Richard John Seddon: the man and legend

It would be an unobservant traveller who drove along the main street of Hokitika and didn’t notice the statue of the bearded man in a long coat, erected high on a pedestal in front of the West Coast town’s landmark building, known as Seddon House. Richard John Seddon (1845-1906) was not only New Zealand’s longest serving premier, but probably brought in more reforms for the good of the people than any leader since. He was born in Lancashire and at the early age of 18, broke loose from the old world and headed first for the gold fields of Victoria then the diggings near Kumara on New Zealand’s West Coast. He may have struck pay dirt, for in Kumara he later set up shop and established a hotel. Neither of them flourished. Instead, he made a name for himself as a fist fighter, an athlete and a lay advocate for miners. With his wife Louisa and their 11 children, Richard lived in Kumara for the next 20 years, where his ambitions turned to the stormy theatre of politics. In 1877, he was elected the first mayor of the town. Politics suited his forceful temperament and his ideologies fitted the times. In 1893, he became premier of New Zealand. Among his many reforms, he introduced the age pension and free secondary education. He also sought acquisition of the New Territories in the Pacific and for these moves he was dubbed ‘King Dick, Lord of the Isles’. Today, in the very worthwhile Hokitika Museum, you may be lucky enough to come across a local man called David Verall, who is such a disciple of Richard, he says he sometimes feels he channels him. “I came to admire the man tremendously. He was a verbose, indomitable liberal who had strong faith in the virtues of the common man. I love his sense of spirit, the way he broke away from the constraints of class and parish. He loved horses, drank and ate without moderation, was astute without being subtle and had all the persistence of a toothache. All up and amazing man.” Bring him to mind as you drive through Kumara and Hokitika, particularly next year (2016), when the 150th anniversary of his arrival in New Zealand will be taking over the towns. Jill Malcolm is a former editor of Motorhomes Caravans & Destinations and author of the Great Kiwi Motorhome Guide.
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