The Vogel era

Page 5 – Vogel's legacy

After the initial enthusiasm of the 1870s, Julius Vogel’s reputation suffered in the 1880s when New Zealand’s economy slumped into a long depression that was triggered by an international banking crisis. Political rivals condemned him as an ‘impudent adventurer’ whose reckless borrowing had fuelled an unsustainable boom, leading to an inevitable bust. But as prosperity returned in the 1890s and 1900s, and the Liberal government championed its own public works schemes, Vogel was again praised as a progressive visionary.

Nation building

During the 1870s railways and other technological innovations (like the electric telegraph and steamship) quickened the pace of life in New Zealand. Improved communications knitted communities closer together and encouraged centralisation and uniformity. The rail-building project launched by Vogel in 1870 was one of the New Zealand state’s most significant achievements – and one of its greatest financial commitments. Between 1870 and 1929 the government devoted half of all its public works spending to railways, an amount equivalent to total state spending on roads, telegraphs, public buildings, immigration, defence, lighthouses and harbour works.

Making history

Historians have generally been kind to Vogel. The Liberal politician and historian William Pember Reeves described him as ‘one of the short list of statesmen whose work has left a permanent mark on the Dominion’. To biographer Raewyn Dalziel, he was a ‘powerful and magnetic’ leader who ‘towered over his colleagues’ and established the political agenda of the late 19th century.

The 1870s was also a decade of dramatic demographic change. The government assisted 100,000 migrants to come to New Zealand, the great majority of them British and Irish. The colony’s European population soared from 256,000 in 1871 to 490,000 ten years later, dwarfing a Māori population of fewer than 50,000. (See Te Ara for more on the history of immigration.)

These migrants were among the chief beneficiaries of Vogel’s public works revolution. They settled in cities that were now profitably linked to their hinterlands, in the new towns that sprouted along the rail routes, and in newly accessible rural regions that were becoming part of the productive economy.

In other ways, though, Vogel’s legacy was less positive. Public works spending concentrated power in the hands of central government, and rail- and road-building decisions were often made for political gain rather than sound economic reasons. Railways and roads radically transformed much of the natural environment, facilitating forest clearance, flaxmilling, the drainage of swamps and a transition to pastoral farming.

The impact on Māori was massive. The railway lines that edged inland from the coast nibbled away at the edges of the Māori landed estate before slicing it up into more digestible chunks for the state and settlers to consume. It may have taken four decades, but the rail-building programme launched in 1870 eventually prised open the Māori heartland of the central North Island. Ultimately it was Vogel’s public works and immigration programme, rather than the wars of the 1860s, that cemented the colonial government’s authority over all of New Zealand.

How to cite this page

'Vogel's legacy', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 30-Apr-2018