William Eyes


The rise and fall of a colourful and controversial colonist

A cast of hardworking ‘alpha’ men dominated the early days of settlement in the Wairau.  And none was more keen to get to the top than William Henry Eyes.

Eyes Cyclopedia NZETC

William Eyes. Cyclopedia of New Zealand, 1906 NZETC

Eyes was born near Liverpool in 1819 and arrived in Sydney in 1839. On 18 July 1844 , Sydney’s Hawkesbury Courier and Agricultural and General Advertiser featured this story: "WILLIAM HENRY EYES, indicted for a rape, was found guilty of a common assault on one Rosina Thomas, a girl under ten years of age, and sentenced to be imprisoned for three years in Parramatta Gaol.1 He was pardoned after one year of the sentence and travelled to New Zealand with his cousin, the Revd C. L. Reay, arriving in Nelson on 9 August 1845.2"

Eyes was in Marlborough by 1852, when as manager of Richmond Brook, he wrote to Major Richmond: ‘….there is no keeping the Flaxbourne sheep away. During the time that I have had the charge of your flock, I have had to draft Clifford’s sheep eight times…”3 He built a mansion Netherfield (later named Blythfield) in New Renwick Road in the late 1850s.4

Eyes portrait

William Eyes. Alexander Turnbull Library. Wikimedia

By 1861, his daughter’s governess wrote to a cousin about Eyes, that he was handsome and a natty dresser with enormous yellow moustaches; but that he was ‘most bearish in his manners and conversation’. She wrote that he had arrived in New Zealand penniless, but was now one of the wealthiest settlers in the Province. “I cannot make out the number of his acres, but he has just shipped off the wool of 17,000 sheep…he has 12,000 acres freehold and rents several of the neighbouring runs.5

Political clash and clamour

A ‘roads and bridges’ candidate, Eyes contested the election for the General Assembly  in 1861, beating the popular Frederick Weld  by just four votes. He made capital out of the fact that Weld didn’t live in his constituency, was frequently absent from New Zealand and neglected local needs.6 He was to represent the Wairau for 10 years.7

Eyes was involved with the Marlborough Provincial Government for nearly its entire turbulent 17 years,8 with historian Alistair McIntosh suggesting that his whole career was marked by “extreme self-assertiveness, energy, shrewdness - and often unscrupulous behavior”. McIntosh went so far as to say that prior to Eyes becoming superintendent in November 1865, four administrations had unsuccessfully tried to govern the province and all had ultimately been wrecked by Eyes.9

Eyes Blenheim
Marlborough’s capital was established at Picton in 1859 where the town had been laid out in 1851. The Provincial Council buildings are on the right of this picture (with the jail in the centre). Picton Maritime and Heritage Museum

At the beginning of the Province’s history, there was fierce rivalry about where the seat of Government should be – Blenheim or Picton. The battle saw the mainly English pastoral landowners supporting Picton as the capital and the mainly Scottish settlers, who were townsmen and small farmers, supporting Blenheim. Eyes was the leader of the Blenheim party.10  Dr David Monro commented that the name of Picton was like a red rag to a bull for Eyes. It seemed that he and his party would do anything to harass their opponents and bring about the dissolution of Council.11

Eyes was also a thorn in the side of Marlborough’s first superintendent, William Adams  and was largely responsible for the 1861 Picton Railway Bill  being killed by the incoming William Fox.12  It was said he opposed the railway tooth and nail merely because it had emanated from the Picton party, although he and Arthur Seymour withdrew their opposition to the railway in 1876 when it was clear the Government would bear the cost.13

Eyes Blenheim Provincial buildings

The first Marlborough Provincial Council buildings, Blenheim, operating from 1865 until the provinces were abolished 1 November 1876. That day the building, along with much of the town centre, was destroyed in a fire. Alexander Turnbull Library.

In his first speech as Marlborough’s fifth superintendent, Eyes rebuked the extravagance of his predecessors saying that nearly £12,000 was overspent and announcing a vigorous policy of retrenchment with all public works to cease.14 Being a man of great executive ability, he instigated the Marlborough Waste Lands Act  in 1867, which assured an annual revenue of £3000 for the province.15

Eyes held his party together by his overpowering will and unceasing energy16  but his strong personality made him enemies and in 1870 he was voted out of the Provincial Council.17 Upon finding himself in a minority, his request to the Governor Sir George Ferguson Bowen, for the Council to be dissolved was agreed to on the condition that he resign if the election went against him. He lost a second time, but didn’t go quietly and he and his party devoted their attention to obstructing Council business for four days.18

Personal strife

Personal scandal again raised its head in 1873. On 13 January, a notice in the Marlborough Express signed by Eyes, claimed that his wife Eleanor had left their home with his children without his consent and that he was no longer responsible for her debts. Another notice dated two days later saw Mrs Eyes claiming he had ordered her out of his house and the children had freely gone with her.19

The plot thickened when Mrs Eyes filed for divorce in June on the grounds of his adultery. The detailed newspaper account told the story of Eyes conducting an affair with one Charlotte Johnston in Wellington, Picton and finally Blenheim, with Eyes apparently goading his wife by saying that ‘he would soon be walking arm in arm with her (Johnston) through Blenheim.’ The jury found in favour of Mrs Eyes that she had not condoned the affair and that Eyes had committed adultery.20

Eyes Marlborough Express

Page 3 Advertisements Column 4 (1873, January 25) Marlborough Express. Papers Past

Eyes sued a Mr G. Henderson in May of that year for libel, when Henderson published a statement in a resolution put to a public meeting, that a man such as Eyes, who held high colonial and provincial appointments, should not be able to carry on in such a flagrantly immoral way. Eyes claimed that this was  a  ‘false, malicious, scandalous and defamatory libel’.21

Life after politics, and death

In July 1873, Eyes resigned from the Executive Council and as Provincial Secretary.22 In October he filed for bankruptcy.23 The politician who threatened to turn Picton into ‘a deserted village’ throughout his political career 24 contested and lost the Picton seat in 1881.25

We next see Eyes at the end of 1901 when Premier Richard Seddon  visited Marlborough: “Quite a feature of Mr Seddon's meeting on Thursday evening was the presence on the stage of Mr William Henry Eyes, formerly Superintendent of Marlborough, and who at one time or another held nearly every public position in the place. To him is due the gratitude of Blenheim for having the seat of Government shifted back from Picton to Blenheim. Mr Eyes was specially invited to a place on the platform as some recognition of his many services to the district in the past.”26

Eyes died in April 1907 in a Wellington boarding house where he had lived for about 12 months. He was survived by six of his eight children. While noting his achievements, Eyes’ obituary noted that ‘early he showed the political fight that was in him and afterwards made such clash and clamour in the halls of Provincial legislation’.27

2017. Updated October 2020

Sources used in this story

  1. Sydney, Supreme Court (1844, July 18) Hawkesbury Courier and Agricultural and General Advertiser (Windsor, NSW : 1844 - 1846)
  2. William Henry Eyes on Wikipedia.
  3. Kennington, A.L. (2007). The Awatere: a district and its people. Christchurch, N.Z.  Cadsonbury Publications,Kennington p. 106
  4. Death of Mr W. H. Eyes (1907, April 13) Marlborough Express
  5. McIntosh, A. D. (1977). Marlborough: a provincial history. Christchurch, N.Z. : Capper Press, McIntosh, p. 211
  6. McIntosh, p. 211
  7. Death of W.H. Eyes
  8. Berry, K. (1986). Scrutiny on the county. Blenheim, N.Z.: Marlborough County Council, p 17
  9. McIntosh, p. 251
  10. McIntosh p. 208
  11. Buick, T.L. (1900). Old Marlborough or the story of a province. Christchurch, N.Z.: Capper Press, p 412
  12. Stephens, J (2017) William Adams on the Prow
  13. Death of W.H. Eyes
  14. Buick, p. 461-2
  15. Death of W.H. Eyes
  16. Buick, p. 463
  17. Death of W.H. Eyes
  18. Buick, p. 466-468
  19. Page 3 Advertisements Column 4 (1873, January 25)  Marlborough Express
  20. Marlborough Divorce Case (1873, June 21) West Coast Times 
  21. Supreme Court. Tuesday, April 29. (1873, May 7) Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle
  22. Page 2 Advertisements Column 2 (1873, July 23) Marlborough Express
  23. Page 3 Advertisements Column 3 (1873, October 4) Wellington Independent
  24. McIntosh, p. 212
  25. Buick, p. 475
  26. News and Notes. (1901, December 16) Marlborough Express
  27. Death of W.H. Eyes

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