Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.

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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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HAMILTON, William John Warburton

(1825–83).

Explorer, civil servant.

W. J. W. Hamilton was born at Little Chart Rectory, Kent, the eldest son of the Rev. John Vesey Hamilton, and was educated at Harrow, Brussels, and Paris. At the age of 18 he left for Sydney in the Bangalore with £50 in his pocket, which was all he ever received from his father. Among the passengers was Captain FitzRoy on the way out to take up the appointment of Governor of New Zealand. The Wairau affray had just taken place. His private secretary having resigned on account of ill health, FitzRoy offered the post to Hamilton, who accepted it. He now entered upon a period of extreme activity, drafting dispatches and entertaining guests for the Governor. He visited settlements and native strongholds, and saw fighting during Hone Heke's rebellion as a member of the Auckland Militia. When FitzRoy was recalled late in 1845 he continued for a time to serve Sir George Grey, and then sailed for England in 1846. Two years later he returned to New Zealand as a survey officer in the survey ship HMS Acheron. In 1849 he made an inland exploration of North Canterbury, climbed Mt. Grey and made a plan showing the open country visible up the Hurunui and Waiau Rivers. When the Acheron was in Foveaux Strait, he explored far to the westward and he and Captain Stokes ascended the Oreti and Makarewa Rivers in the ship's jolly boat. He visited the site of Invercargill and in May 1850, with Lieutenant Spencer, made the first overland expedition from Invercargill to Dunedin. Later he thoroughly examined the coastline from Banks Peninsula to Cape Campbell.

In August 1850 he was appointed Resident Magistrate at Wanganui and during this time made journeys far inland, increasing thereby his already considerable knowledge of the Maoris and their way of life. They loved and respected him and he left the district a model of orderliness.

In 1853 he settled in Canterbury, having been appointed Collector of Customs at Lyttelton; and in November 1855 he married Frances, eldest daughter of James Townsend. He made his home in Dampier Bay and his family were born there. He was Provincial Auditor in the first Provincial Government. Sewell said, “He has all the brains of the Government at present, and is the sole authority on finance”. He completed the purchase by the Crown of the Maori lands in Banks Peninsula. In 1866 he left the Customs and became Sub-Treasurer in Christchurch. He bought a share in the Lyttelton Times and took an active part in the conduct of the paper. When he died, men from the Times office carried the coffin in relays all the way from his house in Latimer Square to Barbadoes Street Cemetery. The pall bearers were H. J. Tancred, C. C. Bowen, T. W. Maude, R. J. S. Harman, the Rev. Croasdaile Bowen, and the Hon. William Reeves. He was a man of the highest principles and of an integrity hardly understandable by men of commoner clay. But C. C. Bowen said of him that his great fault was obstructiveness, and E. J. Bourke described him as “a crotchety official – a wearisome Magistrate”. He died on 6 December 1883, aged 58.

by George Ranald Macdonald, Retired Farmer, Kaiapoi R.D.

  • Selfe Letters (MSS), Hocken Library
  • Life of Sir Julius von Haast, von Haast, H. F. (1948)
  • Lyttelton Times, 6 Dec, 7 Dec 1883 (Obits).


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