Edward Gibbon Wakefield – Statesman or Scoundrel?

‘Edward Gibbon Wakefield- Statesman or Scoundrel?’ by Lynette Morrissey MA

The son of a farmer and land agent, Edward Gibbon Wakefield was born in 1796 in London.

Although he had a less than illustrious education, being withdrawn or removed from a number of schools, Edward entered the diplomatic service in 1814 at the age of 18, and travelled extensively in Europe.

Within two years, he had fallen in love and eloped with Eliza Pattle, a 16-year old heiress and ward of chancery. Following their marriage, Edward’s charm manifested itself when he persuaded the Lord Chancellor to consent to the union, placated his mother-in-law, and achieved one of the most generous chancery settlements ever made to a ward’s husband! Edward and Eliza had two children – Susan Priscilla born in 1817 and Edward Jerningham born in 1820. Sadly, Eliza died just after the birth of Jerningham and the children were brought up by her sister, Catherine.

Although now foot-loose, fancy-free and wealthy, Edward longed to buy an estate and to enter Parliament, but he needed more capital. Plans to marry another wealthy heiress apparently came to nought but, undeterred, Edward, aided and abetted by his brother William and step-mother Frances, hatched an elaborate plot to abduct a girl he had never met – Ellen Turner – the 15-year old, Blackburn-born daughter of William Turner, a wealthy calico printer and High Sheriff of Cheshire.

Early on the morning of 7 March 1826, Edward and William arranged for a carriage to be driven to Ellen’s boarding school in Liverpool, and for a doctor’s letter to be presented to the headmistress, Miss Daulby, implying that Ellen’s mother was dangerously ill and wanted her daughter to return home immediately. Ellen was taken to a hotel in Manchester where Edward Gibbon Wakefield advised her that the real reason for her removal from school was because her father was in serious financial difficulty and desired to see her immediately.

Ellen, Edward and William then journeyed through the night via Huddersfield to Kendal. By this time, understandably Ellen was becoming most anxious and Edward had to deploy his persuasive personality once more to convince her that he, supported by the family solicitor, was the only one who could save the Turner family from financial ruin. The proposal was that her father’s property be transferred to her and she would marry Edward so that the estate would then belong to her husband and be ‘saved’ for the family.

Ellen allowed herself to be taken to Carlisle, expecting to meet with her father but once there, Edward produced a ‘message’ from her father, imploring her to proceed immediately with the marriage in order that the whole family would not be ruined.

Ellen hesitated no longer and went to Gretna Green where the marriage ceremony was performed in the time-honoured way by the blacksmith. Despite being informed that her father had returned home to Cheshire and they were to follow him, the subterfuge continued, with Edward taking Ellen to Leeds where he suddenly recalled a pressing appointment in Paris. He pretended to send his brother to Cheshire to advise Ellen’s father to meet them in London. Of course, when Ellen and Edward arrived in London, there was another ‘message’ that her father had proceeded to France!

Meanwhile, back in Cheshire, the family remained unaware of the abduction for several days until alerted by Ellen’s headmistress. Then they sprang into action. Ellen was traced to Manchester and Huddersfield, but the trail went cold until they received a letter from Edward in Carlisle, in which he informed them he had married their daughter. He had hoped that the potential for scandal would deter the Turner family from taking action against him but he had under-estimated Ellen’s father who immediately sought the assistance of the Metropolitan Police. Their enquiries revealed that the couple were in France. This was confirmed when Ellen’s mother received another letter from Edward in Calais.

Ellen’s paternal uncle, the family solicitor and a police officer, set sail for Calais and immediately upon landing saw Ellen and Edward walking on the pier. Ellen was overjoyed, but Edward, as resourceful as ever, appealed to the Mayor of Calais to prevent the family forcibly removing Ellen from her lawful husband. Ellen, however, told the Mayor of the trickery that had resulted in her being compelled to marry Edward. Realising that his plans were in total disarray Edward did the honourable thing and handed Ellen over to her uncle, stating “…you receive her at my hands as a pure and spotless virgin” – a fact he immediately confirmed in writing. Ellen and her uncle returned to England, but Edward set forth for Paris.

William returned to England and was promptly arrested at Dover. Edward then decided it was his duty to return to England and to stand trial with his brother and stepmother who had been made a party to the indictment.

At the Assizes on 23 March 1827, Edward, William, and their stepmother Frances Wakefield, were brought to trial at Lancaster Castle, the indictment being “having at Liverpool feloniously carried away one Ellen Turner, spinster, then a maid and heir-apparent unto her father, William Turner Esq, for the sake of the lucre of her substance; and for having afterwards unlawfully and against her will married the said Ellen Turner”.

Lancaster Castle was packed and, at the end of the proceedings, the jury returned guilty verdicts against all three defendants.

The Court of the King’s Bench at Westminster proceeded to sentence on 14 May 1827. In his plea of mitigation, Edward pointed out that the legal proceedings had already placed a heavy financial burden on him and any further fine would be equivalent to a sentence of life imprisonment as he would never be able to pay. In those days, the law was such that people remained in prison until all fines were paid.

Mr Justice Bayley imprisoned each of the Wakefield brothers for a term of three years. Edward Gibbon Wakefield was directed to serve his term in Newgate and William in Lancaster Castle. Although a guilty verdict had also been returned against Mrs Frances Wakefield, the Turner family extended mercy to her and, consequently, no sentence was imposed.

The following day, the House of Lords granted a Bill to annul the unconsummated marriage between Ellen Turner and Edward Gibbon Wakefield. Two years later, Ellen married Thomas Legh of Lyme Park in Cheshire. Sadly, Ellen died in childbirth, aged only 19 years. Her father, William Turner, was elected one of the first Members of Parliament for Blackburn in 1832.

Edward Gibbon Wakefield, on the other hand, went on to become the driving force behind much of the early colonisation of parts of Canada, South Australia and New Zealand.

Colonisation Theories

During his incarceration in Newgate, Edward read widely and developed theories on colonisation which ran counter to the highly-respected views of people such as Jeremy Bentham and Adam Smith. Nonetheless, these theories had gained support following their anonymous publication whilst he was in prison. However, Edward’s reputation was so severely dented that, although he still wanted to enter Parliament, he realised he would have to rely on his persuasive personality to progress his idea that land in the colonies should be sold to capitalists who would provide work for Britain’s surplus labourers and artisans, thereby solving two social problems – overcrowding and unemployment.


His first attempts came in 1831 when he was instrumental in persuading the Colonial Office to abolish free land grants in New South Wales. He was also involved in various schemes to colonise South Australia – today his contribution is marked by the streets and rivers named in his honour.


In 1838, a suppressed revolution in Lower Quebec resulted in Edward travelling secretly to Canada to act as an unofficial adviser to the British Government’s envoy, Lord Durham, who had been appointed to bring about the successful unification of Lower and Upper Canada. Edward’s sullied reputation meant that the British Government would not agree to Durham’s request that Edward be appointed Commissioner of Crown Lands. When Durham became ill, the success of the mission was due largely to the skill of Edward and his associate Charles Buller who conducted the delicate negotiations in Durham’s absence. Durham’s subsequent report became a blueprint for the development of British Colonial policy.

New Zealand

By March 1839 Edward had become a director of the New Zealand Company and set up an expedition, led by his brother William, and his son, Jerningham. By the end of that year, eight more ships had sailed to New Zealand.

By 1844, the New Zealand Company was under serious attack from the Colonial Office following the Wairau Affray in which Edward’s brother Arthur was killed. Allegations abounded that the unreasonable behaviour of the settlers amounted to unjust provocation of the indigenous Maori. Edward joined the struggle to bolster the Company’s reputation but following a stroke later that year, he had to withdraw to France to recuperate.

By 1846, he was back in the swing of things, putting forward a radical plan for a self-governing New Zealand. When Edward suffered yet another stroke that year, Charles Buller took over the negotiations and, in May 1847, the New Zealand Company accepted the British Government’s offer to take over the debts of the company and buy out their interests in the colony. Although displeased, Edward was powerless to do anything about this turn of events.

Undeterred, he became involved in a scheme, sponsored by the Church of England and supported by Members of Parliament and English peers, to promote a new settlement which was to become known as Canterbury. The capital city of the 15,000-strong colony would have a cathedral, a bishop, clergy and schoolmasters, and would be built on land purchased from the New Zealand Company. It would be known as Christchurch.

Edward continued to strive for self-government for New Zealand and was consulted on the drafting of the 1852 Constitution Act. New Zealanders were generally happy about this, but they were not too pleased to learn that the they were to be landed with the remaining debts of the New Zealand Company – a factor which was to come back to haunt Edward.

Edward now decided it was time to see his colony and set sail from Plymouth in September 1852. On arrival in 1853, Edward expected the red carpet to be rolled out to welcome him as the founding father of the colony but there was disenchantment in the air, particularly because of the financial implications of the Constitution Act.

It was not long before Edward became disillusioned with Canterbury and decided to move on to Wellington. Having had his offer to assist in the implementation of the New Zealand Constitution Act rejected, within a matter of weeks he was spearheading attacks on the Governor, disagreeing with his policy on land sales.

Elections for the provincial and national parliaments took place in August 1853 and Edward was elected to both assemblies. Although in opposition, he employed his political skills to good effect and earned much kudos by securing the principle of ministerial responsibility but, having achieved the constitutional victory, he began attacking the position of the ministers, perhaps hoping that he could strengthen his own position.

At the “Founder’s Festival” in Wellington in 1854, the principal toast of the evening was to “The original founders of the Colony and Mr Edward Gibbon Wakefield”. This must have given Edward hope that he would be asked to take on a leading role in the first General Assembly of New Zealand in 1855. But his hopes were dashed once more and, in December 1855, Edward fell ill with rheumatic fever and retired from political life. He lived another seven years, dying in Wellington on 16 May 1862.

So, how can you sum up a character such as Edward Gibbon Wakefield? Charming, mesmeric, ambitious, determined, persuasive, visionary, statesman, skilled negotiator, radical-thinker OR obstinate, wilful, manipulative, unprincipled, unscrupulous, rogue, scoundrel, opportunist – these are just some of the words which history has used to describe him. What is certain, however, is that his influence on the history and development of Australia and New Zealand still prevails today.

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