FINDLAY, the Hon. Sir John George
Barrister and politician.
A new biography of Findlay, John George appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
John George Findlay was born in Dunedin on 21 October 1862, the son of George Alexander Findlay, a timber merchant of that city, but his early life was spent on the West Coast of the South Island where he received his early education at Scott's Academy in Hokitika. He matriculated in 1881 and then attended Otago University, obtaining his LL.B. degree in 1886. In the following year he was called to the Bar and practised in partnership with F. G. Dalziell at Palmerston, Otago. He continued his studies at the University, however, and in 1893 obtained the degree of LL.D., which was at that time conferred by the University of New Zealand upon examination, and he was for one year (1893–94) lecturer in political economy at the University. In 1894 he was invited by Sir Robert Stout to join him in partnership in Wellington, and accordingly Findlay moved to that city where he achieved eminence as a counsel. The next two decades saw his steady rise to the front rank of advocates of that era.
As his practice prospered and flourished, Findlay became increasingly interested in politics, attaching his allegiance to the policies of the Liberal Party as led then by Richard Seddon, and after his return from a short trip to England he contested a Wellington seat as a Liberal candidate in the 1902 election. In this election, however, although he was unsuccessful and was defeated at the polls, he maintained his close connection with the Liberal Party, composing much of their election manifesto in 1905. In 1906, when the death of Colonel Pitt left the office of Attorney-General vacant, there was no legal practitioner amongst the elected members of the Liberal Party free to assume that post. Accordingly, Sir Joseph Ward, who had succeeded to the leadership of the party upon the death of Seddon, sought out Findlay for the office. As at that stage no seat in the House of Representatives was available, it was necessary to appoint Findlay to the Legislative Council. Because there were no other members of Cabinet in the Council, Findlay had to assume its leadership.
In view of his relative youth and inexperience in politics, Findlay's appointment was something in the nature of an experiment but he appears to have fully justified the Prime Minister's action. He quickly developed confidence and familiarity with the procedure of the Council and of Parliament, and was largely instrumental in considerably elevating the standard of the debates and discussions in the Council so that the period of his leadership from 1906–11 is considered to mark a very high level of debate. In this period he first held the position of Colonial Secretary until its transformation in 1907 into the portfolio of Internal Affairs, which he held from 1907–09, after which he held the portfolio of Justice and was Minister in Charge of the Crown Law Department (1909–11). In 1907 he was responsible for the introduction in New Zealand of the office of King's Counsel, and he was himself amongst the first to be so appointed.
In March 1911 he accompanied the Prime Minister to the Imperial Conference in London and that same year received a knighthood listed in the Coronation Honours. After his return to New Zealand, Findlay determined once again to capture a seat in the House of Representatives and, as the general election of 1911 approached, he resigned from the Legislative Council in order to contest the Parnell seat in Auckland. Once again, however, he was defeated and as the Liberal Party itself was also ousted at this election, his opportunity for political service disappeared until 1917 when he successfully contested a by-election in Hawke's Bay.
When the term of that Parliament expired in 1919, however, Sir John Findlay did not stand again for election and the continued eclipse of the Liberal Party at the polls meant his disappearance from the political arena. Although he still continued his practice in the succeeding years, the period of his influence on New Zealand affairs as a politician and a barrister was now passing. His eyesight and general health were so failing that in hope of a recovery he took a sea voyage to England in 1929; his health, however, did not improve and on 7 December 1929 he died in London.
Findlay had married in 1890 Josephine Emily, the daughter of James Arkle, of Lawrence, Otago, and there were three sons of that marriage. Only two survived him, one having been killed whilst serving in the armed forces in the First World War.
Outside his professional and political activities, Sir John Findlay throughout his life displayed an interest in education and cultural matters. He lectured at Otago University in political science and, when he first came to Wellington where there was at that time no university college, he also gave lectures, setting aside the fees therefrom towards the funds for the building of the college. After the college was erected, he sat as a member of its council for nine years (1900–05, 1906–10), and was chairman of the council for one year in 1906. He was also a member of the board of governors for Wellington College.
In addition to the specific publications of Humbugs and Homilies (1908) and Imperial Conference from Within (1912), he wrote many articles and essays for newspapers and periodicals (particularly The Citizen, the organ of the Forward Movement) and he gave many lectures and led many discussions on social, economic, and political topics. Sir John Findlay was also for some years chairman of the board of directors of the New Zealand Times Co. The Wellington Shakespearean Society also owed much to him for its creation, and he presided over it for a number of years.
Findlay was undoubtedly a man of great industry and ability, and the eminence which he achieved in his profession, even when in partnership with Sir Robert Stout, is evidence of this. His tenure of the Government portfolios was also one marked by great confidence and competence, and his leadership of the Legislative Council is generally considered to be unsurpassed in its history. Moreover, when he attended the Imperial Conference in 1911 with Sir Joseph Ward, he was recognised both by English and by colonial representatives as being one of the most able members. In assessing his significance as a lawyer and a politician, it is not possible to ignore Findlay's qualities as a man. There was no doubt that Findlay possessed great intellectual ability and industry and that he was one of the best informed men of his profession and of his time. He was a voracious reader (it was said that as a young man he used to read 17 hours a day) and he kept fully abreast of current developments in the political, legal, and economic spheres and in literature and the arts generally. These aspects of his character and mind did have the effect, however, of removing him to some extent both as a counsel and as a politician from immediate popular appeal. He did not shine as a trial lawyer but his strength lay instead in actions involving careful preparation and consideration of legal principles and precedents; and in the public arena of politics, whilst his speeches were always carefully prepared and fluently delivered, they lacked sometimes the quality that deep personal conviction and simple sincerity can supply, with the result that whilst technically they serve as models of rhetoric and argument, nevertheless practically they sometimes failed to achieve their result with the general public. It is significant that whilst Findlay so excelled in the debates of the Legislative Council and in the arguments of the Courts, he was successful in gaining popular support at the polls only once and that not until 1917.
In retrospect, it may be said that Sir John Findlay in his roles of politician, counsel, and man, more so than any other of his contemporaries or members of his political party, comes closest to the present-day conception of the cultured English Liberal gentleman of the nineteenth century.
by Donald Edgar Paterson, B.A., LL.M.(N.Z.), LL.M., J.S.D.(YALE), Lecturer in Jurisprudence and Constitutional Law, Victoria University of Wellington.
- Otago Daily Times, 10 Dec 1929 (Obit)
- Dominion, 10, 12 Dec 1929 (Obits)
- Evening Post, 9, 11 Dec 1929 (Obits)
- New Zealand Law Journal, 12 Dec 1929 (Obit).