WOOD, Reader Gillson
Architect and Minister of the Crown.
Reader Gillson Wood was born in 1821 at Highfields, Leicester, England, the son of Thomas Wood, a London wool stapler, and Sarah, née Gillson. He was educated at the Merchant Taylors' School, London, and apprenticed to William Flint, an architect and surveyor. About 1843 Wood emigrated to Australia and in the following year came to New Zealand where he obtained a commission in the volunteer artillery. He saw active service at Ohaeawai, during the uprising of Hone Heke, and was mentioned in dispatches. After the war he settled in Auckland where he practised his profession for some years. In 1848 he was appointed Inspector of Roads; a year later he became permanent Government Architect and Inspector of Public Works. In 1852 he became Deputy Surveyor-General for New Ulster. He retained this position under the Auckland Provincial Government until 1856, when control over waste lands was transferred to the General Government. From 1857 until 1861 he represented Auckland Suburbs in the Provincial Council; and in 1858 stood unsuccessfully against Forsaith for the House of Representatives. On 15 January 1861 he defeated Heale for the Parnell seat, and shortly afterwards joined Fox's Ministry as Colonial Treasurer and Commissioner of Customs, retaining these portfolios in the succeeding Domett and Whitaker Ministries. He retired from the latter Ministry in November 1864, when he went to London to raise the £3,000,000 needed to finance the Government's land-settlement scheme. His mission was not entirely successful, and on his return he resigned from Parliament in order to resume practice as an architect and sharebroker. In 1870 he returned to Parliament where he emerged as one of the strongest opponents of Vogel on financial matters. He re-entered the Auckland Provincial Council (1873–76) and served on Sir George Grey's Provincial Executive in 1875.
Wood supported the Grey Ministry until shortly after the 1879 general election. He attended the Liberal caucuses which followed the Ministry's defeat and at one of these he proposed that Macandrew should succeed Grey as the party leader. With Grey and Macandrew he was elected to the Committee of Management formed to conduct the party's affairs and participated in its deliberations until 29 October 1879. On that day he informed the committee that he and his Auckland colleagues, Colbeck, Hurst, and Swanson, intended to support Hall on the forthcoming motion of no confidence. Later he informed the House that, although he had consistently supported Grey as party leader, he considered his allegiance had terminated when the party chose to discard Grey. In the meantime he had been approached by Hall and had agreed, conditionally upon the Government's undertaking to promote certain liberal measures and ensuring that Auckland would receive its fair share of loan moneys, to transfer his support. Wood was criticised severely for his insistence on the latter condition and his action was long cited as an example of the worst evils of the party system. It is more probable, however, that Wood merely wished to prevent a repetition of the situation in 1877 when Larnach carried a want of confidence motion against the Atkinson Ministry and had forced Sir George Grey upon a reluctant House as Premier. The whole business aroused great bitterness in the House. The revolt of the “Auckland Rats”, as Wood and his associates were called, split the Liberal Party into several factions, the most notable being those led by Macandrew and Montgomery. These were not reunited until 1888 when Ballance became Leader of the Opposition. Wood remained in Parliament until November 1881 when he retired from politics.
On 20 May 1850, at the Church of St. Paul, Auckland, Wood married Mary Jane Holland. He died on 20 August 1895 at Brighton Road, Parnell, leaving one son.
Wood possessed a sound knowledge of finance and proved an able administrator. He was a fluent speaker, showed great facility as a debater, and in Parliament became one of Vogel's most pungent and unrelenting critics.
by Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.
Grey Papers (MSS), Auckland Public Library; N.Z.P.D. Vol. 32 (1879); New Zealand Herald, 21 Aug 1895 (Obit); Auckland Star, 21 Aug 1895 (Obit), 23 Aug 1895.