Page 1: Biography
Wright, Edward George
Engineer, landowner, politician
This biography, written by Morag Lawrence and Peter Lawrence, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.
Edward George Wright was born at Woolwich, Kent, England, on 14 June 1831, the son of Elizabeth and Thomas Wright. His father was a gunner in the Royal Horse Artillery. Edward Wright was educated at private schools and about 1847 joined Fox, Henderson and Company, engineers and contractors. In 1853 he was appointed engineer for the construction of the gasworks at Rome, and was later engaged in work at the naval dockyards, at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, and at Aldershot. He married Jane Caroline Dixon on 26 September 1854 in London. They were to have three sons.
Edward, Jane and their first two sons emigrated in 1857 to New Zealand, where Edward had been engaged by the Wellington provincial government to work on a lighthouse at Pencarrow Head. On its completion he declined the position of provincial engineer of Wellington and became director of harbour improvements and public works at Hawke's Bay in 1859. In this position he was responsible for harbour reclamation in Napier and for pumping water to the town's hill suburbs.
In 1862 Wright, piqued at being passed over for the position of provincial engineer for Hawke's Bay, moved to Christchurch as a private engineer and contractor. The following year his son Arthur died of typhoid fever, and Jane Wright died of meningitis in June 1864, leaving Edward with two sons. On 12 February 1867 he married Harriet Myra Roberts at Christchurch; they were to have three daughters and one son.
Wright was a founder of the Christchurch Gas Coal and Coke Company in 1862. As its first engineer he was responsible for the change from oil to gas lighting in Christchurch, the task being completed, within budget and on time, by Christmas 1864. From 1877 until his death Wright was the company's chairman. He was also responsible for constructing many Canterbury roads and bridges. He played a major part in the formation of the West Coast road, and was contractor for the Ashburton to Rangitata section of the South Island main trunk line in 1874 and for the Ashley railway bridge; he constructed the latter at his own expense, recouping the cost through tolls.
In 1877 Wright began to purchase land in the Ashburton area. He selected land leased by W. S. Peter between the north and south branches of the Hinds River. Wright freeholded 10,000 acres of Gawler Downs as money became available; he also owned land at Windermere, the total value of his holdings eventually amounting to more than £50,000. On his homestead area, Wright offered the Anglican church 10 acres for a parsonage, and contributed £100 towards the cost.
Politics proved to be an attraction for Wright. He was the member of the House of Representatives for Coleridge (1879–81) and Ashburton (1881–84, 1890–93 and 1896–99). As a member of the Railway Commission of 1880, Wright courted unpopularity by questioning the practicality and efficiency of some proposed North Island lines. Nevertheless, John Hall suggested Wright as minister for public works in 1882. Wright's ability and energy were recognised, but his known conviction that the department required a searching overhaul worked against his appointment. Frederick Whitaker, as premier, offered him the posts of minister of lands and postmaster general, but Wright declined them.
Wright resigned from Parliament in 1884 because of defamatory statements accusing him of self-interest in supporting a railway line which served his own farming interests. He succeeded, however, against the wishes of the minister for public works, in having an investigatory commission appointed.
In addition to his parliamentary service Wright was involved in local bodies and other organisations. He was a member of the Lyttelton Harbour Board and the Ashburton County Council and served as chairman of the board of governors of Ashburton High School. Wright was also a member of the North Canterbury Education Board, the Christchurch Drainage Board and the Plantation Board of Canterbury.
It was said of Wright that no one in the Ashburton county was better known by sight. Of striking appearance – medium height, lean and with penetrating eyes – he was good natured while keeping at all times a certain reserve. He made a notable contribution to the physical development of New Zealand and gave generously of his time and talents to the community in which he lived. Edward Wright died at Windermere on 12 August 1902; Harriet Wright died on 12 August 1928.