James Edward FitzGerald is said to have been born in 1818 at Bath, England. He was the youngest son of Gerald FitzGerald, landowner, of Kilminchy, Queen's County, Ireland, and his second wife, Catherine O'Brien. Though FitzGerald cherished his Irish ancestry he was educated in England, at schools in Bath and at Christ's College, Cambridge, where he graduated BA in 1842.
A commission in the Royal Engineers eluded him because of poor eyesight and instead he joined the British Museum in 1844 as a junior assistant in the Department of Antiquities, rising to become, on 17 January 1848, the assistant secretary of the museum. For two years before commencing work, he went on walking tours in Scotland and Ireland, where he observed and sketched the people he met. He became aware of the problem of poverty and began to think of possible solutions.
During the Irish famine, in 1846, he wrote a pamphlet advocating relief committees and also devised a scheme for the systematic colonisation of Vancouver Island, which was to be called 'New Ireland'. His advocacy of the scheme led him to challenge the Hudson's Bay Company claim for proprietary rights to the island by writing pamphlets and letters to the press. This agitation brought him into association with W. E. Gladstone and Lord Lincoln, who led the attack on the company in Parliament. FitzGerald was also associated with Lord Lyttelton, Sir William Molesworth, Charles Adderley, Joseph Hume, Richard Cobden, Baron Wodehouse and others in the Colonial Reform Society, of which he became first secretary in 1850. He also toyed briefly with the idea of fostering colonisation in India. After a meeting with Edward Gibbon Wakefield in 1849 he became secretary of the Canterbury Association and helped to plan a Church of England colony in New Zealand. He drafted the constitution of the Society of Canterbury Colonists and was appointed emigration agent of the association.
FitzGerald's marriage on 22 August 1850 at the church of St George, Bloomsbury, London, to Frances (Fanny) Erskine Draper, 18-year-old daughter of a merchant, had an unfortunate sequel in a bitter personal quarrel with his father-in-law. Soon after, the couple sailed for Canterbury on the Charlotte Jane. When they reached Lyttelton on 16 December 1850, FitzGerald was the first to leap ashore.
On arrival FitzGerald was appointed sub-inspector of police by the colonial government and carried on as emigration agent for the association in New Zealand. He was the founding editor of the Lyttelton Times, which appeared as a weekly on 11 January 1851. He soon acquired a small house high on the hillside overlooking Lyttelton Harbour, but in 1853 moved to the Springs station, west of Christchurch, which he ran as a cattle and dairy farm. A somewhat unsuccessful runholder, dogged by heart disease, FitzGerald nevertheless emerged as a leading figure in early Canterbury.
In the first election for superintendent of the province of Canterbury under the 1852 constitution, FitzGerald, a natural orator, won a convincing victory over his rivals, Colonel James Campbell and Henry Tancred. Consistent with the aims of the Colonial Reform Society he was the first to introduce a form of responsible government into New Zealand. He endeavoured to fill the void between the provincial executive (the superintendent and his administration) and the legislature (the provincial council) by creating an executive council, which included members of the elected council. He intended to make the executive responsible to the legislature, and John Hall accepted this as 'a system of responsible Government adapted to our peculiar circumstances'.
During FitzGerald's superintendency (1853–57) the population doubled, from 3,000 to 6,230; the province assumed the debts of the Canterbury Association in return for such assets as Hagley Park and Christchurch's squares; the price of land was reduced from £3 to £2 per acre; and a road connecting Christchurch and the port of Lyttelton was completed. FitzGerald effected a dramatic opening on 24 August 1857 by driving his wide, big-wheeled dog-cart over the hazardous route, via Sumner, in four hours. The association's aim of a college was fulfilled, largely through Henry Sewell's efforts, but FitzGerald probably bestowed its name, Christ's College, after his Alma Mater.
FitzGerald also played an important if brief role in colonial politics. As MHR for Lyttelton in the first General Assembly in 1854 he was the only provincial superintendent to attend the first session, and moved the address in reply. After Edward Gibbon Wakefield's motion of 2 June 1854 calling for responsible government was passed, Colonel R. H. Wynyard, the acting governor, decided to add three 'unofficials' from the House to the Executive Council. He summoned FitzGerald as leader, with Henry Sewell and Frederick Weld as colleagues. This arrangement was accepted under the misapprehension that full ministerial responsibility would follow. The putative 'ministers' regarded themselves as a cabinet and expected the permanent officials shortly to retire. But the latter had been appointed by royal warrant and Wynyard felt obliged to consult the Colonial Office. FitzGerald was, in effect, leader of government business in the Assembly and merely one of a mixed ministry of officials and unofficials which formed an interim link between executive and legislature.
After seven weeks of frustration the 'unofficials' resigned and FitzGerald's aspirations collapsed amid recriminations. When responsible government was finally tried in April 1856, after Wynyard had secured authority from London, FitzGerald was too ill to attend the opening of the Assembly and Sewell was summoned as first premier. Unable to get a majority he resigned after less than three weeks and another attempt by William Fox also failed. The first effective ministry was led by Edward Stafford with Sewell as colonial treasurer.
FitzGerald attended the House towards the end of the session in spite of frequent attacks of angina, and by July 1856 doctors were telling him to rest for at least a year. He resigned his seat in the Assembly in 1857, declined to stand for re-election as superintendent and returned to England, where he acted as Canterbury's emigration agent for three years. In this role he dispatched 4,000 migrants and promoted construction of or additions to a provincial railway system, Christchurch Cathedral and the infant Christ's College. He was offered the governorships of both British Columbia and Queensland, but declined for health reasons.
Back in New Zealand in 1860 he returned to his Springs station, but could not stay away from politics, representing Akaroa on the Canterbury Provincial Council from June 1861 to December 1863. His chief contribution, at this stage, was vehement but fruitless opposition to the scheme of his successor, W. S. Moorhouse, for a direct rail tunnel linking Lyttelton and Christchurch and costing over £¼ million.
FitzGerald's most forthright attacks appeared as editorials in the Press, which he had founded. The first issue appeared on 25 May 1861. Backed initially by a syndicate of Canterbury runholders, the paper prospered and on St Patrick's Day 1863 became the province's first daily. Although FitzGerald became sole proprietor in 1862, he incurred large debts in his successful development of the paper. By 1868 he had to relinquish control to a company.
FitzGerald returned to colonial politics during the wars of the 1860s. He was MHR for Ellesmere (1862–66) and for Christchurch (1866–67). Motivated by practical as well as idealistic considerations, he was an outspoken advocate of Māori rights, race assimilation and peace. In a pamphlet in 1860 he had called for the transfer of Māori affairs from the governor to the responsible ministry and had opposed Governor Thomas Gore Browne's alternative scheme for placing Māori affairs under an appointed council responsible to the Crown.
On 6 August 1862 he made an eloquent plea for equal civil and political rights for all New Zealanders. He suggested that Māori chiefs should be brought into the administration and into the Legislative Council and that the Māori people should receive one third of the representation in the House of Representatives, subordinate legislative bodies and courts of law. He wanted to recognise the Māori King and let him be 'Superintendent of his own province'. He declared that 'there are only two possible futures before the Māori people. You must be prepared to win their confidence, or you must be prepared to destroy them'. He castigated the land confiscation policy as an 'enormous crime', opposed colonisation by military settlers and called for the withdrawal of British troops.
In 1865 he was minister for native affairs for the last two months of Weld's 'self-reliant ministry'. He introduced measures which were intended to defuse racial tensions but which failed in this purpose. The Native Rights Act, confirming Māori people in the rights of British subjects, was not consistently implemented and the Native Lands Act led to further alienation of Māori land. A bill which he introduced to authorise Māori provinces in the North Island lapsed.
FitzGerald's career took a completely new turn when he retired from politics in January 1867 on appointment as comptroller of the public account at a salary of £800. After his somewhat tempestuous and financially disastrous 17-year association with Canterbury, he moved to Wellington, where he spent the last 30 years of his life. His statutory function was to control the issue of public moneys by government warrant. Under the Public Revenues Act 1872 his office was placed under a commission of audit, along with the auditor general, and from 1878 until his death, FitzGerald combined the two offices of comptroller and auditor general.
As well as filling a central role in public administration he was prominent in the intellectual and cultural life of the capital. He was an accomplished watercolourist and wrote verse and drama. Well known as a speaker, debater, pamphleteer and contributor to the literary reviews, he lectured to the New Zealand Institute, was a member of the Union Debating Society and was a founder of the Wellington Citizens Institute.
His wife, Frances, was also prominent in the community as a member of the Wellington Ladies' Christian Association and various other charities. She was a well-educated woman, spoke several languages and was a competent painter and musician. Aside from her involvement in public life, she brought up a family of 13 children.
In the late 1880s, as the government retrenched and cut civil service salaries, FitzGerald took part in discussions on the formation of a civil servants' union. The movement came to a head on 25 July 1890 when Parliament reduced the Audit Office vote by £950. This was followed within days by meetings to found the Public Service Association. FitzGerald presided over the second meeting, joined the provisional committee and was elected first president of the association, a position he held for three years. Moving the adoption of the rules on 28 February 1892, he asserted that an association for the public service was 'not for the purpose of enlarging its emoluments, but of maintaining its character and increasing its efficiency'.
FitzGerald was a big man, close to six feet tall, and wore a moustache with a rather thin, straggly beard. In his Canterbury days his clothes hung loosely on him and he wore a tam-o'-shanter. He was remembered for his high-mindedness, wit and, especially, his skill as a public speaker. He could be volatile and impetuous, but also charming and persuasive. Sewell, who at first found him 'unstable as water', concluded in the end that he was 'a man of brilliant talent' and came to have a 'high estimate of his personal amiability and generosity of temperament'. On his political career William Gisborne's judgement may stand: 'There were no rising statesmen of the day…of whom greater expectations were formed. The pity of it is that those expectations were not fulfilled'.
FitzGerald appeared prematurely aged in his 40s through ill health, responsibility and, probably, financial insecurity. However, he lived to be nearly 80. He died on 2 August 1896 and was buried in the Bolton Street cemetery, Wellington. He had given up a promising career in the British Museum and high social connections in London to become a colonist. It took him a while to find his niche in the colony, but through it all he remained a cultured, Irish gentleman.