Julius Vogel was born in London, England, probably on 24 February 1835, the son of Albert Leopold Vogel and his wife, Phoebe Isaac. His mother was the oldest daughter of a Jewish merchant family headed by Alexander Isaac, and his father was from a Dutch Ashkenazi Jewish family. Vogel had an older brother, Lionell, an older sister, Frances, and a younger brother, Lewis.
Vogel's childhood was probably not a very happy one. His brother Lionell died in July 1835, his parents had separated by the time he was six, and in 1841 his brother Lewis died. At some time after this Phoebe Vogel, with her two surviving children, moved into her father's house in south London. The Isaac family was large and prosperous and Julius cannot have wanted for material things. However, his mother, to whom he was devoted, was an austere and aloof woman, and Frances became his closest companion. At 11 he was sent as a day boy to the nonconformist junior school of University College in Gower Street; a year later he went to board at a Jewish school in the coastal town of Ramsgate. His last year of school, 1849–50, was spent back at Gower Street. His education was liberal but limited. He was intended for a commercial, not a professional career.
At 15 Vogel left school and entered his grandfather's firm in the City. Within a year his mother had died and he had begun part-time study at the newly opened Government School of Mines. He studied chemistry and metallurgy under some of the best science teachers of the day with the aim of gaining experience in assaying. After a year's study he was off with a young friend, A. S. Grant, on the Beulah, bound for the colony of Victoria, where gold had recently been discovered.
Vogel and Grant arrived in Melbourne in December 1852, and established an assaying and importing business in Flinders Lane. Although they had a moderate success as assayers, as importers they were failures. In mid-1853 they opened gold buying and retailing businesses on the goldfields, first at McIvor, then at Goldsborough, but neither enterprise flourished. In October 1854 they established headquarters at Maryborough, a major gold town, and travelled around the goldfields supplying the miners with patent medicines. By mid-1856 Grant had tired of this rackety life and returned home. Vogel then moved to nearby Dunolly where he set up shop in a tent.
Among Vogel's friends were three printers, Jabez Banfield, James Gearing and Edward Nuthall, who interested him in journalism. It is possible that he became the Maryborough correspondent for the Melbourne Argus early in 1856. Certainly he was the Argus's Dunolly correspondent later in the year. In September Banfield asked him to edit the Dunolly Advertiser and the following month he became editor of the enlarged Maryborough and Dunolly Advertiser, which was to become one of the main goldfield newspapers. Vogel later established the Inglewood and Sandy Creek Advertiser.
Vogel was a talented journalist and editor: he had a flair for writing and a keen interest in business and public affairs. His political views were those of a radical free trader and he used the editorial columns of the Maryborough and Dunolly Advertiser to attack the Victorian squattocracy and advocate parliamentary reform. He was also a strong supporter of regional development.
During this time Vogel pursued various interests. He speculated a little in mining shares and served a brief term on the Dunolly Advancement Committee. He played cricket for Dunolly and became a keen racegoer. Probably he acquired the taste for good food and wine, which was to be a cause of recurrent attacks of gout, and for tobacco.
By 1861 Vogel's future was in doubt. Victoria was in a recession. When the Maryborough and Dunolly Advertiser was sold he lost his job as editor and had to sell the Inglewood Advertiser. He considered leaving Dunolly but then decided to remain and contest the two-member constituency of Avoca in the forthcoming election for the Victorian General Assembly. Eight candidates entered the campaign but only three remained when the poll was taken. Vogel, standing as an independent free trader, came in well behind his two opponents, who had both supported the government. This defeat signalled the end of Vogel's Australian career. He left Dunolly and crossed the Tasman to Dunedin, New Zealand, the newest gold town.
Vogel arrived in Dunedin early in October 1861. He secured a job on the weekly paper, the Otago Colonist, edited by William Lambert. Within weeks, however, he formed a partnership with William Cutten, editor of the rival Otago Witness, with the intention of founding a daily newspaper. An introductory issue of the Otago Daily Times, the first daily in the country, appeared on 15 November 1861. Cutten left the partnership in 1864 and was replaced by Benjamin Farjeon. In 1866 the paper was taken over by a company. Vogel accommodated himself to these changes, staying on as editor until April 1868.
Vogel had an elevated idea of the role of the press, believing it had the power to create public opinion. He took a strong, positive line on all the current major issues and used the Times to promote his own views and political career. He appointed a number of reporters, such as Edward Gillon, William Harrison and Ebenezer Fox, who later had notable careers in journalism, politics and the civil service.
Vogel soon became involved in community affairs, determined to overcome the prejudice of the Dunedin establishment towards the goldrush newcomers. He was a member of the Chamber of Commerce, the Otago Club, the Otago Benevolent Institution and the organising committee of the New Zealand Exhibition of 1865. In 1863 his dramatisation of the novel Lady Audley's secret was produced at the Princess Theatre. In spite of his enthusiastic participation in local organisations and events it is probable that he encountered suspicion and anti-Semitism, as he was to do throughout his career.
Vogel was often described as foreign-looking. As a young man he was rather stout; he became more portly with the passage of time. His black hair was parted in the middle, he had a full moustache and long mutton-chop whiskers. Later in life he grew a full beard. He had a swarthy complexion and was short of stature.
Vogel's political views were in tune with the current mood of provincialism. During 1862 he was largely responsible for the creation of the Otago separation movement which aimed, in the first instance, at the separation of the North and South Islands. The movement gave him a political programme, but did not make him popular. In 1863 he was twice defeated in elections for the seat of Dunedin and Suburbs South in the House of Representatives. However, in September he was returned unopposed in a by-election for Dunedin North. He stood on a platform of separation, free trade and the overthrow of the old clique that ruled Otago. In May 1863 he was defeated in an election for a Dunedin District seat on the Otago Provincial Council but was returned for Waikouaiti the following month. Thus he rapidly gained entry to politics at the local and national levels.
Vogel sat on the provincial council from June 1863 until May 1869. He concerned himself mainly with finance and development. In Otago the main source of revenue was land and Vogel advocated its sale to whoever had the money, so that the provincial council could fund development. In November 1866 he became leader of the provincial executive and took the office of provincial treasurer. Within a couple of months James Macandrew was elected as superintendent and although Macandrew and Vogel had previously been on different sides they were now forced together. Their views were in many ways similar, both wanting to encourage provincial development. They had ambitious plans for bringing in immigrants, building roads, railways, bridges, schools and a university, but the times were against them. Money was short and the province found it difficult to borrow. Much of their time was spent in political squabbling with the central government.
Vogel was a strong advocate of South Island rights in the 1860s. He regarded the New Zealand wars as a drain on colonial resources and wanted the South Island to become financially and administratively independent of the North Island. In the General Assembly he was mainly in opposition, joining other Otago and Auckland members who favoured separation. By the end of 1865, however, separation was a waning cause and Vogel had largely abandoned it to concentrate on provincial rights. He wanted the provinces to be financially autonomous and solely responsible for colonisation and development.
In the general election of 1866 Vogel contested Waikouaiti and was defeated. He had paid scant attention to the needs of his constituents. The prolonged nature of the election allowed him to be returned unopposed to represent the Goldfields. At the same time he resigned the Waikouaiti seat in the provincial council and was returned for Taieri. The ease with which he changed electorates was a feature of his political progress: he rarely contested the same seat twice.
In politics Vogel was aggressive. He was not a good speaker, being rather prolix. His partial deafness was a handicap in the cut and thrust of debate. He had little respect for parliamentary conventions and the niceties of the debating chamber, alienating the speaker of the House, David Monro, and the chairman of committees, Hugh Carleton. He rapidly became a leading member of the opposition, although he did not have a personal following. He was a shrewd politician who could see how to attack the government but he was not as yet seen as an alternative leader. Older, more experienced politicians regarded him as brash and unscrupulous.
On 19 March 1867, in a Christian ceremony at Dunedin, Vogel married Mary Clayton. She was the daughter of Vogel's neighbour, the architect W. H. Clayton. There were to be four children of the marriage: Harry, Francis, Julius and Phoebe. Mary was lively and intelligent, and exercised considerable influence over her husband. Certainly he was emotionally dependent on her and found separations from her difficult to tolerate. Vogel had been in favour of female education since 1863; Mary may have inspired his introduction, in 1887, of a Women's Suffrage Bill.
Early in 1868 Vogel lost the editorship of the Otago Daily Times. It seems that he had become too independent for the management and not concerned enough about profit. The shareholders declined his offer to lease the business so in November he launched a competitor, the New Zealand Sun. When this collapsed within a few months he decided to move north. In April 1869 he visited Auckland and arranged to become editor and general manager of the Daily Southern Cross. Soon after, he retired from provincial politics and in mid May the family left Dunedin.
During the 1868 parliamentary session Vogel joined William Fox to oppose Edward Stafford's government. They attacked Stafford's provincial and Māori policies and his administration of the country. By 1869 they had enough support to topple the government. Fox succeeded to the premiership, making Vogel his colonial treasurer, and Donald McLean native minister. Vogel made the finance portfolio the most powerful post in government. He came into office at a time of economic stagnation. Previously there had been little in the way of constructive economic policies. He adopted a bold expansionist policy with plans to bring thousands of assisted immigrants to New Zealand, to construct roads, railways, bridges and telegraph lines, and to purchase Māori land for European settlement. His aim was to renew 'colonisation' and to stimulate economic growth. The programme was to be financed by borrowing, by paying for works with land grants, and by increases in government revenue resulting from the expanding economy. Vogel's policy was adopted by the House in 1870 and implemented during the seventies.
The new economic policy was popular within the country. It marked the end of an era of slow growth and conflict and, along with McLean's policy of 'demilitarisation', was intended to reconcile Māori and European and to bring the Māori, and Māori land, into the European economy. A few people believed that large borrowing for development would lead to the taxation of land and property, but the critics of the policy were overwhelmed by the supporters who anticipated increased employment, a rise in land values and a booming economy. The voters provided a mandate for the policy in the 1871 general election, in which Vogel won the seat of Auckland City East unopposed.
Except for a brief interlude Vogel remained in government from 1869 until August 1876. He held, at various stages, the posts of colonial treasurer, postmaster general, commissioner of customs, telegraph commissioner and minister of immigration. From April 1873 to July 1875 and from February to August 1876 he was premier. Of these seven years he was absent from New Zealand for almost three, making two trips to Britain and three to Australia. He also visited the United States.
Vogel was keenly interested in international trade and communications. He wanted to encourage exports to Australia, the Pacific and the United States and to establish a fast, regular steamship service, and cables, between New Zealand, Australia, the United States and Britain. These projects were hampered by colonial status and a lack of resources. When Vogel wanted to give the Australian colonies preferential trade treatment he discovered that they were forbidden by their constitutions from reciprocating; when he wanted to negotiate with the Americans for a reduction in duties on wool he found that New Zealand had no international status. He fought long and hard with the British government to remove these restrictions. As postmaster general Vogel proposed that the government subsidise a steamer service to San Francisco, but the two services established in the first half of the seventies failed. He also co-operated with New South Wales in establishing the cross-Tasman cable.
Vogel's immigration and public works policy was expensive. During the seventies several large loans were raised on the London money market. Vogel visited England in 1871 and 1874–75 to assist in floating these loans. The course of the policy did not always run smoothly. The government probably took on too much and tried to do it in too short a time, especially given the problems of isolation, the shortage of skilled administrators and engineers, and the difficult nature of the country that was to be opened up.
In September 1872, when the policy had not yet shown results, Fox's government was defeated and Vogel was briefly out of office. He came back in with George Waterhouse as leader. Waterhouse was acceptable to Governor George Bowen, and to the Fox supporters, but he was a figurehead only. Vogel was in control.
The dual system of government, central and provincial, complicated the operation of Vogel's policy. The provinces had previously been responsible for colonisation. Some provincial politicians, such as Macandrew and William Fitzherbert, wanted to retain this responsibility. Others were happy to hand it over to the central government. All the provinces wanted more money, more immigrants, roads and railways. Vogel tried to accommodate provincial needs but this proved increasingly difficult. In 1874 he finally agreed that the success of his policy demanded the abolition of the northern provincial governments at least. The proposal was readily agreed to by the House, and in the following year it was extended to the South Island provincial governments.
Vogel resigned the premiership in August 1876 to accept the appointment as agent-general in London. He was already in poor health and because of financial difficulties wished to use the office of agent-general as a support while he established himself in business. He held the post until he was forced to resign in late 1880 for refusing to relinquish what the government of the day saw as business interests incompatible with his status as the colonial representative. As agent general he administered the recruitment and shipping of assisted immigrants, raised loans and generally represented New Zealand's interests in Britain. Although he performed these duties without serious neglect, he was more interested in promoting his business and political career. He eventually found a business opportunity in the New Zealand Agricultural Company, which he and William Larnach promoted in London early in 1879, and secured the Conservative Party nomination for the borough of Penryn and Falmouth in the general election of 1880. Neither of these ventures was successful. The Conservatives were soundly defeated and the agricultural company, formed to take over a group of rabbit infested Southland estates, was a venture doomed from its inception.
Vogel devoted the early 1880s to business in an attempt to strengthen his financial position. Ironically, the man whose political image was that of a financial expert was now heavily in debt and incurring a large annual expenditure. He became a company promoter, interested in electricity, telephones, cables, railways and land development. In 1882–83 he visited Australia and New Zealand on business. These ventures were all high-risk, usually undercapitalised and poorly organised. By 1884 most had collapsed.
From 1884 until early 1888 Vogel was back in New Zealand. He returned to attend to the affairs of the failing New Zealand Agricultural Company and entered politics largely to rescue this company and a number of struggling railway companies. He contested the seat of Christchurch North in the 1884 general election and on the meeting of Parliament went into government, holding the post of colonial treasurer, with Robert Stout as premier. The country was in a prolonged recession. Vogel did what he could to promote recovery, in part by borrowing, but with little success. Although the voters were initially hopeful that he could restore economic prosperity, they eventually seemed to decide that retrenchment and belt tightening were the only solutions and turned against expansionist policies. Vogel's private fortunes were similarly on the decline: although several of the railway companies he had interests in had been bought out by the government, the agricultural company was not saved.
In the 1887 general election Vogel retained his seat but the government was defeated. He became leader of the opposition, but before the 1888 session he departed once again for England. This time he did not return to New Zealand.
Vogel never really became a New Zealander although he said that he 'lived the best years' of his life in New Zealand. His primary affiliation was neither to England nor to New Zealand but to the British Empire. He was a frequent advocate of imperial federation, hoping that Great Britain and its colonies would form an indissoluble union with a federal parliament, collective responsibility and control, and predicting that if this did not happen the Empire would disintegrate. He opposed federation with Australia because he believed that New Zealand would be dominated by the Australians and that it would make imperial federation more difficult to achieve. He believed that New Zealand's destiny lay in the Pacific, foreseeing a time when New Zealand would be the centre of a great Pacific empire, controlling the trade and defence of the region. Fearing the intervention of other foreign powers, he urged Great Britain to annex the islands of Fiji, Samoa, New Guinea, the Cooks, Rapa, Tonga and the Kermadecs and offered New Zealand's services in administering these territories. When Great Britain proved reluctant to act, Vogel tried to force its hand by promoting a Polynesian trading company sponsored by the New Zealand government. The scheme led a Colonial Office official to refer to Vogel as 'the most audacious adventurer that perhaps has ever held power in a British colony', and was never put into operation. In the 1880s Vogel vigorously opposed the French policy of transporting prisoners to New Caledonia, and the expansion of German and American interests in Samoa.
Vogel spent his last 11 years in England. He retired to East Molesey, Surrey, in the early 1890s and rarely left the village. His health was broken. In fact he had been a sick man since the late 1860s. His gout had become more severe, and from the late seventies, he increasingly used a wheelchair. He wore big woollen slippers, used a 'walking-machine' and needed assistance most of the time.
In retirement Vogel took up his pen once again. He wrote a futuristic novel entitled Anno domini 2000; or, woman's destiny in which women held the highest posts in government and poverty had vanished. The book, published in London in 1889, was a financial failure. He had more success as a journalist than as a novelist, and wrote a large number of articles which were published in leading British periodicals.
Vogel's marriage and family brought him considerable pride and satisfaction, but also a great deal of anxiety and some tension. In the early years, when Vogel's career was at its height, the family was busy and brilliantly successful. In 1871 Frances Vogel accompanied the family back to New Zealand to help care for the children and share their new position. Whenever possible Julius and Mary Vogel travelled together and entertained lavishly. In 1872 Vogel received the CMG and in 1875 the KCMG. However, in later years, when health and money became problems, Vogel became anxious about the future of Mary (who was 14 years younger) and his children, should he die. His depression worsened when in December 1893, Frank, his second son, was killed in action against the Matabele. Mary Vogel found it difficult to cope with her husband's temperament, the loss of status and worries over money. However, she was a source of strength towards the end of his life. After many years of suffering, Julius Vogel died at East Molesey on 12 March 1899, and was buried in the Willesden Jewish cemetery.
Vogel was vastly ambitious. He was clever, impulsive, generous, strong-willed to the point of being domineering. More than any other politician of his time, he was fascinated by politics. His overt ambition and ruthless behaviour repelled some contemporaries but his openness, his powerful and magnetic personality attracted others. He became a master at winning men over to his side by promises and patronage. He was not a profound political thinker, his early radical views rapidly giving way to the practical politics of development and, as he frequently said, the creation of happy homes and a prosperous nation.
As colonial treasurer, Vogel had close links with the financial and banking sector, especially with the Bank of New Zealand where the government account was domiciled. He was not, however, as some of his enemies claimed, the pawn of the bank. The government and bank worked together for their mutual advantage. If Vogel benefited personally from this connection it was in a very minor way. His main interest, at least until 1876, was in political power and the development of the country. From then on his life was dominated by the pursuit of financial security and this pursuit led him into some dubious enterprises. None were illegal but one or two came close to this and his reputation was certainly damaged.
During his lifetime Vogel was often blamed for the recession of the eighties. By the time of his death, however, New Zealand was well on the way to economic recovery and public opinion swung back to praise his policies as far sighted and progressive. He was recognised as a major statesman of the nineteenth century, and despite some later criticisms of his business dealings, this verdict has been sustained.