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William Fox

William Fox
Personal Details

Birth: 1812 (exact date unknown)
in Durham, England
Death: 23 June 1893
in Auckland, New Zealand
Marriage: 1842, to Sarah Halcomb
Children: One (adopted)
Religion: Anglican
Background: Lawyer, journalist
Political Details

Electorates: Wanganui, Rangitikei
Order: 2nd Prime Minister
Political Party: None
First Premiership

Predecessor: Henry Sewell
Term of Office: 20 May 1856
to 2 June 1856
Duration: 13 days
Cause of Departure: Lost parliament's confidence
Successor: Edward Stafford
Second Premiership

Predecessor: Edward Stafford
Term of Office: 12 July 1861
to 6 August 1862
Duration: 1 year, 25 days
Cause of Departure: Lost parliament's confidence
Successor: Alfred Domett
Third Premiership

Predecessor: Edward Stafford
Term of Office: 28 June 1869
to 10 September 1872
Duration: 3 years, 2 months, 13 days
Cause of Departure: Lost parliament's confidence
Successor: Edward Stafford
Fourth Premiership

Predecessor: George Waterhouse
Term of Office: 3 March 1873
to 8 April 1873
Duration: 1 month, 5 days
Cause of Departure: End of "caretaker" term
Successor: Julius Vogel

William Fox served as Premier of New Zealand on four occasions in the 19th century, while New Zealand was still a colony. He was known for his eventual support of Maori land rights, his contributions to the education system (such as establishing the University of New Zealand), and his work to increase New Zealand's autonomy from Britain. He has been described as determined and intelligent, but also as bitter and "too fond" of personal attacks. Different aspects of his personality are emphasized by different accounts, changing mainly due to the reviewer's political beliefs.

Early life

Fox was born in 1812 in Durham, in northern England. His family was a relatively successful one. He was educated initially in Durham and then at Oxford University, gaining an MA. His activities for several years after graduating remain a mystery; no record can be found of him during this period. Some speculate that he was not in England. In 1938, however, he resurfaced studying law in London.

Shortly after qualifying to practice as a lawyer, Fox married Sarah Halcomb. The couple decided that, rather than remain in England, they would immigrate to New Zealand, joining an increasing number of other colonists. Upon his arrival in Wellington, Fox's legal qualifications were recognised, but there was little work, and so he supplemented his income by writing for local periodicals. Fox lost the right to practice as a lawyer when, in 1843, he refused to swear an oath that he considered "degrading". This event forced him to focus almost entirely on writing and journalism.

Early political activity

Initially, Fox was opposed to government negotiations with Maori over land, stating that Maori had a right only to land that they used. He also condemned the colonial government's "weak" response to the killing of Arthur Wakefield, a New Zealand Company official who had attempted to expand the settlement at Nelson into Maori-held lands. Fox's criticism of the governor, Robert FitzRoy, eventually played a part in FitzRoy's removal from office. In 1843, Fox was chosen by the New Zealand Company as Wakefield's replacement in Nelson.

In Nelson, Fox met with mixed success. There was little direct conflict with the Maori, and most of Fox's work was related to economic development. Poor planning and inaccurate land surveying had left colonists with considerably less than had been promised them, and Fox was responsible for resolving the matter. While many modern historians believe that he did a good job, Fox himself found that even his best efforts were not good enough for the angry colonists. Fox increasingly spent his time leading parties into the wilderness near Nelson, an activity which he seems to have enjoyed. Fox was physically active all through his life.

In 1848, William Wakefield (brother of Arthur, killed at Nelson), died. William Wakefield, as the New Zealand Company's senior officer in the colony, was Fox's superior. Fox quickly travelled to Wellington, and managed to secure himself in Wakefield's position. He accomplished this mainly because of the short distance between Nelson and Wellington, which enabled him to win the position before instructions could be received from other cities. He was not the first choice of the Company's board in London (which preferred Francis Bell), but his quick action managed to gain him enough support to receive the appointment.

The Company, however, was in decline after the deaths of both Edward and Arthur Wakefield. Fox gradually became less active in the Company, taking more of an interest in the colonial government. He was a strong opponent of Governor George Grey, who was refusing to grant self-government to the settlers. He frequently denounced the administration and the judiciary as corrupt and incompetent.

In 1851, Fox travelled to London on behalf of a group of Wellington settlers. There, he met with Edward Gibbon Wakefield, elder brother of Edward and Arthur. He discussed his ideas about a constitution for New Zealand, strongly supporting self rule, provincial autonomy, and two elected houses of parliament. He also attempted to meet Earl Grey, the British minister for colonial possessions, but was refused. When a constitution was promulgated the following year, it incorporated some of Fox's ideas, but was not satisfactory to him.

Entry to parliament

Before returning to New Zealand, Fox and his wife spent some time travelling in Canada, the United States, and Cuba. When they returned to New Zealand, the new constitution was in effect, and elections had already been held. In 1855, Fox himself was elected MP for Wanganui. He fought on a strong platform of provincial autonomy, and was particularly opposed to the government formed the following year by Henry Sewell (who took the newly created office of Premier of New Zealand). Fox managed to oust Sewell from the new post in only thirteen days, thereby becoming New Zealand's second Premier. Fox, however, lasted only thirteen days himself before being ousted by Edward Stafford. Fox spent the first years of Stafford's premiership in semi-retirement, but later returned to be Stafford's primary opponent in parliament.

Fox appears to have changed his views somewhat regarding Maori land rights, as he strongly opposed the government's policy on that issue. He blamed Stafford's administration, along with Governor Thomas Gore Browne, for the wars in Taranaki, which broke out when a Maori chief refused to sell his land. Fox was widely believed to have converted to support of the Maori, although many modern historians claim that his opposition to land seizure was due to a pragmatic wish to avoid war, not a change of philosophy. Lack of evidence makes it difficult to tell which was the case.


In 1861, Fox successfully passed a vote of no confidence in Stafford, and took the premiership for himself again. Among the measures introduced were law changes designed to accommodate Maori political structures, a halt on attempts to acquire Maori land, and a less confrontational attitude in existing conflicts. Again, dispute exists as to whether this was motivated by pragmatism or support of Maori rights. His attempts to reduce conflict with Maori, however, were undermined by Governor Grey (who had returned for another term), a strong believer in the need to confront Maori militarily. Grey's construction of military infrastructure and his deployment of troops reduced Maori trust of any initiatives by the government.

Fox, after becoming increasingly involved in a dispute with Grey over responsibility for policy towards Maori, lost a vote of confidence in 1862. The following year, he returned to government, but only as a minister - the premiership went to Frederick Whitaker. Fox appears to have had little to do with the policies of this government, which involved considerable confiscations of land from the Maori. After his term as a minister ended, Fox and his wife travelled in Australia for several years.

Upon returning to New Zealand, Fox was encouraged by the Opposition to return to politics, which was once again dominated by Fox's rival Edward Stafford. Fox was elected to parliament, and relaunched his attack on Stafford's policies on Maori relations and provincial affairs. Fox defeated Stafford in 1869, taking the premiership for the third time. Fox set about reducing military activities, and ceased any major attempts to engage the Maori with force. Increasingly, however, Fox found himself overshadowed by his treasurer, Julius Vogel. Vogel's extensive plans for the development of New Zealand, involving borrowing money to finance public works, soon became the most prominent feature of Fox's government, but had little to do with Fox himself. Eventually, Fox began to abandon his leadership role within the government, and the resulting disunity allowed Stafford to defeat Fox in 1872.

After this, Fox decided that he would not seek further office. His role in politics, however, was not quite over - when George Waterhouse, Stafford's successor, suddenly resigned, Fox was called upon to assume the premiership as a "caretaker" until a new leader was found. When Julius Vogel returned to New Zealand from an overseas trip, Fox stepped down, and Vogel's premiership began.

Later life

Fox subsequently became involved in movements against alcohol. He was, on occasion, a member of parliament, but this was no longer the primary activity of his life. Fox also continued to undertake considerable physical exercise, climbing Mount Taranaki in 1892 (aged eighty). He died on 23 June 1893.

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