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date: 09 December 2023

Wakefield, Edward Gibbonfree


Wakefield, Edward Gibbonfree

  • David J. Moss

Edward Gibbon Wakefield (1796–1862)

by unknown artist, c. 1820

Wakefield, Edward Gibbon (1796–1862), promoter of colonization, was born on 20 March 1796 in London. He was the second child and eldest son of Edward Wakefield (1774–1854), philanthropist, land agent, and writer on economics, and Susanna, née Crash (d. 1817), a farmer's daughter from Felsted, Essex. His middle name was taken from his great-grandmother, Isabella Gibbon, a relative of the historian. The Wakefields were an old Quaker family, originally from Kendal in Westmorland. The family moved almost immediately after his birth to Essex, farming first at Romford then at Burnham Wyck. Financial problems and the serious illness of Susanna led to Edward Gibbon being sent to his grandmother in Tottenham. Priscilla Wakefield, a devout Quaker, was not impressed by her eldest grandson, a boy with 'an inflexible and pertinacious temper'. During the next five years Edward was expelled from three schools, Mr Haigh's school in Tottenham, Westminster School, and Edinburgh high school, for fighting and disobedience. His uncle, Daniel Wakefield, succeeded in having him admitted to Gray's Inn on 5 October 1813, but there is no evidence that he ever studied law. His father, who had been absent during much of his son's childhood, had to admit that, at seventeen, he had become incorrigible. Fortunately, Edward became acquainted with the Hon. William Noel Hill, the British envoy at Turin and son of Lord Berwick. He spent the winter of 1814–15 in Turin as Hill's secretary. In the summer he temporarily left Hill's employ to enjoy life as a king's messenger, travelling on several occasions to Paris. The first sign of an above average mind at last emerged with the publication in The Statesman of his acute observations on the Bourbon restoration celebrations in that city.

Marriage and imprisonment

After wintering again with Hill in Turin, Wakefield returned with his employer to a house in Princes Street, off Hanover Square, London. Opposite lived a widow, Mrs E. A. Pattle, and her daughter, Eliza, a ward of chancery. Thomas Charles Pattle, a rich Canton merchant, had died in Macau the year before. Edward, recognizing the opportunity, wooed the seventeen-year-old heiress without the knowledge of her mother or uncles. On 13 June 1816 Wakefield eloped with Eliza, and the couple were married on 27 July in Edinburgh. The lord chancellor became involved, but following the intervention of several influential people, including Hill, the marriage was grudgingly accepted. A Church of England ceremony on 10 August and an immediate income of £600 a year out of the Pattle estate to maintain his wife sealed the affair. Eliza was to gain a further £30,000 on her twenty-first birthday and further sums were to accrue when obligations to other members of the family were satisfied. The gamble had succeeded and Wakefield's financial future was assured. For the next four years he was attached to the Hon. Algernon Percy, under-secretary at the British delegation in Turin, but spent more time with Hill, who was now in Genoa. A daughter, Susan Priscilla (known as Nina), was born on 4 December 1817 in Genoa (she died on 12 February 1836 of consumption). In 1820 the Wakefields returned to England where, on 25 June, a second child, Edward Jerningham [see below], was born. Eliza died ten days later, before she was twenty-one, of complications from the birth. In consequence, the £30,000 remained with the Pattles. For the next few years Wakefield travelled, spending much of his time in Paris.

Despite being relatively wealthy from the proceeds of the chancery settlement, Wakefield's ambition, a seat in the Commons, demanded more. On 7 March 1826, with the connivance of his brother William Wakefield and his stepmother, Frances, he abducted an heiress, Ellen Turner, from her boarding-school near Liverpool. She was fifteen and the daughter of William Turner of Shrigley, a wealthy Cheshire manufacturer. Told that her father was dangerously ill, Ellen was bundled into a coach and taken to Gretna Green. A second lie, that her father's fortune depended on marriage to Wakefield, persuaded her to agree to a marriage ceremony. They were caught by angry relatives at Calais, en route for Paris. William had already been arrested and, on his return to England in May, Edward was committed to Lancaster Castle. The trial was heard on 23 March 1827. Found guilty, the brothers were sentenced to three years apiece; William served his in Lancaster Castle, Edward languished in Newgate. An act of parliament was needed to annul the marriage because, according to Scottish law, it had been perfectly legal despite the fact it had not been consummated. The case had attracted immense attention, and the reputations of the brothers appeared for ever blighted.

Prison life was difficult but not impossible for Edward. His children lodged nearby and made frequent visits; moreover, he enjoyed the ministrations of a procession of relatives including Elizabeth Fry. Imprisonment proved, ironically, to be Wakefield's salvation. Given the time for reflection, he began the transition from vain and arrogant gadfly to serious student of society and its ills, although he remained arrogant and ill-tempered. Part of his time was spent talking to prisoners and discussing the usefulness of imprisonment and, in particular, capital punishment. His ideas were later published in Facts Relating to the Punishment of Death in the Metropolis (1831) and in evidence to the select committee on secondary punishments (1831). In both he condemned the use of capital punishment for all but the most serious crimes, and sought to emphasize the certainty of punishment as the deterrent rather than the harshness of the penalty. His other occupation, a corollary of his studies on the causes of crime, was to devise a programme of systematic colonization.

Between August and October 1829 the Morning Chronicle published in instalments Wakefield's Letter from Sydney. In the newspaper no author was credited, but when it was reprinted as a book, Letter from Sydney, the Principal Town of Australasia, in 1830, Robert Gouger, with whom Wakefield had corresponded while in Newgate, was credited as editor. Wakefield also published a pamphlet, Sketch of a Proposal for Colonising Australia. These brilliantly imaginative pieces—the first was written from the point of view of a settler (although Wakefield himself had never been to Australia)—offered a plan, based on six principles, to overcome the problems of over-population identified by Malthus. Colonies, he wrote, were unprofitable because they suffered from a scarcity of labour, the reverse of the situation in Britain. Emigration must therefore be encouraged. The plan's first principle demanded that land be sold for a ‘sufficient price’. The proceeds of the sale and a land tax were to be used to provide the transportation of labourers to the colonies 'free of cost'. These people should be both men and women from all classes of society, not convicts or slaves, and should govern themselves at the earliest opportunity, under a viceroy. The weakest part of the plan lay in its definition of 'sufficient price'. Wakefield understood that it should not be placed too high. Ideally, it needed to be high enough so that labour was available to capital, but sufficiently low to allow labourers to acquire their own land after four or five years. Wakefield tended to put the price on the high side and the plan suffered criticism as a result.

The National Colonisation Society

In May 1830 Wakefield was released from prison and began his campaign to win public acceptance of his ideas by forming the National Colonisation Society. Among the early members were Robert Gouger (a future colonial secretary in South Australia), Robert Rintoul (editor of The Spectator), Charles Buller, and John Stuart Mill. Sir William Molesworth joined in 1833. Other notable members were Colonel Torrens, W. W. Whitmore, and William Hutt. Jeremy Bentham was also won over and offered some useful advice. The group's first success came when Lord Howick, son and heir of Lord Grey, the prime minister, read the Letters and persuaded Lord Goderich, the secretary for war and colonies, to pass the Ripon regulations in January 1831. These ordered the abandonment of the free grant of land in New South Wales and its replacement by the sale of waste land at not less than 5s. an acre. Two months later Wakefield gave evidence to the select committee on secondary punishments (1831) and cautiously emphasized the need to end the system of transportation. His intent was the creation of a colony in Australia that would not rely on convicts for labour. Taking advantage of favourable reviews, he and Buller then formed the South Australia Land Company. Various plans were proposed to Goderich but all were rejected, the last as a result of its overly enthusiastic endorsement of responsible government for the settlers. Wakefield was not disheartened and continued the pressure by publishing England and America in 1833. It added to the debate by urging the benefits of high wages, in Britain as in America, and recommended the repeal of the corn laws, the first step on the road to free trade. By this date Wakefield had become a confirmed disciple of Adam Smith and published an edited version of the Wealth of Nations, in four volumes, between 1835 and 1839. The extensive commentaries that accompany each chapter clearly outline his thinking as he sought to create a model post-enlightenment society. A new joint-stock company, the South Australia Association, was formed and a fresh enabling bill was introduced in the Commons. Further recruits to the cause included George Grote, Henry George Ward, and, at one remove, the duke of Wellington. After several rewrites, the South Australia Bill became law on 15 August 1834. The plan was essentially Wakefield's land scheme, including no convicts and self-government when the population reached 50,000. At this point, to his chagrin, he was pushed aside and virtually ignored as Gouger and others prepared to administer the new act. As might be expected, Wakefield thereupon found fault with most of their decisions: he considered the list of commissioners, chosen in 1835, to administer the colony unimpressive and the price set for the new land too low. Nine ships left England with the first settlers between 22 February and 23 July 1836. Wakefield, distressed by the death of his daughter, had intended to travel with them despite his grievances, but changed his mind at the last moment. The vision of a colony in a new country, New Zealand, over which he might gain more control now commanded his attention.

New Zealand and Canada

Two rival committees competed to determine the future of New Zealand. The select committee on Aborigines met first, in July 1835, and was dominated by Thomas Fowell Buxton and spokesmen for the missionaries already resident in the country. The second, the committee on the disposal of lands in the British colonies, did not meet until June 1836. Wakefield, described in the prime of life as 'of middle stature, fair complexion, fine skin, fine intellectual forehead, apparently of fixed and decisive character', dominated it. Over three days of testimony Wakefield spent some time discussing the true meaning of self-government, particularly in connection with Canada. But his primary thrust was the reiteration of the need for systematic colonization as a means of relieving over-population. His clear and often spellbinding rhetoric won many friends and led to the creation, on 22 May 1837, of the New Zealand Association, under the chairmanship of Francis Baring. Its hopes were, however, quickly blighted as the select committee on Aborigines reported that it was opposed to all colonization in the south sea islands. Their opposition, coupled with renewed doubts about the legislative implications, ended with the defeat of the association's bill in the Commons in June 1838. Wakefield had anticipated defeat and had already left to join Lord Durham in Canada.

Durham, involved in the failed New Zealand Company of 1825, had been recruited by Wakefield for the association on his return from Russia in July 1837. They had become friends and, before leaving to take up his position as governor-general and high commissioner of all North American colonies after the suspension of the constitution, Durham asked Wakefield to join his staff. On arrival he discovered that Lord Glenelg, secretary for the colonies, had denied him an official position. Durham, however, gave him the job of chief commissioner of crown lands, Charles Buller's nominal title. Upper and Lower Canada were in uproar, the mission was not a success, and against Wakefield's advice Durham soon resigned. His Report on the Affairs of North America, finished in January 1839, recommended that the two Canadas be united with an elected assembly whose powers approximated the British parliament. Durham was reluctant to submit the report to the Commons, but Wakefield forced his hand by leaking it to The Times. Wakefield's contribution to the final version is debated, but Durham admitted to paying close attention to his advice. A popular epigram, coined from a jibe by Lord Brougham, put it crudely: 'Wakefield thought it, Buller wrote it, Durham signed it.' Before leaving Canada on 20 October 1838 Wakefield also completed his report on land and emigration. Attached to the report as Appendix B, it sought to apply his colonization system to British North America.

Wakefield returned to Canada on three occasions. In 1841 he arrived in May as agent for the North American Colonial Association of Ireland. It planned to provide immigrants and encourage economic growth by building a canal through the seigneurie of Beauharnois, near Montreal; that it was a 'horrid swindle' was the first response of the governor-general, Lord Sydenham. This visit was brief, but he was back again in December and co-operated with the new governor-general, Sir Charles Bagot, in encouraging the government to include the French Canadians within the new constitution, through letters to the Colonial Gazette. His participation in Canadian politics was further enhanced by his election to the assembly in November 1842 as the member for Beauharnois. His primary objective was to steer the canal and land project through the house; he reputedly made £20,000 from his work for the association between 1841 and 1844. But his interest in politics generally led, reputedly, to a role as secret adviser to Sir Charles Metcalfe, Bagot's successor, in December 1843. They enjoyed an excellent relationship, attested by the publication by Wakefield of two tributes to Metcalfe, a pamphlet entitled A View of Sir Charles Metcalfe's Government of Canada (1843) and an article, ‘Sir Charles Metcalfe in Canada’, in Fisher's Colonial Magazine (1843). The latter is remarkable for its affirmation of his belief in the merit of a relatively narrow definition of responsible government, and a forecast that the colonial future lay in what might, in modern terms, be described as a commonwealth of nations. News of the death of his brother Arthur Wakefield [see under Wakefield, William Hayward] at Wairau in New Zealand brought him back to England.

The failure of the New Zealand Association's bill in 1838 had been followed by the creation of a land company built on his old association, on a colonization society formed by City of London interests, and on the 1825 company. The new company was determined to establish a colony with or without the government's blessing. Wakefield led the planning, and in May 1839 the Tory left Plymouth for New Zealand under the leadership of his brother William and his son Edward, with instructions to seize as much land as possible to force the government's hand. Wakefield stayed in London seeking support. He gave evidence to the parliamentary committee on New Zealand in 1840, used the Colonial Gazette to attack the Church Missionary Society's obstructionist tactics, and lobbied tirelessly for official blessing. The government refused to listen and had already, in a fit of concern for the Maori and in fear of French intentions, dispatched Captain Hobson to persuade the chiefs to accept British sovereignty. For some time there was the spectre of confrontation as William Wakefield's purchases on behalf of the company were in danger of being disallowed. The next five years were a mix of euphoria and despair, as successive governments attempted to deal with the colonies and their own perceptions of sovereignty, alternately giving and withholding favour. The death of Arthur Wakefield in 1843 at the hands of the Maori, for example, was greeted unsympathetically by the colonial secretary, Lord Stanley. Wakefield again gave evidence to a parliamentary committee in 1844 and kept up his pressure for greater legislative responsibility. On 18 August 1846 he suffered a stroke, and for some weeks it was thought he would die. A long period of convalescence was required and others took over the direction of the company. He resigned from it in 1849.

Wakefield wrote A View of the Art of Colonisation (1849) while resting at Château Mabile, near Boulogne, France. This rather disorganized work, in part an attack on past enemies, including Sir James Stephen and Lord Grey, proposed the establishment of colonies formed by different religious groups, in the manner of the seventeenth-century New England colonies in North America. The practical outcome of the idea to provide greater coherence for a colony and, incidentally, overcome missionary opposition, was a Church of England settlement at Canterbury, New Zealand. A second tactic was the creation, with the help of Charles Bowyer Adderley, of a new pressure group, the Society for the Reform of Colonial Government. The Canterbury Association, formed with the help of Lord Lyttelton and John Robert Godley, gained a charter in October 1849. Wakefield, after organizing several groups of settlers and steering the colony's constitution through parliament in 1852, himself landed in Port Lyttelton on 2 February 1853. Election in August to both the Wellington provincial council and the general assembly as member for the Hutt district followed. But his popularity declined when he became the confidential adviser to the acting governor, Colonel Robert Henry Wynyard, and seemed to be supporting a delay in the movement towards responsible government. The excitement proved too much and he suffered another breakdown in December 1854. He lingered a further seven years, dying on 16 May 1862 at Wellington, without making a will. He was buried in the Sydney Street cemetery, Wellington; the inscription merely provides his name, date of death, and age.

Wakefield irrevocably altered the temper and style of the British empire in the nineteenth century. He brought to the subject a spark of imaginative genius, the vision of systematic colonization, and joined it to a far-sighted emphasis on the merits of colonial self-government. As Thornton Hunt wrote in Wakefield's obituary in the Daily Telegraph: 'administrative and constructive reform [in the empire] can scarcely be traced to the single hand of any other man'. In his lifetime his qualities were often overlooked: only in his close family was he able to inspire affection and loyalty. Critics pointed out that his New Zealand and South Australia colonies were small-scale endeavours, soon lost in the tide of nineteenth-century mass emigration. Others remembered his ill-temper, impatience, and reputation as an unscrupulous schemer. These judgements unfairly devalue his contributions and have led to the absence of suitable memorials in both South Australia and New Zealand.

His only son, Edward Jerningham Wakefield (1820–1879), settler in New Zealand, was born on 25 June 1820 in London. He received an unorthodox education, partly on the continent, partly in Newgate prison, and partly at Bruce Castle School, Tottenham. The castle curriculum was unusual in its emphasis on science and mathematics and its provision of a measure of student self-government. He attended King's College, London, 1836–8, before travelling, as his father's secretary, to Canada. The next year he sailed with his uncle to New Zealand to establish the Wakefield colony and remained there until reprimanded by Governor Fitzroy in 1844. According to his critics, most of his time had been spent in debauchery. His diary of these years, Adventure in New Zealand, and the accompanying Illustrations were published in 1845, timed to coincide with the New Zealand Company's campaign against the Colonial Office. It is well written and offers perceptive commentary on the flora and fauna of the islands as well as the Maori. The observations on the settlers and government are, as might be expected, heavily biased. Four years later he again departed for New Zealand with the Canterbury settlers, leaving behind large debts. The political contributions of this intelligent but unstable man were few: he was elected for a Canterbury constituency in 1854 and was member of the executive council from August to September of that year, being elected again to the house of representatives in 1876. He married Ellen Roe, the daughter of a Wellington printer, on 3 October 1863, and had three daughters. His alcoholism destroyed the marriage and he died in distressed circumstances on 3 March 1879.


  • P. Bloomfield, Edward Gibbon Wakefield: builder of the British Commonwealth (1961)
  • R. Garnett, Edward Gibbon Wakefield: the colonisation of South Australia and New Zealand (1898)
  • A. J. Harrop, The amazing career of Edward Gibbon Wakefield (1928)
  • I. O'Connor, Edward Gibbon Wakefield: the man himself (1929)
  • M. F. Lloyd Prichard, ed., The collected works of Edward Gibbon Wakefield (1968)
  • Daily Telegraph (18 Aug 1862)
  • U. Macdonnell, ‘Gibbon Wakefield in Canada’, Bulletin of the Department of History and Political and Economic Science [Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario] (1925)
  • H. T. Manning, ‘E. G. Wakefield and the Beauharnois Canal’, Canadian Historical Review, 48 (1967), 1–25
  • J. Stevens, ed., The London journal of Edward Jerningham Wakefield, 1845–6 (1972)
  • priv. coll., Wakefield MSS
  • private information (2004)
  • E. Olssen, ‘Mr Wakefield and New Zealand as an experiment in post-Enlightenment experimental practice’, New Zealand Journal of History, 31 (1997), 197–218


  • Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, papers relating to T. B. Bond
  • BL, family corresp., Add. MS 35261
  • Canterbury Museum, official and personal corresp.
  • Christchurch Museum, Christchurch, New Zealand
  • Essex RO, legal corresp. and papers
  • Mitchell L., NSW, corresp. and papers
  • Wellington Public Library, New Zealand


Wealth at Death

under £500

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State Library of New South Wales, Mitchell Library, Sydney
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J. Burke, A general [later edns A genealogical] and heraldic dictionary of the peerage and baronetage of the United Kingdom [later edns the British empire] (1829–)
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Government Art Collection
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Essex Record Office
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private collection
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British Library, London
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National Library of New Zealand, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington
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National Portrait Gallery, London