Monday, February 9, 2009

More on J. S. Macfarlane

John Sangster Macfarlane. I’ve said before that his career here in New Zealand is a truly intriguing one. To date, I’ve written about the accusations made against him regarding incitement to have one sawmill owner murder another sawmill owner in the Coromandel district, and his revenge campaign against the Auckland Star in creating the competing Auckland Echo in late 1874. Then, there’s the Waitemata election of 1874 which he caused to have re-run because he had lost, and the winner was (in his opinion) a non-British alien. What else could this man have done to cause consternation in the young city of Auckland and environs?

The answer? Plenty.

We know from his obituary, that he is said to have been a commissariat officer in New South Wales before coming to New Zealand. The earliest record I’ve found to date for his activities here was as master of the 78 ton Joseph Cripps as at October 1845, so he seems to have come here during the Northland War, but probably not because of it. Up until 1852, he was a master of a number of vessels: Iliomama, Arabia, and the barque Daniel Webster. After this, he became a shipping agent, based at Auckland, but headed to Sydney to marry Marianne Browning at Trinity Church on 13 January 1853.

That year, he was the owner of a racehorse named “Flatcatcher”, and in 1856 he was appointed as a Justice of the Peace. That year the Saint Martin sank off the east coast near Hawke’s Bay, 15 May. It was a schooner, 58 tons, built of oak at Jersey and owned by Macfarlane. All passengers, crew, and “a considerable amount of property” were saved, however (according to NZ Shipwrecks), so Macfarlane’s loss was restricted to the schooner alone, which he doubtless had well-insured.

His career as an influential Auckland businessman during the 1860s appears to have been fairly standard for the time. Apart from a court case in 1861, where he was accused of reneging on a bet as to who would win the Provincial Superintendent’s position (his pick lost, but he won the case, on the technicality that the other bettor hadn’t deposited his part of the stake with a designated third party), he remained as a JP, was a member of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce and a shareholder of the Bank of New Zealand from 1862, and entered into a business partnership with Thomas McHattie around late 1863. Their store was burned down in January 1865, but the partnership survived until later that decade.

Then came Macfarlane’s dealing with Thomas Craig and family, and with Christopher Atwell Harris over the Whangapoua sawmills and timber on the Coromandel. His assertions, made public in the numerous trials, and especially when he was accused of inciting Craig to shoot Harris, that Macfarlane was somehow above the law and able even to bend Parliament to his will earned him the enmity of lawyer W. L. Rees (who would, himself, later gain a seat as M.H.R.) Macfarlane campaigned hard to get his Waitemata seat – against Gustav Von der Heyde twice in 1874, only to lose. In 1875-1876, he had no intention of losing again.

His Riverhead scheme was revealed by Rees at a Court of Revision hearing in May 1875, where Rees contested the inclusion on the Waitemata Roll of over 100 names. The charges flew thick and fast. Macfarlane was accused of bribing a man named Brodie not to contest the names in court. Macfarlane was said to have subdivided his Riverhead holdings and “sold” small pieces to known supporters for pittances, just to have them recorded on the roll. Rees said “he was prepared to prove that Mr. J. S. Macfarlane had gone about boasting that he had made the next Waitemata Election safe enough.” (Star, 28 May 1875)

Employees of Macfarlane’s short-lived newspaper the Echo were signed on as electors. An employee named Carr was said to have scurried around at Macfarlane’s behest gathering false voters. The Star was appalled, and said so in its editorials, calling the affair “one of the most scandalous attempts at stuffing an electoral roll that has ever come before the public eye in any colony of Australasia.”

A meeting of electors at the Whau Public Hall in January 1876 proved almost riotous.

“Mr. EYRE : Did you not say to me the other day that you could poll 140 dead-heads at Huia?


Mr. EYRE : And did you not say that, if there was any opposition by the scruitineers, you would have them thrown into the creek ?

Mr. MACFARLANE: Yes; of course I did. What is the use of asking me foolish questions like that?

Mr. REES: I should like to ask Mr. Macfarlane if he did not put 160 dummies on the roll for Waitemata, persons who never had any qualification whatever, in order that they might vote for himself.

Mr. MACFARLANE: I believe there were 60 put on the roll, and everyone was properly qualified, and that Mr. Rees and Mr. Brookfield succeeded in getting them struck off by false means, by false representation, and false law, and that everyone will be put on again I will stake £100 on that. They shall be put on again. I have ascertained that 60 was the correct number, and that included eight men at Riverhead. The whole number struck off was 60, and every one had as good a right to be on the roll as I have, or anyone here, and they shall be put on again.

A VOICE:. I was one man struck off last election, and one as had as good a right to be put on as any man; and I was struck off by your party, Mr. Macfarlane.

Mr. MACFARLANE: Well, that is very likely.

The VOICE: That was by Mr. Lamb, one of your party.

Mr. MACFARLANE: I asked for all the names of the men who were dead and had left the district, and I got them, and sent them in a letter to the Returning Officer. I was leaving the country, and I had no time to go round, and I said, "Send me the names of everyone who is dead or has left the country, as I am going to Sydney." There is not a single thing that I have done that I am ashamed to stand by.

Mr. REES: I ask Mr. Macfarlane if amongst those names that were struck off, there were not two or three persons who are here tonight, also Mr. Carr and Mr. Allender, and if, when they knew that their names were objected to, they did not go out of the room in order to avoid costs.

Mr. Carr: No, I tell you Mr. Rees is telling an untruth. (Uproar )

Mr. MACFARLANE: I can state that Mr. Brookfield is ashamed of his action in the matter, and says that every man shall have his name put back on the roll without a farthing of costs to them.

Mr CARR: And out of the men who were complaining, put 40 or 50 names on who had no legal claim. Mr. Eyre's son was put on, and he had no qualification.

Mr EYRE: That is not my son.

Mr CARR: He is your relation.”
(Southern Cross, 14 January 1876)

Thomas Henderson, who had retired his Waitemata seat in 1874 so that Gustav Von der Heyde could replace him, now came back out of his retirement primarily to oppose Macfarlane in 1876. His decision was unfortunate; the 1876 election ended up being a four-horse race, with vastly more electors against Macfarlane (343) than for him (163) but as this was first-past-the-post, and his nearest rival, Hurst, received only 147 votes, Macfarlane finally won the seat he coveted. Henderson received only 68 votes.

Macfarlane was, by and large, an uncontroversial MHR – but from some instances that come from the newspapers, it seems he wasn’t liked by all his colleagues in Wellington.

Evening Post, 2 October 1877:

“Upon resuming at 7:30, the Speaker read a communication he had received from Mr. Macfarlane stating that Mr. Lusk had been paid £50 for preparing a bill for the Auckland City Council. — Mr. Stout asked whether it was right that such a letter as that of Mr. Macfarlane should be published in an evening paper before it was brought under the notice of the House. The letter in question had that evening appeared in a local print. He moved that the action of Mr. Macfarlane was a breach of the privileges of the House.— The Speaker said the publication of such a letter was highly improper.— Mr. Stout said he would withdraw his motion for the present. — Mr. Macfarlane said he had shown that letter to several members of the House, but had not furnished any copy to the paper in question. — Mr. Reynolds stated that no such letter had been published in the paper named, and Mr. Sharp confirmed this. — Mr. Stout rose to a point of order. The letter, so far as related to its publication, was not now before the House. —After some further discussion, Mr. Lusk complained of the indefinite nature of the charge, but so far as he could see, Mr. Macfarlane was only giving another instance of his unfortunate faculty for discovering mare's nests.”

The Wanganui Herald’s editor (12 December 1878) was obviously not a fan.

“The speech with which Mr. J. S. Macfarlane recently favoured his Waitemata constituents is certainly one of the most extraordinary political deliverances we ever met with. Judging, however, from the applause with which it is said to have been received, it must be allowed that the hon. member fairly represents the views of the Waitemata electors. Certainly Mr. Macfarlane is not an orator— it is in fact rather painful than otherwise to have to listen to him when making a speech— and therefore none of the glamour of manner can have been cast over the electors— their applause and approval must have been won by the solid matter of the speech.

We believe there are few other constituencies in the Colony which would have listened to such a speech with any other feeling than one of shame. Mr. Macfarlane is known as a shrewd and successful man of business, and with an innocence worthy of the Heathen Chinese he carries all his business instincts into politics. To make a hard bargain is evidently his highest idea of statesmanship, and votes in his eyes are fair articles of commerce. When he entered Parliament at the last election he was almost the only member returned from Auckland who was not an out and out supporter of Sir George Grey. While the Atkinson administration was in the full bloom of power, Mr. Macfarlane supported them, and by the means which he has now openly disclosed, got as much out of them as he could. When they became shaky, and Sir George Grey was in the ascendant, Mr. Macfarlane evidently thought more was to be got by changing sides than by remaining constant, and he changed accordingly. How he attempted to make the most of this change is told in the speech before us.

“He gave Sir George Grey, Mr. Sheehan, Mr. Macandrew, and Mr. Ballance an enormous amount of good advice. He told the first how to revise the tariff, the second how to draft a Native Lands Bill, the third how to administer the Public Works Department, and the fourth how to frame a proper scheme of finance and taxation. Singularly enough all four Ministers proved deaf to the disinterested advice so given. Sir George Grey did not see the timber and flour duties question from the stand-point of the Auckland saw-miller. Mr. Sheehan could not see the, advisability of framing a Native Lands Act which would enable Auckland land-sharks to acquire enormous blocks of land on their own terms. Mr. Macandrew betrayed a consciousness of the existence of other railway lines than those of Auckland, and an absurd determination only to make lines which were likely to pay, and to carry those lines by the best routes irrespective of private interests; while Mr. Ballance willfully shut his eyes to the injustice of imposing any direct taxation on the wealthy classes whose properties have been enormously benefited by the expenditure of money raised by the Colony at large.

“Mr. Macfarlane "lobbied" most energetically. No one probably had any idea of the extent of his exertions until he recounted their history to his admiring constituents the other day. He seems to have tendered his advice to Ministers upon every imaginable point, not openly in the House, but privately in the Ministerial room -- where arguments could be used which would scarcely bear being recorded in Hansard, it says a great deal for the firmness of the members of the Ministry that they were able to resist such importunacy, but they did so, and now Mr. Macfarlane has formally shaken the dust of the ministerial camp from his shoes, and denounced them and all their works. It must not, however, be understood that Mr. Macfarlane contemplates a return to the position of a volunteer counsellor of the party which he deserted the session last. He evidently aspires higher now. The leadership of a new party is what he aims at.

“With this object he has boldly challenged comparison personally with Sir George Grey."The Premier," he says, "can make eloquent speeches on constitutional quotations and about the rights of the human race, but he does not get the money. Now speeches without money are very little use. What we want is the money, we want a man who can get the money for us, and I'm the man to do this." Such a policy is of course a delightfully simple one. The new party could explain their political faith in their name if they were to call themselves the "Grab-alls," but we fail to see how Mr. Macfarlane can possibly hope to secure a sufficient following to give him the power of carrying out his programme. No doubt after the experience of last session, Nelson and Marlborough would heartily approve of the general principle of Mr. Macfarlane's policy, if carried out under local leadership. A fellow feeling might for a time make Nelson, Marlborough, and Mr. Macfarlane's Aucklanders wondrous kind to each other, but even if they were to conjointly realise Mr. Macfarlane's ambition and get the money, they would certainly fall out over its distribution.

“Mr. Macfarlane's idea is that Auckland should be bolstered up at the expense of the rest of the Colony until its rich men can get richer still and then clear out. No matter whether expenditure is necessary or likely to prove profitable, so long as it takes place in Auckland, is what Mr. Macfarlane practically says, and the rest of the Colony may, we think, fairly be congratulated on the fact of the terrible disappointment which he has evidently suffered at finding that the Premier, although an Auckland member, utterly repudiates such mercenary and narrow views, and, even at the risk of losing Mr. Macfarlane's confidence, has resolutely carried out with his colleagues a policy of fair justice to all parts of New Zealand.”

Macfarlane, apparently originally professing support for Sir George Grey and provincialism, changed his horses mid-stream and voted against Grey’s administration in 1879. This did not sit well with his Waitemata constituents, who voted a motion of no confidence in their elected representative (August). Macfarlane was also still hounded in his last year of life by a “fool” (his words) who supported Grey – his old enemy, W. L Rees.

To the end, Rees kept at Macfarlane. Macfarlane sued Rees for £10,000 for libel in April 1879 concerning the estate of a settler named Captain Reed; Rees issued writs against Macfarlane for charges of conspiracy and libel in Gisborne in October 1879 over the same matter. Macfarlane counter-sued in December to the tune of another £10,000. Suits and counter-suits were still before the courts when Macfarlane died, painfully but still litigating, in February 1880.


  1. J S Macfarlane captained coastal/Sydney boats for John Salmon in the 1840s, especially the Kate. For a short time in 1843/4 he was registered owner of the Aurora, which was also involved in the East Coast trade. In 1845 he successfully sued Thomas Crummer for buying whale bone from a whaling station Macfarlane said belonged to him. (I am working on this litigation for a legal history conference in Wellington in June.) He had some sort of partnership with Salmon, lasting until 1853/4, and also with a Sydney merchant called Murnin, ending in litigation in May 1857. Up until 1853 his profile is of a minor partner who was useful as somone who could take charge of a ship for a senior partner (he did the same with the Daniel Webster.) The death notice in the Herald is wrong about him taking the DW to San Francisco, incidentally. Its first journey was to Auckland from SF, not vice versa, and on the day it arrived in port JSMcF also arrived as master of the Joseph Cripps. Salmon & Co acquired it a few months later, and JSMcF captained it a couple of times before Phillip Jones became its regular master. Then JSMcF married Marianne Browning of Upper Fort Street Sydney. Her father, Samuel, was active as a merchant in the late 1840s, and was a strong early proponent of steam shipping. The litigation with Murnin shows that he had some sort of financial relationship with Macfarlane, because Murnin made one payment owed to McF on Browning's instruction. Question: Was this Samuel, the same Samuel who became vice-chairman of the Bank of New Zealand and who was also on the board of NZI? If so, is the change in McF's fortunes due to his father-in-law's money? The Watt index to NZ Shipping shows JSMcF as a very minor figure until the early 1850s, but from 1853 until his death he clocks up 52 registrations.
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  2. Thanks, Stuart, for that extra information - and all the best for your presentation in June!