Story: Newman, Alfred Kingcome

Page 1: Biography

Newman, Alfred Kingcome

1849–1924

Doctor, businessman, ethnologist, politician

This biography, written by John Stenhouse, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

Alfred Kingcome Newman was born at Madras, India, on 27 April 1849 to Alfred Newman, commander of an East India Company ship, and his wife, Isabella Soames. The family emigrated to New Zealand in 1853 and farmed the 13,000-acre Arlington estate near Waipukurau, becoming prominent members of the local community.

After attending private schools in Hawke's Bay and Auckland, Newman left New Zealand in 1863 to complete his secondary education at Bath, England. He studied medicine at Guy's Hospital, London, practising as a house surgeon, and qualifying MRCS and MRCP, then completed his MB and CM degrees at the University of Aberdeen. Newman returned to New Zealand in 1875, practising medicine only briefly. He took up business in 1878 as a partner in Zohrab, Newman and Company, general merchants, joined the Wellington Chamber of Commerce in 1879, and became a shareholder and director of the Gear Meat Preserving and Freezing Company of New Zealand. He married Octavia, daughter of Isaac Featherston, a leading colonial politician, at Wellington on 20 February 1879; they were to have one son. The Newmans prospered, eventually owning farms in Wellington, Hawke's Bay and Wairarapa, and a small thoroughbred stud.

Newman played a significant role in colonial science, becoming president of the Wellington Philosophical Society in 1879 and 1885, serving on its governing body and that of the New Zealand Institute, and publishing 11 papers in the Institute's Transactions between 1876 and 1909. Early papers utilised his medical training to analyse Maori and Pakeha demography. In 1882 he published 'A study of the causes leading to the extinction of the Maori', in which he depicted the race as diseased, depraved and brutal, dying out before the arrival of Europeans. Newman declared the disappearance of the race to be 'scarcely subject for much regret. They are dying out in a quick, easy way, and are being supplanted by a superior race.'

Historians have quoted these lines as typifying the scientific racism of Victorian Pakeha; yet in 1884, for example, he called on the House of Representatives to do its duty to 'stop the decay' of the Maori race. His new-found racial conscience was informed partly by his conversion to belief in the myth of the Aryan origins of the Maori, popular in Pakeha anthropological circles. He joined the Polynesian Society in 1906 and, in a substantial book entitled Who are the Maoris? (1912), argued that the 'splendid, charming' Maori race came originally from Northern India and had evolved from Aryan stock, which implied that Maori and Pakeha were long-lost cousins.

Newman attempted to reform New Zealand science, proposing in 1882 the formation of a New Zealand Association of Science, modelled on the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which he hoped would make science more accessible to ordinary people. After his father died from cirrhosis of the liver in 1882, alcohol became one of Newman's scientific interests and, as a temperance campaigner, one of his political concerns. He might be described as a secular puritan: although baptised, married and buried according to Anglican rites, Newman, something of an intellectual radical, preferred the 'religion of humanity' to Christianity; he revered Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer and T. H. Huxley. Caucasian racial superiority became a central dogma of his evolutionary worldview, and he supported legislation designed to keep out 'Asiatics' and other 'undesirable immigrants,' and was an ardent imperialist.

Newman had a long political career without particular distinction. After an unsuccessful attempt to gain the Foxton seat in 1881, he became MHR for Thorndon (1884–90), Hutt (1890–93) and Wellington Suburbs (1893–96), and MP for Wellington East (1911–22). From 1923 until his death in 1924 he sat in the Legislative Council. He advocated reducing taxes and spending, economic development, and freehold land tenure. Although a keen critic of the Liberal government of the 1890s, and politically conservative by colonial standards, he supported women's right to vote and to enter the professions, and in 1894 introduced a bill to enable Pakeha and Maori women to enter Parliament. He encouraged forest conservation, and was one of the leaders of the campaign to establish Tongariro National Park, seeing in nature resources to be exploited as well as beauties to be appreciated.

Newman made a huge contribution to the civic life of Wellington, serving on the city council (1881–85) and education board, the Wellington College board of governors, the Wellington Special Settlement Association, the hospital committee, and the Wellington Agricultural and Pastoral Association; he was mayor in 1909–10. He loved racing, serving as steward and life member of the Wellington Racing Club, but rugby constituted his chief sporting passion. He was president of the Poneke Rugby Football Club (1886–1924), the Wellington Rugby Football Union (1904–24), and the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (1916). He was also vice president of the Wellington Cricket Association and interested in tennis and athletics. Newman led the campaign to develop Anderson Park and advocated planting of Tinakori Hill. In 1918 he fell seriously ill after taking charge of a temporary hospital in Buckle Street during the influenza epidemic. Octavia Newman took an interest in the benevolent institutions of Wellington and helped found a convalescent home in Oriental Bay.

Alfred Newman died of heart failure in Wellington on 3 April 1924; he was survived by his son. Octavia Newman had died in 1912. 'The little Doctor', as the diminutive and popular Newman was called, without being an especially original thinker or dominating personality, helped shape many aspects of New Zealand culture.

How to cite this page:

John Stenhouse. 'Newman, Alfred Kingcome', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3n4/newman-alfred-kingcome (accessed 25 May 2019)