William Fox was born at Westoe, Durham, England, and was baptised on 2 September 1812 at South Shields. He was the third of five surviving sons of George Townshend Fox and his wife, Ann Stote Crofton. His father was a man of substance, serving his county as a justice of the peace and deputy lieutenant. Fox continued this tradition by becoming a landowner in New Zealand and four times premier of the colony.
The children of George and Ann Fox all received a sound education and a small but assured income for life. Three of the sons became ministers in the Church of England. William is thought to have attended the grammar school at Durham and went from there to Wadham College, Oxford, in 1828. There he was influenced by the political economist and churchman Richard Whately. He took his BA in 1832 and in 1839 paid the college fees which entitled him to graduate MA.
Nothing is known of Fox's early and mid 20s; he may have spent these years travelling in Europe. In 1838 he entered the Inner Temple in London to read law. Before being called to the Bar on 29 April 1842, he worked for a year as a special pleader and wrote a small treatise on the law of contracts.
On 3 May, within days of qualifying, Fox married Sarah Halcomb, daughter of a Wiltshire landowner. Their marriage was childless, although in their 60s they adopted and educated a Māori child, Wiremu Pokiha Omahura. Six weeks after their marriage William and Sarah Fox emigrated to New Zealand on a New Zealand Company ship, the George Fyfe. Fox was an enthusiastic disciple of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, regarding colonisation as one of the great adventures of the nineteenth century. In a sixpenny pamphlet he published in 1842, Colonization and New Zealand, he presented New Zealand as the ideal colony, fertile, balmy, free of dangerous animals and poisonous reptiles, with a well-educated, intelligent native population and a superior class of immigrant.
When William and Sarah Fox arrived at Wellington on 7 November 1842 they were disappointed by the primitive state of the settlement and the lack of progress. Fox's legal qualifications were recognised by the local county court judge, subject to the approval of the chief justice, William Martin, but work was scarce and he had to supplement his income by writing for the New Zealand Gazette and Wellington Spectator. When Martin visited Wellington in March 1843 he demanded that Fox submit to an examination and swear an oath that he had never done anything that would make him unfit to be a lawyer. Fox refused, arguing that such an oath was derogatory to his profession and to him as a gentleman. Martin would not back down and despite protests in the press and to the British colonial authorities Fox was unable to practise.
Fox then took over the editorship of the Gazette and extended his feud with Martin to the entire government and missionary establishment in Auckland. He condemned the Treaty of Waitangi as 'shallow, flimsy sophistry' and adopted the legal argument that the Māori had rights only to the land which they inhabited and cultivated. He was outraged by the killing of Arthur Wakefield and other Nelson settlers at Wairau and by Governor Robert FitzRoy's refusal to punish the Māori participants. In September 1843 he succeeded Wakefield as the New Zealand Company agent in Nelson.
When Fox became the Nelson agent, the company, in an attempt to cut costs, had withdrawn its promise to employ working class settlers. Faced with their angry protests, Fox devised a scheme to employ them for half the week and to allocate small sections of land which they could cultivate on the other days. The scheme was quite contrary to Wakefield's principles but was the only way in which the settlers could survive. Fox also had to sort out the tangle of land claims caused by the company's inadequate surveys and complicated system of land distribution. He seems to have done this with some skill and common sense but no one could have fully satisfied the land purchasers.
While at Nelson, Fox made several exploratory journeys into the surrounding country. He was a very physical person and enjoyed the occasional tough pioneering experience. In 1843 he was one of the first party of Europeans to journey into Wairarapa. In March 1845 he travelled through the country north of the mouth of the Wairau River, and the next year spent three weeks exploring the Buller Gorge with Thomas Brunner, Charles Heaphy and Kehu. In 1846 he visited Banks Peninsula and Otago.
Before a militia was enrolled at Nelson, Fox controlled the main supply of arms. He was a ready leader of armed sorties out into the countryside. If Fox could have had his way, land unused by the Māori would have been declared waste land and the settlers would have moved on to it, accompanied by troops to defend them.
Initially popular in Nelson, by 1847 Fox was unhappy there. The settlement was poor and struggling and he was the immediate target of complaints and recriminations. His farming partnership with the squatter George Duppa was gossiped about and he was accused of favouring Duppa. He became secretive about his affairs, lost the trust of his former friends and felt isolated.
In February 1848 he accepted an offer from Governor George Grey to become attorney general for the province of New Munster, but stayed on in Nelson to settle outstanding land claims. While still there, he found out that Grey did not intend to introduce responsible government, so he resigned the post. Later in the year he was prepared to accept the less political job of investigating land claims in the north, and was on his way to Auckland when the principal agent of the New Zealand Company, William Wakefield, died in Wellington. Fox held a power of attorney from Wakefield and seized the opportunity to take over the affairs of the company. His decisive action outwitted the younger, less astute Francis Dillon Bell, who had been assisting Wakefield and had recently been recommended to the London board by Wakefield as his successor.
As the company's principal agent, Fox administered a declining establishment. He travelled around the company settlements tidying up the loose ends of land distribution and negotiating compensation with disappointed purchasers. In Wellington he continued his battle against the establishment, mounting a relentless attack on Grey, who had thwarted the settlers' hopes for self-government. He denounced Grey's nominee councils, and, as he saw them, the spineless and devious Colonial Office, the inefficient and incompetent administration in New Zealand and the ignorant and untrained magistracy.
In November 1850 a meeting of Wellington settlers appointed Fox as their political agent to visit England, where he was to lobby for political and constitutional reform. As the New Zealand Company had recently surrendered its charter and was winding up its business, Fox had nothing to keep him in New Zealand. In February 1851 he and Sarah Fox left Wellington and arrived in London the following June. They revisited their families and met Edward Gibbon Wakefield for the first time. William engaged in a disputatious correspondence with the Liberal secretary of state for the colonies, Earl Grey, who refused to see him officially. He discussed the form of the colony's new constitution with Wakefield, Henry Sewell, Frederick Weld and Charles Adderley. Fox wanted autonomy in all local matters and a set of strong regional governments bound together in a federal parliament made up of two elected houses. The constitution enacted in 1852 fell far short of this, although the regional element was represented by six provincial governments. Fox is usually credited with the creation of New Plymouth as a separate province.
While he was in England Fox published The six colonies of New Zealand (1851). After describing the country and its six settlements, with some strong criticism of the 'rotten, delusive' town of Auckland, Fox delivered a polemic on Māori policy and colonial administration. He believed, correctly, that the Māori population was declining and, incorrectly, that the Māori people would be exterminated within his lifetime. In his opinion the Māori were confused and convinced of their inferiority to European technology and culture; Māori women were reduced to a life of hardship and drudgery that prevented a regeneration and revival of their people. The best way forward was by integrating Māori and European into one economy and one workforce. The government should proceed as rapidly as possible with the purchase of Māori land, making it available to European farmers. These ideas were widely shared by settlers in the New Zealand Company settlements. In the final section of his book Fox exposed the failings and inadequacies of the Grey administration and the inherent injustice of the Crown colony system of government.
William and Sarah Fox left England in 1852 and spent several months travelling in Canada, the United States and Cuba. Fox documented this trip in an impressive series of watercolours. He was a talented and prolific painter, mainly of landscapes. His early paintings of Wairarapa and Nelson are of real significance in the art history of the country. They are striking, romantic portrayals of a newly discovered landscape. The American paintings capture a variety of landscapes – rural, prairie, mountain, small town and even industrial. Later paintings of Westoe, the home he built in Rangitīkei, show the contrast between the magnificent surrounding bluffs and the tamed country-house garden. His interest was in the land and what people could do to the land.
By the time the Foxes arrived back in Wellington, in February 1854, the new constitution had been acted on and the first elections held. In June 1854 Fox won a seat on the Wellington Provincial Council and in 1855 he was elected to represent Whanganui in the House of Representatives. With Isaac Earl Featherston and William Fitzherbert, Fox promoted a policy of provincial independence. Their object was to secure extensive powers of legislation and financial control for the provinces. During the 1856 session of Parliament Fox led a 'Wellington Party' of provincial supporters in opposition to the government of Henry Sewell and moved the resolutions which led to Sewell's defeat. The ministry subsequently formed by Fox lasted only a fortnight, and was succeeded by an administration led by Edward Stafford, which lasted till 1861. Fox's provincial policies were too extreme for some members and the Aucklanders could not forget the slight on their town in The six colonies. Fox was respected enough in Wellington but he had few loyal supporters in the rest of the colony.
Fox seems to have spent most of the years from 1857 to 1859 working on his property at Rangitīkei, purchased in 1849 – he said that he had 'almost retired'. However, in 1859 he was appointed commissioner of Crown lands for Wellington province, and during the 1860 session of Parliament he returned to the political fray and became the unofficial leader of the opposition to the Stafford government. He was indignant about the policies and actions of the government and also the governor, Thomas Gore Browne, which had led early in the year to the outbreak of war in Taranaki. In particular he denounced the decision to purchase land at Waitara against the will of the principal chief, Wiremu Kīngi Te Rangitāke, which had precipitated the fighting. Fox, Featherston and their friends were labelled 'philo-Maori' – that is, Māori-lovers – by their critics, and were called the 'peace at any price party'. In fact they were no more sympathetic towards Māori culture, society or goals than were their opponents.
In July 1861 Fox moved the want of confidence motion which led to the fall of the Stafford government. He became premier, leading a ministry which included Isaac Featherston and Henry Sewell. He announced a policy of introducing 'new institutions' in Māori districts, to enable Māori to work out their own political destiny. The government also proposed to cease purchasing Māori land for a time, since negotiations for purchasing were a constant source of unrest among the Māori.
Shortly afterwards George Grey was reappointed governor of New Zealand. Fox claimed that the ministry could not constitutionally control Māori policy, which was an imperial concern, but merely advise the governor. The imperial government would be, in the view of the colonists, liable for the costs of war, should it ensue. The masterful Grey, however, while claiming that the ministry had now accepted the responsibility for Māori policy and its costs, took control of it himself.
Fox proved more able at bringing about the fall of governments than at governing; indeed, during the uneasy truce of 1861–62 the government became almost a bystander, observing ominous events, as they led to the extension of the war. Fox did, however, make a sincere attempt to assist the governor in introducing the 'new institutions' in Māori districts. These were Māori assemblies, rūnanga, which were intended to become the basis of a form of indirect rule, so that Māori policy should result from Māori initiatives and not simply originate in the colonial Parliament. The 'new institutions' did not, however, succeed in turning the truce into a lasting peace. Fearful of Māori aggression, and aggressive himself, Grey built a military road pointing south from Auckland, straight into the Waikato region, the home of the second Māori King, Tāwhiao. Fox learned from newspapers of the governor's decision to move troops to the border. In August 1862 there was a confused debate over the responsibility for the costs of the war which seemed imminent. Many politicians felt that Fox's government was accepting too great a liability. The ministry was defeated on the casting vote of the speaker.
War broke out again in May 1863. In October Fox returned to office in combination with two businessmen and land speculators, Frederick Whitaker and Thomas Russell. Fox was leader of the House and colonial secretary, but the premier was Whitaker. Effective power lay with the governor, the premier and Russell. As in 1861–62, Fox spent much time touring Māori districts, leaving government to his colleagues, who proceeded to confiscate nearly three million acres of Māori land. They intended to establish military settlements to provide security on the frontiers. Some of the land was to be returned to Māori under Crown titles. Thus Fox was associated with, though he did not initiate, what is widely regarded as the most iniquitous act of a New Zealand government. In The war in New Zealand (1866), while still criticising the Waitara purchase, Fox blamed the new war on the Māori and defended the confiscations. The Whitaker–Fox government lasted only a year, resigning after bitter disputes with the governor over the war and the confiscations.
At the end of 1864 Sarah and William Fox visited Australia, where William, strangely, in view of the temperance beliefs he held, collected cuttings for a vineyard at Westoe. They travelled on to England, where they remained for three years, returning to New Zealand late in 1867. Stafford's government and the opposition both looked forward to Fox's re-entering politics. John Hall welcomed him with an invitation to join the ministry and a warning that the days of the provinces were numbered. The opposition, which had floundered along in 1867, hoped that Fox would lead them back into office. A vacancy was created in Rangitīkei and, returning to Parliament for the 1868 session, Fox slipped into his old role of opposition leader. In the House he was in good form, leading an effective attack on Stafford's Māori and provincial policies. Stafford managed to cling to office until June 1869, when Fox became premier with Julius Vogel and Donald McLean as his leading ministers.
Fox's government came to power when the fighting between Māori and European forces, which had continued through the 1860s, was almost over. Only Te Kooti of the Māori leaders still fought against the settlers and their government. Fox and McLean reduced military activities and expenditure and followed a largely defensive policy. At the same time they tried to persuade the British government to leave the remnant of its troops in New Zealand, an appeal which was eventually refused.
The end of the fighting gave the Fox government an opportunity to develop new policies. However, although impressive in opposition, Fox was not a policy maker and had few ideas about where to lead the country. He abandoned the initiative to his treasurer, Vogel, who had exciting new ideas for the direction of the economy. Fox became a follower, accepting Vogel's idea of borrowing overseas to develop the colony. Claiming that he had always been a 'progressive man', he argued that the time had come for New Zealand to improve its 'estate' and to rekindle the sacred fire of colonisation that had almost flickered out during the 1860s. However, as the money was borrowed and the development went on, Fox was increasingly left behind. While Vogel made overseas tours and major policy speeches, Fox remained in Wellington doing the routine administrative and political work. He was unable to keep his ministry together or to find new ministers. During 1872 Vogel's policy ran into opposition and Fox failed to defend his government against the recurring attacks in the House. He virtually gave up trying to lead and in September was defeated by Stafford.
Stafford's government was in office for just over three weeks but Fox did not return to power. He was 60 and had no further desire for office. Influence was another matter. During the political crisis of February 1873 when the premier, George Waterhouse, suddenly resigned and Vogel was overseas, Governor George Bowen called Fox to Wellington to form a caretaker government. Fox stepped down when Vogel returned. He remained a member of the House and was there when the provinces he had once supported so strongly came under threat of abolition. He told the House he was 'content…to be one of the pall-bearers of provincialism', and that he gloried in the charge of inconsistency when 'inconsistency is the moving from the side which is becoming wrong, in consequence of a change of circumstances, to the right side'.
At the end of the 1874 session Fox decided to resign his seat in Parliament and in 1875 again visited Britain. For six months he travelled as an honorary lecturer for the United Kingdom Alliance, a prohibition organisation. Alfred Saunders, one of New Zealand's first teetotallers, is said to have introduced Fox to temperance in the early 1840s. By the early 1870s he was actively supporting prohibition by the will of the people and in later years would deliver temperance lectures on the slightest excuse, especially to men whose fortunes were built on the sale of liquor. In 1886 he was one of the founders and first president of the New Zealand Alliance.
Fox had become such a permanent feature of the New Zealand political scene that he was elected to Parliament for Whanganui in the general election of 1875–76, even though he was still overseas. He did not take his seat until the 1877 session. His political career was in its final stages. Temperance was his burning interest, but he was a reasonable local advocate and also contributed to debates on educational issues. He had long supported a system of compulsory state education, probably being the author of a series of articles on national education which appeared in the Wellington Independent in 1849. In 1854 he had compiled a report on education for the Wellington Provincial Council. The New Zealand University Act 1870 was brought forward largely on his initiative.
It says something for the strange state of New Zealand politics in the late 1870s that in 1879 the opposition elected Fox to lead them against the government of George Grey, who had become premier in 1877. Fox moved the amendment to the address-in-reply debate that led to Grey's resignation. The House was subsequently dissolved and in the ensuing election Fox lost his seat by 46 votes. He bitterly attributed his defeat to the influence of the Catholic Church, whose hostility he had incurred during the introduction of state education in 1877, and decided that this was the end of his political career. Being made KCMG in 1879 appeared to confirm this decision. However, in less than a year he was back in the House, returned in a by-election for Rangitīkei. In the general election of 1881 he was again defeated and this time did not return to politics.
Fox's greatest contribution to New Zealand history after the struggle for self-government in the 1850s was his work in Taranaki in the early 1880s as a member of the West Coast Commission, which consisted of Francis Dillon Bell and himself. A third commissioner, Hōne Mohi Tāwhai, declined to serve when he heard that his colleagues were to be Fox and Bell. No doubt he questioned the propriety of their appointments. The commission was charged with the duty of inquiring into the numerous promises and engagements allegedly made by successive government officials to the Taranaki Māori, and into all the disputed land claims in that province. Fox had been a member of the government which had confiscated the land and Bell had been a co-author of a pamphlet defending the Waitara purchase which had led to the war.
Leaving the large question of propriety aside, it must be said that Fox worked diligently to resolve the complex and important problems presented by the tangle of competing claims to the coastal lands of southern Taranaki. All of the land had been confiscated; some of it had then been purchased from the owners as well; some had been acquired by payments to chiefs for their mana; some of the land had been returned to friendly hapū. Some hapū had no land; some were living on the land of others. Settlers were moving onto disputed land.
Fox and Bell declined to hear arguments from counsel or evidence about the legality of the confiscations, which had been carried out under the New Zealand Settlements Act. Pai Mārire followers, only a few of whom gave evidence, wanted all their land returned, though much of it was already farmed by settlers. Fox and Bell reported that Taranaki was littered with broken promises; for instance, of reserves promised but not marked out. They awarded very extensive reserves to the Māori, whether friends or foes of the Europeans. Altogether some 256,000 acres of the 1,275,000 acres confiscated were returned. A further 557,000 acres confiscated had been purchased from the Māori. Thus 462,000 acres remained confiscated.
Bell went off to England as agent general and Fox was left the daunting task of ensuring that the recommendations of the commission were carried out. He did an enormous amount of work and succeeded, not in satisfying the Māori, but in achieving a peaceful solution to Taranaki's land problems and in helping to establish a lasting peace. A grateful Parliament awarded him the large sum of £2,000.
William and Sarah Fox left Westoe and moved to Auckland in 1887. Much of Fox's energy was now directed to campaigning for the New Zealand Alliance. He published a series of letters during the election of 1887, later re-issued as a pamphlet, The political crisis. In younger days he had been labelled a radical republican, largely because he favoured for New Zealand a federal system of government on American lines, but he was not radical now. He attributed the depression in New Zealand partly to the spread of 'Socialist and Communistic doctrines', which damaged the country's standing on the stock exchange.
Sarah Fox died on 23 June 1892 and her husband exactly a year later, in Auckland. During his final illness his old enemy, Sir George Grey, visited him.
Fox was a very intelligent man, an excellent debater, but bitter, vituperative. A contemporary, William Gisborne, wrote that he was too fond of personal denunciation. He was a great hater. In politics he tended to react to events rather than to initiate. He knew what he did not like, but had little positive vision of what he did want. Consequently, more determined men, who did know what they wanted, could dominate him. He was not a great leader, not a populist, like Grey, but few New Zealand leaders have made a mark in so many areas – constitutional development, politics, social reform, painting and exploration.