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Edward Gibbon Wakefield

Edward Gibbon Wakefield (1796-1862) was the driving force behind much of the early colonization of New Zealand. Wakefield, who married in 1816 Eliza Prattle (1799-1820), is the eldest son of Edward Wakefield (1774-1854) and Susannah Crush (1767-1816).

Table of contents
1 Early life
2 Prison
3 South Australia
4 Canada
5 The New Zealand Company
6 Canada again
7 Final years in Britain
8 Edward Gibbon in New Zealand
9 Further reading

Early life

Born in London, England, Wakefield was educated in London and Edinburgh. Edward Gibbon served as a King's Messenger, carrying diplomatic mail about Europe before and after the Battle of Waterloo. In 1816 he ran off with Eliza Pattle and they were subsequently married in Edinburgh. It appears to have been a love match but no doubt that fact that she was a wealthy heiress sweetened the pot. Edward Gibbon eventually received a marriage settlement of seventy thousand pounds with the prospect of more when Eliza turned 21. The married couple accompanied by the bride's mother and various servants moved to Genoa where Edward Gibbon was employed in a diplomatic capacity.

Here his first child, Nina was born in 1817. The household returned to London in 1820 and a second child, Edward Jerningham Wakefield was born. Four days later Eliza died; subsequently the two childen were largely brought up by their aunt, Edward Gibbon's older sister, Catherine.

Although wealthy by contemporary standards Edward Gibbon was not satisfied. He wanted to buy an estate and also to enter Parliament and for this he needed more capital. He almost managed to wed another wealthy heiress but the plans fell through. He then attempted to overturn his father-in-law's will and get his hands on the rest of his dead wife's money. This didn't work either, in fact the affair did a lot to tarnish his reputation - there was strong suspicion that in order to strengthen his case he had resorted to forgery and then perjury, although no charges were laid.


In 1826 assisted by his brother William, he abducted the fifteen year old daughter of a wealthy family. They fled to Scotland where the couple were married, Scottish law being considerably laxer than English law in this respect. They then went over to Calais, France to await results. Edward Gibbon was hoping that in the interests of avoiding a scandal the girl's family would accept the marriage as a fait accompli. This was not the case.

When her family caught up with her the girl was very ready to return to her father's care. Her family had no wish to avoid any scandal, rather they wanted to make the whole matter public and destroy the reputation of the Wakefield clan. Edward Gibbon and William were both arrested as was their stepmother, who had participated in the early planning of the escapade. A very public trial followed. The stepmother was acquitted, Edward Gibbon and William were both sentenced to three years imprisonment. Edward Gibbon was lucky &emdash; he only just escaped hanging or transportation.

Edward Gibbon served his time in Newgate Prison, one of the most notorious in the country. Being relatively wealthy, he was able to to have a fairly comfortable life despite his confinement. Among his visitors during this period were his sister Catherine and her cousin, Elizabeth Fry. Edward Gibbon emerged from prison committed and active in the cause of Prison Reform. In 1831 he was giving evidence to a Parliamentary Select Committee enquiring into prison conditions. From this his interests expanded and he became involved in various schemes for social improvement.

However his name and his reputation were severely tarnished and he discovered that he had very little influence with the Government, they were not impressed by Edward Gibbon Wakefield or indeed with the rest of his family.

South Australia

In 1831 he became involved in various schemes to promote the colonization of South Australia. He believed that many of the social problems in Britain were caused by overcrowding and overpopulation and he saw emigration to the colonies as a useful safety valve. He set out to design a good colonization scheme, one with a workable combination of labourers, artisans and capital. The scheme was to be financed by the sale of land to the capitalists who would thereby support the other classes of emigrants.

The South Australia colony took several attempts to get going. Although initially Edward Gibbon was a driving force he found that as it came closer to reality he was allowed less and less influence. Eventually he was frozen out almost completely whereupon he took offence and severed his connections with the scheme. It was during this period that his daughter, Nina, died. he had taken her to Lisbon hoping the warmer climate would improve her health. This also meant that he was away from the scene of negotiations for several months.

However he didn't lose interest in colonization as a tool for social engineering and new project was soon underway, the New Zealand Association.

In 1837 the Colonial Office gave the New Zealand Association a charter to promote settlement in New Zealand. However they attached conditions that were unacceptable to the members of the Association. After considerable discussion interest in the project waned.

There is no doubt that Edward Gibbon was one of the most influential voices in the Association and he had discovered another interest, Canada.


There was revolution in Lower Canada, Quebec. It had been supressed but the colony was in turmoil. The government of Lord Melbourne wanted to send John George Lambton, Lord Durham to sort it out. He and Edward Gibbon had been working together closely on the New Zealand scheme, he was a convert to Edward Gibbon's colonial theories. Durham was only prepared to accept the task if Edward Gibbon would accompany him as Commissioner of Crown Lands. However they both knew that Edward Gibbon would be completely unacceptable to the British Government and so Durham was going to announce the appointment only after he had reached Canada. Edward Gibbon and his son, Edward Jerningham sailed secretly for Canada in 1838 but before they arrived word had leaked out and the appointment was forbidden by London. Despite this Durham retained him as an unofficial representative, advisor and negotiator, giving him effectively the same powers he would have had had he been appointed.

Between them they successfully defused the situation and brought about the union of Upper and Lower Canada. Since Durham was ill for mouch of his time in Canada a great deal of the credit for the success of his mission belongs to his advisers, Edward Gibbon and Charles Buller. Clearly Edward Gibbon had become a capable negotiator. Shortly afterwards political manoevering in London made Durham's position untenable, he resigned and they all returned to Britain.

Here Durham went into seclusion while he wrote and then presented to Parliament a report on his administration. Although their names are not mentioned it seems likely tha report was written in cooperation by the three men, Durham, Buller and Wakefield. Eventually this report and its conclusions became a blue print for development of British Colonial policy.

The New Zealand Company

The defunct NZ Association reformed itself as the New Zealand Company in June of 1838. By the end of the year they had purchased a ship, the Tory. Early in 1839 they discovered that although they now complied with the conditions the Government had laid down for the old New Zealand Association the government was not prepared to honour its promises. Furthmore it was actively considering making New Zealand a British Colony in which case land sales would become a Government monopoly.

At a meeting in March 1839, Edward Gibbon was invited to become the director of the New Zealand Company. His philosophy was the same as when he planned his elopements

"Possess yourself of the Soil and you are Secure"

It was decided that the Tory would sail for New Zealand as soon as possible. Brother William was appointed leader of the expedition with son edward Jerningham as his nominal secretary. They had some difficulty finding a suitable captain for the Tory but then found Edwards Main Chaffers who had been sailing master on the Beagle during its circumnavigation. Dr Ernst Dieffenbach was appointed as scientific officer and Charles Heaphy as a draughtsman. The Tory left London on 5 May and called at Plymouth to complete the fitting out. Fearing a last minute attempt by the Government to prevent her sailing Edward Gibbon hastened down to Plymouth and advised their immediate departure. The Tory finally quite English shores on 12 May 1839 and reached New Zealand ninety six days later.

Edward Gibbon did not sail with the colonists, many years were to pass before he saw New Zealand. Probably he also recognized that he did not have the patience, the skills or the talents needed on a frontier. His talents lay in visualizing dramatic palns and grandiose schemes and then persuading other people to get involved. He was not even a good organizer as he tended to ignore the details. He was a salesman, a propagandist and a politician.

By the end of 1839 he had dispatched eight more ships to New Zealand, before he even knew of the success of the Brother William and the Tory expedition. He then recruited his brother, Arthur to lead another expedition, this time to settle in the Nelson area at the top of the South Island. Catherine Wakefield's son, Charlie Torlesse sailed with Arthur. By now William's daughter, Emily and his ward, Liocadia, were already in New Zealand. Two more of his brothers would also eventually go to New Zealand along with numerous nieces and nephews.

Canada again

While active with the New Zealand Company Edward Gibbon had maintained his interest in Canadian affairs. He was involved with the North American Colonial Association of Ireland, NACAI. At his instigation the NACAI were trying to purchase a large estate just outside Montreal where they wanted to establish another Colonial settlement. Edward Gibbon pushed the scheme with his usual energy, apparantly the government did not object in principal but they strenuously objected to Edward Gibbon having any part of it.

But trusted or no by the politicians Edward Gibbon was involved in the scheme. The NACAI sent him back to Canada as their representative, he arrived in Montreal in January, 1842 and stayed in Canada for about a year. At this stage Canda was still coming to terms with confederation, the union of Upper and Lower Canada. Additionally there were sewrious differences between the French and English Canadians with the English Canadians holding the political clout. Edward Gibbon skillfully manipulated these differences, it was fairly eassy for him to get the support of the French Candians. By the end of that year he had got himself elected to the Canadian Parliament. It is perhaps typical of Edward Gibbon that having got elected he immediately returned to Britain and never took up his seat.

He went back to Canada in 1843 and spent some months there. However when he heard of his brother Arthur's death he immediately quit Canda and never returned. This appears to be the end of his involvement with Candian affairs except that he was paid about twenty thousand pounds by the NACAI for his work in Canada. As always with Edward Gibbon, principles and profit seemed to go neatly together.

Final years in Britain

Edward Gibbon returned to England early in 1844 to find the New Zealand Company under serious attack from the Colonial Office. As usual he threw himself into the campaign to save his project. Then in August, 1844, he had a stroke followed in the months ahead by several other minor strokes and he had to retire from the struggle, there is also a possibilty that his mental health was not too sound in the succeeding months. Fortunately his son, Edward Jerningham returned from New Zealand about this time and was on hand to care for him. In August, 1845 he went to France to recuperate and to give himself a complete break from New Zealand affairs. However it did not serve his purpose and he returned to London two months later in a semi invalid state.

By January 1846 Edward Gibbon was back to his scheming. By now Gladstone was Colonial Secretary. Edward Gibbon approached him early in the New Year with a fairly radical plan, that both the Government and the New Zealand Company should withdraw from New Zealand affairs and the colony should become self governing. While it might have been a good idea Edward Gibbon wanted it accepted immediately and became at first heated and then distressed when some months later, it was still being considered.

Then during August, 1846 He had another, potentially fatal stroke. His friend, Charles Buller took up the negotiations. In May of 1847 the British Government agreed to take over the debts of the New Zealnd Company and to buy out their interests in the Colony. The directors accepted the offer with alacrity and Edward Gibbon found he was powerless and unable to influence the decision which did not please him.

Perhaps fortunately he almost immediately had a distraction. Without warning his youngest brother, Felix had been in Tasmania since the early 1830's; now he reappeared in England accompanied by eight of his children having abandoned his wife and youngest child in Australia. Felix had no money and no prospects and was unable to provide for his family. Edward Gibbon found him somewhere to live and farmed out the children among various relatives but it was another year before his health was strong enough to take over the role of surrogate father, Felix being apparantly unable to do anything for his family.

Meanwhile Edward Gibbon was getting involved in a new scheme. He was working with John Robert Godley to promote a new settlement in New Zealand, this one to be sposored by the Chruch of England. This plan matured to become the Cantebury Settlement. The first ship sailed from England in December, 1849 with Robert Godley in command of the expedition. With them also sailed Edward Jerningham Wakefield, his health and finances ruined by his dissipated life style in London. Then the first immigrant ships sailed from Plymouth in September, 1850, bound for Cantebury and others followed.

Meanwhile brother Felix was causing problems back in Britain and causing edward Gibbon great deal of grief. Perhaps fortunately Felix decided that settlement in New Zealand was the solution to all his problems, not realising that he created most of them himself. Reluctantly Edward Gibbon sposored his passage to Cantebury where he was allocated 100 acres of land (40 hectares) near Sumner. He and six of his childen arrived in Lyttelton, November 1851. A short time later one of other settlers described him as "the worst man we have in Cantebury"

During 1851 and 1852 Edward Gibbon continued to work for the Cantebury Association and also to work towards achieving self governement for New Zealand. The New Zealand Constitution Act was passed on 30 June, 1852. There was general satisfaction among New Zealanders about this although they were less happy to discover that the new government was to be saddled with the remaining debts of the defunct New Zealand Company.

Edward Gibbon now decided that he had achieved every thing he could in England. It was time to see the colony he felt he had created. He sailed from Plymouth in September 1852 knowing he would never return. His sister Catherine and her son Charley came to see him off. Then at the last minute his father appeared. Edward Wakefield was now 78 years old; he and his son, Edward Gibbon, had not spoken since the Ellen Turner abduction twenty six years before. However they were reconciled at the very last minute. Old Edward died two years later.

Edward Gibbon in New Zealand

The ship arrived at Port Littelton in 2 February, 1853. Edward Gibbon had travelled with Henry Sewell who had been deputy chairman and full time manager of the Cantebury Association. It seems likely that he expected to be welcomed as a founding father of the colony; to be feted and immediately asked to assume the leadership of colony. However colonization had inevitably changed the persepctives of the people of Cantebury. Many of them felt they had been let down and cheated by the Association and the two arrivals were firmly linked in their minds with the broken promises and disappointments of the ASssociation.

Additionally the Colony already had a leader, James Edward Fitzgerald, who declined to meet with Edward Gibbon for some days and certainly was not willing to relinquish control to someone he probably saw as tainted politician from London.

Within a very short time Edward Gibbon was completely disenchanted with Cantebury. He claimed the citizens were far too parochial in their outlook, they were far more concerned with domestic issues rather than national politics. Clearly they were not worthy of Edward Gibbon Wakfield and after only one month he left Cantebury and sailed for Wellington.

There was enough political ferment in Wellington to satisfy even Edward Gibbon. Governor George Grey had just proclaimed self government for New Zealand but it was a watered down version of it, significantly less "self-government" than was describe in the New Zealand Constitution Act of the year before. In his own way George Grey was every bit as unscrupulous as Edward Gibbon and he had very firm ideas on what was good for New Zealand. They were not necessarily bad ideas but they were different from Gibbon's. It seems likely that even before they met both men knew they would clash.

When they arrived in Wellington Edward Gibbon declined to go ashore until he knew he was going to be properly received by the Governor. Grey promptly left town. Sewell went ashore and met up with various dignitaries including Daniel Bell Wakefield, another of the brothers who had been in Wellington for some years practicing law and was Attorny General of the Province. He also managed to get an addess of welcome for Edward Gibbon, written by Isaac Featherstone and signed by many of the citizens.

Edward Gibbon went on the attack almost as soon as he landed. He took issue with George Grey on his policy on land sales. Grey was in favour of selling land very cheaply to encourage the flow of settlers. Edward Gibbon wanted to keep the price of land high so that the growth of the colony could be financed by land sales, it was a fundamental tenet of his colonial theory. He and Sewell applied for an injunction to prevent the Commissioner of Crown Lands selling any further lands under Governor Grey's regulations. Unfortunately the Crown Commissioner was Edward Gibbon's second cousin, Francis Dillow Bell, early New Zealand really was a Wakefield family business.

Within a month of arriving in Wellington Edward Gibbon was leading the attacks on George Grey, they began a campaign in London to have him recalled not knowing he had already applied to leave the colony. Meanwhile Grey was in control. He responded to the attacks on him by questioning Edward Gibbons' integrity, always an easy target. Partularly he focussed on the generous fees that had been paid to Edward Gibbon as a Director of the New Zealnd Company at a time when it was reneging on its debts in New Zealnd. This served to remind the people of Wellington just how badly they had been let down by the Company and how angry they felt aboutit. Edward Gibbon managed to clear himself of the actual charges but a great deal of dirt was thrown around.

Elections for the Provincial Councils and General Assmembly, the national parliament were scheduled for August. Edward Gibbon stood in the Hutt Valley and to the surprise of some and the disappointment of others he was successfully elected to both the Provincial Council and the Genral Assembly.

The first sitting of the Provincial Assembly was in October of 1853. Edward Gibbon was not only the senior member but also clearly the most experiences politically however the Assembly was controlled by the Constitutional Party led by Dr Isaac Featherstone and they had been heavily involved in the recent criticism of his integrity. Working in opposition Edward Gibbon probably made certain that the Provincial Asmebly became a working democracy rather than Constitutional Party oligarchy. His wide knowledge of parliamentary law and custom made certain that the body of the assembly could not be ignored by the ruling party.

Early in 1854 the town of Wellington held a "Founder's Festival". Three hundred people attended inluding sixty Maori and all the Wakefields. The principal toast of the evening was to "The original founders of the Colony and Mr Edward Gibbon Wakefield" Whatever the viscitudes of the last few months it confirmed Edward Gibbon as one of the leading political figures of colony, possibly the only one with stature to take on Governor Grey.

But Grey was gone and Colonel Robert Wynyard was acting Governor. He opened the first General Assembly of the New Zealand, 27 May 1855. Edward Gibbon and James Fitzgerald immediately began manouveursing for positions of influence. Edward Gibbon took a position supporting Governor Wynyard while Fitzgerald took an opposite tack. Then on 7 June Wynyard asked Fitzgerald to form the first New Zealand government. Edward Gibbon waited and waited but he was not asked to form a part of the ministry. This must have been a crushing disappontment; political respectability was what he a sought all his life. His friend Sewell, on the other hand, was cabinet minister.

By July the Government of FitzGerald was in serious conflict with Governor Wynyard and resigned. Edward Gibbon was sent for to form a government but he refused to do so. He said instead that he would advise the Governor provided Wynyard acted on his advice alone. In effect he sought to turn the Governor into his own puppet. However he did not have amjority of supporters in the house and the assembly was paralysed. It was proroged by the Governor in mid August but he had to recall it again by the end of the month when he needed money to run the country. The new Ministry was composed mainly of Edward Gibbon's supporters and it was soon clear that he was the de facto head of the ministry. However they failed to survive an early vote of "No Confidence" and New Zealand's second government collapsed. Fitzgerald and his team returned to office. In the remaining two weeks of the Assembly's life they managed to pass some useful legislation before they were dismissed and new elections called.

Edward Gibbon began electioneering in grand style. He was always able to move people with his speeches. He held two elction meetings for his constituents in the Hutt Valley which were well received. A third meeting was scheduled but it never happened. On the night of 5 December, 1855, Edward Gibbon fell ill with rheumatic fever and neuralgia. He retired to his house in Wellington. He retired from all poitical activity and made no more public appearances although he lived on for another seven years. His political life, his real life was over.

Edward Gibbon Wakefield died in Wellington. 16 May 1862.

Further reading

"A Sort of Conscience; The Wakefields" by Phillip Temple, Auckland University Press, 2002

"Adventure in New Zealand" by Edward Jerningham Wakefield, John Murray, 1845

"An Account of the Settlements of the New Zealand Company" by The Hon HW Petre, Smith, Elder and Co, 1842.