Page 1: Biography
Conolly, Edward Tennyson
Lawyer, politician, judge
This biography, written by Judith Bassett, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.
Edward Tennyson Conolly was born at Chichester, Sussex, England, probably on 31 August 1822, into a family of Irish origin. He was the only son of Elizabeth Collins and her husband, John Conolly, a professor of medicine and later director of Middlesex County Lunatic Asylum at Hanwell, who became famous for his humane reforms in the treatment of the insane. Edward originally intended to follow in his father's profession, but finding the law more congenial he entered the office of a London solicitor and parliamentary agent. In 1849 he entered the Inner Temple and was called to the Bar on 30 January 1852. He married Emily Hubbard in London on 25 August 1851. There were 14 children of the marriage, 10 sons and four daughters, nine of whom survived to maturity.
Conolly spent 13 years in apparently successful practice on the Home circuit and the Sussex sessions. In 1865 he emigrated with his family to Picton, New Zealand. Emigration was not usual for men like Conolly, who was secure in his profession and already in middle life, but by 1865 he and Emily already had eight children and it may have been concern more for their futures than his own that prompted the move.
After being admitted to the New Zealand Bar in October 1865 Conolly practised in Picton, Blenheim and Wellington. He rapidly became one of Picton's leading citizens and in June 1882 was elected first president of the Marlborough District Law Society. He represented the electorate of Town of Picton on the Marlborough Provincial Council from 1867 until the abolition of the provinces in 1876.
Marlborough provincial politics had been exceedingly rancorous, and echoes of old political battles were revived in 1881 when Conolly defeated a former provincial superintendent, W. H. Eyes, for the Picton seat in the General Assembly. The election was further enlivened by Conolly's support for restrictions on liquor selling and gambling and the consequent vigorous opposition to him from local publicans.
Edward Conolly was a conscientious representative of the interests of the Picton electorate, which was composed of a dozen or so isolated hamlets. He dutifully attended to their requests for roads, surveys, wharves and courthouses. In general his political opinions were cautiously progressive on legal and social questions and moderately conservative on financial and public works issues. In October 1882 his experience was quickly recognised when he became minister of justice in the Whitaker ministry. When this was reconstructed by Sir Harry Atkinson in 1883 Conolly was minister of justice and attorney general until the government's defeat on 16 August 1884. As minister of justice Conolly's business was to provide access to the judicial system for the colony's scattered population. In depression times when there was no money for expanding services, he tried to apportion gaols, lock-ups, court houses, court sittings, justices of the peace, magistrates and judges on a fair basis.
Like his father, Conolly felt concern for humane treatment of those whom society incarcerated. He introduced the teaching of useful trades to prisoners and vigorously defended it during his two terms in the House of Representatives. He always had confidence in social progress through education. He strongly advocated legislation to protect the property rights of married women: 'Why should a woman when she marries lose her identity? Why should she become the mere housekeeper, the servant, the nurse of man?' He persistently attempted to persuade Parliament to forbid the practice of entail of land in New Zealand, believing it inappropriate in a new country to tie up land for generations. In 1885 he spoke with some passion in support of federation with Australia. Unless politicians seized the opportunity that then existed, he said, the Australian colonies would inexorably draw closer together and New Zealand would become weak and isolated.
In his last two years in the House Conolly seldom spoke: he may have lost confidence in Parliament's efficacy, especially during a seemingly endless depression. He did not seek re-election in 1887 and returned to the law full time.
In August 1889 Conolly was appointed to a vacancy on the Bench of the Supreme Court of New Zealand. It was to be an onerous responsibility for someone his age – he was in his late 60s – but he still had two teenage children to support. He travelled on circuit to New Plymouth and Gisborne and sat regularly on the Court of Appeal. As a judge Conolly's contribution was sound rather than innovative. He was respected for his understanding and use of precedent, and his judgements were still used in the 1940s to teach legal reasoning to students.
Emily Conolly died on 27 July 1900 and the judge was cared for by his unmarried daughter, Daisy. He grew deaf, slightly incoherent of speech and noticeably crabby. As his 80th birthday approached, a petition was organised to bring in mandatory retirement for judges at age 80. Conolly resigned from the Bench on 9 September 1903. He died at his home in Auckland on 8 November 1908. A faithful member of the Anglican church, he was buried in St Mark's churchyard, Remuera.