George Edward Read was born in Mendlesham, Suffolk, England, probably in 1814 or 1815. His parents' names are unknown, as are details of his early life before he came to the Pacific in the mid 1830s aboard a whaling ship. Read served on various vessels trading around Australia and New Zealand from 1839 until 1852, having gained his first mate's certificate in 1838 or 1839. By 1843 he had advanced to captain, and by 1852 was the owner of a 20 ton schooner, the Mendlesham. He also set up stores at Mawhai, in Waiapu, and later at Waipiro Bay.
Read's opportunity came in 1852: prominent Poverty Bay Maori Hirini Te Kani, Rutene Te Eke and Pahora Pahoe offered to set him up as a trader on the Kaiti side of the Turanganui River. Soon after building a store he established another on the opposite bank of the river, near the confluence of the Waimata and Taruheru rivers. He immediately set about consolidating his position and bought out Yankee Smith, who had stores at Makaraka and Turanga (Gisborne).
Read quickly established himself as the district's principal trader. Over the next 25 years he was a key figure in the transformation of the small Maori and European villages at the Turanganui rivermouth into the colonial town of Gisborne. An astute, and at times unscrupulous businessman, Read was well aware that his prosperity and that of the township were intertwined. He boosted settlement by actions such as advancing money to build a public hall. He assisted settlers to obtain passages to and employment in Gisborne, and issued his own currency. In the uneasy days of the 1860s, when troops were quartered in the district, he was able to benefit by provisioning them.
Read also established himself as a pastoralist. By 1876 he had purchased, or leased interests in, 29 separate blocks of land, in an area extending upriver as far as Makauri and south to the Waipaoa rivermouth. His methods were questionable, but not different from land-grabbing practices elsewhere in New Zealand. Although he was respected by the Maori with whom he dealt, perhaps because of his tough, unrelenting approach, much of his wealth was gained at the expense of those, Maori and Pakeha, who were less commercially experienced. He was a master of the practice of extending liberal credit, then foreclosing and collecting his debts in land.
Besides his store and the aggregation of land, Read invested in land in the Mangatu area, convinced of the presence of oil there, and became a director of the Poverty Bay Petroleum and Kerosene Company. In 1866 he opened Poverty Bay's first hotel, the Albion Club, and the next year built offices which he leased to the government, a deal probably lubricated by his connection with the native minister, Donald McLean, of whom he was a regular correspondent and informant.
Although he declined nomination for the Auckland Provincial Council election in 1873, in 1876 he attempted to enter Parliament. His national political ambitions were fuelled partly by his interest in the Gisborne district's future in a huge electorate which included the Bay of Plenty, from which his opponent, George Morris, came. He was also inspired by party motives. He had long corresponded with McLean about conditions in the district, and in 1876 was concerned to keep a Greyite candidate from gaining the seat. The result was a bizarre and sensational contest. Read was initially elected in January 1876, but unseated in August by a parliamentary commission of inquiry. The inquiry found that his agents had overstepped the mark, although without his knowledge, by giving voters pieces of cardboard which were redeemable in public bars. The election was said to have cost Read about £2,000, compared with the £700 expended by his opponent. The seat went to Morris.
Read was a short, robust man, with plenty of energy and prone to be volatile. He was known as a colourful and powerful personality, and many tales of his dealings and actions are recorded. He was reputed to have a photographic memory of the stock he had in his store. When he thought he had been wronged he was quite willing to seek redress in court or by more direct means. One argument in December 1872 with another store owner, Samuel Horsfall, ended with Read's losing teeth and his competitor's being sued for assault. Read himself was no stranger to the dock of the local courtroom, appearing on charges of abusive language, and once for threatening to shoot a local resident. He made an enemy of the local magistrate, W. H. Tucker, and frequently abused him. Tucker responded by fining Read repeatedly. In May 1874 Read precipitated a strike with a wage offer to a group of immigrant carpenters.
On 2 December 1873, at Gisborne, Read married Noko Pahipa or Bathsheba of Rongowhakaata. Towards the end of his life he lived with Noko on a property he owned at Matawhero, called The Willows. He died at Gisborne on 23 February 1878, leaving no children. The manner of Read's death was in keeping with his character. He died of a heart attack after returning from a heated argument with a local resident. Although Read had sold his main commercial interests to William Adair three years previously, his extensive land dealings, both freehold and leasehold, were to provide his executors with a tangle which took years to sort out.