Governors and Governors-General

Page 3 – Career paths

The British

As the job evolved over time, so did the type of person needed to govern successfully.

Between 1840 and 1853, when governors ruled personally, they were junior navy or army officers. From the mid-1850s, when colonial politicians made most of the decisions, the Colonial Office sent out senior military officers or career governors with diplomatic or political experience.

Their viceregal career paths had these men hopping from post to post around the Empire. A typical governor began with a small Crown colony, often in the West Indies or the Ionian Islands. If he performed well, and his health held out, he worked his way up to the 'first-class colonies' or 'great governments' as Canada, South Africa and the Australasian self-governing colonies were known.

Before 1901 Australia was a set of separate colonies. For ambitious governors, New Zealand was merely part of a trans-Tasman circuit. It ranked ahead of South Australia, Queensland, Western Australia or Tasmania but behind New South Wales and Victoria in prestige (and therefore salary and pension rights).

Promotions led to several governors crossing the Tasman and to New Zealand and Australia sharing similar place names honouring the same man. Sir Charles Bowen governed New Zealand from 1868 to 1873, after governing Queensland from 1859 to 1867. From Wellington he went to Melbourne as governor of Victoria in 1873.

Another change occurred in the late 1880s and early 1890s when a new type of single-term aristocratic governor took over from the career professionals in the big self-governing colonies and dominions. These higher-status ceremonial figureheads were usually in the role for one term only, and they generally returned to Britain and never governed again. Sir Willoughby Norrie (1952–7) was an exception: he had been governor of South Australia since 1944.

The New Zealanders

Most Governors-General who are New Zealanders have come from a legal background. The only exceptions were Sir Keith Holyoake (1977–80, a politician), Sir Paul Reeves (1985–90, Anglican primate) and Dame Catherine Tizard (1990–6, former mayor of Auckland).

They are big-city people. Only Holyoake (Pahiatua) was not a Wellington or Auckland resident. Sir David Beattie was born in Sydney, but moved to New Zealand when very young. And they are North Islanders. Dame Silvia Cartwright was living in Wellington when appointed, but is the only South Island-born Governor-General.

How to cite this page

'Career paths', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 14-Jul-2014