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STOUT, Sir Robert, P.C., K.C.M.G.
Lawyer and statesman.
A new biography of Stout, Robert appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Robert Stout, the eldest son of Thomas Stout, a merchant and small landowner, and his wife Barbara, née Smith, was born at Lerwick, Shetland Islands, on 28 September 1844. He claimed descent from Sigurd the Stout, elder brother of the famous Viking Hrolf or Rollo, who became Duke of Normandy and ancestor of the Norman Kings of England; and in his later years, with his flashing eyes and silky white beard, closely resembled the traditional picture of a Viking warrior. He was educated at a Froebel kindergarten, at Lerwick Grammar School, and then at the parish school, of which he was dux in 1858. He became a pupil teacher and, whilst acting as such, qualified as a surveyor. As a young man he was already a temperance advocate, a radical land reformer, and, under the influence of his scientific reading, a strong opponent of dogmatic religion. Fired by reports of the Otago gold rush, Stout left Lerwick in 1863 for New Zealand and landed in Dunedin on 8 April 1864. Finding no vacancy as a surveyor, he turned to teaching and became second master at J. H. Shaw's “Grammar School” and, later, first assistant at North Dunedin District School. He was a leading organiser of the Otago Schoolmasters' Association, later the Otago Educational Institute. Rejected for a headmastership because he could not teach singing, in 1867 Stout became an articled clerk in the law office of William Downie Stewart. He completed his articles in three years and, on admission as a barrister and solicitor in 1871, formed the firm of Sievwright and Stout. Besides building up a large practice he wrote leading articles for local newspapers. Stout claimed to be the first student to enrol at the University of Otago and in 1873 became its first law lecturer although he did not hold a degree.
In August 1872, at a by-election for Caversham, Stout was returned as a member of the Otago Provincial Council. In May 1874 he became Provincial Solicitor in the Executive formed by Donald Reid. The abolition of the provinces soon became the great political issue of the day and Stout's return as member of the House of Representatives at another by-election for Caversham in August 1875 enabled him to take a conspicuous part in the opposition to the Abolition of Provinces Bill and thus to acquire a national reputation. The Bill was passed, but the minority, by its tenacity, secured a year's delay in its operation. At the intervening general election Stout was returned as one of the three members for Dunedin. The opposition to abolition was again tenacious, but unsuccessful. On 27 December 1876 Stout married Anna Paterson Logan, daughter of the clerk to the Superintendent of Otago.
On 13 March 1878 Stout joined the Ministry of Sir George Grey as Attorney-General, later becoming also Land Claims Commissioner and Minister of Lands and Immigration. He was responsible for a Trade Union Act and a series of measures reconstituting and endowing existing secondary schools. The illness of his law partner contributed to his resignation from the Ministry and the House on 25 June 1879; but it was concerted with John Ballance, now his closest political ally and his associate in certain financial speculations which had incurred the criticism of Sir George Grey. Their withdrawal gravely weakened the Ministry, which, after an election, was defeated early in October on a vote of no confidence.
After five years of legal work supplemented by journalism and much public speaking, especially on religious questions, Stout returned to politics as member for Dunedin East in the general election of 1884. He proceeded to form a coalition with Sir Julius Vogel, who had returned to New Zealand after five years' absence in the hope of restoring the fortunes of the New Zealand Agricultural Company, of which he was the promoter and Stout the solicitor. Vogel had the larger following, but his poor health caused him to yield the premiership to Stout. This Ministry was soon defeated in the House, but, after H. A. Atkinson had failed in his turn, on 3 September Stout formed another Ministry with himself as Premier and Attorney-General and, later, as Minister of Education, Vogel as Treasurer, and with stronger representation of the North Island. Vogel's main interests lay in finance and railway construction. The Hospital and Charitable Aid Board Act, the reform of the Civil Service, the introduction of probation for first offenders bear the hallmark of Stout, as does the introduction at the request of the Maoris of liquor prohibition in the King Country, which the railway was now entering. The Ministry tried to open up trade with the Pacific Islands, in particular by securing British annexation of Samoa. But Vogel's financial policies did not stave off economic depression and Stout, influenced by the individualist philosophy of Herbert Spencer, refused to accept Government responsibility for relief measures. When the Ministry was defeated on Atkinson's motion of no confidence on 28 May 1887 he dissolved, but the elections went against the Ministry and Stout himself lost his seat to James Allen. His acceptance of a K.C.M.G. in the Birthday Honours of 1886 had perhaps lost him some support among the masses, and his association with Vogel was particularly unpopular in Dunedin. Other members offered to resign in his favour, but he refused. There was an element of pique in this fateful decision, but Stout, if not in office, could ill afford to neglect his legal practice for politics.
Stout's title had not affected his sympathy with the working classes. He supported the Rev. Rutherford Waddell in his campaign against “sweating” in the clothing trade and, as a member of the conciliation committee in the maritime strike of 1890, he is said by W. P. Reeves to have “stated the case for the unionists better than they ever stated it themselves”. He did not stand in the election of 1890, but Ballance, as Premier, relied much on his advice. He was consulted about the formation of the Ministry and the ministerial measure for women's suffrage. Ballance, whose health was deteriorating, hoped to find a seat for Stout and resign the leadership in his favour during the session of 1893; but he died on 27 April before he could carry out his plan. The ablest members of the Cabinet, Reeves and J. McKenzie, wanted Stout to succeed; but the majority preferred R. J. Seddon, who was strongly backed also by Sir George Grey who had a long-standing grudge against Stout. As a compromise it was agreed that Seddon should become Premier temporarily, that Stout should stand at a by-election for Inangahua, and that a party meeting before the next session should decide who was to be leader. Stout was duly returned for Inangahua on 8 June, but did not enter the Ministry. Seddon interpreted the understanding in his own way. He met Parliament as Premier, told the party caucus (which Stout and his principal sympathisers did not attend) that he had the full support of the Cabinet, and used the approaching general election to exact pledges of support from ministerial candidates.
Seddon in effect had challenged Stout to displace him; and Stout, keenly disappointed with the turn of events and deeply wounded by Seddon's conduct, took up the challenge. But Seddon was the cleverer tactician. He sidetracked Stout's Bill for local option in the liquor trade by a more moderate Bill. In the general election of 1893 Stout headed the poll for Wellington City and, having wound up his legal business in Dunedin, he moved his residence to Wellington and early in 1895 opened practice there in partnership with J. G. Findlay. He was again returned for Wellington City in 1896. Increasingly out of sympathy with Liberal legislation and with Seddon's autocratic tendencies, he seemed to be gravitating towards the Opposition. He devoted much of his energies to licensing reform and to the foundation of a university college in Wellington. Though the Victoria College Act of 1897 was Seddon's, Stout was the true founder of Victoria University College, Wellington. The contest with Seddon he gradually gave up as hopeless. Seddon's empirical “welfare state” philosophy corresponded better than Stout's more theoretical liberalism with the temper of New Zealand politics.
In 1898 Stout resigned once more from the House, mainly to attend to his financial interests. He was never to re-enter it, for on 22 June 1899 he accepted the Chief Justiceship. As the acknowledged leader of the New Zealand Bar he had a good claim to the office, which he retained for 26 years. Stout believed in a liberal interpretation of the law and this caused some of his decisions - for instance on the extra-territorial operation of New Zealand legislation – to be overruled on appeal. But he was a sound and most industrious Judge, even if not a profound lawyer, and was highly respected by the legal profession for his courtesy and impartiality. He was particularly strong in criminal law, in procedure, and in family-protection cases. In 1921 he was made a Privy Councillor and heard some appeals in the Judicial Committee whilst in England. He took a leading part in the consolidation of the New Zealand statutes, which was completed in 1908. Stout's other great interest in these years was in the affairs of the University of New Zealand, of which he was Chancellor from 1903 to 1923. Though he had been a university reformer in his youth, as Chancellor he found himself out of sympathy with the academic point of view. He placed the emphasis on teaching rather than on research. He also stood for lay rather than academic control, even over academic policy, and for external rather than internal examination. His speeches at graduation ceremonies, which were apt to be lengthy, sometimes caused trouble with the students.
Stout resigned the Chief Justiceship early in 1926. In August of that year he was called to the Legislative Council and he took some part in its debates until 1929, when his health began to fail. He died in Wellington on 19 July 1930 and was survived by his widow, four sons, and two daughters.
Stout was a man of commanding presence, natural dignity, and genuine kindliness of heart. As a debater in Parliament and as advocate in the Courts of law he has had few, if any, equals in New Zealand history. He was strong in logic and quick in perception; his wide if rather miscellaneous reading gave him a great store of knowledge of many kinds to draw upon; he used all the tricks of the advocate, including his hearty laugh, to disconcert his adversaries; but there was no malice behind the blows he inflicted in the cut and thrust of debate. His time as Attorney-General and Premier was not as long as it had promised to be; but he proved himself capable of drafting and carrying through important legislation. He was an ardent champion of many causes, most of them good. His early success had given him great self-confidence, but it made this early opponent of dogmatism dogmatic in his old age; he seldom thought it possible that he might be mistaken. The times moved on and the young radical came to appear a high and dry Conservative. He was much inferior to Seddon as a politician and, had he succeeded Ballance, his government would not have lasted as long; but he had set his face against the materialism which was beginning to dominate New Zealand politics and he did not despise ideas as Seddon did. His premiership might have been no bad thing for the Liberal Party or for New Zealand.
One of Stout's sons, Sir Thomas Duncan MacGregor Stout, C.B.E., D.S.O., E.D. (1885– ), has had a distinguished career as a consulting surgeon. In 1962 he was knighted for his services to Victoria University of Wellington.
by William Parker Morrell, M.A.(N.Z.), D.PHIL.(OXON.), Professorial Fellow, History and Political Science Department, University of Otago.
- Life of Sir Robert Stout, Dunn, W. H., and Richardson, I. L. M. (1961)
- The University of New Zealand, Beaglehole, J. C. (1937).