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Story: Godley, John Robert

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Godley, John Robert


Lawyer, writer, administrator, coloniser, public servant

This biography, written by Gerald Hensley, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.

John Robert Godley, founder of the Canterbury settlement, is said to have been born in Dublin, Ireland, on 29 May 1814, the eldest son of John Godley, a prosperous landowner of Killegar and his wife, Katharine Daly. On 29 September 1846 he married Charlotte Griffith Wynne of Voelas, Denbighshire, Wales. They had one son and four daughters. Godley died in London of 'tubercular consumption' on 17 November 1861.

Godley was educated first at Harrow; then in 1832 he went on a scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford, where he studied Classics. Although he was disappointed not to take a first class degree in 1836, he benefited from his time at Oxford in other ways. The influence of the young W. E. Gladstone was strong at Christ Church, and the Oxford movement for religious reform began in Godley's time. Godley was called to the Irish Bar in 1839. As an all but briefless barrister he completed his education by reading widely in history, political theory and economics. From this reading he formed his first views on government and society.

These views were clarified by a journey he made to the United States and Canada in 1842. The resulting book, Letters from America (1844), attracted some attention. Although he mistrusted American democracy, he saw in the United States and in Canada the moral and material blessings of self-government; he saw in Upper Canada the advantages of systematic colonisation; and in the United States he noted the vigour of a self-reliant, unestablished Episcopalian church.

Appointed high sheriff of County Leitrim in 1843 Godley put his ideas into action. Ireland was then in a state of ferment over the land agitation. Godley showed his practical gifts in keeping peace and order in Leitrim, and his liberal thinking in opposing coercion and supporting Catholic education. All such efforts were negated in the catastrophe of the potato famine. In default of adequate government action he joined a committee of landlords to work for relief and for longer-term solutions. His distinctive contribution in 1847 ('Mr Godley's scheme') was a proposal for the large-scale settlement of Irish emigrants with their own endowed priests in Ontario, the cost of up to £3 million to be met by an income and property tax. It was considered by a special parliamentary committee but the government found it too bold.

His emigration plan, however, had caught the attention of that restless propagandist, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, and a fruitful weekend meeting in November 1847 launched the Canterbury Association. Godley had powers of leadership and a public reputation. Wakefield, who had neither, saw in Godley the man to take up his languishing hopes of further colonisation in New Zealand. Although there had been shadowy plans four years earlier for a Church of England settlement under the New Zealand Company, what emerged from their discussions over two days was a firm scheme: the purchase of 300,000 acres for settlement of members of the Church of England, selected from all ranks of society and supported by religious and educational endowments.

The Canterbury Association, set up in early 1848, reflected Godley's ecclesiastical and political influence and was the most eminent colonisation society ever formed. This was important to Godley who, like Wakefield, distinguished sharply between colonisation and mere emigration. Canterbury was to have settlers of wealth and position as well as assisted migrants, a balance of the sexes, and churches and schools from the outset. It was to plant overseas a society which would carry on the values of an England increasingly threatened by industrialisation and revolution at home.

From March 1848 a management committee of the association was at work. As Europe boiled over in revolution, it named the chief town ('I hope that my old college is grateful to me', said Godley), issued a prospectus, commenced negotiations with the New Zealand Company for a block of land, and dispatched Captain Joseph Thomas in July to choose a site and begin preparations for the arrival of settlers. In the year that passed before Thomas's selection of the 'Port Cooper plains' was known, the association lobbied the Colonial Office unsuccessfully for a self-governing charter, which Godley believed was the key to a self-reliant spirit. It also plunged into the complexities, legal and personal, of finding a bishop for the new Canterbury.

Godley's agreement to act as lay leader in the absence of a religious leader greatly improved the prospects of the new settlement. With his wife and baby son he arrived at Port Cooper (Lyttelton) in April 1850, as the association's 'Resident Chief Agent'. He met Captain Thomas there and was delighted with what he saw. The land was surveyed, three towns were laid out and accommodation built at Lyttelton. Godley stopped any further spending, for the association's debts were mounting, and after only two days left for Wellington to await news of the departure of the first settlers, already christened the Canterbury Pilgrims by the London newspapers.

The news was some months in coming. In London 'the affair lost its soul and body when it lost Godley, who both thought and acted for everybody', said Wakefield. Land sales fell well short of the optimistic projections and Lord Lyttelton and the leading supporters more than once saved the association from default. However, the first fleet of four ships reached Lyttelton in December 1850 and Godley was there to greet them. It was, said a perceptive friend, the moment to which his whole life had tended. Charlotte Godley noted that her husband did not know whether to laugh or cry 'and I believe ended by doing both'.

From then until his departure two years later Godley was in effect governor of the little settlement. The administrative briskness of the landowner came to the fore. He sorted out people's troubles, tramped the plains and kept open house in the evenings. The dusty realities of Lyttelton streets or Christchurch politics did not dismay him, then or later: 'the future, not the present, should be the measure'. High minded, scrupulous and sometimes irritable he was 'like a whale in a duck-pond', but his character gave him an authority which was never questioned.

He used it to over-ride the association in the first crisis of the infant colony. Wool was clearly the future of the settlement – Godley among others had pointed it out before he left England – but compact colonisation was not easy to reconcile with what Wakefield called 'squatting and barbarism'. In April 1851 Godley bypassed the law and changed the association's niggardly terms for pastoral leases. He thus enabled the settlement to break out of its enclave around Christchurch and into sustained growth.

In the ensuing remonstrances Godley pointed out bluntly that the business of the association was to found Canterbury not to govern it. The belief that distant government was a blight pervaded his writings and speeches on colonial matters. Through his public statements he influenced colonial theory in London at least as much as colonial practice in Canterbury. He believed that settlers would never grow in prosperity or in moral stature unless they were responsible for the control of their affairs and, therefore, the consequences of their decisions. He argued for the fullest colonial self-government in an open letter to Gladstone before leaving for New Zealand. During his few months in Wellington he clashed with Governor George Grey by urging the settlers to hold out for responsible and not merely representative government. In Canterbury, with each bundle of mail from England, he saw his fears confirmed in frustrating detail. It led to the most memorable of his sayings: 'I would rather be governed by a Nero on the spot, than by a board of angels in London, because we could, if the worst came to the worst, cut off Nero's head, but we could not get at the board in London at all'.

An offer of resignation in June 1851 was smoothed over and Godley agreed to stay until the New Zealand Constitution Act was proclaimed and Canterbury had its own government. He left in December 1852, declining a petition to be the first superintendent of the new provincial government. He later regretted leaving, and his concern with Canterbury and his pleasure in being the 'notorious author of the Great Canterbury Failure' continued for the rest of his life.

In London he wrote for the Spectator and other newspapers on the subject of colonial reform. At first he was commissioner of income tax in Ireland, and then in 1855 he became assistant under secretary at the War Office. In the latter post he set his clear and powerful mind to think about defence reorganisation, but colonial defence was where he had most influence in the few years left to him. He argued that British troops in the self-governing colonies served no strategic purpose but had become instead a kind of colonial police force; they sapped colonial self-reliance and should be removed. These views had far-reaching effects on imperial defence policy in the 1860s and on the course of New Zealand history in that decade, as Britain struggled to control the spread of fighting and to withdraw its troops. But Godley by then was dead of his recurrent 'throat complaint'.

Because he died prematurely, his legacy was influence more than achievement. That influence was evident in Liberal colonial policy, and was acknowledged by Gladstone, who called Godley 'a king among men'. It faded in Canterbury. The citizens of Christchurch erected a statue in 1867 and then forgot about him. Had he been able to see the growing city of Christchurch, the unsentimental Godley would have required no other memorial.

How to cite this page:

Gerald Hensley. 'Godley, John Robert', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1g12/godley-john-robert (accessed 20 July 2024)