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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.


WAKEFIELD, Lieutenant-Colonel William Hayward


Known as Colonel Wakefield, Principal Agent for the New Zealand Company in New Zealand.

William Hayward Wakefield was born in 1803 at Burnham Wick, Essex, the fourth son of Edward Wakefield and Susanna, née Crash (d. 1817). Brought up for the most part by his paternal grandmother, Priscilla Wakefield, William was educated at Haigh's School, Tottenham, and was later attached to the British Embassy at Turin where his brother Edward Gibbon was also employed. For assisting his brother in the abduction of Ellen Turner (1826) he was sentenced to three years' imprisonment in Lancaster Castle.

On his release Wakefield travelled widely in Austria, Russia, and Lapland and, in 1832, entered the Portuguese service where he distinguished himself and was made a Knight of the Order of the Tower and Sword. He then served with the British Legion in Spain where he rose to the rank of lieutenant-colonel and commanded the First Lancers under Sir de Lacy Evans. After 1837 he commanded the Third Legion and so distinguished himself in the campaign against the Carlists that Queen Isabella created him Knight in the Order of San Fernando.

At the close of the Spanish War Wakefield became interested in the New Zealand Company and, when his brother Arthur declined the principal agency, he sailed for New Zealand in the Tory, arriving at Queen Charlotte Sound on 16 August 1839. Dicky Barrett piloted them to Port Nicholson (Wellington Harbour) where they anchored off Petone foreshore. Wakefield negotiated with the Ngati Awa Chief Epuni for the 1,100 acres of town land and 110,000 acres required for the settlement. In November Wakefield visited Te Rauparaha at Kapiti where he purchased large tracts of land on both sides of Cook Strait. He then sailed for Hokianga (via Taranaki) where he arranged to take possession of the lands bought by the 1825 New Zealand Company. The first immigrant ships, Aurora, Oriental, and Duke of Roxburgh arrived in January and February 1840 at Petone where Mein Smith and his surveyors had laid out the town.

Colonel Wakefield held two difficult and, to a certain extent, conflicting roles in the new settlement. As the Company's Principal Agent in the colony, he was charged with implementing the objects and policies decided upon by the court of directors in London. He was responsible to the directors for arranging the purchase of land, the allocation of this among settlers, the reception and settling of new arrivals, for appointing, discharging, and controlling Company staff in New Zealand and, in fact, for all the myriad duties attributing to a chief administrator in any large commercial venture.

Because there were doubts about the British Government's intentions towards New Zealand, the Company made interim arrangements for the governance of its settlement. Before they left England the colonists contracted to submit all things according to the laws of England, to be ruled by a committee elected from among their number, and to settle disputes by appeal to a magisterial umpire. Colonel Wakefield was ex-officio president of this committee and thus political head of the settlement. The arrangement functioned temporarily pending British annexation, but until this was done the committee remained the de-facto government in Wellington. The Treaty of Waitangi legally superseded the committee; however, it discharged its functions until it dissolved automatically upon the Colonial Secretary's, Willoughby Shortland's, arrival in Wellington on 7 June 1840. After this Wakefield lost much of his political status in the settlement but, as the Company's senior officer, he remained the main channel of communication between the Wellington settlers and the Governor.

Following upon the treaty, Hobson proclaimed that no European land purchases could be recognised until these had been inquired into by Government commissioners. This caused the Company great embarrassment and Wakefield found himself in an unenviable position between the Government, which was slow to investigate the Company's land claims, and the settlers, who demanded that the Company fulfil its contract to them. The land problem coloured Wellington's political life for some years and led, among other things, to the celebrated Wakefield-Featherston duel in March 1847. Colonel Wakefield led the long drawn-out negotiations with the Government over the land question and his last act as Principal Agent was to reach final agreement on the settlers' claims.

As Principal Agent, Wakefield supervised the Company's settlements in Nelson and at Wanganui (Petre) and, when the Plymouth Company merged with the New Zealand Company, his authority extended to the Taranaki settlement also. He also initiated the preliminary steps which led to the acquisition of land for the New Edinburgh settlement at Otago. Colonel Wakefield died, of apoplexy, at Wellington on 19 September 1848.

A cultured and competent administrator and an astute political negotiator, Colonel Wakefield had charge of the New Zealand Company's settlement at a particularly difficult time. As executive and political head of the Wellington settlement, and as titular head of other Company settlements, he held an authority rivalling that of the Queen's Governor. When his political power moved to other hands, Wakefield found himself in the unenviable position of being responsible to an overseas authority for a situation not of his making. Be that as it may, he must share some responsibility for the moves leading to the tragic Wairau Affray, for he was aware that his claim to have purchased the district had been challenged.

In 1826, Wakefield eloped with Emily Elizabeth, daughter of Sir John Sidney, Bt., of Penshurst Place, and sister of Philip Sidney, afterwards Baron de Lisle and Dudley. By her (she died in 1827) he had one daughter, Emily Charlotte who, on 24 September 1846, married E. W. Stafford, later Premier of New Zealand.

by Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.

  • N.Z.C. 1/8; 3/9; 102/1 (MSS), National Archives;
  • Early Victorian New Zealand, Miller, J. (1958)
  • Crown Colony Government in New Zealand, McLintock, A. H. (1958).


Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.