLintock, Stokes in the Crown Colony period was a scribbling toady, with little capacity and less principle. As the willing tool of Sir George Grey, he “dressed” his paper with a view to presenting the official case to the best advantage at the Colonial Office. From 1845 until 1858 Stokes produced the paper at his printing works in Manners Street and, from about 1850 till 1865, when he disposed of his type, he was sole proprietor.
Stokes represented Wellington City in the Provincial Council from 1857 to 1865 and Wairarapa East from then until 1867. In 1858 he carried a Bill through the Council to establish municipal government for Wellington and, in the same year, advocated the construction of a railway across the Rimutaka Range. Although his scheme was derided at first, Stokes continued his agitation. In 1863 he induced the Council to agree to accept Robert Mudge Marchant's tender to build the first 18 miles of the line for £150,000; however, as the contractor wanted a 7 per cent return guaranteed on his outlay or, alternatively, a land grant of 100,000 acres, the deal fell through. Four years later Stokes endeavoured to revive the project, but nothing was done until Vogel incorporated it in his public works scheme in the early seventies.
Between 1858 and 1861 Stokes and his brother, Dr John Milbourne Stokes, bought the large Manganuka and Milbourne stations, near Te Aute, in Hawke's Bay. They also held jointly extensive town lots in Clive. On 12 July 1862 Stokes was summoned to the Legislative Council, where he remained until his membership lapsed through absence on 24 September 1879. In the Legislative Council he became well known for his forthright opinions on the major political issues of the day. Notwithstanding his extensive interests in Hawke's Bay, Stokes continued to reside in Wellington. He was one of the Commissioners for the Wellington City Reserves in 1862. Throughout his life he gave much encouragement to agriculture and was, for some years, treasurer of the Horticultural and Botanical Society. From 1871 to 1878 he was a member of the Senate of the University of New Zealand. In the latter year he returned to England, settling permanently in London. Stokes died at 1 Clanricarde Gardens, Bayswater, on 20 January 1880. He left no family, his wife having predeceased him by about 25 years.
by Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.
- Crown Colony Government in New Zealand, McLintock, A. H. (1958)
- Early New Zealand Engineers, Furkert, F. W. (1953)
- The Times (London), 22 Jan 1880
- Evening Post, 4 Nov 1929.