Walter Edward Gudgeon was born in London, England, on 4 September 1841, the first child of Thomas Wayth Gudgeon, an upholsterer, and his first wife, Mary Johnston. The family emigrated to New Zealand in 1850 and settled in New Plymouth. Walter left school to work on the family farm at the age of 11. Conscious all his life of his lack of formal education, he made up for it by reading voraciously. After leaving home at 16 he became an accomplished shepherd and drover.
Gudgeon was managing a farm near Wanganui when fighting broke out in the area. In March 1865 he joined the Wanganui Bushrangers, and three months later became second-in-command of the Wanganui Native Contingent under Thomas McDonnell. By September, having demonstrated both personal courage and skills in inter-racial diplomacy, he had received a commission. After serving on a punitive expedition to Opotiki and on General Trevor Chute's 1865–66 campaign in southern Taranaki, Gudgeon accidentally shot himself in the thigh and returned to his farm on confiscated land near the Waingongoro River. Forced off the land on the outbreak of war with Ngati Ruanui leader Titokowaru in June 1868, he served honourably with the Native Contingent in the disastrous defeat of the colonial forces at the battle of Moturoa in November and was made a sub-inspector in the New Zealand Armed Constabulary. He fought against Te Kooti at Ngatapa and took part in the pursuit of Titokowaru in autumn 1869.
Gudgeon was next given command of the Runanga redoubt, one of a string of forts built between Tapuaeharuru (Taupo) and Napier to restrict Te Kooti's movements. With the guerilla leader on the run, the duties of the Armed Constabulary focused on drilling and road making. In February 1874 Gudgeon's tedium was relieved when he was put in charge of the sensitive Poverty Bay district. Based at Ormond, he made typically astute land purchases and also met Edith Maria Best (sister of Elsdon Best), whom he married in Wellington on 16 January 1875. She was to die of tuberculosis on 21 March 1879 after bearing three children, Hilda, Constance and Westwood.
After being stationed for some time at Opunake, Gudgeon returned to Poverty Bay as resident magistrate for the Wairoa and Waiapu districts, on the fringes of which the writ of European law did not yet always run. Here he became embroiled in bitter political disputes over land sales. Gudgeon owned nearly a thousand acres of good land in Poverty Bay and Taranaki, from which he derived a sizeable income.
By May 1880 Gudgeon had been transferred back to Taranaki to join the forces being concentrated against Parihaka. When the settlement was invaded on 5 November 1881 he led the company that arrested Te Whiti and Tohu Kakahi. Posted to Manaia, he built a sophisticated redoubt, grew ornamental trees and supervised road making. He also courted Emily Bertha Tuke (known as Bertha), the daughter of his former commanding officer and a member of a landed Hawke's Bay family. They married at Napier on 24 January 1882, and were to have two sons, Herman and Melville (evidence of Gudgeon's erudition was thus transmitted to posterity), and two daughters, Gladys and Beryl.
In the summer of 1884–85 Gudgeon supervised the building of the Tokaanu–Wanganui road. He was freed from this irksome duty when the Russian war scare led to the concentration of the field force at the main ports. Promoted to major, Gudgeon took charge of constructing gun emplacements at Wellington's Point Halswell, and was soon made acting under-secretary of defence. At the beginning of 1887 he succeeded Sir George Whitmore as commissioner in charge of the New Zealand Police Force, which was newly separated from the military. In a time of depression, his brief was to create a leaner and more efficient force. In 1888 police districts were amalgamated, stations were closed, and there were some redundancies and many demotions.
Gudgeon sought to professionalise the police using measures which included the introduction of an examination system. This threw up a number of talented candidates for promotion, but they were thwarted by the lack of a retiring age or pension scheme to speed the departure of officers inherited from the provincial forces. Gudgeon's apparent inability to solve such problems led to his replacement by a more experienced administrator, Arthur Hume, in July 1890.
Gudgeon now became a judge of the Native Land Court, sitting most notably in the King Country on the Rohe Potae case. He was also made a judge of the Validation Court and a trust commissioner under the Native Lands Frauds Prevention Act 1881. This work enabled him to pursue a long-standing interest in Maori language and history. In 1892 he was one of the founders of the Polynesian Society. He contributed a number of articles to its journal, one of which was described by Edward Tregear as 'Absolutely and entirely valueless.…All the old stuff…we left behind 20 years ago'. It appears that he had earlier written three books, Reminiscences of the war in New Zealand (1879), The history and doings of the Maoris (1885) and The defenders of New Zealand (1887), all of which were published under his father's name.
In August 1898 Gudgeon, now a lieutenant colonel, was appointed British Resident in the Cook Islands. Seddon intimated that Gudgeon's real task was to annex the islands to New Zealand, and Gudgeon, whose belief in his 'manifest destiny' had led him to dream of one day being 'Governor of Fighi', accepted this mission with alacrity. In April 1900 the Rarotonga ariki consented to annexation, but to Great Britain, not New Zealand. A quickly arranged visit 'for health reasons' by Seddon, who made lavish and mostly unfulfilled promises of aid, and some fast talking by Gudgeon persuaded the ariki to agree to be annexed to Great Britain and federated with New Zealand. In reality, the island became New Zealand territory. When the formalities were completed in June 1901, Gudgeon was rewarded with a CMG.
As resident commissioner, chief justice of the High Court and (from 1902) chief judge of the Cook and other Islands Land Titles Court, Gudgeon was a veritable 'Pooh-Bah of the Pacific', responsible only to Seddon and (later) a brace of minor ministers. He rendered impotent the ariki council, and appointed to key positions several friends and relatives who proved to be corrupt. After establishing a prison camp on an isolated island, he invested in land there and then sentenced men to hard labour for crimes such as the theft of a pair of shoes. His own nephew got two years for embezzling government funds which Gudgeon had to repay; after serving his time he was appointed gaoler. Some minor offenders were forced to serve as indentured labourers in French Polynesia.
Convinced that the Cook Islands Maori were a dying race, Gudgeon saw little reason to intervene in what he took to be the processes of natural selection. Until 1909 the islands' medical resources comprised an uninhabitable hospital and a single doctor who put off patients with his gruff manner and devoted most of his energies to his plantation. Lepers were quarantined on isolated atolls and left to fend for themselves. Education beyond basic mission schooling in the vernacular was not considered necessary. The only senior school, which taught mainly in English, was first made fee-paying and then closed. George Hogben's efforts to establish scholarships to New Zealand schools were thwarted.
Gudgeon hoped to bring into being through the operations of his land court a settler society; the Maori's destiny was to labour in its plantations and homesteads. By 1907 Europeans occupied a fifth of Rarotonga's fertile land; by 1909 the value of exports had increased five-fold in a decade. But there proved to be little more land available for sale and less willingness to lease land to Europeans, and the Union Steam Ship Company's shipping monopoly made the export of perishable fruit both expensive and uncertain.
In 1909 the increasingly cantankerous Gudgeon was retired by Prime Minister Joseph Ward, according to Gudgeon because of his lapsed Catholicism. In 1914 he served briefly as censor of telegraphic messages before his official career ended, appropriately, in a row over his salary. He died at his home in Devonport, Auckland, on 5 January 1920. Bertha Gudgeon died in 1933.