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Story: Perceval, Westby Brook

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Perceval, Westby Brook


Lawyer, politician, agent general

This biography, written by Geoffrey W. Rice, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.

Westby Brook Percival was born at Launceston, Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), on 11 May 1854, the son of Westby Hawkshaw Percival, an Irish lieutenant in the Mounted Police, Melbourne, Australia, and his wife, Sarah Brook, née Bailey. In the early 1860s the family settled at Rangiora, North Canterbury, New Zealand. Westby Brook Percival went to Merton's school, where he befriended W. P. Reeves. In contrast to his father, who gained a reputation as one of Rangiora's stormiest and most colourful settlers, he was a cautious, studious and quietly spoken lad. In 1867 he won a junior Somes scholarship to Christ's College, Christchurch, where he showed high academic ability. At the age of 16, in May 1870, he was received into the Catholic church, whereupon his father, also a convert, donated a section for Rangiora's first Catholic church. Westby Hawkshaw Percival died on 5 November 1872 leaving his son sufficient property to assure him a fairly large independent income.

Percival now travelled to England and spent two years from 1873 at Stonyhurst College, Lancashire, before moving to London to read law at the Middle Temple. He was called to the Bar in 1878 and returned to Christchurch to enter a partnership with T. I. Joynt, but from 1883 he practised alone. On 11 May 1880 at Wellington he married Jessie Mary Johnston, daughter of John Johnston, a wealthy Wellington merchant and member of the Legislative Council. They were to have three sons and two daughters. Their births were registered in the name of Perceval, suggesting that he changed the spelling of his name soon after his marriage.

Perceval's involvement with the campaign for a railway from Canterbury to the West Coast soon led him into politics. Reeves enlisted his help to form the Canterbury Elector's Association in June 1887, and their disciplined group of candidates, pledged to support the same programme, made a clean sweep of local seats in the September election. Reeves became the member for St Albans, and Perceval for Christchurch South. Perceval spoke rarely and briefly in the House, and usually on local issues. However, in July 1889 he made a notable contribution to the debate over the Private Schools Bill, which won him widespread popularity among New Zealand Catholics and helped earn him a papal knighthood in 1891.

In 1890 he was returned to Parliament as the member for Christchurch, finishing only a handful of votes fewer than the top-polling Reeves. Reeves's 'brilliant speeches', 'neat repartee' and 'shrewdness and persevering industry' were contrasted with Perceval's 'calm judgment', 'sense of justice' and 'determination to master every subject before giving an opinion'. Perceval now became Liberal party whip, and a successful chairman of committees. Early in 1891 he urged ministers to ease unemployment by obtaining more land for village settlements, and he published a booklet, Land in sight, explaining Liberal land policy.

In September 1891, when Perceval was 37, his career took an unexpected turn: Premier John Ballance appointed him agent general for New Zealand in the United Kingdom. While the conservative press protested at his youth and inexperience, others saw him as an ideal spokesperson to reassure British bankers and politicians about the Liberals' 'socialist' reforms. The governor, Sir William Onslow, congratulated Ballance on his choice as 'an excellent one from every point of view', and a Christchurch paper predicted that Perceval's courtly manners, legal training and knowledge of affairs would enhance the post.

In London Perceval was popular and highly regarded as an active and effective agent general. From his arrival in December 1891 he made a good impression and was soon invited to join the board of the Royal Colonial Institute. His address to them in May 1892, depicting New Zealand as a land full of potential and safe for British investment, immigrants and tourists, won high praise from Ballance. Perceval's timely defence helped blunt attacks on New Zealand's creditworthiness. In Perceval's hands the role of the agent general was redefined, with new emphasis on publicity, finance and trade. His successor, however, took most of the credit for several policies initiated by Perceval, such as the appointment of a dairy expert to monitor the condition of New Zealand produce. Perceval worked hard to promote New Zealand, writing a series of publicity booklets and setting up an 'intelligence department' in his office to help advertise the colony. He also campaigned to make produce from New Zealand better known and more widely distributed, and talked so much of meat and butter that his fellow agents general dubbed him 'the New Zealand Bagman'. His popularity in London was further enhanced by his being made a KCMG.

After having his appointment renewed at the end of his first three-year term, and thoroughly enjoying his work, Perceval was stunned by the announcement in January 1896 that he was to be replaced forthwith by Reeves. Premier Richard Seddon simply wanted to remove the rather too-clever left-winger from his cabinet. Although Perceval told everyone that he would sooner hand over to his old friend than to anyone else, their friendship failed to survive this public humiliation. With no comparable post for him in New Zealand, Perceval chose to stay in England. He was already on the boards of several banks and companies doing business in New Zealand, notably the Union Bank of Australia and the Waihi Gold-Mining Company. New Zealand's loss was Tasmania's gain: Perceval served as its agent general from 1896 to 1898.

Described by a friend as 'the nearly ideal bureaucrat, suave, wary and diplomatic to his fingertips', Perceval was well regarded in official circles. He was appointed a royal commissioner for the exhibitions in Chicago (1894) and Paris (1900), and was a member of Joseph Chamberlain's tariff commission in 1904. Apart from a brief visit to New Zealand in 1901, when he extolled the country's potential for tourism, Perceval spent the rest of his life in England, where he enjoyed golf and motoring. He died in Wimbledon, Surrey, on 23 June 1928.

How to cite this page:

Geoffrey W. Rice. 'Perceval, Westby Brook', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2p10/perceval-westby-brook (accessed 19 July 2024)