John E. Martin
- 1854 Parliament first met in Auckland – immediate pressure for Parliament and seat of government to move
- 1856 Decided that next parliamentary session to be in Wellington on principle that Wellington would alternate with Auckland, but money not approved
- 1857-8 Wellington built new Provincial Council Building with two chambers to house Parliament
- 1858 Parliament met in Auckland again
- 1860 Following understanding that Parliament would meet in Wellington, decision reversed after outbreak of Taranaki war. Parliament met in Auckland again
- 1862 Parliament met in Wellington following the end of the Taranaki war. Wreck of White Swan on way down to Wellington from Auckland
- 1863 Parliament returned to Auckland. Parliament agreed that seat of government to be shifted permanently to Cook Strait area. Location to be decided by Australian Commissioners
- 1864 Australian Commissioners decided on Wellington
- 1865 Parliament and seat of government moved to Wellington. Parliament Buildings purchased and extended
The New Zealand Parliament permanently moved to Wellington in 1865, after spending the first ten years of its existence, from 1854, in Auckland. The story of the move of the seat of government and Parliament to Wellington in 1865 was full of political intrigue and drama, not to mention shipwrecks and the threat of earthquakes. It tells us much about the political constraints on representative government and how Parliament operated in those times. The move is the story of not only of where Parliament should be located but also of the housing of Parliament – never straightforward and always subject to the politics of the day.
When New Zealand adopted parliamentary government in the early 1850s Governor George Grey settled on Auckland as New Zealand’s seat of government for the time being. Auckland had been the official capital since 1840 (after a short period in the Bay of Islands) and the province was vehement in keeping its powerful and lucrative status. A petition to Britain by the Auckland Provincial Government in late 1853 and an apparent promise by Grey clinched the matter for the moment.
The location of the seat of government was hotly contested as soon as Parliament met in 1854. It was one of the perennial focal points of debate and was a crucial dividing line between MPs. Wellington in particular felt its claims were strong. MPs arriving in Auckland from further south were not made to feel very welcome. Accommodation was difficult to find and the inhabitants of the town affected disinterest. The issue would fracture Parliament for the next decade and, even after the apparently permanent move to Wellington, MPs agitated for a further move elsewhere for some time afterwards.
Feelings about Auckland resulted from the sheer difficulty and length of time it took to get there. Otago MPs took a whole two months to get to Auckland in 1854 because of the number of stops and the bad weather. It was very difficult in the circumstances to persuade members even to attend sessions. There was no way that anyone outside of Auckland could return to their homes, families or businesses while Parliament was sitting. While many MPs from outside Auckland could agree that the seat of government should be shifted, it was quite another matter to decide where it should go. Governments did not dare to make a concerted stand on the matter – voting was left to individual MPs.
Politics and Auckland’s Parliament Buildings
The hastily thrown-up, cheap quarters for the first session in 1854 were christened the ‘Shedifice’ because they were so basic. The buildings provided plenty of ammunition for a change. While still used for parliamentary sessions, ownership of the buildings passed to the Auckland Provincial Council in a fractious and complicated deal in 1858.
Auckland in 1856 had wanted the government to pay for the very expensive new Government House in Auckland and, to cement its claim to be the seat of government, suggested that Parliament move into the building. When this move failed, Auckland got the government to agree to offset the cost of Government House by handing over the Parliament Buildings to the province.
Parliament’s conditions of use of Parliament Buildings were eventually agreed to in 1861 as agitation mounted for moving the seat of government. The government would supply offices for the province elsewhere and the buildings would be extended to provide a more substantial Bellamy’s. Ambitious plans to build a larger, new Parliament Buildings in Roman Doric style came to nothing. MPs argued that it was not appropriate to spend a lot of money at a time when the country was beset by the land wars and expenditure restrictions. Pressure intensified in the minds of MPs outside of Auckland that the seat of government should be moved.
Getting the seat of government to Wellington
Wellington and its Superintendent Isaac Featherston made no pretence about enticing Parliament to a more central location in Wellington. But Wellington had one serious drawback – earthquakes. The extremely large earthquake of 1848 and the even more massive 1855 earthquake loomed large. The latter ranks as the strongest ever recorded in New Zealand’s history. Although causing very few fatalities it destroyed the provincial government’s building and a number of others.
An attempt to have Parliament move south to ‘a more central position’ appeared close to success in 1854 but it was foiled when some southern MPs opposed to leader James FitzGerald (who had proposed the move) walked out rather than being seen to support Auckland.
The issue erupted in earnest during the session of 1856 after the incoming Governor Gore Browne had decided that Auckland would have the parliamentary session meanwhile. Browne was strongly opposed to a move away from Auckland. The government was divided on the issue but Premier Edward Stafford was a strong advocate for the seat of government to remain in Auckland. Auckland attempted to stop the agitation in its tracks but failed. Proposals to hold the next session in Auckland, Nelson and Wellington were lost in turn in the House. However, the Legislative Council adamantly resisted any move. The matter was left to the Governor to fix a ‘more central place’. To no-one’s surprise it was Wellington.
A select committee report took up Featherston’s offer of suitable buildings and suggested a move would cost £2,500 but the House failed to approve the money amid farcical scenes. Wellington and Auckland members rushed in and out of the House to remove a quorum over the decision. The matter was left to Governor Gore Browne, who proved indecisive after consulting the House and the government. He personally preferred Auckland for reasons of his convenience, and decided on flimsy grounds that Parliament would stay there because he had no deputy to stay in Auckland. He proposed a compromise that sessions would alternate between Wellington and Auckland.
Following the 1856 session Featherston returned to Wellington, disappointed that the decision in favour of Wellington had been reversed. Wellington’s Provincial Council decided it would construct a substantial building that included two assembly chambers and two stories of offices to accommodate the civil service. This was to be dangled as bait before Parliament in Auckland.
There was in the end no parliamentary session in 1857. As the Governor had determined, the session of 1858 was held in Auckland. A move was revisited briefly at that time but in the absence of most Wellington members and the expectation that Parliament would go to Wellington next time, little heat was generated. Premier Stafford quickly suppressed any discussion.
There was no parliamentary session in 1859, but Wellington was now due for a session. It was due to meet there for the first time on 3 May 1860. The government began to make preparations for a move but it did not happen. The session was switched back to Auckland on Stafford’s advice to the Governor, following the outbreak of the Taranaki war in early 1860. This about-face was prompted by a threat by Auckland members to resign. Parliament opened very late on 30 July, because the Speaker and Wellington members failed to arrive in time. With 1861 dominated by war Parliament remained in Auckland for that session.
The 1862 session in Wellington
The end to the war in Taranaki and the defeat of Stafford’s government in July 1861 brought the debate on the seat of government back on the agenda. The overwhelming refusal by southern members to go back to Auckland, exacerbated by the burden of war, was a major factor in Wellington finally getting the long-desired session in 1862.
Detailed specifications of the necessary accommodation were sent down. In addition to the two chambers the Speakers would require private apartments, 4 committee rooms and 3 offices for clerks were also needed, together with a refreshment room and kitchen. Featherston, who had sent up plans of the buildings, was very accommodating. He pointed out that the House of Representatives’ Chamber was much more spacious than in Auckland and had both a lower and upper public gallery and substantial press gallery.
Wellington found to its horror that matters did not proceed at all smoothly. The assembled MPs had to sit and wait for key officials to arrive. Governor Grey in his ship had been blown virtually to the Chatham Islands by a storm. The White Swan transporting the government had been wrecked on the way down from Auckland. The White Swan had sailed southwards from Auckland in late June 1862 carrying the Premier, cabinet ministers, officials and papers to Wellington. The voyage proved a disaster. The ship hit rocks south of Napier near Uruti Point and had to be steamed ashore at full speed to avoid rapid sinking. The weather was fortunately fine and calm and all survived, even if boxes of government and parliamentary records did not. An attempt to float them ashore failed. The boxes were swept away by an ebb tide aided by strong offshore winds, never to be seen again. Future civil servants used the shipwreck as an excuse for many years when they could not find relevant papers. Parliament opened a week late in 1862 when everyone finally turned up.
With Parliament temporarily in Wellington there were attempts to keep it there by making Wellington the seat of government. A government led by Alfred Domett had replaced that of William Fox. A motion to do so by a Dunedin MP was defeated only by a single vote with Stafford leading the opposition to the proposal. A range of alternatives for Parliament – Dunedin, Christchurch, Picton and Nelson – were also ventured before it was agreed that the matter should be put into the hands of the Governor again. In terms of the agreement of 1856 Auckland was to alternate with Wellington in hosting parliamentary sessions. With the country again at war Auckland was the obvious location.
Decision made in favour of Wellington
Parliament met in Auckland again in 1863. By now a shift of power to the South Island was becoming evident as the impact of the gold rushes was felt, as Canterbury grew prosperous, and as the population of the South Island grew fast. In 1860 Parliament had passed legislation creating an additional franchise that gave those with miners’ rights voting rights. This was followed in 1862 by legislation to add another four Otago MPs through supplementary elections in 1863, and to create additional specific goldfields electorates for those with miners’ rights.
This shift in the balance of power towards the south proved decisive with a weak government in office in 1863. Southern MPs engineered a resolution in the House that the seat of government be moved permanently to the Cook Strait area, with the choice of place decided by independent Australian commissioners.
The resolution was pushed through in dramatic circumstances. In the chamber there were attempts to adjourn the debate, procedural wrangles and a walkout. Leading politician Stafford and Auckland MPs attempted to block the debate until some supporters of a shift had left Auckland and thus could not vote. This failed and the question was put. The enraged Stafford and Auckland MPs walked out of the chamber before realising that the vote was about to be taken. They did not get back in time and were locked out. The resolution was won without apparent opposition! (Two supporters of the resolution farcically voted against it giving the vote some semblance of reality!) Later, in a fuller House, Stafford failed to block the move by seven votes. The die was cast – £50,000 was allocated for the move; the only matter to be decided was exactly where the seat of government would go.
In 1864 three eminent Australian politicians were appointed as Commissioners by the Governors of New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania as an ‘independent tribunal’ to fix on a suitable location. Auckland’s provincial government protested desperately but vainly at the ‘interference’ in New Zealand’s internal affairs. The Commissioners drew up a list of criteria for the location including its central position, suitability as a harbour, the suitability of the land and surrounding countryside and its capacity for defence. They were paid five guineas a day each and were provided with a steamer to travel around much of the bottom of the North Island and the top of the South Island, visiting Wanganui, Wellington and Nelson, together with Picton, Port Underwood and Havelock in the Marlborough Sounds. They came to the unanimous, and to some, the obvious conclusion that Wellington was the best place. Their decision cost the country more than £4,000. Wellington was ready to receive Parliament.
Wellington’s Parliament Buildings
In 1858 Wellington completed more substantial buildings to house its Provincial Council which had been left homeless. Following the earthquake of 1855 the Council had used a house but this had burnt down in 1856. The new buildings were located on the site of the present Parliamentary Library Building. A provincial committee recommended this site as having a commanding position which could easily be levelled, close to Government House, and accessible to the Beach (Lambton Quay). Government House just to the south on the government reserve had been the residence of Colonel Wakefield from the days of Wellington’s first colonising settlement. (It is now the site of the Beehive.)
In 1856 the province offered a prize for a design for a ‘House of General Assembly and Provincial Government’ on the site. This was the largest building contract in Wellington to that date. There were to be chambers suitable for the House of Representatives and the Legislative Council, reporters and public galleries, a library, four committee rooms and a Bellamy’s restaurant, together with offices for provincial government staff. It was to be constructed of wood and should cost no more than £5,000.
The foundation stone was laid in March 1857 and a plate conveying the expectation that the province had for becoming the seat of government was mortared into the foundations. It was a proud day of celebration and assertion for Wellington. A regimental band playing martial music led a procession to the site. Ships in the harbour flew buntings and fired a salute.
No single design was considered suitable in the competition. Somehow a blended rather plain Gothic design was created from the top three entries that had distinct Doric, Gothic and Italianate styles! The buildings cost rather more than planned: close to £8,000 with an additional £800 required to purchase the site and £500 to fit out the buildings. The interior of the chambers displayed more adventurous design influenced by the Gothic Houses of Parliament and ancient Westminster Hall in London. The provincial government moved into the buildings in February 1858.
Shifting to the ‘Empire City’
Parliament held a very short session of only three weeks in Auckland towards the end of 1864. Southern MPs were particularly unhappy at being dragged back to Auckland. There had been protracted manoeuvring over the location of this session which had developed into a constitutional crisis when Governor Grey dug in his heels and refused to move from Auckland. The new ‘southern’ government of Frederick Weld made the removal of the seat of government a condition of its taking office and was determined to have its way against Governor Grey. Grey reluctantly consented to the move. Matters between Parliament and Auckland had by now became very ill-tempered. There had been unseemly scenes over whether Auckland Provincial Council members should have access to Bellamy’s (refreshment rooms) when Parliament was in session. In a parting shot, as the government prepared to move to Wellington, a dispute arose over the disposal of furniture. Auckland’s provincial government prevented a public auction, locked the buildings and dispersed the furniture amongst its own offices.
Wellington meantime readied itself. It had become the port of destination of the Panama steam service and was newly crowned the ‘Empire City’. A new Customs House, Post Office and Bank of New Zealand graced the town. Shops and new hotels went up, as did new dwellings, particularly in Thorndon. Carpenters were never busier and wages shot up. Housing soon became scarce and rents spiralled upwards. The local newspaper, the Wellington Independent, prepared to launch an enlarged edition to publish full reports of parliamentary debates.
Immediately the 1864 session came to a close preparations were made for the move. It was a substantial logistical exercise using small steamers which made regular runs between the ports of the various provinces. By the end of December a large number of official papers had been sent. Some Ministers and civil servants arrived on the Phoebe on 3 January 1865. Other officials and 64 cases of official documents arrived on 13 January on the SS Airedale. More civil servants arrived on the SS Queen on 23 January. By the end of the month the bulk of the move had been made.
Officials included the Governor and his establishment of six, two officials associated with Government House, six parliamentary staff, and 59 staff for the various government departments. Staff had to make their own arrangements for travel and accommodation. They were paid half their annual salaries in compensation, but this was not enough and they petitioned for more money.
Public records and about 80 cases of library books were sent by the SS Queen in late March 1865 and arrived safely in Wellington. The total cost of the move including the Australian Commissioners was £54,665 – the bulk of which was for the purchase and extensions to the Parliament Buildings, together with the purchase of a ministerial residence and Government House.
The buildings were sold to the government for £8,200. Considerable alterations and extensions costing £6,000 were required for Parliament’s move – alterations to both chambers, a new library and select committee rooms, and a new Bellamy’s and water closets. This delayed the 1865 session from the end of June until 26 July 1865. The contractor had lost his carpenters for the attractions of the West Coast goldfields.
Parliament opened on 26 July 1865 on a very wet day. The Wellington Rifle Volunteers paraded on the recently reclaimed land in Thorndon before marching up to the buildings to form a guard of honour. Governor Grey and his retinue walked from the recently built Government House across Sydney Street and into the buildings. He was greeted with applause as he entered the Legislative Council Chamber and took the Speaker’s Chair to open Parliament officially.
MPs found Wellington more congenial than Auckland if rather cold in winter. The buildings were more spacious, although with much of the civil service packed in as well it was a squeeze from the start. The House of Representatives Chamber had been designed for 50 rather than the 57 MPs who were crammed in. The Colonial Secretary’s Office was dispersed through the building; the Native Minister had to work in the smoking room; Defence Office clerks were in Bellamy’s; Crown Lands occupied the space designated for the printing office; and some of the Colonial Museum collection was stored in the Legislative Council Chamber. MPs lodged within walking distance of Parliament in boarding houses or cheap hotels. The more affluent leased houses or stayed in the Wellington Club.
Wellington was keen not only for the economic benefits and the political status the seat of government brought, but also for its enlivening of the elite’s social season. Wellington welcomed Parliament with a gay social whirl that woke the town out of its torpor. Not only were a circus and other entertainment acts in town but balls soon added to the festive atmosphere. The ‘inimitable’ bard Charles Thatcher convulsed locals with his racy sketches of Wellington and politics, and a particular ditty ‘Thatcher in Parliament’ poked fun at the place. This followed his ejection from the public gallery for illegally taking notes.
Three months later Parliament came to a close, having witnessed the dramatic resignation of Weld’s ministry and the return of Stafford as Premier. The ceremony came on a beautifully fine day amid ‘crowds of ladies’. Afterwards the spectators hurried down to the wharf to witness the departure of members with their carpet bags onto the steamers for home.
Providing for Parliament
The move to Wellington precipitated the creation of an official record of debates in Parliament. From its beginnings in Auckland there had been criticism of the partisan and incomplete reporting of proceedings in the Auckland newspapers. Pleas for ‘accurate and authentic reports’ went unheeded until the early 1860s when a select committee began to negotiate a contract with Auckland’s Southern Cross newspaper.
With the move to Wellington negotiations were opened with the Wellington Independent but this arrangement proved unsatisfactory and expensive. In 1866 a rift opened up between the Wellington newspapers and the government. Little space had been devoted to parliamentary reporting and in particular speeches by notable MP F.D. Bell (with whom reporters had a dispute over gallery accommodation) had not been reported. C.C.N. Barron, a newspaper editor, stepped into the breach and proposed establishing Parliament’s own reporting staff. His offer, considerably cheaper than commercial newspapers, was accepted on a trial basis for the 1867 session and the New Zealand Parliament’s Hansard was born.
There was an immediate need to expand and upgrade the buildings. Politics always intervened and ambitious plans collapsed but a range of incremental extensions and renovations were made over time. Expensive plans were hatched to remodel the buildings at a cost of £11,500. There was to be a larger chamber for the House of Representatives, more select committee rooms and more offices. The total number of MPs had been increased dramatically from 57 to 70, with additional Canterbury and Otago MPs reflecting the ascendancy of the South Island.
Premier Stafford was prepared to vote only £5,000 but even this came under heavy attack and the project lapsed. Running repairs and minor alterations were made instead. The strength of the structure was a major concern as dry rot had spread. Buttresses were added down the sides of the chambers and tie rods inserted into the ceilings. Leaks were tackled and defective drainage improved. Seating in the House of Representatives Chamber was expanded, galleries were altered and staircases were added. The roof was repaired, yet again. Many sundry items were needed – hat pegs, wash stands, matting, spittoons, lamps, and a gong for the Legislative Council – and a wide range of improvements to the ‘comfort’ of MPs were made. It was at this time that the desks, familiar to us today, were introduced, and the colours green adopted for the House of Representatives and red for the Legislative Council, as traditionally in Westminster in Britain.
The buildings were inadequately lit by a host of candles in chandeliers and candlesticks on the walls. In 1866 75 kerosene lamps were tried but were not a success. They made the atmosphere even hotter and smellier. The buildings reverted to candlepower. Gas lighting was investigated a few years later and 240 gaslights were installed. Ventilation remained primitive: the gaslights contributed greatly to the stuffy and overheated air.
By 1870, with many government departments still working there, the buildings were far too small. The Speaker regarded them as being on their last legs. The Colonial Architect, William Clayton, gave a damning report on the strength of the structure, being vulnerable in a southerly gale or earthquake, as dry rot continued to spread. Parliament urged a completely new building on an adjacent site at a cost of £30,000 but the government would not agree – not only on the grounds of cost but because it would open up the location of the seat of government yet again. £6,000 was offered for repairs and extensions.
The reconstruction work began in 1871 with further strengthening of the roofs. Substantial extensions were undertaken to provide a new library and offices for government departments behind the existing buildings. In 1873 the House of Representatives Chamber was enlarged for £4,500; a new Legislative Council Chamber was built at the rear for £6,000; and various other new offices and committee rooms were provided in a three-storey extension at the front. Underfloor hot water heating kept the MPs warm and battery-powered electric division bells kept them on their toes for attending votes in the chamber. Previously a messenger had run through the buildings clanging a large bell or gong.
The chambers had ceilings divided into plastered panels with banded mouldings and flowers in relief and banded Gothic pillars with ornamental cantilevers under hammer beams (echoing the historic Westminster Hall in London). They also had ‘lantern’ central features for lighting and ventilation. The movement of air was aided by the gas-lighting within the lantern. Such was the theory but MPs continued to complain about poor ventilation until the chambers met a fiery end when most of Parliament Buildings burnt down in 1907.
During the 1860s the centre of gravity of the country had shifted southwards as the number of South Island MPs increasingly outweighed those of the North Island. Many politicians, particularly those from Wellington, might have thought that the location of the seat of government was settled once and for all. Premier Stafford, who had been one of the strongest opponents of the move, pragmatically accepted the decision of 1864. Auckland, however, found it hard to forgive Wellington for its loss. Auckland newspapers poked fun and dripped vitriol over the goings-on in Parliament in Wellington. They frequently referred to earthquakes and hurricanes, saw the politicians as obsessed with the comforts of liquor and Bellamy’s, and regarded Wellington as a tin-pot town.
Those affronted by the move from Auckland called for the separation of Auckland and Otago from other provinces and could not leave the issue alone. The loss of the seat of government became the focus for the separation movement. There were others who thought that a Parliament which moved around the country and held sessions in the South Island might be a great idea, or even that the seat of government should be located on a green field site. Some were simply disgruntled and grabbed the moment to grumble about the inadequate buildings or the inconvenience of travel. Fuel was added to the fire by the report on the extent of dry rot in the buildings and the failure to rebuild. On the other hand the wreck of the White Swan was seen as proof of the hazard of moving elsewhere.
In 1866 ardent Auckland and Otago separationists Frederick Whitaker and Julius Vogel supported holding the next session in Christchurch (which had substantial stone Provincial Council Buildings) at the same time as resisting efforts to improve the Wellington buildings. The motion to go to Christchurch passed in the House but with the proviso that the House itself bear the cost. Nothing eventuated after Legislative Council opposition.
Another initiative came in 1868 amid concerns for Wellington’s lack of sanitary hygiene and the failure of the Stafford government to invest in improved buildings. An MP had suddenly died at the nearby Wellington Club, giving rise to allegations of ‘malaria’ and a ‘miasmatic influence’ that threatened the health of MPs. Stafford promised that drainage would be improved. Another attempt the following year to have parliament sit in either Dunedin or Christchurch was easily deflected.
In 1871 attempts were again made to shift parliament for the next session to Dunedin in the hope that eventually it might return to Auckland. The House surprisingly agreed to this by a substantial majority but the stumbling block again was that Parliament had to pay for it. The Legislative Council opposed the move, as did the government. The government investigated and the House lost its enthusiasm when the considerable cost was revealed. Another belated attempt was made for a session in Christchurch as late as 1878. Even though the House voted in favour of a move the matter was a dead duck and the government was able to ignore the motion. Government departments by now had moved into their own large wooden buildings, constructed on reclaimed land across the bottom of Lambton Quay. This not only relieved the pressure on accommodation but also consolidated Wellington as the seat of government.
Commemorating the move
Over the 25-26 July weekend in 2015 Parliament and the Wellington City Council will celebrate the 150th anniversary of Parliament’s move and Wellington becoming the seat of government and capital of New Zealand.
Some 50 years ago on 26 July 1965 – exactly one hundred years after the move – the centenary was celebrated. The Speaker of the House, Sir Ronald Algie, unveiled a plaque, since that time mounted on the wall of Parliament House (see beginning of article), a special commemorative stamp was issued, television documentaries made, and a school bulletin on the institution of Parliament was published.
Disclaimer. Every effort has been made to ensure that the content of this paper is accurate, but no guarantee of accuracy can be given.