Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.

RICHMOND, Christopher William

(1821–95).

Politician and Judge.

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

Christopher William Richmond was born on 12 July 1821, the eldest son of Christopher and Maria Richmond, née Wilson. His father, a barrister, belonged to a noted Unitarian family from the north of England. William Richmond was educated at a private boarding school and at Hackney Grammar School. He commenced his legal studies when 16, first with S. Aspland, in London, then with Winter, Williams, and Williams. For health reasons he spent much of the years 1841–43 in the south of France with his mother and other members of the family. With the widening of his cultural background came an improvement in health, although he was frail constitutionally and throughout life a sufferer from asthma.

He was called to the Bar in 1847 and, discouraged by slow progress in building up a practice, he pondered on the possibility of emigrating. He enjoyed the lifelong friendship of Richard Hutton, headmaster of the Unitarian school of Hove House, Brighton, and, later, editor of the Spectator. With Hutton and other contemporaries of intellectual calibre and like outlook, he developed and extended a deep and perceptive interest in philosophy, theology, the social sciences, and literature.

In September 1852 he married Emily Elizabeth Atkinson, thus forging the first close link between the two families brought together by the recent friendship of his brother James with John Atkinson. The young couple were inevitably influenced by the Atkinson and kindred Hursthouse interest in emigration to New Zealand, and William decided to follow the example of James who had already left. The severing of direct association with the cultural amenities of the Old World probably meant more to C. W. Richmond than to most, but with his wife he sailed for the colony on the Sir Edward Paget, arriving in May 1853.

Physically more handicapped for the rugged work of bushfelling and farming than were his relatives, William set about building up a small conveyancing practice in New Plymouth. Possessing a strong political consciousness, he had delayed his departure for New Zealand until the passing of the Constitution Act of 1852 had ensured representative government for the colony. In November he was elected to represent New Plymouth in the General Assembly. The first promptings to political activity sprang from the frustration of the land-restricted Taranaki settlers disturbed by the intertribal warfare among local Maoris over land sales. Stafford, early impressed by his ability, invited him to join the Government, and in June 1856 he was appointed Colonial Secretary. Following Sewell's departure for England in September, he exchanged the portfolio for that of Colonial Treasurer. Painstaking, conscientious, with immense application and a ready pen balanced by a scrupulous attention to detail, Richmond quickly established his administrative reputation, although he found the perpetual jostling for influence and dealing with sectional claims distasteful. The combination of a strong sense of public duty with a lively self-confidence both sustained his energy and prompted his repeated statement that only the certainty that the reins would fall into reckless or unworthy hands obliged him to remain in politics.

Despite the fact that Richmond represented a small province where Maori-European relations were tense, he consistently took a broad view where issues affecting both the General and the Provincial Governments were concerned. He supported the provincial system as the best way of meeting local needs, but was opposed to the extension of provincial powers at the expense of the Central Government. Indeed, for much of his period of office, family correspondence, particularly with his brother, J. C. Richmond, shows him trying to view problems nationally and earning reproaches for not regarding himself as a dedicated advocate of local issues.

Although not formally appointed Minister for Native Affairs until August 1858, he was particularly concerned with Maori administration from 1857. In the middle of the year, for example, he accompanied Governor Gore Browne on a visit to the Waikato and made some comments on the growing strength of the “King” movement – the voice of a people crying out to be governed – which if neglected or misected would prove a grave danger for the future. He favoured the retention of the Crown's right of pre-emption of Maori land instead of its transfer to the provinces as was being currently advocated. In July, on the appointment of Parris to the post of District Land Purchase Commissioner in Taranaki, with the Waitara Block in mind, Richmond advocated caution and not the strong hand concerning proceedings over a disputed land title.

He was chiefly responsible for the passing of five Acts dealing with Maori affairs during the 1858 session of Parliament. The more important of these were the Native District Regulation Act and the Native Territorial Rights Act. The former was to permit European-type bylaws to be adopted in Maori districts as a step towards local responsibility and control. The Native Territorial Rights Act was an attempt to provide for the issue of certificates of Maori land titles as a step to the individualisation of title and to make sales of such titles easier. The lengthy supporting memorandum accompanying the Act is most significant as the basis of Richmond's view of Maori land rights to which he adhered consistently throughout the subsequent Waitara debates and post-mortems. This Act, which has been viewed as the first real attempt by the New Zealand Parliament to grapple with Maori affairs, was liked neither by the land purchase officers nor by the Governor. Richmond's opinion in his statement that the view that the Maoris were entitled to an absolute grant in fee simple to tribal lands was “mischievous and unfounded” was rightly criticised. Gore Browne considered that it implied that the Maoris were not entitled to their unoccupied lands, a Waitangi Treaty provision which the British Government had already upheld. Richmond earlier would appear to have recognised that chiefs possessed the right to veto land sales, but the general lack of appreciation of the principle whereby a chief could veto the sale of “customary” land, as distinct from areas individually occupied confused all Government statements and policies, although in part understood by Martin, Swainson, and the “Clerical Party”. The Act was disallowed by the Secretary of State in May 1859.

Richmond, meanwhile, was with the Governor at the fateful Taranaki meeting of March 1859 at which Te Teira's offer to sell the Waitara Block was made. In January 1860, as a member of the Executive Council, with his Cabinet Colleagues, the Governor, and Colonel Gold, he was a party to the decision to proceed with the survey of the block despite opposition. His own heavy administrative burden had only temporarily lightened. Sewell, on his return, had been reappointed Colonial Treasurer, but resigned two months later to leave Richmond to pick up the duties once more. Stafford, later in the same year, considered it necessary to go to England, leaving Richmond the virtual head of the Government for some six months.

With the onset of the Taranaki War, he privately followed the dangers and fortunes of his relatives with anxiety and compassion while properly maintaining his political detachment. In September 1860 he was concerned with a Native Offenders' Bill which the Government found it expedient to drop after Richmond had independently discussed some compromise with the Governor. In December he drafted a lengthy series of comments on Sir William Martin's attack on the Waitara policy. This paper, published both officially and as a separate pamphlet, was impeccably consistent with his earlier views, but attempted to justify the purchase on what are clearly seen to be inadequate grounds. In the wider context of race relations his view that Wiremu Kingi's resistance constituted rebellion, which should cease before any fuller consideration could be given to Maori claims, may merely have given edge to both swords. His standpoint was, however, strengthened by the view that a clash was inevitable, although it was unfortunate that his own lack of knowledge and perception, in common with that of others, should have been the limiting factor in making an impolitic and unjust cause the test case. The views which he held on the question were restated later, notably in correspondence with Lady Gore Browne in 1864 and with F. A. Weld in 1878.

In July 1861 a parliamentary select committee justly exonerated him from a loosely worded charge by Featherston that he, Richmond, as a member of the executive, had exerted improper influence in regard to the purchase of land in Taranaki.

He shortly afterwards resigned his Cabinet seat to accept a legal partnership in Dunedin with T. B. Gillies, vacating his New Plymouth seat in January 1862. He already had Otago links through the purchase in 1858 with Stafford, Bell, and Steward of a share in the Idaburn run, which he retained for 14 years. The practice, although busy and lucrative, was contrary to the “very taste and feeling” of his nature. Unexpected relief was in sight when he received the offer of the judgship for the newly constituted Otago circuit, which he accepted in September 1862. In 1865 he resisted most tempting offers from Stafford to return to politics, the premiership being offered him if he so wished.

In 1873 he acted as chairman for the Heretaunga Commission of Inquiry to investigate alleged malpractices in the purchase of the Heretaunga Block. At a most critical time in its deliberations the Commission was saved by his tact and judgment, although its final report, in the light of the evidence today, appears a somewhat legalistic compromise.

Two years later Judge Richmond visited England, where some of his family of seven were left for further education. His later correspondence with them has warmth, wit, and natural grace of style, but reflects a satirical scepticism regarding some aspects of the burgeoning social democracy of his last years. His philosophical interests were sustained throughout life, his original unitarianism having changed to the seeming paradox of an idealistic theism with rationalistic overtones. Two addresses to the Nelson Institute in 1869, Man's Place in Creation and Modern Aspects of Natural Theology, alike show his up-to-date knowledge of scientific theory and his own traditional position, little modified in his later essay on Materialism (1881). He died in Wellington on 3 August 1895.

In politics his ability, high principles, and devotion to duty had carried him early to the highest office. As a Judge his integrity, humanity, and standing as a jurist made him the most noteworthy of his contemporaries.

by Austin Graham Bagnall, M.A., A.L.A., Librarian, National Library Centre, Wellington.

  • The Origins of the Maori Wars, Sinclair, K. (1959)
  • The Richmond-Atkinson Papers, Scholefield, G. H. (ed.) (1960)
  • Evening Post, 5 Aug 1895 (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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