Philanthropy and fighter aces, Edmund Bohan

Frontiers: A Colonial Dynasty
Simon Best
Steele Roberts, $55.00,
ISBN 9781927242216

This book traces the lives and times of four generations of the remarkable family founded by that rugged Yorkshireman, William Barnard Rhodes (1807-78): master mariner, whaling captain, trader, land speculator, pastoralist, one of Wellington’s founding entrepreneurs, philanthropist and politician. As Best summarises, Rhodes is remembered chiefly for his great wealth and, in these politically correct days, also for his attempts to acquire great tracts of land from Maori. There was more to Rhodes than that. His whaling journal and trading log alone provide valuable information on a period in New Zealand and the Pacific about which little is known, when small enclaves of Europeans, mainly ex-seamen, had established good relations with Maori, living and intermarrying with them, demonstrating the advantages of new technologies, and paving the way for men like himself.

Although trade deals fell through, and Rhodes’s and others’ extravagant land claims led to government taking control of land dealings with Maori, his legal acquisitions helped open for settlement vast tracts of Wellington, Whanganui, New Plymouth, Hawke’s Bay, Taranaki, the central North Island, Nelson, North and South Canterbury and Banks Peninsula. He helped found (among other ventures) the Bank of New Zealand. And, from being the scorned butt during the 1850s of such aristocratic young men as Frederick Weld, James Edward FitzGerald and that most appalling snob Henry Sewell, Rhodes did achieve social respectability. By the 1870s, he was acknowledged to be the country’s richest individual, Wellington’s most conspicuous public benefactor and one of its most conscientious politicians.

After his death, Rhodes’s colossal wealth went to his childless widow, Sarah Anne (née Moorhouse), and to his beloved half-Maori daughter, Mary Ann. For the rest of her own long life, Sarah Anne reigned as Wellington’s most generous benefactor of a host of charities and scholarships. Even the city’s gold mayoral chain of office was her gift. Mary Ann and husband Edward Moorhouse, however, departed for England where her wealth enabled them to move effortlessly into the elegant world of the aristocracy and gentry. Artistic, musical, intelligent and charming, Mary Ann also became the adored mother and grandmother to two heroic but ill-fated airmen.

The first, her eldest son, William Barnard Rhodes-Moorhouse, is the more famous: pioneer aviator, motorist, the first Royal Flying Corps ace to win a VC. Despite these accomplishments, he was an unattractive figure: too much (as Best puts it) a “silver spoon youth” who learned little at prep school and Harrow before idling away two years at Trinity College, Cambridge. Thereafter, he devoted himself to fast cars and aeroplanes. Irresponsible and wild, he was reputedly described by one justice of the peace as “worthless and good-for-nothing”. Family money and influence enabled him to escape with derisory court fines from a succession of reckless driving and speeding convictions and, astonishingly, from separate manslaughter convictions for killing a small boy on Christchurch’s New Brighton beach and, years later, a man in Gloucestershire. The £20 fine he received for the latter incident provoked questions in the House of Commons.

At the outbreak of WWI, Rhodes-Moorhouse joined the Royal Flying Corps and, on 26 April 1915, died after a bombing raid on Coutrai and was awarded the VC. Best observes that “we might call him an adrenaline junkie, with perhaps a touch of the boy racer”, but his heroic death has undoubtedly cast a romantic glow over him and obscured his otherwise dubious reputation. His son, William Henry Rhodes-Moorhouse, is a far more likeable human being. After Eton, he travelled extensively as a gentleman of leisure, became a popular personality inside London’s high society and, with aviation also his consuming interest, joined the Royal Flying Corps Auxiliary’s famously elite 601 Squadron of gentlemen. By the time he was shot down, in September 1940 at the height of the Battle of Britain, he was one of its most admired pilots.

Best by no means restricts himself to mere family history. He casts his net widely and extravagantly to include meticulously researched details of Polynesian and Pacific exploration, early 19th-century whaling, pioneering New Zealand coastal trading and commercial dealings, land purchases, Maori conflicts, gold prospecting, farming and pastoral ventures, pioneering aviation, automobile history, early motor racing, and the beginnings of the RAF. Yet, curiously, he pays little attention to Barnard Rhodes’s political career. Rhodes took that seriously, and so did his contemporaries.

Always Featherston’s ally, he was a member of Wellington’s provincial council from 1861 to 1869 and, more importantly, served in New Zealand’s first parliament (1853-55) and again from 1858 to 1866, a tumultuous decade whose legacies are with us still: the New Provinces Act, the Waitara Purchase, the invasion of Waikato, the New Zealand Settlements Act and land confiscation, and disputes with Britain over New Zealand’s self-reliance. These years encompassed Stafford’s momentous first ministry and the disasters of its successors led, respectively, by Fox, Whitaker, Domett and Weld, before Stafford returned to power in 1865. In parliaments dominated by such memorable orators as FitzGerald, Fitzherbert, Stafford, and Featherston, Rhodes spoke comparatively seldom, but was no nonentity. He served conscientiously on house committees and, as an influential member of Wellington’s tight-knit group of MPs, played a crucial if notoriously controversial part in Weld’s dramatic 1865 defeat.

Best does not seriously try to explain the Wellington group’s reasons for finally abandoning Weld’s ministry and, sadly, seems little interested in politics, which perhaps explains some curious judgements: about Weld, for instance, whose excitability, irresolution and inability to cope with criticism rank him among our worst prime ministers. And there are errors: Turton was never Wellington’s Superintendent; Featherston retained that office throughout the provincial period. Also, men were not “elected” to the legislative council. They were appointed for life, as was Rhodes, by his longstanding political leader William Fox in 1871.

Frontiers, though superbly produced and lavishly illustrated, might have been improved by a sterner editor.

 

Edmund Bohan is a Christchurch historian and novelist.

 

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