Edward Gibbon Wakefield

Edward Gibbon Wakefield

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Edward Gibbon Wakefield
Edward Gibbon Wakefield.jpg
Member of New Zealand Parliament for Hutt
In office
Succeeded by Dillon Bell
Member of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada for Beauharnois
In office
Preceded by John William Dunscomb
Succeeded by Eden Colvile
Personal details
Born (1796-03-20)20 March 1796
London, Great Britain
Died 16 May 1862(1862-05-16) (aged 66)
Wellington, New Zealand

Edward Gibbon Wakefield (20 March 1796 – 16 May 1862) is considered a key figure in the early colonisation of South Australia and New Zealand.

Wakefield, who in 1816 married Eliza Pattle (1799–1820), was the eldest son of Edward Wakefield (1774–1854) and Susanna Crush[1] (1767–1816).[2]

He was imprisoned for three years in 1827 for kidnapping a fifteen-year-old girl.

Early life

Born in London, Great Britain, in 1796, Wakefield was educated in London and Edinburgh. He was the brother of William Hayward Wakefield, Arthur Wakefield , Felix Wakefield.[2], Daniel Bell Wakefield, Catherine, John Howard, Priscilla Susannah and Percy

He served as a King's Messenger, carrying diplomatic mail all about Europe during the later stages of the Napoleonic Wars, both before and after the decisive Battle of Waterloo. In 1816, he ran off with a Miss Eliza Pattle and they were subsequently married in Edinburgh. It appears to have been a "love match," but no doubt the fact that she was a wealthy heiress did "sweeten the pot," with Edward receiving a marriage settlement of £70,000, (US$ 6,933,487.5 in 2018)[3] with the prospect of more when Eliza turned twenty-nine.

The now married couple, accompanied by the bride's mother and various servants, moved to Genoa where Wakefield was again employed in a diplomatic capacity. Here, his first child, Susan Priscilla Wakefield known as 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, and the two children were brought up by their aunt, Wakefield's older sister, Catherine.

Nina was dying of TB and Edward Gibbon Wakefield took his daughter to Lisbon in Portugal to help her recovery. He employed a young peasant girl, Leocadia de Oliveira who he later Fostered, to help care for Nina, and after Nina's death in 1835, sent Leocadia on to Wellington, NZ where she met John Taine and had 13 children.[4]

Although wealthy by contemporary standards, Wakefield was not satisfied. He wished to acquire an estate and enter Parliament, for this he needed more capital. He almost managed to wed yet another wealthy heiress in 1826 when he abducted 15-year-old Ellen Turner, after luring her from school with a false message about her mother's health. Wakefield was brought to trial for the case known as the Shrigley abduction in 1827 and, along with his brother William, sentenced to three years in Newgate prison.[5] He then attempted to overturn his father-in-law's will and get his hands on the remainder of his dead wife's money. This did not work either, and in fact, the entire affair did a lot to tarnish his reputation – there were strong suspicions that in order to strengthen his case he had resorted to forgery and perjury, although he was never tried for these.

South Australia

In 1831 Wakefield became involved in various schemes to promote the colonisation 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 colonisation 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.

It took several attempts to get the South Australia colony going. Although initially Wakefield 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.

In 1939 John Hill named[6] the Wakefield River, a river north of Adelaide in South Australia after Edward Gibbon Wakefield. This lead to the later naming of Port Wakefield from Edward Gibbon Wakefield.[7]

However, he did not lose interest in colonisation as a tool for social engineering, and a new project was soon under way, 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.

Wakefield was undoubtedly one of the most influential voices in the Association and he had discovered another interest, Canada.

Canada (first time)

The 1837 Rebellion in Lower Canada had been suppressed, 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 Wakefield had been working together closely on the New Zealand scheme, and he was a convert to Wakefield's colonial theories. Durham was only prepared to accept the task if Wakefield accompanied him as Commissioner of Crown Lands. However, they both knew that Wakefield would be completely unacceptable to the British government, so Durham planned to announce the appointment only after he had reached Canada. Wakefield and his son, Edward Jerningham Wakefield, 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 if 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 much of his time in Canada, a great deal of the credit for the success of his mission belongs to his advisers, Wakefield and Charles Buller. Clearly Wakefield had become a capable negotiator. Shortly afterwards political manoeuvring 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 that report was written cooperatively by the three men, Durham, Buller and Wakefield. Eventually this report, and its conclusions, became a blueprint for development of British Colonial policy.

The New Zealand Company

The defunct New Zealand Association reformed itself as the New Zealand Company in June 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, it was not prepared to honour its promises. Furthermore, 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, Wakefield 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. His brother William was appointed leader of the expedition with his son Jerningham as his nominal secretary. They had some difficulty finding a suitable captain for the Tory, but then found Edward Main Chaffers who had been sailing master on HMS Beagle during Fitzroy's 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, Wakefield hastened down to Plymouth and advised their immediate departure. The Tory finally quit English shores on 12 May 1839 and reached New Zealand ninety six days later.

Wakefield did not sail with the colonists, and many years were to pass before he saw New Zealand. Probably he also recognised that he did not have the patience, the skills or the talents needed on a frontier. His talents lay in visualising dramatic plans and grandiose schemes and then persuading other people to get involved. He was not even a good organiser 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 Tory expedition led by his brother William. 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. The 16-year-old son of his sister Catherine, Charles Torlesse, and of the rector of Stoke-by-Nayland (who subsequently also went to New Zealand for a time), sailed with Arthur as a trainee surveyor. By now William's daughter, Emily and his ward, Leocadia, were already in New Zealand. Two more of his brothers would also eventually go to New Zealand along with numerous nieces and nephews.

Canada (second time)

While active with the New Zealand Company, Wakefield 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. Wakefield pushed the scheme with his usual energy; apparently, the government did not object in principle, but they strenuously objected to Wakefield having any part of it.

However, trusted or not by the politicians, Wakefield 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, Canada was still coming to terms with the union of Upper and Lower Canada. There were serious differences between the French and English Canadians with the English Canadians holding the political clout. Wakefield skilfully manipulated these differences; it was fairly easy for him to get the support of the French Canadians. By the end of that year he had got himself elected to the Canadian Parliament. It is perhaps typical of Wakefield that, having been elected, he immediately returned to Britain and never took up his seat.

He returned to Canada in 1843 and spent some months there. However, when he heard of his brother Arthur's death at the Wairau Affray, he immediately quit Canada and never returned. This appears to be the end of his involvement with Canadian affairs except that he was paid about £20,000 by the NACAI for his work in Canada.

Final years in Britain

Wakefield returned to England in early 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 later months by several other minor strokes, and he had to retire from the struggle. There is also a possibility that his mental health was not too sound in the succeeding months. His son 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 Wakefield was back to his scheming. By now Gladstone was Colonial Secretary. Wakefield 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, Wakefield 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 1847 the British Government agreed to take over the debts of the New Zealand Company and to buy out their interests in the Colony. The directors accepted the offer with alacrity. Wakefield 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, who had been in Tasmania since the early 1830s, 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. Wakefield 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 apparently unable to do anything for his family.

Meanwhile, Wakefield 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 sponsored by the Church of England. This plan matured to become the Canterbury Settlement. The first ship sailed from England in December, 1849 with Robert Godley in command of the expedition. Jerningham Wakefield, also sailed with them, his health and finances ruined by his dissipated lifestyle in London. Then, the first immigrant ships sailed from Plymouth in September 1850, bound for Canterbury and others followed.

In the same year, 1850, Wakefield co-founded the Colonial Reform Society with Charles Adderley, a landowner and member of parliament for North Staffordshire.

Brother Felix was causing problems back in Britain and causing Wakefield a great deal of grief. Perhaps fortunately, Felix decided that settlement in New Zealand was the solution to all his problems. Reluctantly Wakefield sponsored his passage to Canterbury where he was allocated 100 acres (0.40 km2) of land (40 hectares) near Sumner. He and six of his children arrived in Lyttelton in November 1851. A short time later one of other settlers described him as "the worst man we have in Canterbury".

During 1851 and 1852 Wakefield continued to work for the Canterbury Association and also worked towards making New Zealand a self-governing colony. 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.

Wakefield now decided that he had achieved everything 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 Wakefield had not spoken since the Ellen Turner abduction twenty six years before. However, they were reconciled, and the elder Edward died two years later.

In April 1846 he suffered a stroke[8], and was cared for by his niece Alice Mary Wakefield until his death in Wellington, New Zealand in 1862.

Wakefield in New Zealand

A bust of Wakefield from the 1897 book New Zealand rulers and statesmen from 1840 to 1897

The ship arrived at Port Lyttelton on 2 February 1853. Wakefield had travelled with Henry Sewell who had been deputy chairman and full-time manager of the Canterbury 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, colonisation had inevitably changed the perspectives of the people of Canterbury. 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 Association.

James Edward FitzGerald, who was one of the leaders of Canterbury, and who was elected as Superintendent of the Canterbury Province a few months later (in July 1853),[9] declined to meet with Wakefield for some days and certainly was unwilling to relinquish control to someone he probably saw as a tainted politician from London.

Within a very short time Wakefield was completely disenchanted with Canterbury. 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 Wakefield and after only one month he left Canterbury and sailed for Wellington.

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

When they arrived in Wellington, Wakefield 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 with various dignitaries including Daniel Bell Wakefield, another of the brothers who had been in Wellington for some years practising law and was Attorney General of the Province. He also managed to get an address of welcome for Wakefield, written by Isaac Featherston and signed by many of the citizens.

Wakefield 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. Wakefield 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 Wakefield's second cousin, Francis Dillon Bell, early New Zealand really was a Wakefield family business.

Within a month of arriving in Wellington, Wakefield 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 Wakefield's integrity, always an easy target. Particularly he focussed on the generous fees that had been paid to Wakefield as a Director of the New Zealand Company at a time when it was reneging on its debts in New Zealand. This served to remind the people of Wellington just how badly they had been let down by the Company and how angry they felt about it. Wakefield managed to clear himself of the actual charges, but a great deal of dirt was thrown around.

Member of Parliament

Wakefield in around 1850–1860
New Zealand Parliament
Years Term Electorate Party
1853–1855 1st Hutt Independent

Elections for the Provincial Councils and General Assembly, the national parliament, were scheduled for August 1853. Wakefield stood for the Hutt electorate, and to the surprise of some, and the disappointment of others, he was elected to both the Provincial Council and the General Assembly.

The first sitting of the Provincial Assembly was in October 1853. Wakefield was not only the senior member but also clearly the most experienced politically. However, the Assembly was controlled by the Constitutional Party led by Dr. Isaac Featherston and they had been heavily involved in the recent criticism of his integrity. Working in opposition, Wakefield probably made certain that the Provincial Assembly became a working democracy rather than a 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 including sixty Māori 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 vicissitudes of the last few months, it confirmed Wakefield as one of the leading political figures of colony, possibly the only one with stature to take on Governor Grey.

Responsible Government conflict

But, Grey was gone and Colonel Robert Wynyard was acting as Governor. Wynyard opened the 1st New Zealand Parliament on 27 May 1855. Wakefield and James Fitzgerald immediately began manoeuvring for positions of influence, with Wakefield moving a motion for Parliament to appoint its own responsible governments (Ministers of the Crown). Wakefield took a position supporting Wynyard, while FitzGerald took an opposite tack. The dispute over responsible government dragged on. As a compromise, on 7 June, Wynyard appointed James FitzGerald to the Executive Council. Wakefield was not asked to form a part of the ministry.

By July, FitzGerald was in serious conflict with Wynyard and resigned. Wakefield was summoned to form a government; he refused to do so. He said instead that he would advise Wynyard, so long as he acted on his advice alone. In effect he sought to turn Wynyard into his own puppet. However, he did not have a majority of supporters in the house, and the assembly was paralysed. It was prorogued by Wynyard on 17 August,[10] 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 Wakefield'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.

Wakefield's grave in the Bolton Street Cemetery in Wellington

Wakefield began electioneering in grand style. He was always able to move people with his speeches. He held two election meetings for his constituents in the Hutt Valley, which were well received. A third meeting was scheduled but never happened. On the night of 5 December 1855, Wakefield fell ill with rheumatic fever and neuralgia. He retired to his house in Wellington. He retired from the Hutt seat on 15 September 1855 and retired from all political activity, making no more public appearances. He lived for another seven years, but his political life was over.[citation needed]

Edward Gibbon Wakefield died in Wellington on 16 May 1862.


He is mentioned and criticised in Chapter 33 of Karl Marx's Das Kapital (Volume 1) and similarly in Henry George's How to Help the Unemployed.

By the turn of the twenty-first century the direct descendants of the Wakefield family left in New Zealand, were William Wakefield Lawrence Clague resident in Kapiti, and descendants of Edward's sister Catherine Gurney Wakefield who married Charles Torlesse. A great great nephew of William and Edward Gibbon Wakefield, William Clague is the great great grandson of John Howard Wakefield, one of the original brothers. John Howard Wakefield spent most of his life in India ending his days back in England unlike his two more well-known siblings.[11]

As author

  • How to Help the Unemployed, by Henry George in The North American Review, Volume 158, Issue 447, February 1894.
  • 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.
  • A View of the Art of Colonization by Edward Gibbon Wakefield, 1849.
  • The Modern Theory of Colonisation last chapter in Karl Marx's Capital, Vol I focused on Wakefield's theory.
  • Facts Relating to the Punishment of Death in the Metropolis by Edward Gibbon Wakefield, James Ridgway, 1831.


  1. ^ Marriages and Deaths of Considerable Persons. 1791. p. 969. 
  2. ^ a b  Falkiner, Cæsar Litton (1899). "Wakefield, Edward (1774-1854)". In Lee, Sidney. Dictionary of National Biography. 59. London: Smith, Elder & Co. sources: [Allibone's Dict. of Engl. Lit.; Edinburgh Review, xx. 346; Russell's Memoirs of Thomas Moore, iv. 129; Webb's Compendium of Irish Biography; Place MSS. Brit. Mus.; Edward Gibbon Wakefield, by Dr. R. Garnett, 1898.] 
  3. ^ "Pounds Sterling to Dollars: Historical Conversion of Currency". uwyo.edu. Eric Nye/University of Wyoming. 
  4. ^ Taine (nee de Oliveira), Leocadia. "Gravestone O'Neil's Point Cemetery". Retrieved June 3, 2018. 
  5. ^ Fairburn, Miles. "Wakefield, Edward Gibbon". Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Retrieved 12 December 2014. 
  6. ^ Slee, M. A. (2015). John Hill c. 1810-1860 : South Australia's discoverer of rivers. St Agnes, SA Unlock the Past. ISBN 9780994196002. 
  7. ^ "Port Wakefield, South Australia". Wikipedia. 2018-03-05. 
  8. ^ Wakefield, Edward Gibbon (1796–1862). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. 2017-11-28. 
  9. ^ Wilson, John; Duncan Shaw-Brown (1991). Canterbury Provincial Council Buildings : Christchurch, New Zealand. Christchurch: Canterbury Regional Council. ISBN 1-86937-135-6. 
  10. ^ Gavin McLean (2006), The Governors, Otago University Press, p. 50 
  11. ^ Temple 2002.


Parliament of Canada
Preceded by
John William Dunscomb
MP for Beauharnois
Succeeded by
Eden Colvile
New Zealand Parliament
New constituency Member of Parliament for Hutt


Served alongside: Alfred Ludlam
Succeeded by
Dillon Bell

Images of Edward Gibbon Wakefield

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Edward Wakefield
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London, UK
Date of decease
Place of decease
Wellington, New Zealand
Resident in Adelaide
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