Skip to main content
Browse the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand
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.


WAKEFIELD, Edward Gibbon


Theorist on colonisation and a principal founder of New Zealand.

A new biography of Wakefield, Edward Gibbon appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Edward Gibbon Wakefield was born in London on 20 March 1796, the eldest son of Edward Wakefield, a London land agent and surveyor, and his wife Susanna, née Crash, an Essex farmer's daughter. The Wakefields came of Quaker stock, and Edward Wakefield, though not a practising Quaker, was an active philanthropic reformer, best known for his Account of Ireland, Statistical and Political. Edward Gibbon Wakefield was sent to Westminster School in 1808, but in 1810 refused to return. He was then sent to Edinburgh High School, but left in January 1812. After a period of uncertainty he obtained a minor diplomatic appointment and on 9 August 1816 made a runaway marriage with a wealthy young woman, Eliza Susan Pattle, who, however, died on 5 July 1820, leaving a son, Edward Jerningham Wakefield, afterwards a New Zealand colonist, and a daughter. Wakefield, who for some years was an attaché at the British Embassy in Paris, was ambitious to enter Parliament, and hoped to promote his ambitions by a second marriage with an heiress. In 1826, by abduction, he made a Gretna Green marriage with Ellen Turner, the schoolgirl daughter of a Cheshire manufacturer. Her family, however, pursued the couple to Calais; Ellen rejoined them, and Wakefield returned to England to join his brother and accomplice William, who was already in custody. The Wakefields were tried at Lancaster Assizes in 1827 and were sentenced to three years' imprisonment.

The case had excited great public interest and ruined Wakefield's hopes of entering Parliament; but his three years in Newgate gave him the material for writing two books, The Punishment of Death and A Letter from Sydney. The latter, believed at the time to be a genuine letter, appeared in 1829 “edited” by Robert Gouger. Its main contention was that the undeveloped state of New South Wales was due to lack of labour arising from indiscriminate land grants. It suggested that in future land be sold, not granted, at a price sufficient to prevent labourers from becoming landowners too soon and that the proceeds, with a tax on rent, be used to finance the emigration of labourers, preference being given to young persons of both sexes in equal numbers. The book soon became well known and made important converts. On his release Wakefield soon returned to London and founded the Colonisation Society to spread his ideas, which appeared to be borne out by the disappointing results of the Swan River colony, founded with Government support in Western Australia in 1829. Wakefield's influence on Lord Howick, Under-Secretary for the Colonies, was largely responsible for the introduction of sale as the sole method of disposing of land in New South Wales in 1831. He wished, however, to try out his ideas by founding a new colony in South Australia. Negotiations with the Colonial Office in 1831 and 1832 broke down, but the publication in 1833 of England and America, in which Wakefield further developed his ideas, and the explorations of Sturt, revived interest. By the end of 1833 a South Australia Association had been formed and in 1834 Parliament passed an Act providing for the foundation of a colony and the management of its colonisation by specially appointed commissioners. Wakefield played an important part behind the scenes, but the illness of his daughter, who died in Portugal in February 1835, distracted his attention from South Australian affairs. The decision of the commissioners in May to fix the price of land at 12s. an acre, which Wakefield thought too low, caused him to break with them.

In 1836 Wakefield gave evidence before a committee of the House of Commons on the disposal of lands in the British colonies. It recommended that his principles should be embodied in an Act of Parliament and applied to the whole Empire. He was now turning his attention to New Zealand and by May 1837 was forming a New Zealand Association for the systematic colonisation of the country. Its first approach to the Colonial Office was unsuccessful, but by the end of the year the Government was willing to consent to the incorporation of a company by royal charter. The Association, however, rejected the terms.

On the invitation of Lord Durham, High Commissioner for British North America, Wakefield joined him in June 1838. The Colonial Office refused to agree to his appointment as Commissioner of Crown Lands, but he remained as unofficial adviser, and the report on Crown Lands, signed by Buller, was really his. Wakefield also interviewed the French-Canadian leader Lafontaine, but the negotiation was unsuccessful. The view that the whole of Durham's great report owes its inspiration to Wakefield is no longer accepted. It may have been Wakefield who, fearing that the report might be pigeonholed, communicated it in February 1839 to The Times; but this is not certain.

In Wakefield's absence the New Zealand Association had introduced a Bill into Parliament, but it had been rejected. Before his return from Canada it had decided to reconstitute itself as a joint-stock company. Though he did not become a director until April 1840, Wakefield took up his residence at the Company's headquarters and devoted his energies to organising the preliminary expedition, under his brother William, which sailed in May 1839. There appears to be no reliable evidence for the tradition that he travelled by post-chaise to Plymouth to hasten its departure.

Though the affairs of New Zealand no doubt absorbed most of Wakefield's energies in 1839–40, he retained his interest in Canada. In 1839 he and his friends gained control of the North American Colonial Association of Ireland, which acquired the Canadian seigneury of Beauharnois and proposed to invest capital in public works, banking, and emigration and sell land on Wakefield principles. In 1841 Wakefield visited Canada and won over Lord Sydenham, the Governor-General, who had been hostile. Parliament, in 1842, passed a Bill empowering the association to carry through a modification of its scheme, and in July the Beauharnois Canal was begun. At this time Wakefield, who had returned to England, was back in Canada. He saw the trend of events, but Sir Charles Bagot, Sydenham's successor, expressly contradicted the report, circulated at the time and accepted by biographers since, that his decision to admit Baldwin and Lafontaine to office as the first responsible Ministry was due to Wakefield's influence. In November 1842 Wakefield was elected to the Canadian Assembly for the county of Beauharnois. Possibly disappointed by the failure of a scheme for the compulsory repurchase of unimproved lands, he fell out with the Ministry and supported the Governor-General, Sir Charles Metcalfe, in the quarrel over patronage, which ended in the resignation of Baldwin and Lafontaine in November 1843. He seems to have been Metcalfe's secret adviser and wrote strongly in his support after his return to England, which followed the news of the death of his brother Arthur Wakefield in the Wairau Affray of June 1843.

Wakefield was active in 1844 in preparing evidence for the Select Committee on New Zealand which was appointed by the House of Commons, at the instance of the New Zealand Company, to review policy after the Wairau massacre. The majority report of the chairman, Lord Howick, was favourable to the Company and critical of Government policy; but the Colonial Secretary, Lord Stanley, held it would be dangerous to act on this report. A fierce controversy, in which Wakefield undoubtedly had a hand, followed between the Colonial Secretary and the Company, and the issue was brought back to the House of Commons in a three-day debate in 1845. In January 1846 Wakefield suggested to Gladstone, who had succeeded Stanley, that the Companys' settlements should be granted local self-government and that the Company itself should be entrusted with the entire business of colonising New Zealand and the right of the Crown in its soil. In July 1846 Earl Grey (the former Lord Howick) became Colonial Secretary. Early in August he and Wakefield had an interview which clearly disappointed Wakefield, though according to Grey it was “very amicable”. On 18 August Wakefield, overstrained and ill, suffered a paralytic stroke.

During this illness Earl Grey and Wakefield's close friend and associate, Charles Buller, came to terms with the New Zealand Company, but Wakefield, even after his recovery, took no further responsibility for the management of the Company's affairs, resigning his directorship in 1849. He retained a sense of grievance against Lord Grey. He made a new friend, however, in J. R. Godley, whom he met while taking a cure at Malvern in the autumn of 1847. Together they elaborated the plan for a Church of England colony in New Zealand, which took shape as the Canterbury settlement. Wakefield's other main interest after his recovery was the preparation of the book published early in 1849 as A View of the Art of Colonization. The book restated Wakefield's principles and bitterly but unfairly attacked Lord Grey's policy.

Towards the end of 1849 Wakefield organised the Society for the Reform of Colonial Government to agitate in Parliament and the press for colonial self-government, accompanied by self-defence and a delimitation of imperial and colonial powers. The Liberal colonial policy announced by the Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, early in the session of 1850 took some of the wind out of the colonial reformers' sails; and their attempt to secure a statutory demarcation of Imperial and colonial powers in the Australian Colonies Government Bill was unsuccessful; but the society probably helped to convince British opinion of the need for colonial self-government. When the Canterbury settlement had been founded in 1850, Wakefield turned to agitation for self-government for New Zealand. The claim that he was the chief author of the Constitution Bill of 1852 cannot be accepted; but he and his associates may have persuaded Sir John Pakington, Colonial Secretary in the new Derby Ministry, to press on with the Bill instead of delaying it for a session.

As soon as the Constitution Act became law Wakefield, who had been living at Reigate in Surrey, prepared to leave England for New Zealand. He arrived at Lyttelton on 2 February 1853. A month later he proceeded to Wellington and offered Sir George Grey his help in bringing the constitution into operation on the ground that “my experience in this sort of work … is greater than any other man's”. Sir George Grey declined the offer. The “cheap land” regulations issued by Grey in March were denounced by Wakefield. But when he became a candidate for the Hutt, a constituency of struggling farmers, he declared that “exceptional circumstances demanded exceptional remedies – viz. free grants of land to workers”. He was elected in August both to the House of Representatives and to the Wellington Provincial Council. At the first General Assembly in Auckland, on 2 June 1854, Wakefield moved “that amongst the objects which the House desires to see accomplished without delay, the most important is the establishment of ministerial responsibility in the conduct of legislative and executive proceedings by the Governor”. The motion was carried with one dissentient, but Wakefield was unacceptable as leader and was not one of those called upon by Colonel Wynyard, the officer administering the Government, to join his Executive Council as a transitional measure. When the experiment broke down and Wynyard turned to Wakefield as unofficial adviser, the House protested against this by resolution. Wakefield retained the confidence of his constituents, but exposure to a cold wind after a densely crowded meeting in December brought on an attack of rheumatic fever and he never recovered his health. He retired from the House of Representatives at the general election of 1855 and from the Provincial Council later in the year. He took some part in the provincial elections of 1857, but afterwards lived quietly at his home in Wellington, where he died on 18 May 1862.

Wakefield was a stoutish man about 5 ft 6 in. in height, with a massive head, a fair complexion, longish hair, and brilliant blue eyes. Many witnesses testify to his personal fascination. He undoubtedly possessed a touch of genius as a thinker and propagandist. His theories of colonisation fitted neatly into the structure of contemporary economic thought. J. S. Mill treated him with respect and Karl Marx took note of him. He is maligned when accused by Marx and others of wishing to reproduce the aristocratic society of England in the colonies. He wanted his labourers to become landowners in due course. He was politically a radical and sympathetic to the United States, the most democratic and progressive society of the day. His theory, though it made too little allowance for colonial circumstances and, in particular, for the place of pastoral farming in the Australian and New Zealand economy, was by no means entirely inapplicable. Canterbury, the settlement which adhered most closely to his principles, made the most rapid economic advance, though there were no doubt other contributing causes. Wakefield did not care for detail and was not strong in administration; but he had marked political ability, though he was more effective in committee work and personal contacts than he could ever have been in public office. His love of power was almost pathological; more than once he sacrificed principle for power's sake. He was jealous of those who held the positions he could not gain. But, despite his many faults, by the impetus he gave to the colonisation of New Zealand he left a deeper mark on its history than any other man.

by William Parker Morrell, M.A.(N.Z.), D.PHIL.(OXON.), Professorial Fellow, History and Political Science Department, University of Otago.

  • Edward Gibbon Wakefield, Garnett, R. (1898)
  • The Amazing Career of E. G. Wakefield, Harrop, A. J. (1928)
  • The Colonization of Australia, 1829–42, Mills, R. C. (1915).


William Parker Morrell, M.A.(N.Z.), D.PHIL.(OXON.), Professorial Fellow, History and Political Science Department, University of Otago.