Story: Bledisloe, Charles Bathurst

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Bledisloe, Charles Bathurst

1867–1958

Lawyer, politician, agriculturalist, governor general

This biography, written by Russell Marshall, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.

Charles Bathurst was born in London, England, on 21 September 1867, the son of Charles Bathurst, a barrister of Lydney Park, Gloucestershire, and his wife, Mary Elizabeth Hay. He was educated at Sherborne School, Eton College and University College, Oxford, where he studied law, graduating BA in 1890. He was called to the Bar by the Inner Temple in 1892, but resumed study the following year at the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester, remaining there until 1896. On the completion of his diploma he returned to London, where he practised as a chancery barrister and conveyancer. On 17 December 1898, at the Temple Church, London, he married the Honourable Bertha Susan Lopes: they were to have two sons and one daughter.

In 1910 Bathurst was elected as the Conservative MP for the South or Wilton division of Wiltshire. In 1916–17 he was parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of Food, and from 1917 to 1919 chairman of the royal commission on sugar supply and director of sugar distribution. For his work in these various posts he was knighted in 1917 and elevated to the peerage the following year, taking the title Lord Bledisloe, first baron of Lydney and Aylburton. He served as parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries between 1924 and 1928, and was appointed to the Privy Council in 1926.

Lady Bledisloe died in May 1926, and in London, on 16 April 1928, Bledisloe married the Honourable Alina Kate Elaine Cooper-Smith (née Jenkins). He resigned from the government the same year and became chairman of the Imperial Grasslands Association. Bledisloe's major preoccupation for the remainder of his life was agriculture. At one time or another he held office in virtually every significant agricultural body in Britain. As a land owner, he practised and advocated a scientific approach to farming. He also introduced the concept of land ownership as a profession of value to the wider community and was a founder of the Central Land Association, later renamed the Country Landowners' Association. He served as the first honorary secretary of the association from 1907 to 1909 and was president in 1921–22.

In 1929 Bledisloe was appointed governor general of New Zealand, taking up office in Wellington on 19 March 1930. In the course of the ensuing five years he and Lady Bledisloe were to earn much respect and affection from New Zealanders. Prior to his arrival Bledisloe had not hesitated to give voice to his social conscience. In New Zealand his demeanour and public utterances during a period of considerable social suffering were thoughtful and sympathetic. At his instigation his salary was reduced by 30 per cent to match the cuts in public servants’ salaries: as a result he had to use his private income to carry out his duties. He made observations of substance, notably – but not only – in his many speeches on agricultural matters. He was not backward at promoting his personal views, and regularly insisted on full and unedited newspaper coverage of his speeches, an attitude which led at times to strained relationships with the press.

Perhaps the Bledisloes' most important and enduring action in New Zealand was their purchase of the site where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840. The property, which included James Busby's house and 1,000 acres of adjacent land, was presented to the nation in May 1932 as a national memorial. The couple subsequently donated £500 to launch an appeal for the restoration of the Treaty House. The first ceremony to mark the signing of the treaty on 6 February took place in 1934, when a large number of people gathered from all parts of the country for the laying of the foundation stone for a new Maori meeting house. Until then, Pakeha New Zealanders had taken little interest in the site or the treaty. The Bledisloes' initiatives marked the beginning of a process of rediscovery on the part of Pakeha and a broadening awareness among Maori. The couple regularly returned to Waitangi in the latter part of their term, and Lord Bledisloe took an active part in the work of the Waitangi National Trust Board. They retained their interest in Waitangi for the rest of their lives.

Bledisloe also made a significant contribution to the national recognition of the Maori King movement. He developed an enduring friendship with King Koroki and Te Puea Herangi, and his easy acceptance of the title 'king' helped remove the reticence about using it in official circles. His public comments were notable, moreover, in neither patronising nor romanticising Maori.

Another feature of Bledisloe's stewardship was his promotion of various causes and events by the presentation of trophies: among these were awards for landscape painting, for gardens featuring New Zealand plants, and for Maori excellence in farming. The Bledisloe Cup for competition between the Australian and New Zealand rugby teams was presented in 1931, and became the major event through which his name has endured.

By the end of his term in March 1935 there was general acknowledgement of the qualities that Lord and Lady Bledisloe had brought to the vice regal office. The couple retained a close interest in a number of New Zealand issues and projects, and maintained contact with many New Zealanders. For over 30 years the Early Settlers and Historical Association of Wellington held an annual Bledisloe Day gathering. The Bledisloes returned to New Zealand in 1947 with a goodwill mission from the Royal Agricultural Society of England, of which Bledisloe was president in 1946.

In 1930 he had been appointed GCMG and on his return to England he was created Viscount Bledisloe of Lydney. He subsequently held a number of public positions. As well as resuming his local Gloucestershire activities and his support for the Royal Agricultural College, he was chairman of the National Council of Social Service from 1935 to 1938, and president of the Museums Association in its jubilee year, 1939. He chaired the royal commission on the closer union of Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland in 1938, and led a Royal Agricultural Society mission to South Africa and Southern Rhodesia in 1948. Honorary degrees were conferred on him by the universities of Bristol (DSc), Edinburgh (LLD) and Oxford (DCL), and he was made a fellow of University College, Oxford.

Bledisloe was famous for his Red Poll cattle and his orchards. He promoted pig farming, and he kept dairy cows and grew potatoes and grain on his estate. Lady Bledisloe died in February 1956. Lord Bledisloe died, aged 90, at Lydney on 3 July 1958.

How to cite this page:

Russell Marshall. 'Bledisloe, Charles Bathurst', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4b39/bledisloe-charles-bathurst (accessed 23 November 2018)