Richard Seddon

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The Right Honourable
Richard John Seddon
Rt. Hon. Richard Seddon in 1905.
15th Prime Minister of New Zealand[1]
In office
27 April 1893 – 10 June 1906
Monarch Victoria
Edward VII
Governor David Boyle
Uchter Knox
William Plunket
Preceded by John Ballance
Succeeded by William Hall-Jones
Constituency Hokitika, Kumara, West Coast
Personal details
Born (1845-06-22)22 June 1845
Eccleston, England
Died 10 June 1906(1906-06-10) (aged 60)
At sea
Political party Liberal
Spouse(s) Louisa Jane Spotswood (m. 1869)
Children 9
Religion Anglican

Richard John Seddon (22 June 1845 – 10 June 1906), sometimes known as King Dick, is to date the longest serving Prime Minister of New Zealand. He is regarded by some, including historian Keith Sinclair, as one of New Zealand's greatest political leaders.

Early life[edit]

Seddon was born in Eccleston near St Helens in Lancashire, England in 1845. His father was a school headmaster, and his mother was a teacher. Despite this background, Seddon did not perform well at school, and was described as unruly. Despite his parents' attempt to give him a classical education, Seddon developed an interest in engineering, but was removed from school at age 12. After a short time working on his grandfather's farm at Barrow Nook Hall, Seddon was an apprentice at Daglish's Foundry in St Helens. He later worked at a foundry in Liverpool.[2]

When he was 18 he emigrated to Australia, and entered the railway workshops at Melbourne, Victoria. He was caught by the gold fever and went to Bendigo, where he spent some time in the diggings. He did not meet with any great success. In either 1865 or 1866, he became engaged to Louisa Jane Spotswood, but her family would not permit marriage until Seddon was more financially secure.

In 1866, Seddon moved to New Zealand's West Coast. Initially, he worked the goldfields in Waimea. He is believed to have prospered here, and he returned briefly to Melbourne to marry Louisa. He established a store, and then expanded his business to include the sale of alcohol, becoming a publican.

His parents were Thomas Seddon, born 1817, and Jane Lindsay who married on 8 February 1842 at Christ Church, Eccleston. Their children were:-

  • Thomas born 1842, who died 1849
  • Phoebe Ellen born 1843 died 1925 in New Zealand. Phoebe married William Cunliffe on 9 May 1863 at Holy Trinity Church Eccleston.
  • Richard John born 1845, the subject of this article
  • Edward Youd, born 1847 died 1919, Greymouth, New Zealand
  • William born 1849 died 1855
  • Sarah Jane born 1853 died 1854
  • James born 1854 died 1898
  • Mary Jane born 1857 died 1932, Westport, New Zealand. Married George Gunn McKay.

Local politics[edit]

Seddon's first real involvement with politics was with various local bodies, such as the Arahura Road Board. He was later elected to the council of Westland Province, representing Arahura. Gradually, Seddon became known along the West Coast as an advocate for miners' rights and interests, and he was frequently consulted over various political issues.

In 1877, Seddon was elected as the first Mayor of Kumara, which was to become a prominent goldmining town. He had staked a claim in Kumara the previous year, and had shortly afterwards moved his business there. Despite occasional financial troubles (he filed for bankruptcy in 1878), his political career prospered.

Entry to Parliament[edit]

Seddon caricatured by How for Vanity Fair, 1902
Parliament of New Zealand
Years Term Electorate Party
1879–1881 7th Hokitika Independent
1881–1884 8th Kumara Independent
1884–1887 9th Kumara Independent
1887–1890 10th Kumara Independent
1890–1893 11th Westland Liberal
1893–1896 12th Westland Liberal
1896–1899 13th Westland Liberal
1899–1902 14th Westland Liberal
1902–1905 15th Westland Liberal
1905–1906 16th Westland Liberal

Seddon first sought election to the New Zealand Parliament in the 1876 elections, standing for the seat of Hokitika, but was unsuccessful. In the 1879 elections, he tried again, and was elected. He represented Hokitika to 1881, then Kumara from 1881 to 1890, then Westland from 1890 to 1906 (when he died).

In Parliament, Seddon aligned himself with George Grey, a former Governor turned Premier. Seddon later claimed to be particularly close to Grey, although some historians believe that this was an invention for political purposes. Initially, Seddon was derided by many members of Parliament, who mocked his "provincial" accent (which tended to drop the letter "h") and his lack of formal education. He nevertheless proved quite effective in Parliament, being particularly good at "stonewalling" certain legislation. His political focus was on issues of concern to his West Coast constituents. He specialised on mining issues, became a recognised authority on the topic, and chaired the goldfields committee in 1887 and 1888.[3]

Liberal Party[edit]

Seddon's first ministerial position was obtained when the Liberal Party, led by John Ballance, came to power in 1891. He became minister of public works, mines, defence, and marine. He promoted co-operative contract system for road-making and other public works projects. He aggressively proclaimed a populist anti-elitist philosophy in many speeches and toast. "It is the rich and the poor; it is the wealthy people and the landowners against the middle classes and the labouring classes," he explained.[4]

Unlike Ballance who believed in classical liberalism, Seddon did not have any great commitment to any ideology. Rather, he saw the Liberals as champions of "the common man" against large commercial interests and major landowners. His strong advocacy for what he saw as the interests of ordinary New Zealanders won him considerable popularity. Attacks by the opposition, which generally focused on his lack of education and sophistication (one opponent said of him that he was only "partially civilised") reinforced his growing reputation as an enemy of elitism.

Seddon quickly became popular across the country. Some of his colleagues, however, were not as happy, accusing him of putting populism ahead of principle, and of being an anti-intellectual. John Ballance, now Premier, had a deep commitment to liberal causes such as women's suffrage and Māori rights, which Seddon was not always as enthusiastic about. Nevertheless, many people in the Liberal Party believed that Seddon's popularity was a huge asset for the party, and Seddon developed a substantial following.


Richard John Seddon and party in Samoa, 1897

In 1892, Ballance fell seriously ill and made Seddon acting leader of the House. After Ballance's death in 1893, the Governor David Boyle, 7th Earl of Glasgow automatically asked Seddon to form a ministry. Despite the refusal of William Pember Reeves and Thomas Mackenzie to accept his leadership, Seddon managed to secure the backing of his Liberal Party colleagues as interim leader, with an understanding being reached that a full vote would occur when Parliament resumed sitting. Seddon's most prominent challenger was Robert Stout, who – like Ballance – had a strong belief in liberal principles. Ballance himself had preferred Stout as his successor, but had died before being able to secure this aim. Despite Seddon's promise, however, there was no vote – by convincing his party colleagues that a leadership contest would split the party in two, or at least leave deep divisions, Seddon managed to secure a permanent hold on the leadership. Stout continued to be one of his strongest critics.

Style of government[edit]

Seddon (far right) addressing a Liberal rally in Greytown, late 1890s

Seddon was a strong premier, and enforced his authority with great vigour. At one point, he even commented that "A president is all we require", and that Cabinet could be abolished. His opponents, both within the Liberal Party and in opposition, accused him of being an autocrat – the label "King Dick" was first applied to him at this point.

Seddon accumulated a large number of portfolios for himself, including that of Minister of Finance (from which he displaced Joseph Ward), Minister of Labour (from which he displaced William Pember Reeves), Minister of Education, Minister of Defence, Minister of Native Affairs, and Minister of Immigration.

Seddon was also accused of cronyism – his friends and allies, particularly those from the West Coast, were given various political positions, while his enemies within the Liberal Party were frequently denied important office. Many of Seddon's appointees were not qualified for the positions that they received – Seddon valued loyalty above ability. One account, possibly apocryphal, claims that he installed an ally as a senior civil servant despite the man being illiterate. He was also accused of nepotism – in 1905, it was claimed that one of his sons had received an unauthorised payment, but this claim was proved false.

Sir Carl Berendsen recalled seeing Seddon in 1906 as a Department of Education junior innocently bearing what was an unwelcome document. A replacement was needed for a small native school. The inspectors had picked out three outstanding candidates, but Seddon picked out the last on the lengthly list; he had no academic qualifications and had just been released from gaol for embezzlement. When the Premier appointed the gentlement from gaol, Departmental officials returned the papers and called attention to his criminal record. Berendsen cowered in the corner while with a snarl Seddon grasped his pen and wrote once more in very large letters, "Appoint Mr X". Berendsen noted though that when an Editor was required for the new School Journal, Departmental officials had agreed on the best man, but the Massey Government (which had replaced the Liberal Government) was "quite shameless in devotion to the principle of the loaves and fishes ... and the Minister of the day appointed the third choice".[5]

As Minister of Native Affairs, Seddon took a generally "sympathetic" but "paternalistic" approach. As Minister of Immigration, he was well known for his hostility to Chinese immigration – the so-called "Yellow Peril" was an important part of his populist rhetoric, and he compared Chinese people to monkeys. In his first political speech in 1879 he had declared New Zealand did not wish her shores to be "deluged with Asiatic Tartars. I would sooner address white men than these Chinese. You can't talk to them, you can't reason with them. All you can get from them is 'No savvy'."

Successive governments had also shown a lack of firmness in dealing with Maori, he said: "The colony, instead of importing Gatling guns with which to fight Maori, should wage war with locomotives" ... pushing through roads and railways and compulsorily purchasing "the land on both sides".[6]

Richard Seddon attended Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee and received her Jubilee Medal and an appointment in the Privy Council. In 1902 he attended the coronation of King Edward VII and received his Coronation Medal.[7]


One of the policies for which Seddon is most remembered is his Old-age Pensions Act of 1898, which established the basis of the welfare state built by Michael Joseph Savage and the Labour Party. The early Labour Party often claimed a certain affinity with Seddon on this basis. Seddon put considerable weight behind the scheme, despite considerable opposition from many quarters. Its successful passage is often seen as a testament to Seddon's political power and influence. Other socialist programs attributed to Seddon include pensions for teachers and moves to improve housing for workers.

Richard Seddon's grave in Wellington

Seddon's most notable failure to have his way, by contrast, was over the issue of women's suffrage. John Ballance, founder of the Liberal Party, had been a strong supporter of voting rights for women, declaring his belief in the "absolute equality of the sexes". Seddon, however, opposed women's suffrage. This resulted in considerable debate within the Liberal Party. Eventually, Seddon's opponents within the party managed to gather enough support for a women's suffrage bill to be passed despite Seddon's hostility. When Seddon realised that the passage of the bill was inevitable, he changed his position, claiming to accept the people's will. In actuality, however, he took strong measures to ensure that the Legislative Council would veto the bill, as it had done previously. Seddon's tactics in lobbying the Council were seen by many as underhand, and two Councillors, despite opposing suffrage, voted in favour of the bill in protest.

In the sphere of foreign policy, Seddon was a notable supporter of the British Empire. After he attended the Colonial Conference in London in 1897, he became known "as one of the pillars of British imperialism", and he was a strong supporter of the Second Boer War and of preferential trade between British colonies. He is also noted for his support of New Zealand's own "imperial" designs – Seddon believed that New Zealand should play a major role in the Pacific Islands as a "Britain of the South". Seddon's plans focused mainly on establishing New Zealand dominion over Fiji and Samoa, but in the end, only the Cook Islands came under New Zealand's control during his term in office. (Samoa later came under New Zealand rule as well, but Fiji did not).


Richard Seddon's statue stands outside Parliament buildings in Wellington.

Seddon remained Prime Minister for 13 years, but gradually, calls for him to retire became more frequent. Various attempts to replace him with Joseph Ward met with failure. While returning from a trip to Australia on the ship Oswestry Grange, Seddon was suddenly taken ill, and died. News of his death provoked numerous public gestures of grief, which including black bordered displays in shop windows and several public monuments, including a memorial Lamp Post outside the St Helens Hospital in Pitt Street Auckland. Seddon was buried in Wellington's Bolton Street Memorial Park, with his grave being marked by a large monument.


A statue of Seddon is located outside Parliament Buildings, and another has a prominent position in the West Coast town of Hokitika. A town in New Zealand and a suburb of Melbourne, Australia are named after him. His son Thomas replaced him as MP for Westland. Wellington Zoo was originally created when a young lion was presented to Prime Minister Richard Seddon by the Bostock and Wombwell Circus. Seddon created the Zoo from this single specimen and the lion was later named King Dick in the Prime Minister's honour. The stuffed body of King Dick (the lion) is displayed on the ground floor of the Museum of Wellington City & Sea.

The Duke of Argyll unveiled a memorial to Seddon in St.Paul's Cathedral,London, probably in 1910. It shows a portrait of Seddon with the inscription "TO THE MEMORY OF RICHARD JOHN SEDDON PRIME MINISTER OF NEW ZEALAND 1893–1906 IMPERIALIST STATESMAN REFORMER BORN JUNE 22nd 1845 AT St HELENS LANCASHIRE BURIED AT OBSERVATORY HILL WELLINGTON NEW ZEALAND"


  1. ^ The title "Prime Minister" was used by Richard Seddon after 1901, following New Zealand's self-exclusion from the Federation of Australia.See: "Prime Minister: The Title "Premier"". Te Ara – An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, 1966. Retrieved 27 August 2007. 
  2. ^ Hamer, David. "Seddon, Richard John - Biography". Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Retrieved 28 June 2012. 
  3. ^ David Hamer, "Seddon, Richard John (1845–1906)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004; online 2006)
  4. ^ New Zealand. Parliament. House of Representatives (1884). Parliamentary Debates. p. 171. 
  5. ^ Berendsen, Carl (2009). Mr Ambassador: Memoirs of Sir Carl Berendsen. Wellington: Victoria University Press. pp. 50,56. ISBN 9780864735843. 
  6. ^ "Ask That Mountain: The Story of Parihaka" by Dick Scott, Heinemann, 1975, Ch. 10.
  7. ^ 1912

Further reading[edit]

Brooking, Tom. "Richard Seddon: King of God's Own" (Auckland: Penguin, 2014)

  • Burdon, R. M. King Dick: A Biography of Richard John Seddon (Christchurch: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1955)
  • Hamer, David A. "Seddon, Richard John (1845–1906)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004; online edn, May 2006 accessed 23 Aug 2012; doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/36002
  • Hamer, David A. The New Zealand Liberals: The Years of Power, 1891-1912 (1988)
  • Nagel, Jack H. "Populism, heresthetics and political stability: Richard Seddon and the art of majority rule," British Journal of Political Science (1993) 23#2 pp 139-75 in JSTOR.

External links[edit]

Government offices
Preceded by
John Ballance
Prime Minister of New Zealand
Succeeded by
William Hall-Jones
Political offices
Preceded by
William Campbell Walker
Minister of Education
Succeeded by
William Hall-Jones
New Zealand Parliament
Preceded by
Seymour Thorne George
Edmund Barff
Member of Parliament for Hokitika
Served alongside: Robert Reid
Succeeded by
Gerald George Fitzgerald