WAKEFIELD, Edward Gibbon (1796-1862)

WAKEFIELD, Edward Gibbon (1796-1862)
was born on 20 March 1796 at London. He came of a family of some distinction and his father, Edward Wakefield, who had married Susanna Crash, a farmer's daughter, when he was 17, was well known as a writer and educationist. His Account of Ireland, Statistical and Political was published in two volumes in 1812. Edward Gibbon Wakefield, his eldest son, was largely brought up by his grandmother. He was educated at Mr Haigh's school at Tottenham, and though lovable was a wilful and difficult child. His father was over-indulgent and unable to impose any authority on the boy, who at 11 years of age was sent to Westminster School. When he was 14 he returned to his home and refused to go back to his school. He was then sent to the high school at Edinburgh, but unsatisfactory reports of him were received and his father had to bring him home. In 1813 he was admitted to Gray's Inn, it being intended that he should take up the legal profession, but in the following year he abandoned this and became secretary to the Hon. William Noel Hill, envoy at the court of Turin. He held other appointments at Paris and London, and in 1816 became acquainted with Eliza Pattle, a wealthy ward in chancery only 16 years old. A few months later they ran away to Scotland and were married in July 1816. On their return Wakefield's charm not only brought about their forgiveness, but the Lord Chancellor agreed to a settlement on him of between £1500 and £2000 a year. The marriage proved to be very happy, but soon after the birth of her second child the young wife died on 5 July 1820. She had had a great influence for good on her husband, who was distracted at her loss. For several years he was connected with the English embassy at Paris and played his part there as a young man of fashion. In 1826 he made a second runaway marriage by decoying a schoolgirl, Ellen Turner, a young heiress, from her school, taking her to Gretna Green, where he married her, and then escaping to Calais. The marriage was purely nominal, and Wakefield no doubt hoped to win over the parents as he had done in the case of his first marriage. But the Turners were implacable, Wakefield and his brother, William, had to stand their trial for abduction, and both were sentenced in 1827 to three years imprisonment.
Wakefield's career was apparently over, yet it led to his greatest work, the encouragement of colonization in Australia and New Zealand. In Newgate he busied himself with educating his two children and thinking out social reforms. In 1829 a series of his letters appeared in the Morning Chronicle which were in the same year published anonymously, A Letter from Sydney . . . together with the Outline of a System of Colonization, edited by Robert Gouger (q.v.). The population of England was increasing and there appeared to be little hope of improving the miserable conditions of the poor. Wakefield's remedy in brief was to send workers to Australia and provide the cost from the sale of the land. An essential part of his scheme was the granting of self-government to the oversea possessions. When Wakefield left his prison in May 1830 he obtained the support of Charles Buller, Sir William Molesworth, R. S. Rentoul, George Grote and John Stuart Mill. A "National Colonization Society" was formed of which Robert Gouger became secretary. Various schemes were considered and were wrecked by the conservatism of the colonial office. In 1833 Wakefield again brought forward his theories in his England and America: a Comparison of the Social and Political States of both Nations, published anonymously in two volumes. Gradually opponents were won over, and on 10 August 1834 the bill for the foundation of South Australia was passed. It was not a satisfactory act for there had been too many compromises, but though at times it seems to be a failure, the fact remains that within 10 years 300,000 acres of South Australian land were sold for £300,000, and 12,000 emigrants were sent out. Less than 10 years after the founding of the colony it was paying its way. A new province had been added at a cost to England of considerably less than £250,000. However much credit may be given to George Fife Angas (q.v.) and Robert Gouger it was the guiding mind of Wakefield that was primarily responsible for this success. He worked unceasingly, and the evidence contained in the Wakefield papers at the colonial office shows that the foundation act was the result of this work. He had been helped by his daughter, Nina, who afterwards acted as his amanuensis. She was delighted when the South Australian act was passed but soon afterwards became ill. In a last hope to save her Wakefield took her to Lisbon where she died in February 1835. Wakefield was in great grief but soon took up his work again. He fought strongly the intention to sell Australian land at 12s. an acre, and succeeded in raising the price to 20s., an amendment most important in its effects.
Wakefield's next work was the founding of the New Zealand Association in 1837, which became the New Zealand Colonization Company in 1838. There was the usual opposition from the government and The Times wrote strongly against the proposals. About this time the question of finding a seat in the house of commons for Wakefield was considered, but he was to do more important work. When Lord Durham went to Canada as governor-general he took Charles Buller with him as chief secretary. He also asked Wakefield to go to Canada so that he might have his help in the difficult problems he had to deal with. He was unable to give him an official position as Wakefield was not forgiven for the Turner case. Durham did not stay long in Canada, but on his return made his famous "Report on the Affairs of British North America". Exactly what share Durham Buller and Wakefield had in the writing of the report cannot be ascertained. That Wakefield's share in it was a very important one may be accepted without question. Immediately it was disposed of he turned his energies again to the support of the New Zealand Colonization Company. It was discovered that the French were sending a colonizing expedition to New Zealand, and the energetic actions of Wakefield and Angas resulted in New Zealand being saved for the British by literally a few hours. In December 1841 he went to Canada, and in 1842 was elected a member of the assembly of lower Canada. He became the secret adviser of Sir Charles Metcalfe, the governor-general, and fought hard for him in pamphlets and articles in the reviews. In 1843 hearing of the death of his brother, Arthur, in New Zealand and that the New Zealand Company was in difficulties, he returned to London. In 1844 the company was fighting the colonial office for its life, and Wakefield worked unceasingly, preparing evidence for the select committee which had been appointed. As a result the report of the committee was mainly in favour of the company. In August 1846 Wakefield had an apoplectic stroke but slowly recovered. In December 1847 he was busy settling details of a proposed new settlement in New Zealand, which eventually resulted in the Canterbury church settlement. In February 1849 his A View of the Art of Colonization with present Reference to the British Empire was published, an able restatement of his ideas but the work of a tired man. He was still fighting for self-government in the colonies, and rejoiced when the New Zealand bill received the royal assent. He had been intending to go to New Zealand for some time and sailed at last in September 1852. He arrived at Lyttelton on 2 February 1853 and received an address of welcome. He had scarcely arrived when he found that Governor Grey (q.v.) had made new regulations concerning the sale of waste lands, which would have had disastrous results for the company. Wakefield threw himself into the fight and was elected to both the provincial council of Wellington and the general assembly. Grey left in January 1854 and Wakefield's influence on affairs was soon apparent. Responsible government, however, was not really brought in until 1856. Wakefield was blamed for the delay and vigorously defended his actions. The strain became too great and his health gave way again. He lived in seclusion for seven years and died at Wellington on 16 May 1862. In addition to the works mentioned above Wakefield wrote several other books and pamphlets. A bust of him by Joseph Durham, A.R.A., is at the colonial office, and his portrait by E. J. Collins is in the museum, Christchurch, New Zealand.
Wakefield was a tall, handsome man, with great charm of manner in his youth. Energetic and courageous he had much ability in managing men. He has been called unscrupulous, but probably that only means that he had often to deal with second-rate and unimaginative men, who had somehow to be made to realize the value of his proposals. He was not paid for his services, there is no evidence that he was working for himself, and he died a poor man. He was in reality an idealist whose ideals became a consuming passion. His land policy has been criticized, but it was impossible for any scheme to be formulated that would not have defects, and the claim is just that "he virtually originated a new era of colonization, and furnished the inspiration for a new colonial policy" (R. C. Mills, The Colonization of Australia).
His son, Edward Jerningham Wakefield (1820-1879), was the author of Adventures in New Zealand from 1839-44, published in 1845, and A Letter to Sir George Grey in Reply to his Attacks on the Canterbury Association and Settlement (1851). He was for some time a member of the house of representatives in New Zealand.
Irma O'Connor, Edward Gibbon Wakefield The Man Himself; A. J Harrop, The Amazing Career of Edward Gibbon Wakefield; R. Garnett, Edward Gibbon Wakefield; A. Grenfell Price, Founders and Pioneers of South Australia; R. C. Mills, The Colonization of Australia (1829-42); R. C. Mills, Journal and Proceedings Royal Australian Historical Society, vol. XV, pp. 121-42; S. H. Roberts, History of Australian Land Settlement.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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