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Browse the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand
Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.




Superintendent of Nelson.

A new biography of Saunders, Alfred appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Alfred Saunders was born on 12 June 1820 at Market Lavington, Wiltshire, one of the 10 children of Amram Edwards Saunders, a well-to-do flour-miller, and of Mary, nèe Box. He was educated privately and attended Dr Day's school in Bristol for a year. From 1834 until 1838 he worked in his father's business, being stationed principally at Bath. He spent a year at Congresbury, Somerset, where he managed a mill and bakery belonging to John Wilmott, a Quaker. Through his association with the Quakers, Saunders met Frederick Tuckett and became interested in the affairs of the New Zealand Company. He decided to emigrate to New Zealand; and in September 1841 Saunders sailed in the Fifeshire for Nelson, where he arrived on 17 January 1842. Saunders set up as a flourmiller in the Waimea district and, shortly afterwards, became secretary of the Land Purchase Society, but resigned after the Wairau Affray because he considered the society had exceeded its functions. In 1845 he moved to Australia, where he remained until about 1849. On his return to New Zealand he took an active part in the settlers' campaign for self-government. For 10 years following 1855 he represented Waimea South on the Nelson Provincial Council and served as Provincial Secretary, under Robinson, for two years (1863–65). In 1860 his political career was interrupted briefly when the Nelson District Judge, W. T. L. Travers, gaoled him for contempt of Court. Saunders' seat in the Council automatically became vacant, but his constituents re-elected him while he was serving his sentence. Thereupon Gore Browne intervened to pardon him – the first occasion in which the Royal Prerogative was invoked for a political offence in New Zealand. On 1 February 1861 he was elected to represent Waimea in the House of Representatives, but resigned three years later in order to give his attention to the provincial secretaryship. In 1865 he defeated Barnicoat for the superintendency, holding office until 1867 when he resigned to visit England. During his term Saunders took strong action to apprehend Burgess and the Maungatapu murderers. From 1867 until 1872 he lived in England; he then returned to New Zealand and settled in Canterbury. He was elected to Parliament for Cheviot in 1877 when his sympathies caused him to support Grey. In 1880 Hall appointed him chairman of the Royal Commission on the Civil Service. The Commission's report, which led to the removal of the Chief Railway Commissioner in each island and to the retrenchment of many lesser officials, made its members extremely unpopular and cost Saunders his seat in 1881. He returned to Parliament for Lincoln, 1889–90, and Selwyn, 1890–96. when he retired from politics.

Outside his political career Saunders was active in temperance circles and converted Fox to this cause. He differed with the movement's leaders, however, and in later years confined his efforts to a personal demonstration of the benefits of total abstinence. Saunders was deeply interested in education and strongly supported the introduction of the “Nelson system”. He was one of the first governors of Nelson College and Ashburton High School and served on the Nelson Provincial Board of Education and the North Canterbury Education Board. In Canterbury he owned a large sheep station and was responsible for introducing Leicestershire and Southdown sheep and, also, the large and small breeds of Berkshire pigs. He wrote several works on farming. Most notable among these are Our Domestic Birds (1883) — a practical treatise on poultry production — and Our Horses — or the Best Muscles Controlled by the Best Brains (1886). Finally, between 1896 and 1899, he published his two-volume History of New Zealand, 1642–1893. Although this work is interesting for the light it throws upon New Zealand politics of the period, both colonial and provincial, as a “history” it has little merit.

On 1 January 1847, at Sydney, Saunders married Rhoda Flower (died 1898), daughter of an old Nelson colonist. There were five sons and two daughters. After his wife's death Saunders went to England where, on 6 October 1899, he married his cousin, Sarah Box. He returned to New Zealand towards the end of 1904 and died at May's Road, Christchurch, on 28 October 1905.

Saunders was too uncompromising in his views to make a successful politician and twice declined ministerial office because he would not adjust his opinions to meet those of his colleagues. His own ideas had been shaped by an early association with Herbert Spencer's family, but his style in controversy is reminiscent of William Cobbett. In the cut and thrust of parliamentary debate Saunders preferred the mace to the rapier.

by Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.

  • Tales of a Pioneer — Episodes in the Life of Alfred Saunders, Saunders, A., and Saunders, E. (jt. ed.) (1927)
  • Nelson Colonist, 31 Oct 1905 (Obit)
  • The Press (Christchurch), 30 Oct 1905 (Obit)
  • Lyttelton Times, 30 Oct 1905 (Obit).


Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.