William Rolleston was born at Maltby Hall, Yorkshire, England, on 19 September 1831, the ninth child and youngest son of the Reverend George Rolleston and his wife, Anne Nettleship. He married Elizabeth Mary Brittan (usually known as Mary Brittan) at Christchurch on 24 May 1865; they had five sons and four daughters. He died at Kapunatiki, South Canterbury, on 8 February 1903.
William Rolleston's character was shaped by an unhappy family life in an evangelical vicarage. He did well at Rossall School under Dr John Woolley, whose liberal views may have had a strong influence. Rolleston went to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, but his high academic hopes were dashed; he graduated with second class honours in the Classical tripos in 1855. He had already contemplated emigrating to Canterbury, but his father disdained investment in 'the Canterbury bubble'. He took up tutoring, slowly accumulating his own modest capital and strengthening his resolve to quit England. He later claimed that he was thus rejecting 'Conservatives and Ecclesiastics'. However, he was not renouncing the culture and ideals of the English gentry; he held that family and financial circumstances had denied him their proper pursuit in England.
Rolleston arrived in Lyttelton by the ship Regina on 11 November 1858. He was taken on as a cadet at Lake Coleridge and bought a neighbouring sheep run. His health improved and his spirits rose. He had time to read and study, and exercised his Greek and Latin on his bullock team and on the sixth form of Christ's College. He sold his Rakaia Forks (Mount Algidus) station for about £5,000 in 1865.
By this time Rolleston was well launched on a public career. He had quickly made a good impression among Canterbury's educated gentry. In 1863 he had been appointed a member of a commission on education, headed by H. J. Tancred. Its report, which set up a reformed system under a board of which he became a member, was a landmark in New Zealand education. Rolleston's part was widely recognised, not least by the superintendent, Samuel Bealey. In the political crisis of November 1863 Bealey had ridden up the Rakaia and persuaded Rolleston to accept executive office. For 19 months as provincial secretary he had led the strongest executive in Canterbury provincial history, and acquired an unrivalled reputation as an administrator, though his scruples and stubbornness sometimes infuriated his colleagues. He resigned in June 1865 when they proposed large loans for a new railway.
The premier, Frederick Weld, had already approached Rolleston, and appointed him under secretary in the Native Department in 1865, an office in which he showed sympathy and efficiency and sought to restrain Edward Stafford's aggressive policies.
In 1868, when Rolleston had just resigned his office and returned to Canterbury, the superintendent, W. S. Moorhouse, resigned amid financial and political disorder. Canterbury was forced to seek out a 'safe' man, and Rolleston was the safest available. On 22 May he was elected unopposed to the office with which his name is chiefly linked. His careful administration helped the province through two difficult years. In the 1870 election Moorhouse denounced Rolleston as 'the friend of stagnation'. Rolleston retorted that the contest was between the 'prudent' and the 'speculative'. Election day brought his greatest political triumph: he defeated Moorhouse by more than two to one.
In the early 1870s Canterbury rose to primacy among the provincial economies on its wool and wheat. These were Rolleston's great years. Perhaps he failed to make the most of Canterbury's golden opportunity. However, expansive policies would probably have led to an even greater round of 'boom and bust'. Rolleston set himself to administer fairly and economically the superabundant provincial revenue, supplemented by central government funds. If Rolleston did not govern heroically, he governed well. Canterbury made great strides in public works and immigration.
The provincial council, dominated by runholders and their urban allies, was frequently at loggerheads with the superintendent. Canterbury's progress was achieved around, and almost in spite of, this political turmoil. Rolleston believed in promoting farm settlement. He abhorred the virtual closing of the land frontier by the runholders, but could not mount a frontal attack on them. He sought instead to balance between squatters and settlers, and made modest experiments in village settlement.
As provincial institutions declined, Canterbury stood out as the model province and Rolleston as the model superintendent. He was returned unopposed in 1874. Perhaps his most enduring achievements were in education. Under his guidance his friend C. C. Bowen made the Canterbury system a convincing precedent for the Education Act 1877. In university education, Canterbury College prevented its Otago rival from dominating the New Zealand system. Rolleston's statue, erected in 1906, stands in Rolleston Avenue, Christchurch, between the museum and the original university buildings. He was the leading political architect of both institutions.
Rolleston virtually identified provincialism with democracy. A member of the House of Representatives from 1868, he became a bitter opponent of Vogel and abolition of the provinces. However, he spurned alliance with Sir George Grey and James Macandrew who led a last-ditch fight in 1875. Canterbury, more interested in its land fund than in its government, was satisfied with the short-lived payment of land revenue to local bodies. The most popular moment of Rolleston's career came on 16 December 1876 when a crowd of 12,000 witnessed a presentation honouring the close of his superintendency.
Rolleston's career after 1876 did not match his previous record. His 'presidential' experience made him an odd man out in the House's factional manoeuvring. His conscience held him back from compromise; his fastidiousness magnified for him the defects of men and policies; his pessimism repelled brighter spirits. He could not act decisively, nor approve decisive action in others. In 1877 he helped to turn out H. A. Atkinson, but refused to join Grey and failed to rally an alternative 'middle party'.
Rolleston seemed to be working himself into a Cassandra-like role on the back benches. He was rescued from this stalemate by his bête noire, Grey, premier from October 1877. Grey's demagoguery roused Rolleston to angry counter-attack. He played a substantial part in the campaign to bring down Grey, and earned a place in the 'prudent ministry' led by John Hall in 1879. Rolleston took Lands, Immigration and Education, and occupied a prominent place in a cabinet dedicated to administrative reform.
He could now, as minister of lands, take up his great aim of promoting closer settlement. In 1882 he underwent a swift conversion to state leasehold tenure, probably under the influence of Atkinson. Riding through the locked-up Canterbury runholder country he prayed, 'Lord, lay not this sin to my charge'. The climax of his ministerial career was the speech introducing his Land Bill on 7 July 1882. Rolleston proposed 'perpetual lease' as a means of putting smallholders on Crown land. The speech provided a summary of some of his chief political views. He arrived at a new policy from his own experience; he favoured step by step reform; the new tenure was in no sense revolutionary; a Crown tenantry was preferable to the dominance of money lenders; his aim was to set up poor men on the easiest possible terms; his leaseholders were no threat to freehold tenure. However, Rolleston's intention of retaining Crown title was defeated in the Legislative Council which gave tenants right of purchase. Vested interests were again too strong for him.
Rolleston did not have an easy time in office. The Hall cabinet was riven by dissensions; Hall himself opposed his land reforms. Rolleston's stiff-necked attitude made him a difficult colleague. Opponents contrasted his rigidity on some issues with his apparently weak retreat on others. He was seen to retain office and salary among men of views incompatible with his own. But the needs of his large family did not allow him the luxury of an unalloyed conscience.
In a short period as native minister in 1881 Rolleston was a central figure in the Parihaka crisis. When he replaced the bellicose John Bryce in February, he was cautious and conciliatory. However, the Hall ministry was not strong enough to resist settler demand for Te Whiti's arrest. On 19 October Bryce returned to office. Earlier the same day Rolleston had signed the proclamation on which Bryce was to act. He thus satisfied his conscience on the principle of collective responsibility, if not on Māori policy.
Giving priority to colonial issues over regional and local demands, Rolleston defended Atkinson's unpopular railway grain rates and opposed the Midland railway. The old provincial champion was denounced as renegade. He quitted the now hostile Avon electorate (which he had represented since 1868) in 1884 and won in his 'home' constituency, Geraldine. By the mid 1880s he had lost influence. He was branded as an anti-Vogelite and outflanked in Canterbury by W. P. Reeves in the 1887 election. Although he was defeated, his period out of the House was not all loss. He was distanced from the unpopular Atkinson ministry, and his Land Act 1882 now stood out as a beacon in land-hungry Canterbury. Halswell gave him a sound majority in 1890, against the electoral tide.
Rolleston may have looked forward to a prominent political career, but the 1890s brought frustration and decline. He was ill equipped for the new era of Liberal party organisation and government. In August 1891 a disorganised opposition made him leader. Yet, as Reeves saw, Rolleston was quite unsuited to the part of 'guerilla chieftain'. His settlement policies virtually placed him alongside the new land reformer, John McKenzie. In spite of taunts and appeals Rolleston stuck to the role of gloomy, carping critic. He placed his abhorrence of Liberal politics above his commitment to liberal land reform. Defeated in 1893, he was returned in 1896, but not to leadership of the opposition. In the 1899 election his parliamentary career ended with a humiliating defeat by one vote.
Rolleston's political career was marked by contradiction and even enigma. He could have remained in administration but clung doggedly to politics for which he was not well qualified. He would not have had a major public career without the superintendency. His career was made by exceptional circumstances. With Atkinson he may be reckoned one of the country's first professional politicians. Until the mid 1880s he stuck to politics largely because he needed the money. He did not purchase his Rangitātā farm, Kapunatiki, until 1879. It was at first not very profitable, and his long absences compounded his dependence on official salary.
Yet Rolleston was sustained in politics by a strong and individual streak of idealism. He remained a cultured, English gentleman with a high sense of noblesse oblige. His speeches and letters express a broad, colonial liberalism: an enlightened élite, 'guided by the popular voice', should govern in the interests of a smallholding, basically rural, society, and keep vested interests – squatters, merchants, money lenders and 'billet hunters' – in check. This liberalism brought him into sharp conflict with Liberalism as it developed from George Grey to Richard Seddon. Though he shared many Liberal aims, he recoiled from what he regarded as the dangerous appeal of Liberals to 'class' hatred, and their threat to established social institutions. He repudiated the Conservative label but refused to join the Liberals, some of whom claimed him as an ally.
As Rolleston's power in politics declined, his influence as political mentor rose. In the twilight of his life he was widely hailed as statesman. This praise, however, was largely prompted by a desire to criticise a very different leader, Seddon. Rolleston was seen by many as standing for Liberalism in its early purity. Indeed he came closer than any man to embodying a political conscience for colonial New Zealand. William Gisborne's critical assessment of Rolleston still stands. 'Mr Rolleston has many high qualifications for useful public life…. What he lacks is decision of character and definiteness of purpose…. He is so anxious to do what is right that he is more afraid of doing what is wrong'. Perhaps even more memorable than Rolleston's career was the impressive presence of the man himself. His patrician bearing and fine imperial features commanded respect and even deference. In the memory of many of his contemporaries this was the noblest Roman of them all.