Edward William Stafford was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on 23 April 1819, eldest son of Berkeley Buckingham Smith Stafford, of Maine, County Louth, Ireland, and his wife, Anne Tytler. Stafford grew up in the leisured, sporting world of the Anglo-Irish gentry and in the intellectual environment of the Tytlers, a family which had produced two eminent historians. After attending Trinity College, Dublin, he travelled in Australia during 1841 and 1842 until, at David Monro's suggestion, he came to Nelson, New Zealand, arriving on 12 January 1843 to join Tytler cousins whose run, Aldourie, he managed before establishing his own place, Upton Downs.
He explored an inland route to the Wairau, imported sheep and horses from Australia, and led a successful agitation for licences to pasture sheep on lands allotted to but not used by the original New Zealand Company settlers. In September 1843 he moved Nelson's vote of no confidence in Governor Robert FitzRoy's actions after the Wairau affray, and during the 1845–46 war in the north he joined the Nelson Volunteers. He helped found Nelson's Constitutional Association in 1848 to work for responsible government, and it was his memorial of December 1850 which was sent to the British government demanding immediate representative government with universal suffrage.
Stafford married Emily Charlotte, daughter of William Wakefield, at Wellington on 24 September 1846. There were no children of this marriage; Emily Stafford died aged 29 in 1857. On 5 December 1859 Stafford married Mary Bartley at Auckland. They were to have three daughters and three sons. Mary Stafford died in 1899.
In 1853 Stafford became Nelson's first superintendent, opening the provincial council on 3 November with solemn pomp, wearing a cocked hat, to derisive laughter from his defeated rivals. He regretted that provincial had preceded full colonial government but used the system for Nelson's benefit. His free, secular and compulsory education system became the model for New Zealand; his County Roads Act was another precursor of colonial legislation. He negotiated for regular steamer services and began a public works programme paid for by customs duties and a land tax instead of loans. His provincial success marked him as the coming man of colonial politics.
Stafford was not a member of the first General Assembly in 1854, considering it inappropriate to hold provincial and colonial office simultaneously, but when he visited its first session Henry Sewell and Isaac Featherston tried to persuade him to enter Parliament. Typically and cannily, he pleaded various excuses and left Auckland in some disgust during the 'mixed' ministry's collapse, causing Sewell to fear that he would make provincial war against central government. Instead, Stafford prepared his move into colonial politics on his own terms, and when Nelson's affairs were well enough ordered to be left safely to others. At the 1855 election he became a member of the House of Representatives for Nelson, a seat he held until 1868 when, after local disputes, he resigned and became member for Timaru.
When the 1856 General Assembly session began, Stafford refused to form the first responsible ministry, aware of both Wellington's and Auckland's distrust. Sewell's ministry lasted for one difficult month, William Fox's for 13 confused days, and on 2 June Stafford emerged as the only leader able to hold a balance. He had convinced riven and partisan Auckland that he was less dangerous than Fox, and provincialist Wellington that he was less menacing than Sewell; significantly, he had given his rivals their chances to fail. In this first parliamentary era, with its confusion of personalities, interests and shifting cabals, Stafford was in his element.
He now aimed at a comprehensive policy for the whole country. The 'Compact' of 1856 defined the financial relationships between central and provincial governments and settled the old problem of the New Zealand Company's debt. His wide knowledge of constitutional history and contemporary government gave him an unmatched awareness of how the new parliamentary system ought to develop, and of the need to pass a body of specifically New Zealand law. In 1856 a total of 36 acts were passed; and in the following session, in 1858, a further 86, including the New Provinces Act which made independence possible for outlying districts. From the start ministers met privately as a working cabinet without the governor, so reducing the Executive Council to a more formal role. Further, Stafford increased the number of portfolios and strengthened ministerial representation in the House of Representatives.
Governor Thomas Gore Browne's retention of responsibility for Maori affairs posed a crucial problem. The 1856 session's chaotic beginning had convinced Browne and the Colonial Office that responsible government was unlikely to work, so that Maori affairs could not be left to colonial politicians. Stafford believed the Assembly's authority had to be unrestricted to be real; he refused responsibility for expenditure he had not advised and could not control, and he petitioned the Queen. As he settled into the longest tenure in office of any premier before R. J. Seddon, the original reason for withholding these powers over Maori affairs became irrelevant.
During 1858 and 1859 Stafford travelled in Europe and England. He had little success negotiating a mail service via Panama, nor with plans for military settlements; however, he did prevent the New Provinces Act from being disallowed, and he arranged for John Morrison to become New Zealand's first London agent. His absence during the crucial period of the Waitara purchase, however, was disastrous.
Stafford believed that settler and Maori had a strong identity of interest in a thriving colony, and although he wanted more land to encourage immigration, he was opposed to Maori being forced to sell. His letters from England advised caution. He was uneasy about Donald McLean's power, Browne's reliance on McLean, and the pressures on C. W. Richmond from settler interests, especially those of Richmond's own relations. He warned Richmond particularly against making decisions under the influence of 'pride'. All in vain. He returned to find colleagues and governor had decided on a course of which he disapproved for economic as well as moral reasons; although he considered resignation, he remained loyal to colleagues and to the concept of ministerial responsibility.
By July 1861 there was economic recession in the North Island, provincialist resentment against the results of the New Provinces Act, dissatisfaction with the management of the war, and fear that if Browne did invade Waikato Stafford would not act vigorously enough. The mana of the Maori King was high and military stalemate seemed tantamount to British defeat; Fox attacked in the Assembly with scorching rhetoric, and the ministry was defeated 24 to 23 by a Wellington-based alliance. The first Stafford ministry came to an end on 12 July.
A new ministry came into office each year between July 1861 and October 1865, but Stafford waited, unwilling to resume the premiership until he judged the time suitable, and building up his business and farming interests, importing deer, birds and horses and successfully racing horses. He declined office in 1862 because he disliked the Maori policy of George Grey, once again governor, and knew he could command only a small majority. Alfred Domett's was like a Stafford ministry without Stafford, as was Frederick Weld's, in which Stafford also declined a place. His claim that Weld had tricked him out of the premiership and his denunciations of Weld's self-reliant policy and wasteful administration, made his eventual task of forming a successor ministry, which took office on 16 October 1865, very difficult.
He solved those difficulties by arranging with Grey for a dissolution, whether or not he could get supply passed; by exerting his powers of persuasion with private members; by 'wine and blarney'; by selecting second-rank colleagues; and, for a time, by doing most of the work himself as colonial secretary, treasurer and postmaster general. His former friends and associates joined his long-standing enemies to make a powerful opposition; yet Stafford survived with fortuitous Otago and Auckland support and brilliant parliamentary management. He reduced Weld's estimates and adopted most of Weld's legislative programme, passing 72 out of 90 bills. He personally supervised the small civil service, imposing a severe administrative regime and working long hours without, at first, even a private secretary.
The country's verdict at the ensuing election was clear. In spite of his personal unpopularity, dislike of his retrenchment, suspicion of his moderate views on Maori affairs, and the opposition of the leading newspapers, he was considered too able to be rejected. But clearly he would have to appoint stronger ministers. The new House of 1866 defeated his financial statement 47 to 14, and from the hubbub Stafford emerged with an acceptable, restructured ministry. W. Fitzherbert, implacable provincialist; J. C. Richmond, Stafford's enemy during the Taranaki war; J. Hall, from critical Canterbury; and J. L. C. Richardson, Otago provincialist, seemed strange companions for centralist Stafford, but by selecting such men he divided the provincialists in the Assembly.
In 1867 when James Macandrew, dismissed in 1861 by Stafford for financial malpractice, was re-elected superintendent, Stafford let the election stand but withheld the usual goldfields powers. Julius Vogel created turmoil and Macandrew melodramatically warned of impending revolution. Richmond, with Stafford advising conciliation and Fitzherbert severity, went to try to settle the trouble, and Macandrew regained his goldfields authority. In the 1867 session Vogel's provincialists defeated the Local Government Bill to redistribute provincial revenues and establish road boards, forcing Stafford to achieve his ends with particular acts to make Westland an independent county and to give Timaru a board of works.
The ministry's greater problems were the expensive war it had inherited, and deteriorating relations with the imperial government. In 1864–65 war expenditure was £886,259, while the colony's total revenue was £738,721; by 1866–67 Stafford and his comptroller general, J. E. FitzGerald, had reduced war expenditure to £327,180 (to be paid for by loans) and increased general revenue to £1,058,029, although by so doing taxation rates were increased to levels higher than Britain's.
The war itself flared intermittently during 1865 and 1868, its causes the Pai Marire uprising and Domett's and Weld's land confiscation policies. These had been sanctioned by the Colonial Office, whose 1864 view had been that 'rebels' must be punished, preferably by colonial forces. Stafford always regarded the wars as imperial, not settler, wars, and this belief governed his tortuous dealings with Britain. In July 1865 Morrison, still London agent, wrote to him: 'these are peculiar times for all colonies, and to meet them it is excusable to act as circumstances require. The Imperial Government of the present day appear to do all they can to get rid of the colonies.' Stafford was certainly the man to act as circumstances required. He supported Grey's efforts to keep some imperial troops as a buffer; colonial forces were improved, the militia enlarged, military settlers encouraged, and a full commissariat and transport system provided. Stafford also went on the financial offensive. After finally relinquishing control of Maori affairs the imperial government claimed £1,303,963 for troop costs and unpaid colonial obligations; Stafford counter-claimed for £1,422,988, largely unpaid commissariat bills and settler losses. In June 1868 each side agreed to drop its claim. From a New Zealand viewpoint Stafford's 'characteristic effrontery' was realistic accountancy.
Until 1868 there was comparative peace. In 1867 the four Maori electorates were established to incorporate pro-government Maori into the political system. Further, Stafford asked Governor G. F. Bowen to pardon some former 'rebel' chiefs. The shocks created by Titokowaru's victorious Taranaki and Wanganui campaigns, which seemed to threaten the very existence of settlement there, were accordingly all the greater. Te Kooti's attack on Poverty Bay in November 1868 heightened the sense of crisis and almost obscured the fact that Titokowaru was the greater danger. The ministry did recognise this, however, and concentrated its forces on the west coast of the North Island, so bringing on itself the fatal enmity of McLean, superintendent of Hawke's Bay. McLean was sacked by Stafford from the government agency in Hawke's Bay in March 1869.
By the time the Assembly next met the worst was over. Titokowaru's strength was broken, Te Kooti's force had dwindled, and G. S. Whitmore was in sight of the victory which ministers hoped would destroy McLean's prestige. Nevertheless the ministry was defeated on 24 June, a retrospective punishment for its war management, the economic depression, and the steady reduction of provincialist powers. Stafford's onslaught on Vogel's first financial statement was ferocious enough to send Vogel out of the House for a week, pleading illness. Stafford's bitterness in defeat arose from Bowen's refusal to grant him a dissolution. He had also discovered that Bowen, prejudiced by the Colonial Office, disliked him personally.
As opposition leader, Stafford was not antagonistic to Vogel's public works ideas, but only to their administration and Vogel's style of promotion. Stafford himself had advocated extensive railway construction as early as 1859; in 1870 his advice was incorporated in Vogel's proposals on 20 July, notably in relation to contractual safeguards and the level of borrowing. Stafford was uncompromising in his attacks during the 1871 session, forcing an ill-led ministry with an ostensibly large majority to drop many proposals. Vogel could not match Stafford's parliamentary skill and grasp of administrative detail. Within another year Stafford had gathered enough allies to take office again.
His last ministry, formed on 10 September 1872, was pledged to administer the public works and immigration policy more soundly, but Vogel and McLean detached three members from Stafford's supporters. On 4 October Stafford was defeated by two votes, asked Bowen again for a dissolution, was again refused, and resigned.
He now had little chance of sustaining any unified opposition with such diverse and often unreliable colleagues as Henry Sewell, William Rolleston, T. B. Gillies, William Fitzherbert, David Monro and E. C. J. Stevens, although they talked about trying to find agreed principles and of founding a colony-wide newspaper. Stafford acted increasingly as Vogel's distant but candid friend, and he embarked on a sustained campaign for the abolition of the provinces, sounding out opinion in familiar fashion before the 1874 session. He refused Vogel's offer of a place in the ministry, pleading his need to return to England on private affairs. Two years later he was still being exhorted by colleagues and newspapers to head another government of retrenchment, and Vogel was seeking a successor. Stafford would not be drawn. His habitual reluctance had become genuine. He had been at the centre of politics for 20 years, men and issues were changing, and he was having trouble with his eyes.
He did covet the London agent generalship, which Vogel promised and then took himself; Stafford never forgave him or his ministers. Disgusted also by the political ideas, style and following of Grey, now premier, he retired in February 1878, left Lansdowne, the Halswell property he had bought in 1873, and returned to England, receiving a KCMG on his arrival in 1879. He refused governorships of both Madras and Queensland and henceforth concentrated on family and business, becoming director of several companies, including the New Zealand Loan and Mercantile Agency Company and the Wanganui and Manawatu Railways Company. He was a commissioner for the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886, and received the GCMG in 1887. He lost money in the Baring bank failure of 1891, and when the NZL&MA also crashed in 1893 he and his fellow directors were accused of deception and harshly criticised in court by a hostile judge. He died in London on 14 February 1901.
Stafford was in manner and temperament very much of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy. He was small and handsome, renowned outside politics as a sportsman, one of the best jockeys and judges of horseflesh in New Zealand, a pastoralist and countryman, forester and landscape gardener, who set out the Government House gardens in Auckland. Alfred Saunders described him as an Irishman 'never known to say a witty thing'; yet he had great charm and powers of persuasion, although his occasional superciliousness, excessive talkativeness and reputation for being devious left him few lasting political friends. He wrote vividly and spoke well.
It was part of his manner to foster the image of a reluctant statesman. Leaving Nelson's superintendency for Auckland and the premiership in 1856, he wrote: 'I shall not soon forgive either Sewell or Whitaker for having let me into this scrape, nor myself for exchanging the harness I've grown warm in for one I hate and feel no disposition to pull an ounce with'; he was regretting the imminent sale of his horses. Filumena Weld expressed a more stark contemporary view of him: 'a man that will do anything to stick in office', who 'would make all sorts of promises to different people, whether he could keep them or not, to secure their votes.'
Unlike Frederick Weld, the Richmonds, Francis Dillon Bell and others, Stafford seldom posed on the high moral ground, although he had a consistent constitutional vision of how an independent and unified New Zealand ought to develop. He was a pragmatic, down-to-earth, successful politician; the supreme manager. He was premier for a total of nine years, a tenure in office exceeded only by Richard Seddon, William Massey and Keith Holyoake. For common sense and clear-sighted ability he must rank as one of the most effective of all.