Frederick Aloysius Weld, third son of Humphrey Weld and Maria Christina Clifford, daughter of Charles, sixth Lord Clifford of Chudleigh, was born and baptised at Chideock Manor, near Bridport, Dorset, England, on 9 May 1823. His ancestry was distinguished and its religion pervasive.
Raised in a closely knit West Country Catholic circle, Weld's upbringing and education moulded his principled and moralistic outlook on life. After nine years at Stonyhurst, the Jesuit college in Lancashire endowed by his grandfather Thomas Weld, Frederick enrolled in 1841 at the university of Fribourg in Switzerland. There he studied philosophy, chemistry, languages and law. The most important influence was that of his tutor, Father B. H. Freudenfeld, whom Weld always regarded as the wisest man he had known. Dissuaded by Freudenfeld from an army career, Weld followed the example of his cousins, Charles Clifford and William Vavasour, and sailed from Plymouth on the Theresa on 29 November 1843, reaching Wellington, New Zealand, on 22 April 1844.
This shy and gentle 20-year-old, delicate in health, fond of literature, music and painting, and possessing limited capital resources, seems an unlikely subject for a success story. But while the colonial Catholic network was an important support, Weld's achievements sprang from his adaptability, enterprise and application, and, he would have added, from divine guidance.
During his first seven years in New Zealand Weld's prime concern was with sheep. In partnership with Charles Clifford, Weld established two sheep stations during the 1840s, Wharekaka in Wairarapa in 1844 and Flaxbourne in Marlborough in 1847. The third Clifford–Weld property, Stonyhurst in North Canterbury, was located on Weld's advice but founded in 1851 by Clifford during Weld's first return visit to England. His pamphlet Hints to intending sheep-farmers in New Zealand (1851) ran to four editions, and is invaluable for its insight into colonial sheepfarming. Although Wharekaka was sold in the early 1850s, the partnership continued to run the South Island stations until the 1880s. Weld was always the junior partner, owning no more than a quarter of the assets.
He relished the challenge of establishing these stations, but found their later development mundane. He commented in May 1855: 'colonizing, exciting enough in its early struggles becomes very milk & waterish when it resolves itself into merely going certain rounds to visit sheep stations and staying a week in this settlement & a week in that. The tone too of the Colony alters, there are new faces & mercenary ideas, different from those of the adventurers of the early days – friends too get sick or get disgusted – die or go away.'
There was little likelihood that Weld would vegetate, however. He and his cousin Clifford were determined that there should be no discrimination against Catholics in New Zealand. Both were active in the Wellington Settlers' Constitutional Association and associated with English politicians lobbying for a representative constitution. Weld returned to the colony in December 1852, soon after news had arrived that the New Zealand Constitution Act had received the royal assent. Feeling that those who had worked to upset the old system were honour bound to help start the new one, Weld stood unopposed for the Wairau constituency in 1853, but declined to enter provincial politics. While opposed to undue centralisation, Weld contended that the central government should be superior and disapproved of excessive provincialism. Later, in his Notes on New Zealand affairs (1869), he held that the corruption caused by provincialism led to the instability of colonial politics.
Weld's political career was an erratic one. He was one of a group of southerners who converged on Auckland for the opening of the General Assembly in 1854. With James Edward FitzGerald and Henry Sewell he became one of the unofficial executive councillors comprising the 'mixed ministry', through which the Assembly vainly sought to bring in responsible government. In spite of this failure Weld viewed the situation positively: 'I cannot help feeling that there is a design of God in this sudden unsought for & unexpected crisis of my affairs – what it may end in I don't know – but what with Clifford as Speaker myself minister & several of the members Catholics I must say the prospects of full fair play for religion in NZ seem secure'.
Nevertheless he made other plans before Parliament met again. Still hankering after a military career, he resigned his seat but reached England too late for the Crimean War. He returned to New Zealand on New Year's Day 1858, and in June was elected again for Wairau.
In the spring he returned to England, and married Filumena Mary Anne Lisle Phillipps on 3 March 1859 in the private chapel of her family home at Leicester. There were 13 children of the marriage. After his death she entered Saint Scholastica Priory, which the Welds had largely financed, and died there in April 1903.
A severe attack of typhoid fever delayed Weld's return to New Zealand until February 1860. He joined the ministry headed by Edward Stafford as a member of the Executive Council, and in November 1860 became minister of native affairs. There was no marked change of policy for he saw the Waitara conflict as simply an unlawful assertion of a quasi-sovereignty. It was, he wrote, the 'painful duty of the Government to resist this separate authority & division of empire especially when as at Taranaki it has been asserted by force of arms.'
Weld's standpoint on race relations and cultural conflict had been shaped during his early years in Wairarapa. 'At all risks be just; at all risks be firm' was his credo. But when Māori interests cut across European priorities, there was no question of justice. In the conflicts of the 1840s and the 1860s Weld believed that anything less than a resolute assertion of British supremacy would entail the ruin of the native race and of the colony for many years to come.
When Stafford's ministry was defeated in July 1861, Weld returned to Canterbury where he had purchased over 300 acres some 30 miles north of Christchurch. During the latter half of 1861 he was happy designing the 16-roomed kauri homestead and landscaping the gardens. Brackenfield estate remained in Weld's hands until financial difficulties forced a sale in 1878.
In October 1864 the insistence of the British government that imperial regiments be paid for by the New Zealand government caused the resignation of the Whitaker–Fox ministry. Weld, who had deplored Governor George Grey's handling of the Waitara issue, believed that colonists were being asked to resolve a crisis caused by imperial ineptitude. He believed that New Zealand politics were 'rather too dirty a game to be pleasant', but his sense of duty and his indignation led him to form his 'self-reliant ministry' in November 1864. He argued that only by sending back the imperial troops would colonists control their internal affairs. He advocated better equipment for colonial troops, roadmaking in the disturbed districts, and the confiscation of Māori land.
Weld's personal reputation secured support at first, but self-reliance depended on speedy military success, which the wrangle between Grey and Lieutenant General Duncan Cameron prevented. The ministry had little success. The removal of the seat of government to Wellington offended Aucklanders. More damaging, the confiscation of 1.2 million acres of Waikato land on 17 December 1864 left a legacy of bitterness, which has lasted to the present day. Undermined by provincial opposition, petty politicking, ill health, an empty exchequer and Grey's duplicity, the ministry resigned on 12 October 1865.
With his health adversely affected by the strain of office, Weld retired from politics in January 1866 and left the colony in April 1867. He was to return only once, for business reasons in 1874. His sojourn in New Zealand spanned 23 years; his contribution to the colony's development was substantial. In addition to his pastoral and political attainments, Weld had undertaken a number of explorations in the northern half of the South Island, the most successful of which shortened the journey between Nelson and Christchurch to a comfortable six days. As a yachtsman, racehorse owner, justice of the peace, Catholic benefactor, and first president of the Canterbury Acclimatisation Society, Weld's involvement in community affairs was considerable. Moreover, as his watercolours indicate, this versatile Victorian also contributed to New Zealand's artistic heritage.
Weld was merely 43 when he and his family left New Zealand. Two years later he embarked on an 18 year career as a colonial governor. Appointed first to Western Australia (1868–74), he then saw service in Tasmania (1875–80), before being appointed to the Straits Settlements. He had been awarded the CMG in 1875, and was promoted KCMG in 1880 and GCMG in 1885. In the mid 1870s he had also been made a papal knight. Sir Frederick Weld retired reluctantly in October 1887 but maintained an active involvement in Empire through the Royal Colonial Institute and the Imperial Federation League. In March 1891 he returned to the Straits Settlements as a director of the Pahang Exploration and Development Company. The fever which he contracted on this final mission cost him his life. He died at Chideock on 20 July 1891. His long career encompassed major changes, but he never deviated from the religious and cultural values of his upbringing.