Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.

GODLEY, John Robert

(1814–61).

Coloniser and administrator.

A new biography of Godley, John Robert appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

John Robert Godley was born on 29 May 1814 at 33 Merion Square, Dublin, the eldest son of John Godley, an Irish landowner with estates at Killegar, County Leitrim, and at County Meath. His mother was Catherine, née Daly, whose brothers were Lord Dunsandle and the Bishop of Cashel. In 1824 young Godley was sent to the Rev. Edward Ward's preparatory school at Iver, near Uxbridge, England. Four years later he entered Harrow and soon made his mark, despite the handicap of uncertain health. In 1831 he captained the Harrow XI at cricket — a game he loved all his life — and in March 1832 won an open scholarship at Oxford, being admitted to Christ Church in the following October. He soon took his place among a brilliant company of Tories and High Churchmen who were influenced by the Oxford movement, though Godley was attracted more by its aims of social and political reform than by its ritual and doctrine. Repeated attacks of “chronic laryngitis” affected his studies and, for all his promise, he had to be content with a second-class in classics, B.A., October 1836.

During 1837 – 38 Godley travelled abroad, visiting France, Germany, Norway, and Sweden. On his return he was called to the Irish Bar at Dublin in June 1839, an almost briefless barrister but very much the young Tory squire, on nodding terms with most of the great figures of the day. His mind was of a serious cast, and letters written at this time to his lifelong friend, C. B. Adderley, show his deep concern with current questions. From July to November 1842 Godley was in North America. He was an excellent observer, especially of the working of colonial self-government, and his letters home were, on Adderley's advice, published in early 1844 under the modest title of Letters from America. Gladstone thought well of them, and it was apparent that at the age of 28 Godley had already an appreciation of colonial problems well in advance of contemporary thought. He now turned his attention to Irish affairs. In 1843 he had been appointed High Sheriff of County Leitrim and, in the following year, Deputy Lieutenant and a Justice of the Peace. At this juncture he announced his engagement to Charlotte, daughter of C. G. Wynne, of Voelas, Denbighshire, the marriage taking place on 29 September 1846.

The appalling distress in Ireland directed Godley's thoughts to colonisation, and he proposed settling a million Irish in Canada. Perhaps with the idea of advancing this plan he decided in 1847 to stand for County Leitrim as a Tory candidate, but failed. For the moment, journalism seemed a more promising venture, and in the following year he was in London writing leaders for the Morning Chronicle in the Liberal-Conservative interest, with the emphasis on colonial questions. Godley now became intimate with Edward Gibbon Wakefield, whose views on colonisation he heartily endorsed. The result was an alliance of Godley's High Church and, in a sense, radical Toryism, with the theories of the Colonial Reformers who comprised the left wing of the Whig Party. Out of this emerged a scheme for an Anglican Church settlement in New Zealand under the aegis of the Canterbury Association whose list of members showed the strength of Godley's personal and family connection. In September 1849, when plans in England were nearing a climax, Godley suffered a serious relapse in health, the upshot being that he somewhat reluctantly agreed to go to New Zealand as chief agent for the Association. On 13 December, with his wife Charlotte and infant son Arthur, he sailed from Plymouth in the Lady Nugent to prepare the way for the arrival of the first body of emigrants. The Godleys arrived at Otago Harbour on 25 March 1850 and spent Eastertide at Dunedin with Captain Cargill, one of the leaders of the Scottish Free Church settlement. Godley was not greatly impressed by what he saw and his criticisms, later published, were very much to the point, though in no sense uncharitable. The Lady Nugent reached Port Cooper (Lyttelton) on 12 April, where Godley met Capt. Jos. Thomas, agent for the Association, who since the previous July had been pushing ahead with surveying and roadmaking. But as funds were already overspent Godley ordered that all except essential work should cease, a decision which, though justified, aroused local irritation. Aware that there was little he could do on the spot, Godley decided to move to Wellington and await news of the Association's activities. The move gave him the opportunity to learn something of the political problems of the colony and it brought him into close touch with the Governor, Sir George Grey, with whom he was soon to clash on constitutional issues. From April until November 1850, therefore, the Godleys were very much at home in Wellington society. It was a time of political tension, and the New Zealand Company settlers at Nelson and Wellington were agitating for self-government which Grey was not prepared to concede. On 15 November 1850 Godley took part in a great public meeting organised by the Constitutional Association, and he urged the settlers to demand the right to manage their own affairs. It was Godley, in effect, who first outlined in New Zealand the full significance of the term “responsible government”.

On 28 November 1850 Godley returned to Lyttelton to meet the first four emigrant vessels which arrived between 16–27 December, and for the next two years he was the head of the young settlement. He soon showed fine qualities of leadership and did not hesitate to criticise the policy of the London committee of the Association, which was a sort of absentee landlord. “The business of the Association”, said Godley, “was to found Canterbury, not to govern it”. He was well aware that pastoral farming, and not small-scale agricultural holdings as planned by the association, must be the mainstay of the settlement. He therefore reversed the regulations regarding squatting and encouraged the entry of stock and stockmen from Australia, a sound policy which received its final sanction when the Land Regulations were adopted by the Superintendent and Provincial Council of Canterbury in 1855. Further difficulties with the Association, and an estrangement with Wakefield, strengthened his decision to return to London, though he was warmly pressed by the settlers to stand for election, under the Constitution Act of 1852, to the Superintendency of the province. But Godley had made it clear from the outset that a term of three years abroad was all that he could spare, and he rightly refused to become involved in new problems. On the eve of his departure he gave a series of lectures on the responsibilities of self-government in the light of the new Constitution Act whose main features he shrewdly criticised.

On 22 December 1852 Godley sailed from Lyttelton, via Wellington and Sydney, for England, which he reached in the following June. Along with Adderley and his old associates, he kept in close touch with Canterbury affairs and continued to battle for an acceptance by the Colonial Office of the principle of colonial self reliance, a theme which he enlarged upon in articles contributed to the Spectator. Hopes of an appointment at the Colonial Office were destroyed by Newcastle's coldness, but Gladstone, then at the Exchequer, offered Godley a Commissionership of Income Tax in Ireland, which was followed in March 1854 by a transfer to London. Twelve months later he was appointed to the Ordnance Office as Director of Stores, a post which was far from being a sinecure during the administrative chaos of the Crimean War. In August 1855 the Ordnance Department was merged in the War Office and Godley as Assistant Under-Secretary came under the authority of Lord Panmure. Administrative problems again engaged his attention and he drew up a plan for a single Ministry of Defence, which, however, was far too revolutionary for its time to win official acceptance. Godley spent much of 1856 in travelling about the British Isles, inspecting military stores, and suggesting further administrative reforms. In early 1859 he submitted a report on Imperial defence, a model of its kind, in which he again advocated a policy on colonial self reliance. Gladstone was impressed and the Colonial Reformers warmly approved, while Adderley in the House pressed for a parliamentary committee of inquiry, which functioned in 1861. In May, Godley gave evidence. He strongly condemned Sir George Grey's policy at the Cape of maintaining troops by grants from the British Exchequer, and he regretted the reliance in New Zealand on British regulars rather than on colonial volunteers. The outbreak of the Taranaki War distressed him greatly and he urged his friends in New Zealand to claim full responsibility for native affairs and oppose any interference by the Colonial Office in internal matters. His views were vindicated in 1863 when Newcastle at the Colonial Office adopted the principle of self reliance, followed by the gradual withdrawal of overseas garrisons from all but Imperial posts.

During these years Godley's health, always precarious, had deteriorated rapidly. A visit to Rome in 1860 and a holiday the following year at Whitby, Yorkshire, brought no improvement, and he returned to London where he died on 17 November 1861. He was survived by his wife, four daughters, and son, John Arthur (1847 – 1932), who became Secretary of State for India and was raised to the peerage as Baron Kilbracken.

Although Godley's early death left the promise of his life largely unfulfilled, his achievements were far from negligible. He was certainly not a Great Victorian, but among the lesser figures of his day he stands high. In character he was sincere, deeply religious, and earnest, with an independent mind that scorned hypocrisy and cant. He had the capacity to give and inspire friendship, and to his intimates he was a delightful companion. Gladstone thought him “a king among men”, and Lyttelton, as one “born to control affairs and manage men”. Yet he had his defects, in part those of his background and training. He was habitually reserved to those who lacked “a good manner with gentlemen” and he made little effort to cultivate the common touch. As a public speaker he was concise, dry, and somewhat matter of fact, though never pedestrian or pedantic; indeed, if contemporary New Zealand reports of his speeches are at all reliable, he was capable of arousing enthusiasm and stimulating action. As a writer he was more restrained than brilliant, though on certain issues his strong convictions gave urgency to his pen. He was at his best in private correspondence which displayed his wide interests and warmth of feeling.

Godley's views on imperial questions were far in advance of contemporary thought. Like Burke, he firmly believed in “salutary neglect” and would gladly have reduced imperial control to something approximating to our present-day concept of Commonwealth relations. The idea of a self-reliant policy for the colonies pervaded his thinking. “Do not be afraid to leave them to themselves”, he urged; “throw them into the water, and they will swim.” Towards the end of his life, however, he despaired of any change of heart at the Colonial Office, and his letters to his old friend in New Zealand, James Edward FitzGerald, reveal his growing doubts as to the wisdom of maintaining the Imperial tie.

Godley Statue

When news of Godley's death reached Canterbury, the Provincial Council resolved to erect a bronze statue to his memory. Lord Lyttelton commissioned Thomas Woolner, the pre-Raphaelite sculptor, to undertake the work, and in July 1865 the statue was on view at the South Kensington Museum, London, where it was warmly praised by public and critics. On 6 August 1867 the statue was unveiled at Christchurch, when tribute was paid to Godley's rare qualities of mind and character. Today it stands in Cathedral Square, Christchurch, one of the few portrait statues in this country with any claim to artistic merit.

by Alexander Hare McLintock, C.B.E., M.A., DIP.ED. (N.Z.), PH.D.(LOND.), Parliamentary Historian, Wellington.

  • Godley of Canterbury, Carrington, C. E. (1950)
  • A History of Canterbury, Hight, J., and Straubel, C. R. (1957)
  • Crown Colony Government in New Zealand, McLintock, A. H. (1958)
  • A Selection from the Writings and Speeches of John Robert Godley, FitzGerald, J. E. (1863).


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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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