William Fox, 1812-1893


New Zealand Company agent, artist, explorer, Premier 

A qualified lawyer, William Fox sailed to New Zealand on the George Fyffe with his wife Sarah, arriving in Wellington on 7 November 1842.

T67874FoxMrMM.jpgMr William Fox, The Nelson Provincial Museum, Tyree Collection 67874
Click image to enlarge

Fox intended to practice law, but he began working as editor of the New Zealand Gazette and Wellington Spectator. After the death of Arthur Wakefield at the Wairau, Fox became resident agent in Nelson. His role was to restore the demoralised settlers’ confidence after the Wairau Incident and ensure the economic viability of the colony.

On his arrival in Nelson in 1843, Fox set about organising the construction of Fort Arthur . Named after Arthur Wakefield, it enclosed all of Church Hill with a stockade, with trenches for musketry and some long 18 lb carronades.

On December 1, 1843, Fox sent Wakefield and the New Zealand Company  directors a report “giving a cursory account of proceeding of the agriculturalists” in which he described cultivation and farming developments on the Waimea Plain:

“A little further north-west is Mr Redwood, formerly a Staffordshire farmer. His attention has been chiefly turned to grazing and dairy pursuits. He supplies a considerable quantity of meat consumed in Nelson, both beef and mutton and sends between 40 and 50 pounds of butter to market weekly…(He) has built the best farm house of the settlement,” he wrote.

By mid-1844, the New Zealand Company was in dire financial straits and had suspended all operations. Unemployment was rife. Fox devised a scheme where the labourers were employed for half a week and cultivated unoccupied sections for the remainder of the time. Fox’s policies got the settlement through the crisis.

In 1848, William Fox produced his Report on the Settlement of Nelson in New Zealand in which he wrote about the 615 Maori living in the region in 1847: “ They are extremely peaceable and well inclined, and since the settlement of the Land Claims in 1844, have made great progress in agriculture and commerce….the proportion of cultivated land/head being nearly as great as the Europeans.”

fox2.jpgFox, William 1812-1893 :On the grass plain below Lake Arthur. 8th & 9th Feb. 1846, Alexander Turnbull Library, B-113-014 Click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge

In the same book he described the reasons why 669 people had left the Nelson settlement between 1843 and 1847: “First: an unsettled and roving habit impelling the immigrant…to go on further. Second: reports of high wages and other advantages in neighbouring settlements…Third: the want of employment and general distress which at one period existed in Nelson after the Company ceased to employ labour…Fifth: the panic caused by the Wairau Massacre.”

In September 1848, following the death of William Wakefield, Fox became principal agent for the Company in Wellington.  In reality, Fox was administering the Company’s demise.

Fox1.jpgHutchison, William 1820-1905 : The modern Don Quixote [cartoon of Fox having lost his Parliamentary seat]. The Wellington Advertiser supplement, 24 Dec. 1881. Alexander Turnbull Library, A-095-012
Click image to enlarge

In 1851, he returned to England to surrender the New Zealand Company’s charter, accounts and papers. He wrote a book, The Six Colonies of New Zealand in which he wrote: “Nelson owes its success entirely to itself; it has never participated in the immense sums of money expended at Auckland and Wellington, but has patiently dug its own maintenance out of the ground."

William and Sarah returned to Wellington in February 1854. He bought a property in the Rangitikei, entered national politics, was Premier four times and was knighted in 1879.

Sarah died in 1892 and William died a year later. Their marriage was childless, although in their 60s they adopted and educated a Maori child, Wiremu Pokiha Omahura - a story told in The Fox Boy by Peter Walker.



This article is paraphrased from a series of columns written by Joy Stephens and published in the Nelson Mail in 2007.

 Updated: April 09, 2020

Sources used in this story

  • Fox, W. (1849) Report on the settlement of Nelson in New Zealand. London : Smith, Elder and Co.
  • Fox, W, (1851) The Six Colonies of New Zealand. London : Parker. 
  • Fox, W. & Treveylan, J. (2000) Picturing Paradise: the colonial watercolours of William Fox from the collections of the Alexander Turnbull Library and the Hocken Library. [Wellington, N.Z.] : National Library of New Zealand
  • New Zealand Company correspondence (1841-1850), New Zealand Company Papers (1840-50) The Nelson Provincial Museum, qMS NEW (Bett Collection)
  • Walker, P. (2002) Fox boy. London : Bloomsbury  http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/59502860?referer=br&ht=edition

Want to find out more about the William Fox, 1812-1893 ? View Further Sources here.

Do you have a story about this subject? Find out how to add one here.

Comment on this story

Post your comment


  • You did not mention Fox,s participation in heading the land confiscations acts. This man changed the course of history for all maori in New Zealand so hence the reasons for the Waitangi Tribunal settlements today.

    Posted by Jocelyn Pattison, ()

RSS feed for comments on this page | RSS feed for all comments

Further sources - William Fox, 1812-1893



  • Bell, D (1991) Art and land in New Zealand New Zealand Journal of Geography,n.92:p.15-17
  • King, J (2000) Facing up to Fox : the Colonial watercolours of William Fox Art New Zealand, 95, p.84-87,99
  • Obituary (1843, June 24) New Zealand Herald
  • Oliver, A (1979) Sir William Fox : politician, reformer, artist Onslow Historian, 1979; v.9 n.2:p.2,7-11
  • Sotheran, C (1978) The later paintings of William Fox. Art New Zealand n.11:p.42-49


Available at the The Nelson Provincial Museum:

  • New Zealand Company correspondence (1841-1850), New Zealand Company Papers (1840-50)  qMS NEW (Bett Collection)
  • Halcombe, A. W. F. Letters from Sir William Fox. qMS. WTU

Web Resources