Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.

FITZHERBERT, Sir William, K.C.M.G.

(1810–91).

Politician.

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

Sir William Fitzherbert, third son of the Rev. Samuel Fitzherbert, was born at the rectory of Houghton, Dorset, on 15 August 1810. He was educated at Sherbourne Grammar School and the Merchant Taylors' School, and then proceeded to Queen's College, Cambridge, at the age of 18. He had a brilliant career there, taking a double first in classics, senior optime in mathematics. He rowed in the eight in 1832, and excelled as a boxer.

In 1832 he graduated M.A. and became a fellow of Queen's. In that year he went to the Ecole de Medicine in Paris, and later continued medical studies in London. Fitzherbert married, in 1837, Sarah Jane Leigh. He graduated M.D. in 1839 and commenced practice in London, at the same time investing some thousands of pounds in the New Zealand Company. With the idea of safeguarding this investment, Fitzherbert purchased the 109-ton Lady Leigh, and arrived at Port Nicholson on 15 September 1841. His wife and family followed him, and Fitzherbert set up his home on Mount Victoria, entering business as a general merchant, auctioneer, and dealer in whale oil and bone.

In 1843 he was head of the Commission of the Peace. In 1848, after the earthquake, he sent his wife to Sydney, where a daughter was born. Fitzherbert lost the Lady Leigh in attempting to leave Port Nicholson at this time, and brought the William Alfred back from Sydney to continue and expand his maritime business. The family lived in Bowen Street, Wellington, for a time, then moved into Tredenham, a prefabricated house imported from Sydney, which Fitzherbert erected at the Hutt. He was now associated with Pharazyn in pastoral ventures. After some years he moved to Willow Bank, near Melling, in the Hutt Valley.

From the early 1850s Fitzherbert devoted himself to public life. He became a prominent member of the Settlers' Constitutional Association, and in 1855 was elected to the Wellington Provincial Council for Wellington city. He lost this seat in 1857 in the struggle to defeat Wakefield's party, and from 1859–69 was member for Hutt. He was a strong Featherston supporter, and succeeded him as superintendent in 1870–71.

Fitzherbert was also a member of the House of Representatives, representing Wellington city from 1855–58, and Hutt from 1858–79. He was Colonial Treasurer under Weld during 1864–65, obtaining from the British Government remission of £750,000 of the Maori War debt. From 1865 until 1869 Fitzherbert served under Stafford as Colonial Treasurer. In the 1872 Stafford Ministry he was Minister of Lands and Immigration. In 1876 he became Speaker of the House of Representatives, resigning in 1879 to become a member of the Legislative Council. Fitzherbert represented New Zealand at the Colonial Conference in London in 1887, and at the Postal Conference in Sydney the following year.

Fitzherbert was wealthy enough to be able to devote himself almost entirely to politics which were for him an engrossing hobby. He was by nature reserved and greatly enjoyed the privilege of wielding power from behind the scenes. A leading provincialist in local politics, he formed with Fox and Featherston a group known as “The Three F.s”. In the House of Representatives he was never an arresting debater, but he had a keen sense of humour while his use of sarcasm could be most effective. As Colonial Treasurer he was one of the most able of his day and certainly his financial statements were well presented and skilfully defended. As a politician Fitzherbert was not at all popular, and his flair for obtaining lucrative posts under Government led to the jibe that he was the Grand Pensioner of the Colony. He was far from impressive as Speaker of the House of Representatives (1876–1879) and his appointment in June 1879 to the Speakership of the Legislative Council by the Grey Ministry was hotly criticised on the grounds that the appointment was due to political considerations and that the Council itself should have had the sole power of election. Although the Council received Fitzherbert with marked coolness, he retained the Speakership, apart from one short break in 1887, until his death in 1891.

Fitzherbert was created C.M.G. in 1872 and K.C.M.G. in 1877. His wife died in 1886 and he died 7 February 1891. He was survived by two sons and a daughter.

by Keith Kennedy Campbell, M.A.(N.Z.), Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Melbourne and Alexander Hare McLintock, C.B.E., M.A., DIP.ED. (N.Z.), PH.D.(LOND.), Parliamentary Historian, Wellington.

  • Fitzherbert Letters (MSS), General Assembly Library
  • New Zealand Times, 9 Feb 1891 (Obit).


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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.

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