Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.

STAFFORD, Sir Edward William, G.C.M.G.

(1819–1901).

Landowner and statesman.

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

Edward William Stafford was born in Edinburgh on 23 April 1819. His father, Berkeley Buckingham Stafford, belonged to a well-to-do family of County Louth, Ireland; his mother, Anne née Tytler, was a cousin of the Scottish historian, P. F. Tytler. Stafford entered Trinity College, Dublin in 1836, but he did not take a degree. For some time thereafter he lived the life of an Irish country gentleman. All his life he was passionately devoted to horses and he was an accomplished jockey and a skilled performer in other outdoor sports. He arrived in Nelson in 1843 and, with his relatives the Tytlers, took up land which he stocked with sheep. His marriage on 24 September 1846 to Emily Charlotte Wakefield, only daughter of Colonel William Wakefield, Chief Agent of the New Zealand Company, made it difficult for him to identify himself with the grievances of the Nelson settlers against the Company; but he took an active part in the later agitation of the Settlers' Constitutional Associations for self-government. His name stood first in a committee appointed to draw up a memorial to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Earl Grey, after an important public meeting at Nelson on 27 December 1850. After the introduction of the representative constitution of 1852 he was returned at the head of the poll in a three-cornered contest for the super-intendency of the Province of Nelson on 1 August 1853. During his superintendency the executive government of the Province was organised and important County Roads and Education Acts were passed.

Stafford was not a candidate for the first General Assembly; but in the general election of 1855 he was returned for the town of Nelson, which he continued to represent until 1868. As Superintendent of Nelson, Stafford had proved himself a capable and economical administrator; and, after the Ministries formed by Sewell and Fox had been successively defeated in the House of Representatives, Stafford, on 2 June 1856, formed with Sewell, C. W. Richmond, F. Whitaker, and J. Logan Campbell a Ministry which commanded a substantial majority and remained in office, with some changes of personnel, for five years. Its main achievement in the session of 1856 was in finance. The stipulation of the Constitution Act that one-fourth of the land-sales fund should be set aside to meet the New Zealand Company's claims had caused much complaint. The Company, however, had offered to accept £200,000 in satisfaction of its claims and the Imperial Government to guarantee a loan of that amount. The Ministry decided to take up these offers; to charge interest and sinking fund on the £200,000 against the South Island provinces; but to urge the Imperial Government to extend its guarantee to £500,000 and to allocate £180,000 of the balance to the purchase of Maori lands in the North Island provinces. Subject to these provisos, the land revenue was to be made provincial revenue and the administration of waste lands transferred to the provincial governments. They were also to receive three-eighths of the gross customs receipts. The arrangement, known as the Compact of 1856, settled a vexed question in a statesmanlike manner, though the Maori Wars created inequalities later. After the session Sewell went to England and, by his skilful advocacy, secured the guaranteed loan on which the settlement depended.

In October 1856 Stafford resigned the superintendency of Nelson and became Colonial Secretary. The presence of a strong Central Government began to be felt by the provinces, and the absence of the Wellington members, who were engaged in a bitter provincial contest, from the General Assembly in 1858 enabled the Ministry to pass a New Provinces Act which seriously undermined the provinces' power. On petition of three-fifths of the electors, not fewer than 150 in number, in any district of not less than half a million or more than three million acres, with a population of not less than a thousand Europeans, the Governor “with all convenient speed” was to issue an Order in Council constituting and delimiting a new province. The powers of the superintendent were to be less than in the older provinces and he was to be elected by the provincial council, not by the people. By this procedure Hawke's Bay, whose grievances had been the prime cause of action, was carved out of Wellington in 1858, Marlborough out of Nelson in 1859, and Southland out of Otago in 1861. The measure was more successful in placing the provinces on the defensive than in providing satisfactory local self-government, for Marlborough and Southland were almost continuously in difficulties, and Southland in 1870 voluntarily rejoined Otago. The important native policy Bills of this session – the Native Districts Regulation Act, Native Circuit Courts Act, and Native Territorial Rights Bill (which never became law) – were Richmond's measures rather than Stafford's. After the session of 1858 Stafford became a partner with Richmond, F. D. Bell, and Captain F. G. Steward Private Secretary of Governor Gore Browne, in an Otago sheep run.

Early in 1859 Stafford left for England to discuss plans for a Panama mail service and for military settlements in New Zealand. These came to nothing, but he established a London agency under John Morrison. He also averted possible disallowance of the Waste Lands Act passed in 1858. Stafford's wife had died in 1857. Whilst in England he married, on 5 December 1859, Mary, daughter of the Hon. T. H. Bartley, Speaker of the Legislative Council.

Stafford returned to New Zealand in January 1860. In his absence the Governor, on the prompting of Donald McLean, had accepted the offer of Teira to sell a block of land at Waitara. He assumed responsibility for the policy, however, by taking part in the Executive Council decision of 25 January 1860 to proceed with the survey of the land, which led directly to the outbreak of the Taranaki War. Later he seems to have doubted whether the policy was wise, but he stoutly and successfully defended it against attack in the Assembly of 1860. After a general election, however, when the war had died down, the new House on 5 July 1861 carried by one vote a motion of no confidence moved by Fox, and Stafford resigned. He had not been personally popular, but his five-year tenure of office so soon after the introduction of responsible government had built up the strength of the Central Government, tended to crystallise parties, and thus given some stability to colonial politics.

In opposition Stafford seemed apathetic. He virtually handed over the leadership of the party to Richmond. When Fox's Ministry was defeated on 28 July 1862, he declined to take office. This possibility was again canvassed after the outbreak of the Waikato War in 1863, but without result. In the session of 1865, however, he was inclined to be critical of the “self-reliant” Ministry of his former colleague Weld. The provincialists thought that the finances of the provinces would be jeopardised by the budget proposals of Fitz-herbert; and on 11 October a critical motion of Vogel was lost only on the Speaker's casting vote. Weld, who was in poor health, thereupon resigned. Stafford was no provincialist, but he had a reputation for economical administration and he agreed to form a ministry. He could get no colleagues of standing to join him, but he held the fort until a new assembly met in July 1866. Its first important business was to dispose of the question of “separation”, which had won much support in Auckland after the removal of the seat of government, and in Otago. Stafford's devastating criticism of a motion moved on 24 July by Whitaker, Superintendent of Auckland, and supported by T. Dick, Superintendent of Otago, exposed the inconsistencies of the scheme and ensured its defeat by a substantial majority. On 15 August, however, after its budget had incurred severe criticism, the Ministry was defeated on a motion of no confidence by 47 to 14. The mover, W. S. Moorhouse, avowed his object to be the reconstruction of the Ministry under the same head. Stafford secured the support of three of Weld's colleagues, Fitzherbert, J. C. Richmond, and J. L. C. Richardson, and of J. Hall, thereby greatly strengthening his Ministry.

The financial policy of Fitzherbert, formulated in his budget of 1867, was bold and successful. He reorganised the financial relations of the colony and the provinces and consolidated the colonial and provincial loans. But Stafford's old antagonism to the provinces was soon in evidence. The Ministry clashed with Otago over its refusal to make the customary delegation of powers under the Gold-fields Acts to Macandrew as Superintendent. It formed the West Coast goldfields into the County of Westland, independent of Canterbury. It supported and carried a measure to give the Timaru district a Board of Works with a specified portion of the Canterbury loan and land revenue to spend. A more ambitious proposal of 1868 to create throughout the colony a system of road boards whose chairmen, with those of municipalities, might eventually take the place of the provincial councils, failed. Hall, bringing in the budget in Fitzherbert's absence in 1868, proposed fixed payments to the provinces, to which Nelson so strongly objected that Stafford was called on to resign his seat. He was at once elected unopposed for Timaru.

But the main concern of the second Stafford Ministry was with colonial defence and the Maori War. Stafford had inherited from Weld the policy of self-reliance and it was his Ministry which in 1867 organised an Armed Constabulary and appointed Colonel G. S. Whitmore, an able if hot-tempered officer, as its commander. But when in 1868 the war flared up again in Taranaki under Titokowaru and on the East Coast under the brilliant guerrilla leader Te Kooti Rikirangi, the crisis was so threatening that Stafford was reluctant to part with the Imperial troops. Sir George Grey had never in his heart believed in self-reliance and the delaying action he had fought against the withdrawal of five regiments had so undermined the confidence of the Imperial Government in him that it brought his term of office to an end in such harsh language as to suggest a recall in disgrace. Though Grey had borne the main burden in this controversy, Stafford had supported him, resenting the criticism of the New Zealand colonists which appeared in the British press and arguing that the colony could not afford the £40 per man which the Imperial Government demanded as a contribution for Imperial troops retained in the colony. When the Imperial Government thereupon decided to recall the last remaining regiment, Stafford, with the support of Fox, now again leader of the opposition, carried a resolution that its removal “would tend to increase the excitement and confidence of the rebellious Maoris and to discourage those friendly to Her Majesty's Government”. The Imperial Government remained firm, believing that no good purpose would be served by retaining the regiment and that Stafford was merely trying to retain it without paying for it. His real object may well have been to gain time. The troops were still in New Zealand when the Ministry's withdrawal of powers from McLean, Government Agent on the East Coast, for disobeying its instructions brought about its defeat. Fox and McLean combined in a motion of no confidence, which was carried by 40 to 29 on 24 June 1869; and Stafford thereupon resigned.

The moving spirit of the new Ministry was not Fox but Vogel. Stafford, in a speech in Timaru in April 1870, advocated systematic immigration in connection with “a chain of public works from Auckland to the Bluff”. This was in accord with the policy announced by Vogel in his public works budget of 28 June. But in the session of 1872 Stafford, as Leader of the Opposition, attacked the administration of the public works policy and its failure to make proper use of provincial and other local machinery. On 6 September three hostile resolutions were carried against the Ministry by small majorities. Fox resigned and Stafford formed a new Ministry which proposed to administer the policy more prudently. Its measures offended some members and on 4 October a vote of no confidence moved by Vogel was carried by two votes. Stafford, who had purchased in 1870 the Lansdown property on the Halswell River near Christchurch, resigned the leadership of the Opposition in 1873. He remained in the House however, claimed to have converted Vogel to abolition of the provinces in 1874, and in 1875 supported the Abolition Bill in a powerful speech.

In 1878 Stafford retired from politics to live in England. He was created K.C.M.G. in 1879. He thought of contesting County Louth in the next election, but did not. In 1886 he was a Commissioner for the Indian and Colonial Exhibition and the next year he was promoted G.C.M.G. He engaged in various financial undertakings and the Baring failure of 1890 hit him hard. He died in London on 15 February 1901. Although there were no children by Stafford's first marriage, he was survived by three sons and three daughters by his second.

Stafford was a small man, but in his youth, with his “high white forehead and silky black hair and beard”, was strikingly handsome. He talked too much and put himself too much in the foreground: he never occupied any place in general or provincial politics except the first. He was accused of arrogance and superciliousness. Yet, writing in 1886, Gisborne, who, as Under-Secretary, served many premiers, asserted that “in Parliament, he was the best leader of his party, when he was in power, that has been known in New Zealand”. He held power longer than any man before Seddon. He was in fact a better practical politician than many men of more intellectual distinction. He was not an eloquent speaker, but could be very effective in argument. He did not deal in general principles but in concrete facts. His title to statesmanship rests on his balanced judgment, moderation, and sense of the possible. His greatest achievement was perhaps the consolidation of the Central Government when, favoured by circumstances, the provincial governments had engrossed too much power for the good of the colony. This caused him to be regarded as an enemy of provincial institutions on principle, which was perhaps unjust; but by 1875 he certainly believed they had outlived their usefulness. In his second Ministry he conducted a stiff rearguard action for the retention of Imperial troops, with a lack of frankness which caused unnecessary tension between the Imperial and colonial Governments; but it should be remembered that the strain of the war upon the resources of the colony and the temper of its public men was great.

by William Parker Morrell, M.A.(N.Z.), D.PHIL.(OXON.), Professorial Fellow, History and Political Science Department, University of Otago.

  • E. W. Stafford — a Memoir, Wakefield, E. (1922)
  • New Zealand Rulers and Statesmen, Gisborne, W. (1886)
  • The Provincial System in New Zealand, Morrell, W. P. (1932).


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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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