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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.

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




Coloniser, diarist, politician, and first Premier of New Zealand.

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

Henry Sewell was born at Newport, Isle of Wight, on 14 September 1807, the fourth child of Thomas Sewell, a solicitor and sometime steward of the island, and was educated at Hyde Abbey School, near Winchester. In 1826 he qualified as a solicitor and joined his father's firm. His first wife, Lucinda, daughter of General Needham, died in 1844. Sewell moved to London and married, in 1850, Elizabeth, daughter of Captain Kittoe.

He helped to set on foot the Canterbury Association in 1848 and was probably drawn into this colonising venture through his brother, the Rev. William Sewell, a Tractarian and a close friend of John Robert Godley. On Edward Gibbon Wakefield's initiative he became deputy-chairman of the Association in 1850, a full-time officer responsible, under Lord Lyttelton as chairman, for day by day administration. As dispatch writer for Lyttelton between 1850 and 1853, he contributed to the breach which developed between Godley, leading the settlement in Canterbury, and the Association, directing the enterprise from London. He censured Godley for granting land to Catholics and Dissenters for chapels and cemeteries, objected to his revision of the land regulations, and criticised him for questioning the Association's published accounts.

Nevertheless, his talent for affairs was useful. He was responsible for the 1850 Canterbury Settlement Land Act, legalising transactions between the Association and New Zealand Company. In 1852 he played some part in persuading Lord Pakington, the new Colonial Secretary, not to drop the measure to confer representative government upon New Zealand. He was also busy in this year holding off the Association's creditors, notably the Crown and the New Zealand Company, and hit upon the dubious but effective device of investing the Association's ecclesiastical fund in its own land and using this land as security for loans. With the passage of the New Zealand Constitution Act in 1852, the Association petitioned for leave to transfer its assets, liabilities, and functions to the Province of Canterbury, but the United Kingdom Government demurred until Association members contributed to pay off its debts. This was done by October 1852, Sewell's share of £250 being paid by the Duke of Newcastle.

The next problem was to effect the transfer. Sewell was sent to Canterbury, sailing with Wakefield late in 1852, to wind up the Association's affairs. After arrival, early in 1853, he became unpopular, particularly with J. E. FitzGerald, the first Superintendent, for an attack upon Godley's reputation. But he also won some acclaim for his apparently successful challenge in the Courts to Governor Grey's land regulations of 1853. In 1854 he was elected to the General Assembly as member of the House of Representatives for Christchurch.

He was highly successful in winding up the Association's affairs, acting as an unofficial legal adviser to the Superintendent and, from 1855 to 1856, as member of the Provincial Council for Lyttelton. In 1854 the Council passed the Church Property Trust Ordinance, which set up a trust to administer the land in which the ecclesiastical fund had been invested; in 1855 the Canterbury Association's Ordinance was passed, by which (after only trivial questioning of the accounts) the Association's assets and liabilities were transferred to the province; and in the same year the Canterbury Association Reserves Ordinance went through, providing for the disposal of the Association's land, in which Sewell had invested its remaining funds. All this important legislation was essentially his work.

Meanwhile his political career had commenced, even before he was returned to the General Assembly. He made his mark as a notable challenger of the Governor's alleged despotism and lawlessness. As well as the Land Regulations, Sewell agitated against the financial arrangements which Grey effected with the provinces. He held, erroneously, that the 1852 Act implicitly embodied ministerial responsibility; hence Grey, in settling the distribution of the land fund and the customs revenue before the meeting of the General Assembly, was, in fact, destroying the constitution in advance. In the course of this agitation Sewell raised the possibility of South Island separation.

His zeal for responsible government, together with his capacity for constitutional argument and his legal training, took him to the forefront of the abortive 1854 Parliament. On 14 June FitzGerald, Sewell, and Frederick Weld, as members of the House of Representatives, joined the official members of the Executive Council, but resigned on 2 August, finding they had no real power. A few days later he voted with the majority in favour of responsible government and figured prominently in the fracas which brought the session to a close. Wakefield, also a member, and influential with the hesitant Administrator, R. H. Wynyard, earned Sewell's especial denunciation.

In 1856 responsible government was conceded and Sewell, as Colonial Secretary, led an administration which lasted a fortnight. He was thus the first Premier of New Zealand. In early June, after an even briefer ministry led by William Fox, Stafford emerged at the head of an administration which was to last till 1861. Sewell was of some importance in this ministry, chiefly as Colonial Treasurer, first from June to November 1856 and again between February and April 1859. Much of the interim he spent in England, retaining his membership of the Executive Council and securing an imperial guarantee for a loan of £500,000. This, together with his part in carrying through the “Compact of 1856” distributing revenue between the Provincial and the General Governments, and giving the former the initiative in land policy, make up his chief achievements in New Zealand affairs at this time.

His official career continues through the 1860s. In 1860 he was again elected to the House for Christchurch, but resigned to become Registrar-General of Lands. Fox appointed him to the Legislative Council in 1861, where he remained until 1865, the year of his election to the House for New Plymouth, a seat he held until the dissolution of 1866. This was his final term in the House, but in 1870 Fox again sent him to the Council, where he remained until his retirement from politics in 1873. He frequently held ministerial office during this period. He was Attorney-General and Leader of the Council in the Fox Ministry of 1861–62, Attorney-General in the Domett Ministry in 1862, and again in the Weld Ministry of 1864–65. In this period he was much concerned with native policy and with the difficult relations successive ministries enjoyed with Grey during his second governorship. He supported Fox's “peace policy” and the runanga experiment of 1862; he was flabbergasted at Grey's apparent insistence that ministers take full responsibility for native policy; and he attacked the 1862–63 policy of coercion, land confiscation, and private land dealings as corrupt and designed to enrich many of its supporters. In 1866, more unpopular than ever, he took an official post, again in land registration. Between 1868 and 1870 he was once more in England, again involved in loan negotiations with the Imperial Government, despite his earlier telling criticism of the loan policy.

His longest continuous period of office occurred in the last Fox Administration, in which he was Minister of Justice from June 1870 to October 1871. In this period he came into acute conflict with the Colonial Treasurer, Julius Vogel, over the policy of heavy borrowing for development. Sewell joined the Fox Ministry after Vogel had announced his policy and soon found that it was becoming much more extensive than he had anticipated. In 1871 he argued unsuccessfully for the smaller of the alternative railway contracts and deplored the practice of letting the House itself pronounce upon works projects, holding, correctly, that this would induce a demoralising parliamentary scramble for local advantage. When Vogel came to dominate the Cabinet, Sewell refused to take Government Bills to the Council; the Premier, Fox, forced to choose between the antagonists, chose Vogel and accepted Sewell's resignation. This was not quite the end of his political career; in 1872 he was Colonial Secretary in the brief last Stafford Ministry.

In the conflict between Sewell and Vogel, two concepts of colonial government and two generations of politicians may be seen at variance. Sewell, with too much conscious rectitude for the good of his reputation, stood for caution, retrenchment, and strict probity against a new mood which seemed to him reckless, improvident, and dishonest. His strictures were not without truth, but they were without effect. His generation, which had launched self-government, was being replaced. FitzGerald had already retired; Stafford finally lost office with Sewell; Fox was soon to go; only Whitaker persisted through the 1870s and 1880s.

Sewell left New Zealand for England in 1876 and died at Cambridge on 5 May 1879. His final years were devoted to putting his private journals into shape, a voluminous and acid commentary upon men and affairs from 1853 to 1866, chiefly based upon letters sent to England during that period. It remains unpublished and is both the most important document of its kind in New Zealand history and its author's most significant achievement.

In 1874 the Otago Daily Times, welcoming Sewell's retirement with undisguised pleasure, dubbed him on the one hand “a very impersonation of vacillation and time-servitude”, and on the other “a capital departmental head”. There is much justice in either assertion. He was a man of great industry and ability – a “man of business” as Wakefield described him — but his qualities did not include tact, modesty, or selflessness. Except in private life, he endeared himself to few of his contemporaries, and almost every figure in early Canterbury and New Zealand affairs came in for a measure of harsh and often querulous criticism, either in public or in the confines of the journals. The Canterbury Association and settlement saw his talents most beneficially exercised, for here his legal and financial skill could be applied with good effect to administrative tasks. The same talents had scope in the financial arrangements he effected in the 1850s and 1860s. Further, for all his unappetising selfrighteousness, it is possible to feel that the moral criticism he levelled against the native policies of the mid-1860s and the development policies of the early 1870s was not the less cogent for being unheeded.

by William Hosking Oliver, M.A.(N.Z.), D.PHIL.(OXON.), Professor of History, Massey University of Manawatu.

  • Henry Sewell's Journals (MSS), Canterbury University Library
  • Crown Colony Government in New Zealand, McLintock, A. H. (1959)
  • The Richmond-Atkinson Papers, Scholefield, G. H. ed. (1960)
  • New Zealand Rulers and Statesmen, Gisborne, W. (1897).


William Hosking Oliver, M.A.(N.Z.), D.PHIL.(OXON.), Professor of History, Massey University of Manawatu.