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Edward Jerningham Wakefield

Edward Jerningham Wakefield
Edward Jerningham Wakefield

Edward Jerningham Wakefield, born in 1820, was the only son of New Zealand Company founder Edward Gibbon Wakefield. The young Wakefield’s life was inevitably bound up in his father’s colonial and political ventures.

He acted as clerk and secretary, travelling with his father to Canada in 1838, and then with his uncle Colonel William Wakefield to New Zealand, where he arrived on the Tory in August 1839. As agent and explorer for the New Zealand Company, he was responsible for its land purchasing activities in Whanganui in 1840.

In 1844, after being rebuked by Governor Robert FitzRoy for his dealings in Whanganui, Wakefield returned to London, where he continued working for the New Zealand Company and the Canterbury Association. In 1845 he wrote Adventure in New Zealand, a lively piece of New Zealand Company propaganda in which he recalled his explorations and the establishment of the first settlements at Wellington, Whanganui and New Plymouth. The restless Wakefield returned to New Zealand with the Canterbury settlers on the Lady Nugent in 1850.

Elected to the House of Representatives for Christchurch Country in 1853, he held the seat until 1855. He persisted in standing for the House, but suffered defeats in 1855, 1858 and 1861 before succeeding in Christchurch City East in 1871. Wakefield was marked throughout his life, and beyond it, by a damning reputation for flawed and wasted brilliance. Most commentators, including his own father, have dismissed him as a wastrel and a failure – talented and intelligent, but reckless, weak-willed, contentious, promiscuous and generally unstable.

The most acclaimed and most enduring achievements of his life came in his early 20s, when he lived and then wrote Adventure. His later life was clouded by alcoholism and disgrace, and he died in obscurity in the Ashburton Old Men’s Home in 1879.

Adapted by Matthew Tonks from the DNZB biography by Ronda Cooper

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Edward Jerningham Wakefield, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated