Page 1: Biography
Dadelszen, Edward John von
Public administrator, statistician
This biography, written by Ian Pool, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.
Edward John von Dadelszen is among those who shaped New Zealand's national institutions, but even at the height of his public service career more attention was paid to his brief, albeit romantic, adventures as a teenager at the outbreak of war in Waikato in 1863. At his death, his obituary in the Evening Post emphasised these early experiences. Yet his work in the Registrar General's Office, particularly from 1892 until 1909, was to have an enduring significance.
Dadelszen was a member of the generation which experienced the dramas and vicissitudes of early Victorian immigration and settlement. He was born on 6 May 1845 at Wavertree, near Liverpool, Lancashire, England, the sixth of nine children. His father, Edward von Dadelszen, a merchant, was born in the German city of Hamburg, but became a naturalised British subject and married Mary Jane Evans, a Devonshire woman. Edward John von Dadelszen (known as John) passed the Oxford middle-class examination for juniors in 1859, and the following year accompanied his widowed father and surviving six siblings to New Zealand on the Red Jacket, arriving at Auckland on 17 May 1860. During the 111-day journey there was a severe gale in the English Channel, a mutiny which was put down by the captain and the saloon passengers, and a knife fight between seamen and some German and Italian passengers. Some months after arriving in New Zealand, in early 1861, John's father disappeared while on a trading voyage to Fiji, when the ship on which he was travelling foundered at sea.
In New Zealand the adolescent John von Dadelszen gained a job as a printing clerk with Bishop G. A. Selwyn, who unsuccessfully attempted to persuade him to take holy orders and go to Melanesia as a missionary. Instead, he was employed as a printer by his friend, John Gorst, who had been a fellow passenger on the voyage out and who was appointed civil commissioner for Waikato in 1862. Gorst had taken up residence at Te Awamutu, and began to publish a paper, Te Pihoihoi Mokemoke (The lonely sparrow), intended as a propaganda instrument to counteract the influence of Te Hokioi, a paper of the King movement which was named after a mythical Maori bird. On 24 March 1863 the printery was demolished by a party of Maori led by Rewi Maniapoto and Wiremu Kingi Te Rangitake. The staff, including Dadelszen and Gorst, were taken prisoner, but were subsequently afforded safe passage to Auckland. Later Dadelszen played down this event, which was, however, a factor in the eventual outbreak of war.
Back in Auckland Dadelszen joined the postal service as a clerk, transferring in 1864 to the Registrar General's Office in Wellington. He moved up through this service, becoming chief clerk in 1880, deputy of the registrar general in 1884, and registrar general in 1892. His principal duties – census enumeration and registration of births, deaths and marriages – are now handled by separate departments. In addition, his office had responsibility for editing the annual publications Statistics of the colony of New Zealand and the New Zealand official year-book, and for vaccination inspection.
From the 1830s in Britain the compilation of census and registration statistics had been viewed as crucial for sound public administration. Registration also had a legal purpose for inheritance. However, the gathering and analysis of statistics gradually acquired more significance during Dadelszen's time at the Registrar General's Office. The information began to provide a basis for all social policy implementation: first for charity schemes, then for health and compulsory education legislation, and then for the welfare programmes initiated by the Liberal government.
The gathering of census data in New Zealand began in 1851, and a regular five-yearly census was introduced in 1881 when New Zealand joined the 'Empire system'. The link with other British colonies was further formalised in 1890 and 1900 when Dadelszen met with other Australasian statisticians at conferences held in Australia. New Zealand, like other colonies, experienced problems in the compilation of statistics because of its small and unevenly distributed population and the presence of a largely isolated indigenous people.
Edward John von Dadelszen's particular contribution was the refinement of the modern twin statistical instruments on which the country still depends. It is partly thanks to him that New Zealand has extensive and accurate statistical records. Dadelszen was, however, no mere compiler of data. The late Victorians were fascinated with 'moral statistics', and statisticians and other intellectuals of the day speculated on a wide range of social issues; Dadelszen seems to have joined in this dialogue. At his retirement in 1909 he was described as 'Courtly, precise, polished, voluble, statistical to his fingertips'.
Little is known about Dadelszen's family life. He married 19-year-old Alice Sarah Louise Lötze in Sydney, Australia, on 17 November 1876. They had one son and three daughters, only one of whom married. Edward John von Dadelszen died in Wellington on 28 May 1922; his wife and children survived him. Their distinctive German name is maintained in New Zealand through other branches of the family.