Page 1: Biography
O'Conor, Eugene Joseph
Politician, farmer, newspaper proprietor
This biography, written by Margaret Langbein, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.
According to his own account Eugene Joseph O'Conor was born in Dublin, Ireland, on 23 February 1835. He was the third son of Roderic O'Conor, a barrister, and his wife, Cecilia Macdonnell. He was educated in Ireland and France, and in 1854 went to Victoria, Australia, where he ran a coach in the Ballarat area. On 22 May 1862, at Ballarat, he married a widow, Elizabeth Ward Stone (née Davison). He moved to the Otago goldfields in New Zealand, and in 1867 to Westport.
O'Conor was encouraged to go into politics by James Colvin from Donegal, Ireland, who had travelled much the same path as O'Conor and was later to represent Buller in Parliament for 20 years. O'Conor became one of the first Buller representatives on the Nelson Provincial Council, serving from November 1869 to October 1873. He represented Westport from May 1874 until abolition in 1876.
He represented Buller in the House of Representatives from 1871 to 1875, and again from 1884 to 1893. O'Conor was no ordinary politician and made no effort to court popularity either in his electorate or in Parliament, where he refused to become a member of any party. A man of 'vigorous personality', he was known as 'The Buller Lion'.
In 1866 land at Karamea was surveyed for settlement; and in 1867, after the discovery of gold there, the Nelson Provincial Council auctioned 1,200 acres of the richest land on the river flats to Nelson speculators, including O'Conor. In 1872 the council accepted a proposal for a special settlement at Karamea, although the 50,000 acres of available land was mostly in heavy bush. Settlers were to be given 25 acres each and provided with a year's paid employment on public works.
On 5 November 1874 4,044 acres on the south side of the Karamea River were reserved for the settlement, and its planning placed in the hands of Eugene O'Conor, who was provincial secretary from June 1874 to May 1875. He not only had charge of the government store but determined the priorities in public works. The land was found to be largely swampy and worthless, and the hasty selection of the site caused much hardship and bitterness. Many settlers walked off the land, and those who remained came to mistrust O'Conor, many believing that government officials had reserved the best land for themselves.
In June 1876 O'Conor furnished a report on the first 18 months of settlement: 68 houses had been built, 400 acres cleared and cattle were being run. Roads had been built in the settlement and towards Mokihinui, by which route overland access to Westport would eventually be gained in 1915. The settlement was O'Conor's special project, and he maintained that it was a success. By the end of 1876 plans were being made to sell the government store and wind up the concern as a special settlement, as it was now virtually self-supporting.
O'Conor made his presence felt over a wide area in Buller and about 1873 even established his own newspaper, the Westport News (the Buller News from about 1874 to 1882), mainly to counter his political opposition. He pressed hard for a port at Westport and was responsible for the passage of the Westport Harbour Board Act 1884, under which the first harbour board was established in December 1884. On the Buller County Council he did much to improve roads and give access to isolated farms.
In 1894 O'Conor bought the Braeburn run, in the Tutaki valley near Murchison, and installed one of the first milking machines used in New Zealand. With characteristic energy and enthusiasm he had yards and sheds built, equipment installed and cows rounded up for a spectacular opening. The combination of noisy machinery, a steam whistle, flimsy buildings, unaccustomed equipment and half-wild cows, ended instead in spectacular chaos. O'Conor sold Braeburn in December 1896.
After retiring from politics O'Conor lived at his farm on the outskirts of Westport, sometimes staying in Wellington or with his sisters in Nelson. He died in Nelson on 5 July 1912 and left no children. Elizabeth O'Conor had died in 1890. He willed the bulk of his estate to establish a home in Westport for destitute children and old people of the district. The O'Conor Home was opened on 7 February 1918, a fitting memorial to one who gave so much of his time, energy and expertise to developing the Buller area.