Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.

SELWYN, George Augustus

(1809–78).

Anglican, Primate of New Zealand.

A new biography of Selwyn, George Augustus appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

George Augustus Selwyn was born at Church Row, Hampstead, on 5 April 1809, the second son of William and Laetitia Frances Selwyn. His father, who came of a line of distinguished lawyers, was himself an eminent Queen's Council to whom was given the honour of instructing the Prince Consort in the constitution and laws of his adopted country. His great grand-uncle of the same name was the celebrated eighteenth century wit and dinerout. His mother was the daughter of Thomas Kynaston, of Witham, Essex. Selwyn was one of a family of six children, four boys and two girls.

He received his preparatory schooling at Ealing, the school also attended by the brothers John and Francis Newman. He went on to Eton, where he met William Gladstone, with whom he remained on terms of friendship for the rest of his life. Already at Eton he displayed the attributes of a gifted all-rounder; a contemporary later remarked that he was the best boy on the river and nearly the first in learning.

His career at St. John's College, Cambridge, to which he was admitted as a scholar in 1827, followed a similar pattern. He bathed all the year round in all states of the weather, earned the reputation of being a great pedestrian, and pulled number seven in the first Oxford-Cambridge boat race, held in 1829. He graduated B.A. in 1831 as second classic of his year, was elected to a fellowship of his college, travelled briefly in France, and, in May 1831, returned to Eton as private tutor to the sons of Lord Powis. He proceeded to M.A. in 1834. Meanwhile he prepared for holy orders. He was ordained deacon in 1833 and priest in 1834, and served in the parish of Windsor, first as a volunteer, later as regular curate. On 25 June 1839 he was married to Sarah Richardson, daughter of Sir John Richardson, a Judge in Her Majesty's Court of Common Pleas. They had two sons and a daughter. The second son, John Richardson (1844–98), was later ordained by his father and subsequently succeeded the ill-fated Patteson as second bishop of Melanesia.

After his marriage Selwyn resigned his fellowship, settled down to domestic life on a modest competency, and waited for the signs of preferment. A comfortable rural parsonage among the domains of Powis Castle appeared not unlikely as an immediate prospect. Instead, he accepted, both as a duty and as a challenge, the appointment of missionary bishop to the newly created diocese of New Zealand. He was consecrated at Lambeth Chapel on 17 October 1841 and, with Mrs Selwyn, their infant son William, and a small ecclesiastical entourage, left for New Zealand in December 1841, his departure providing the occasion for one of the Rev. Sydney Smith's recorded shafts of humour.

Selwyn found Anglicanism in New Zealand in a string of mission stations and left it a properly constituted province of the Church of England. He was the missionary bishop par excellence, combining zeal and energy with vision and a genius for organisation. His several visitations to all parts of his vast diocese have justly been acclaimed as feats of dedication and endurance. His first visitation was characteristic. It lasted six months Selwyn visited every settlement and mission station in the North Island; and he travelled 2,277 miles -1,180 by ship, 249 in canoes or boat, 86 on horseback and 762 on foot. Selwyn once remarked that he averaged about one confirmation for every mile of travel. His second episcopal tour took him 3,000 miles, mostly by sea in tiny schooners, and he visited all the settlements in the South Island, including the isolated sealing stations on Ruapuke and Stewart Islands, and the remote Chathams.

A slip of the pen had inadvertently placed the northern boundary of Selwyn's diocese 34° N instead of 34 S of the equator; and, the error not being revoked, his spiritual responsibilities extended far into the Pacific. Selwyn welcomed the added obligation, prayed that his diocese would become the missionary centre of the Southern Ocean, and, between 1847 and 1851, made four annual cruises among the savage islands of Melanesia, travelling more than 24,000 miles in a 17–ton schooner. During his visit to England in 1854–55, he greatly advanced the work of the Melanesian mission by enlisting the services of the Rev. John Patteson and securing, through public subscription, the Southern Cross as a mission schooner.

Selwyn was deeply convinced of the importance of cathedral institutions. One of his first acts after his arrival in New Zealand was to establish the Theological College of St. John's for the instruction of young men of both races studying for admission to holy orders. In 1850 the Rev. Charles Abraham, close friend of Selwyn during his Eton tutorship, arrived from England and took charge of the college. As the Melanesian mission grew, so did the number and diversity of the native scholars receiving instruction: 10 different languages were spoken at St. John's in 1854. Selwyn developed plans for the establishment of a second theological college at Porirua on land donated by the Ngati Raukawa, but this project came to nothing.

Throughout his episcopacy Selwyn applied himself to the task of creating an organisation and a form of government that would attend to all matters spiritual and temporal touching the Church of England in New Zealand. He took the initial steps in 1844 when he convened his first synod; the final form of the constitution was adopted by the General Assembly in 1858 and brought into operation at the first general synod in 1859. During the late fifties and early sixties, too, the original diocese was progressively subdivided into more manageable episcopal units. Only in respect of its endowments was the Church less than fully self-supporting when Selwyn left the country in 1868.

Selwyn's contribution to the colony was by no means confined to his episcopal duties and the spiritual care of his flock. He took a leading part in the major constitutional and political issues of the time. Especially on all matters touching the rights of the Maori he was both vigilant and well informed; and his advice was often sought by successive Governors and leading men in the administration of the colony. If he believed the actions of governments or settlers to be mistaken or mischievous he did not hesitate to make his criticisms known; in 1847 he entered a timely protest against the land regulations that accompanied Earl Grey's proposed constitution; during the Waitara dispute and the subsequent Taranaki War he incurred the bitter reproaches of the settlers and the censure of the local government for his public defence of Wiremu Kingi. His own explanation of his efforts at mediation between the two races is eloquently recorded in his Pastoral Letter … to the Members of the Church of England in the Settlement of New Plymouth, written in September 1856.

Several times, when relations between the races were in danger of degenerating or had already degenerated into armed conflict, Selwyn's high sense of duty took him to the scene of disturbance. In March 1845, upon receiving word of the destruction of the town, he hastened to Kororareka and, with the Rev. Henry Williams, ministered to the wounded of both sides and did much to calm the fears of settlers in the north. Later in the same year, with Wellington under the threat of attack by Te Rangihaeata and the Rev. Octavius Hadfield removed by illness from his post, Selwyn took up temporary residence at Waikanae in an effort to preserve the peace. At the request of the Governor he went to Taranaki in August 1855 to do what he could to bring peace to the contending Maori parties in a land dispute that threatened to end in fighting. During the Waikato War he acted as military chaplain to the troops; but his sacramental comfort was administered to Pakeha and Maori alike. The Waikato War and its aftermath brought bitter disappointment to Selwyn in his missionary labours among the Maori people. As he witnessed their alienation from the Church and then, under the influence of the Hauhau cult, their apostasy, he felt himself to be “watching over the remnant of a decaying people and the remnant of a decaying faith”.

But the post-war problems of the Church in New Zealand were not to receive his attention. Selwyn was summoned to attend the Lambeth Conference, which was held in September 1867, and while in England was persuaded to succeed Lonsdale as Bishop of Lichfield. He was enthroned at Lichfield on 9 January 1868. He returned to New Zealand, made his farewells, and, on 20 October 1868, amid scenes of great sorrow and affection, he departed.

For the remaining 10 years of his life Selwyn devoted himself with unabated vigour to the care of an overburdened diocese. As he had done in New Zealand, in Lichfield he brought episcopal influence to bear on the remotest hamlet. He succeeded in introducing synods into the various counties of his diocese; and through his mission work among miners, railway navvies, prisoners, and bargees emphasised the obligation of the Church to men of all sorts and conditions. Characteristically, he distinguished himself by his exertion and his conduct on the occasion of the Pelsall Colliery accident in 1872.

Selwyn died on 11 April 1878 and was buried in Lichfield Cathedral. Bishops Abraham and Hob-house assisted at the burial service and the Right Hon. W. E. Gladstone and Sir William Martin were among the pallbearers. As a memorial to his life and influence Selwyn College, Cambridge, was erected by public subscription and incorporated by royal charter in 1882. Selwyn's portrait, by George Richmond, R.A., belongs to St. John's College, Cambridge.

Gladstone said of Selwyn that he reintroduced among the Anglican clergy the pure heroic type. His ideal was a disciplined, duly ordered Church community, and to this ideal his many gifts were completely dedicated. As deacon, priest, and bishop he laboured to strengthen the cathedral institutions of the Church and, through synodal action, to bring the influence of bishops to bear on the laity of all classes as well as the clergy. Roman Catholicism and ritualism were alike repugnant to him; he regretted but tolerated Dissent; and while he prayed for the ultimate union of Christians he set himself the more limited objective of securing peace among the sects.

His frank, manly, and engaging character excited admiration, and many anecdotes are recorded that testify to his generous spirit. His handsome, athletic physique was of equal advantage in the drawing room and in the wilds of his colonial diocese; he was as acceptable to sawyers and sailors as to society ladies. (He was said to have acquired an amount of nautical knowledge that would not have disgraced an admiral. He always kept regular watches when travelling by sea.) He had a masterly power of organising and arranging, combined with the happy art of inspiring others with zeal for his own aims and views. He did not entirely escape the defect of his own virtues, however, and was accused by some of being overbearing in the face of opposition. He was an impressive speaker and had a genius for apt quotation; his sermons delivered before Cambridge University in 1854 were particularly esteemed for their conviction and eloquence. His personal ethics were probably fairly indicated in two sentences which he once offered as advice to all young men: “Be temperate in all things”, and “Incumbite remis” (“Bend to your oars”).

by William Leslie Renwick, M.A., Inspector of Primary Schools, Wellington.

  • Letters from Bishop Selwyn and Others, 1842–67 (four vols. typescript), Turnbull Library
  • Selwyn Papers, 1839–65 (typescript), Turnbull Library
  • Memoir of the Life and Episcopate of G. A. Selwyn, Tucker, H. W. (1879, two vols.)
  • Bishop Selwyn, Curteis, G. H. (1889)
  • Churchman Militant, Evans, J. H. (1964).


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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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