After reading about Sir William Fox and getting the idea that he tended to go where the wind took him, I can’t ignore the fact that today, we do not have a clear idea of what William was really like. The descriptions of his personality and values go from one side of the scales to the other. It seems that because of his high profile in politics, some attempted to ruin him by slander and lies. Whatever the truth is, he has earned his place in New Zealand’s history and most importantly, he knew and saw Christchurch in its infancy.
Born in 1812, William had all the benefits of a successful and rich family. After receiving the best education, William took himself off to London where he studied to become a lawyer. Soon after graduating, the young lawyer married his sweetheart, Sarah Halcomb and the pair started their plans for emigration to the young colony of New Zealand. The year is 1838.
Upon arriving in Wellington, William did not fail to make quite an impression. Unfortunately, work for his great educated mind did not exist at this early stage and William had to quickly evolve into something else to make a living. He took up writing and journalism. He must have enjoyed his scribblings as he never gave it up even as he began to practice the law.
In 1843, William lost his license to practice law. Why? He had refused to take a required oath because he felt it was ‘degrading’. He launched back into his writing full time. It was around this time that he took an interest in politics. He backed the general attitude against the Maori and their rights at that time, believing that if the Maori weren’t using the land they claimed they owned, it should be given to the settlers. He also backed those who wanted New Zealand to be self-governed.
With the murder of The New Zealand Company’s Arthur Wakefield during the Wairau Massacre, William jumped at the chance to take his job. What he inherited with the Wakefield Settlement of Nelson was to face the impossible. He did manage though to get the Governor Robert FitzRoy fired over the handling of the colonial response to the massacre. Soon overwhelmed by the settlement’s problems, William began to wander further and further away from his desk. He began to explore the areas around Nelson with friends, enjoying the outdoors – a love that would remain until his last days.
When the New Zealand Company’s leader, Colonel William Wakefield (Arthur Wakefield’s brother) died in Wellington in 1848, William quickly traveled to the North Island to fill the sudden power void, before many others had even heard the news. Not even The New Zealand Company’s choice for leader – William soon had his feet resting up on the late William Wakefield’s desk before his seat had even gone cold.
William was now the most senior officer in New Zealand. It was this role that brought William down to Canterbury as The Canterbury Association had just purchased land from The New Zealand Company for the future Christchurch and surrounding region. In the company of Association surveyors, Captain Joseph Thomas and Charles Torlesse (the latter a nephew of William and Arthur Wakefield), he spent a delightful Christmas Day 1848 at the Deans Cottage. That day, William was in agreement with the renaming of Putaringamotu to Riccarton and the Deans request to name the local river the Avon.
In true William style, he soon lost interest in The New Zealand Company and moved on to what would have been the earliest form of the colonial government. It was his passionate opinions of a self-governing New Zealand that made him journey to London to face up to the big wigs. There he met with The New Zealand Company founder Edward Gibbon Wakefield (brother to William and Arthur Wakefield) and shared his ideas for the future path of New Zealand. Probably feeling like he was talking to a brick wall, you can imagine his surprise when he returned to New Zealand after a few years of traveling to discover that New Zealand had indeed broken away from London and a Premier (Prime Minister) had been elected in.
It only took 13 days for William to kick Henry Sewell off the Premier seat. He must have been too smug about it as the same thing happened to him 13 days later by Edward Stafford. Announcing his semi-retirement from politics, William worked away quietly in the background, alarmed by Edward’s handling of Maori affairs. I think it was the brutal land wars that made William change his views of how Maori land rights should be handled. Sending in armies against the Maori was not the right way. William had truly changed his mind of this matter and again, historians don’t completely trust that this was not to benefit William personally somehow rather than being a true change of heart.
Seeing that Sarah and he would go on to adopt a Maori boy as their own shows that Maori affairs did concern William greatly. Ngataua Omahuru was only 6 years old when he discovered hiding alone on a bloody battlefield. He was put in European clothes and baptized William Fox Jr. as William was the attending MP that day. Young William was bounced around boarding schools for a while and finally came to stay with the Fox’s a few years later where they became a tight family unit.
In 1861, William was back as Premier and made huge changes to Maori rights. Not well liked, William was soon kicked off his chair and with this; he left the country for a while. By 1869, William was back in town and managed (yes folks, for the 3rd time) to win back his Premiership. Managing to stay in the job till 1872, he was defeated due to his sudden non-interest in what was going on.
In 1879, William was knighted as a commander in the order of St Michael and St George. His main passion at that time was the Temperance Movement. William now seems to fade away into the background, happy to leave the games to younger men and enjoy his life in the beauty of New Zealand.
When he was 80, he climbed Mount Taranaki – always loving to spend his days outside. He died the following year in 1893. William is remembered today in the naming of the town of Foxton and Fox Glacier – which he painted in 1872. It was then known as Albert’s Glacier but was renamed to honour William.
*painting of Fox Glacier courtesy of http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/photograph/21030/fox-glacier*