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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.

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SEDDON, Richard John


Liberal politician and Premier of New Zealand.

A new biography of Seddon, Richard John appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Richard John Seddon, Premier of New Zealand for 13 years, was born at St. Helens, Lancashire, on 22 June 1845. His father was master of the Eccleston Grammar School; his mother, also a school teacher, was a Scotch woman from Dumfriesshire. In spite of, or possibly on account of, his parents' profession, the boy proved so difficult and unpromising a pupil that he was removed from school at the age of 12. For two years he worked on a farm and then became an apprentice at the workshops of Dagleish and Co., ironfounders of St. Helens. There all went well for a while until Seddon fell foul of the management over a question of increased pay for apprentices, and was dismissed. After working for a short time at a Liverpool foundry, he became seriously ill with smallpox, and on recovery was unable to find employment. At this time he was continually hearing Australia spoken of as a land where employment was plentiful and well paid, and where a poor man might still make a fortune on the goldfields. At the age of 18, Seddon decided to emigrate and in 1863 he worked his passage to Melbourne on the Star of England, a large sailing ship.

After a short and unsuccessful prospecting expedition to the Bendigo goldfields, Seddon settled down to a job in the Government railway workshops at Williamstown, near Melbourne. The situation held out little prospect of advancement, and his engagement about this time to Louisa Jane Spotswood inspired him to more adventurous courses. Gold had recently been discovered on the West Coast of New Zealand's South Island. In February 1866 he sailed for Hokitika.

On arrival he tried prospecting for a second time without success, and then set up a store at Big Dam by the Waimea Creek. Returning to Melbourne at the end of 1868 he married Louisa Spotswood and brought her to the new home. The store does not appear to have been a very paying proposition although, in 1872, he expanded the business by obtaining a licence to retail liquor. His lack of success as a trader was probably due to the fact that his heart was always in politics. In 1870 Seddon failed to get elected to the Westland County Council. He did, however, win a seat on the Arahura Road Board, of which he became chairman in the following year and, in that capacity, exposed more than one case of graft. On the goldfields he was already renowned as an athlete and fist fighter. Tales of his feats of strength and endurance spread abroad and gave his name a certain prominence. Inexperienced as a public speaker and only moderately endowed with natural eloquence, he was at least loud voiced and extremely fluent. With these two attributes and a popular cause to uphold, he secured election to the Westland Provincial Council in 1874 as advocate for the provision of a better water supply on the goldfields. But Provincial Government was on the verge of extinction, and Seddon's zeal for politics diminished as the Council's life drew to a close. When the provincial system gave place to the counties system in 1876, Seddon found a seat on the Westland County Council. His early activities as a member of that body scarcely added to his reputation, and his frequent absence from council meetings was a cause of comment.

There were reasons for this backsliding. A great deal of litigation with regard to mining claims took place on the goldfields. Lawyers were not easily persuaded to undertake cases involving long journeys and small fees, and in consequence it became customary for litigants to appoint lay-advocates to conduct their cases before the Gold-fields Warden. Seddon displayed an astonishing natural aptitude for legal work, and since about 1874 there had been a growing demand for his services as lay-advocate in the Warden's Court. Fresh interests of another kind claimed his attention in the winter of 1876 when he staked a claim on the newly discovered goldfield of Kumara, and soon afterwards went to live there, transferring his publican's licence from Big Dam, and establishing the Queen's Hotel at Kumara. A town sprang up rapidly beside the new goldfield, and when it was constituted a borough in 1877 Seddon became its first Mayor. By that time its gold-rush population was already beginning to decline and tradesmen faced a period of recession. Seddon's earnings at the Warden's Court being insufficient to make up for his losses elsewhere, he was obliged in 1878 to file a petition in bankruptcy, but a settlement with his creditors was soon arrived at.

He had been an unsuccessful candidate for Parliament in 1876. After dissolution following the fall of Sir George Grey's Government in 1879, he stood again for Hokitika as a supporter of Grey and was one of the two candidates elected. With characteristic lack of diffidence he made his maiden speech (which filled 19 columns of Hansard) only a few days after taking his seat in the House. In 1881 he was prominent in the great “stonewall” directed against Sir John Hall's Representation Bill. In the general election of that year he was returned for the newly created constituency of Kumara which he continued to represent until 1890. By that time he had become influential among the group of Members of Parliament who were in process of coalescing as the Liberal Party under the leadership of John Ballance. When the maritime strike broke out, Seddon spoke strongly in favour of the strikers, and even went so far as to advocate nationalisation of the country's shipping lines and coal mines. At the general election of 1890, held on the morrow of the strikers' defeat, Seddon was returned for Westland, the seat he was destined to retain for the rest of his life.

As soon as it became evident that the Liberals could command a majority, Ballance formed a Government in which Seddon assumed the portfolios of Public Works, Mines, Defence, and Marine. Being anxious to dispel any alarm that might have been caused by his recent revolutionary utterances, he abjured all subversive intentions, deprecated governmental extravagance, and made drastic departmental economies. His most important reform was the institution of the cooperative contract system on public works. He travelled ceaselessly throughout the country, making countless speeches, and his name and presence became more familiar to the public than those of any other Minister. When Ballance fell ill he was chosen to act as Premier in preference to W. P. Reeves. When Ballance died in April 1893 the Cabinet chose Seddon to be his successor. Sir Robert Stout rather than Reeves was Seddon's most formidable rival, but at the time in question he was not a Member ‘of Parliament. Ballance was said (for what the gesture was worth) to have nominated him for the succession, and many well-informed persons believed that Seddon had agreed merely to act as caretaker, but although Stout found a seat in June, the party caucus, held soon afterwards, confirmed the Cabinet's choice of Seddon as Premier.

Having pledged himself to carry out Ballance's policy, Seddon embarked with obvious reluctance upon two important reforms – the enfranchisement of women and a regulation of the licensing system. It is unlikely that either measure contributed greatly towards his striking success at the general election of 1893; but other prospective reforms, notably those concerning land settlement and industrial relations, were being held up by the Legislative Council, and the electors showed their disapproval of reactionary obstruction by giving the Liberals an overwhelming majority. Seddon made further attempts to settle the vexed licensing question in 1895 and 1903, but found it impossible to satisfy both “wet” and “dry” parties. Much of the legislation for which his Government became famous was not of his authorship, but its passage was always facilitated by his able management and firm control of the party machine. His immediate concern upon resuming office was to extend his power both in this and in other respects. In 1894 he revised the Parliamentary Standing Orders with a view to making it less easy for the Opposition to carry out a “stonewall” of the kind he and his friends had operated to obstruct Hall's Representation Bill. He squashed the extra-Parliamentary Liberal Associations which sought to dictate Government policy; and insisted that he personally should have the right to select the party's parliamentary candidates. After a long struggle with the Governor-General, Lord Glasgow, he managed to pack the Legislative Council with men committed to the promotion of his policy, and he took care that friends of the Government should predominate in the Civil Service.

Until 1895 Seddon continued to reside in the remote mining town of Kumara, and it was not until he had been Premier for two years that he moved permanently to Wellington with his wife and family, consisting of three sons and six daughters.

Before the general election of 1896, at which the Liberals' majority was considerably reduced, Seddon had already introduced his first Old Age Pensions Bill. It came to grief in Committee, and in 1897 he tried again with no better fortune. Not until his third attempt, made during the following year, did the Bill become law in face of a determined “stonewall” by the Opposition. This was Seddon's greatest legislative achievement.

Though having had little previous experience of dealing with the Maori people, he assumed the portfolio of Native Affairs in 1893. Much native land lay unused, while the demand for lands for European settlement grew ever more insistent. This demand Seddon was determined to satisfy, but with a minimum of hardship or injustice to the Maori, at that time generally regarded as a dying race. Between 1893 and 1897 his Government bought from them an area of more than 1,500,000 acres. To enable them to participate more fully in the management of their own lands, he established District Councils with native representation, but the system was never a great success.

Soon after he became Premier, Seddon's mind began to dwell upon colonising in the Pacific. He tried unsuccessfully to persuade Britain to annex Samoa and allow New Zealand to administer the island group; later he tried and failed to secure the incorporation of Fiji with New Zealand. His policy of expansion was not encouraged by the Imperial Government and he had to be content with annexing the Cook Islands in 1901. His imperialism grew both fervent and strident as the century drew to a close. At the Colonial Conference of 1897, he and Sir Edward Braddon of Tasmania were the only colonial Premiers to give qualified support to Chamberlain's proposal for a Council of Empire to which the colonies should send plenipotentiaries. When war broke out in South Africa, he fanned the flame of jingoism in New Zealand, and the Colony sent, in all, eight contingents to the scene of hostilities. On his way to attend King Edward's coronation and the Colonial Conference of 1902, Seddon visited South Africa at Lord Kitchener's invitation. Peace negotiations were in process when he arrived and he caused great embarrassment in some quarters by publicly demanding that the Boers should surrender unconditionally. On arriving in England he embarked on a whirl of activity, both social and political. In spite of a tendency to patronise and give advice, he became a firm favourite with the British public whose attention he courted on every possible occasion. After returning to New Zealand he grew profoundly disappointed at the British people's cool reception of Chamberlain's proposals for tariff reform in 1903. In consequence, the intention he had often expressed of granting specially favourable terms for British imports was not carried out with great effect. Instead of granting a 10 per cent reduction of duty on British goods, his Government merely imposed additional duties on foreign imports.

Applicants for the old age pension had to be very poor and thoroughly deserving in order to qualify as recipients of 7s. a week on attaining the age of 65, but payments to those found eligible began to be made in 1899, and doubtless the gratitude of the destitute, combined with the upsurge of patriotism roused by war, helped the Liberals to win a resounding victory in December of that year. During the remaining seven years of his life Seddon was to win two more electoral victories, in 1902 and 1905, each one more complete than the last.

When the new century began, the era of reform had practically come to an end. Excepting Ward, the outstandingly able men whom Ballance had gathered round him were gone, and Seddon, never much inclined to welcome strong-willed subordinates, presided over a Cabinet of nonentities. He himself, besides being Premier, held the portfolios of Finance, Education, Immigration, Defence, and Labour. In the last-named capacity he passed several measures designed to ameliorate the conditions of labour, among which may be mentioned the Shops and Offices Act of 1904 and its amendment of 1905. He also amended several times the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act. The free place system in secondary schools was introduced while he was Minister of Education. He was directly responsible for establishing a State Fire Insurance Office and State Coal Mines with their own sale depots. As Minister of Immigration he was always on guard against what he believed to be a deadly threat – the yellow peril which, within his own particular political sphere, meant an excessive number of Chinese immigrants. His policy of expansion in the Pacific was largely frustrated by the Imperial Government's restraining hand, but his interest remained fixed upon any of the islands of Oceania that appeared at the time likely to be available for annexation. Latterly Seddon failed to move fast enough along the path of reform to satisfy the more radical sections of his own party, and at the same time he persistently refused to reconstruct his Cabinet with a view to securing more willing cooperation from the left. The result was that a new left-wing party, the Political Labour League, came into being in 1904. Seddon did his best to discourage the movement which made little headway during his lifetime.

The state of his health had already given cause for anxiety more than once when he faced a general election for the last time in December 1905. Doctors had warned him that he must live less strenuously, but it was not in his nature to do so. In May 1906 he sailed for Sydney to open up negotiations with the Federal Government on the question of commercial reciprocity, and to arrange for a joint protest by Australia and New Zealand against Britain's action in signing the New Hebrides Convention with France. His assurance that the trip would prove restful was soon belied. After 24 exhausting days spent in negotiating, travelling, and attending official functions, he boarded the Oswestry Grange at Sydney. The ship sailed for Wellington early on 10 June. Seddon died suddenly of heart failure the same evening.

When young he had been a fine athlete. A man of just under 6 ft in height, with exceptionally powerful chest and arms, he ran to fat in middle age, but retained his youthful agility to a degree that was remarkable in view of his corpulence. He was a mighty feaster with little regard for moderation in eating and drinking, and during the last 10 years of his life his weight was never far short of 20 stone.

“Diversion,” writes W. P. Reeves, “he appeared neither to have nor want. I cannot recall hearing him talk of any non-political subject for ten minutes.” It is a fact, however, that he was very fond of deep-sea fishing and, when on tour, took every opportunity of indulging in the sport. He loved to take the floor at dances that were not attended by fashionable society; at convivial parties he would entertain the company with song far into the night; after an exhausting day's work he would keep yawning secretaries awake playing euchre, his favourite card game. Late in life he kept horses and used to go riding when business permitted.

His education had been elementary. In adult life he seldom read anything that was not immediately relevant to the business in hand, but though indifferently literate he possessed to a remarkable degree the capacity for grasping the essence of an intricate question. His public speeches were rambling and verbose, and often contained solecisms. He never entirely lost his Lancashire accent, or became cured of the habit of dropping aitches where they should have been and inserting them where they should not – occasionally with startling effect.

He had been initiated as a Freemason in Pacific Lodge, Hokitika, in 1868. Thirty years later he was elected to the office of Grand Master of New Zealand, and his two years' occupancy of that position was one of the most successful periods in the history of Grand Lodge.

Few other extra-political activities diverted his attention from the main chance. Power was the mistress to whom he paid undying devotion. Had he been responsible for the Old Age Pensions Act alone his record as a legislator would stand high, yet it was as manager of the party machine that his ability showed to greatest advantage, and the greater part of his energy was always devoted to gaining control of the sources of power. The basic source was the people's goodwill which Seddon courted assiduously by what might be termed perpetual electioneering. In this pursuit he travelled the length and breadth of the country incessantly. A wonderful memory for names and faces, secured against possible error by the prior promptings of an efficient secretary, enabled him to establish personal contact with a phenomenally large proportion of the electors. His political morality was not immaculate; his patriotism was unduly blatant; the principles of democracy that he advocated so zealously found no place in his Cabinet, his party, or in any institution over which he exercised control; yet the autocratic power he acquired was seldom abused in the larger sphere of Government, and his statesmanship was always guided and governed by a genuine love of humanity.

by Randall Mathews Burdon, M.C. (1896–1965), Author, Wellington.

  • The Life and Work of Richard John Seddon, Drummond, J. (1906)
  • King Dick — A Biography of Richard John Seddon, Burdon, R. M. (1955)
  • Democracy in New Zealand, Siegfried, A. (1914).


Randall Mathews Burdon, M.C. (1896–1965), Author, Wellington.