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Governors and Governors-General

Page 4 – Genes, gender and age


Sir Paul Reeves

Sir Paul Reeves

From 1840 until 1972, New Zealand's governors and governors-general were British. But British covers a mix of races, and in the case of the governors (1840–1917), there was a strong Celtic bias to their genetic make-up. Of the 16 governors appointed from Hobson in 1840 to Liverpool in 1912, five (Hobson, Bowen, Robinson, Ranfurly and Plunket) were Irishmen, three (Sir James Fergusson, Gordon and Glasgow) were Scots and eight (FitzRoy, Grey, Gore Browne, Normanby, Jervois, Onslow, Islington and Liverpool) were English; the Scots and Irish won 50% of the appointments even though they made up only 23% of the United Kingdom population in 1901.

The Celtic influence diminished in the 10 governors-general appointed from Lord Jellicoe in 1920 to Sir Arthur Porritt in 1967. Lord Galway was the sole Irishman, and Sir Charles and Sir Bernard Fergusson were the only Scots; Jellicoe, Bledisloe, Newall, Freyberg, Norrie, Cobham and the Whanganui-born Porritt were all Englishmen.

The Fergusson 'family racket'

Sir Bernard Fergusson (1962–7) joked that governing New Zealand was 'the family racket'. His grandfather, Sir James, was governor in 1873–4. His father, Sir Charles, was governor-general between 1924 and 1930. Sir Bernard's mother, Alice, also had viceregal connections, living at Government House when her father, Lord Glasgow, was governor from 1892 to 1896. The Fergusson–New Zealand link was renewed in 2006 when George (Geordie) Fergusson, Sir Bernard's son, became British High Commissioner to New Zealand.

New Zealand residents have held the post since 1972. Sir Paul Reeves was of Māori and English descent. Anand Satyanand (2006), born in Auckland, was of Indian descent, making him the first governor-general of Asian ethnicity. He was also the first non-titled occupant of Government House in 150 years and the first Roman Catholic to hold the position.

Girls can do anything!

From the 1980s Labour governments used the governor-generalship to emphasise New Zealand's growing racial and cultural diversity. In 1985 it appointed Sir Paul Reeves. In 1990 Dame Catherine Tizard became the first female governor-general. Some conservative members of all-male private clubs expressed concern, but she found that gender was not a major issue or bar to her exercising her viceregal duties. 'One man objected to the appointment because I was a woman – he didn't seem to remember who it is that is the GG's boss,' she joked in 1990, referring to the Queen. In 2000, when Labour next chose a governor-general, it appointed another woman, judge Dame Silvia Cartwright. National appointed Dame Patsy Reddy in 2016 and Labour chose Dame Cindy Kiro in 2021.

Youngest and oldest

George Grey (1845–53 and 1861–8) was New Zealand's youngest governor, a youthful 33 when he arrived here for the first time. The others who were under 40 were Robert FitzRoy (1843–5) and Lord Onslow (1889–92).

Sir Keith Holyoake (1977–80) was the oldest governor-general, and he was appointed for a three-year term on account of his age (73) and health. He suffered minor strokes and a heart attack and used a walking stick in private. His travel was broken into short trips, and staff made provision for the 'discreet movement of Their Excellencies by vehicle as close as possible to their rooms' if their suites were more than 50 metres away from a hotel’s main entrance.


In the early days, when travel was arduous – by sailing ship, canoe, foot or on horseback – governing was a young man's job. Hobson, who died in office, was 47; FitzRoy was 38 and Grey 33 when given the job.

The professional governors from 1855 to 1889 were somewhat older; this is not surprising, given the time it took them to work their way up to a 'great government' such as New Zealand. They ranged in age from Sir James Fergusson, 41, to Sir William Jervois, 62. On average the six men sent out here during this period were 52 years old on appointment.

The aristocratic governors were relatively young, ranging in age from 36-year-old Onslow to 59-year-old Glasgow, with an average age of 45 on first appointment. The governors-general, mainly retired warriors, who served from Lord Jellicoe (1920–24) to Sir Arthur Porritt (1967–72) were considerably older, with an average age of 57 when given the job.

New Zealanders appointed to Government House between 1972 and 2001 were, on average, slightly older than their British predecessors, having an average age of 61 on appointment.

How to cite this page

Genes, gender and age, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated