Thursday, November 30, 2017


[By Annalist.]
William Montgomery, 1821-1914. 

William Montgomery came of an old Scotch family which settled in Northern Ireland about 1620. He was born in London in 1821, the son of Josias Montgomery, who four years later was killed in the hunting field. He was then brought up by his uncle, William, the head of the family, who held a homestead near Boltmaconnel, not far from Belfast. He received his education at the Royal Academical Institution in Belfast, where another uncle, Dr. Henry Montgomery, an eminent Unitarian divine, a man of character and stability and a militant Liberal, was English master.

The uncle William wished to make the boy his heir; but the boy's disposition was adventurous, and he was determined to go to sea. He was therefore apprenticed at the age of thirteen as a sailor before the mast, at the wage of £4 a year. In those days there was keen competition among shipping firms in the carriage of Mediterranean produce to England. Steamers had not come into use, and the ships engaged in this trade were often held up for days by contrary winds at the Straits of Gibraltar. Though only thirteen when he went to sea, young Montgomery soon showed marked ability. He became third mate and devoted his spare time to tho study of navigation and astronomy, for which he had distinct aptitude. When he was only seventeen, an opportunity occurred which brought him a command of his own. The.captain being habitually drunk and the first mate ignorant of navigation, Montgomery successfully navigated the vessel from the Mediterranean to London. The owners promptly made him captain over a crew of twenty-one - the youngest captain in the service. After running this ship for some years he bought it, and he afterwards had a new vessel built.

Even as early as this Montgomery had some idea of emigrating to the colonies. At one time he was on the point of joining a band of young men who Were going to settle in Chili; but after reading in 1847 Dr. Dunmore Lang's book, "Australia Felix," he decided to go in that direction.

Landing in Melbourne in 1851, he found the gold fever raging in New South Wales, where alluvial fields of fabulous wealth had been opened up. Port Philip was crowded with ships deserted by their crews. The young colonist invested some of his savings in the purchase of an acre of land at the corner of Swanson and Bourke streets; but this did hot prevent diggers from pitching their tents on it and refusing to be ejected. The growth of Melbourne into a big city seemed so remote a prospect that he soon sold his town section and bought land outside. This is now owned by the Clark family, while the town section is close to Menzies' Hotel.

The Victorian Government set up a Commission of four, of whom Montgomery was one, to search for gold in Victoria. They located "colour" some miles up the Yarra river. Unable to agree who should dig the first gold, they raced for it. A fine athlete and long jumper, Montgomery won, and proudly washed a few specks out of the first dish of dirt. He afterwards visited Ballarat, Forest Creek. Friar's Creek, and other fields, and altogether acquired sufficient money to purchase a station on the Darling Downs. Here he worked hard for some years until, in common with many others, he was ruined by a severe drought. This decided him to leave Australia for a more kindly Climate, and he crossed over to New Zealand in 1860.

Coming to Canterbury, he went into business as a timber merchant, prospered moderately, and Was soon able to devote some of his ripe experience and commonsenae to the affairs of the community. His first appearance in public life was in 1864, as a member of the Heathcote Road Board, the first of these bodies in Canterbury. For several years he Served on the road boards, the principal agents of local government in the province, and for some part of the time he was chairman. This apprenticeship to public service led naturally to his election in July, 1866, as member of the Provincial Council for Heathcote, an before the year Was out he Was appointed a member of the Executive. In 1867 he Was for a short time Deputy Superintendent. In March, 1868, he Was again in the Executive as Provincial Treasurer, an office Which he held until May, 1869, for more than a year under the Superintendency of Rolleston. When the Council was dissolved early in 1870, he retired for the time being to devote his attention more closely to his own affairs. In September, 1873, he again stood and Was returned as member for Heathcote, Which he Continued to represent until the provinces were abolished two years later. During this period he was in the Executive from January, 1874, to April, 1875, most of the time as president.

At the General Election in 1874 he had the distinction of defeating Stafford for the Heathcote seat While Montgomery was a member the Council abolished school fees and set up school districts, in which committees were elected by the householders. The Education Ordinance of 1870 was a carefully-thought-out measure providing for non-sectarian education as the considered policy of the Superintendent and the Executive. At the last moment of the election campaign, early in 1874, the denominationalists persuaded Stafford, who had recently come to live in the district, to allow himself to be nominated as a candidate. though Stafford had been Superintendent of Nelson in the early days he had never been a member or any provincial council; but he felt so strongly on this subject that he agreed to stand pledged to do all he could to have the ordinance amended. At a great meeting in the Colombo road School at which Montgomery and Sir Cracroft Wilson also spoke, Stafford appeared, supported by Sir David Monro (late Speaker of the House and his old antagonist in Nelson). The speech made by Stafford on that occasion was one of the best in his distinguished career; but he could not shake the determination of the electors of Heathcote. The Provincial Government had nailed its colours to the mist, and it was triumphantly successful. Montgomery gained 483 votes, Fisher 315, and Wilson 230. Stafford was at the bottom of the poll with 163.

A fortnight later Montgomery was returned as member for Akaroa in the House of Representatives, defeating Pilliet by 168 votes to 76. In the House he at once stepped into a prominent position, his clear thinking and obvious unselfishness gaining him the respect of both sides. A Liberal bv conviction, he was, in the words of Saunders, "the most consistent, the most unselfish, clear-headed, clean-handed member of the Party then supporting Sir George Grey. Grey offered him the position of Colonial Treasurer in 1877; but he refused to accept as Grey could not give him a definite assurance that the Canterbury Land Fund would not be absorbed in the Colonial revenue. Nevertheless he continued to support Grey; and on the Premiers Visit to Christchurch he moved a vote of unbounded confidence at a meeting which was by no means uncritical of the Government's policy.

At the election in 1881 he was returned unopposed for Akaroa. Ballance defeated, he Was elected to Leadership of the Liberal Prty, and was freely discussed as a future Liberal Premier. Montgomery sought nothing for himself. "Always too ready to efface himself," said a biographer when he died, "and to give others the honour that the work might be done, history will never record the country's incalculable debt to this true patriot and simple Christian gentleman." At the elections of 1884 when he defeated Anson for Akaroa, fifteen members of the new Parliament had declared themselves in favour of his leadership. In that year, he had once more given evidence of his utter unselfishness. In August, Vogel had submitted the names of a new Cabinet, including Montgomery, as Minister for Education and Colonial Secretary. They duly took office, but within a fortnight were defeated through the discontent of the Auckland members with the preponderance of South Islanders in the Cabinet. As it was obvious that he could regain the Treasury benches by trimming to suit this breeze, Vogel accepted the self-sacrifice of Montgomery, "the most unselfish, the most honourable, and the most patriotic." His retirement enabled the Stout-Vogel combination to return to power with a due representation of Auckland in the Cabinet. "Such self-sacrfice and self-abnegation will never be forgotten by me," remarked Stout in the House. Montgomery cheerfully remained a private member throughout the Parliament, and retired at the end of 1887 because of ill-health, and in order to pay a visit to England.

Before entering Parliament he had done noteworthy service on local bodies. Besides the Road Board he had been a member of the Canterbury Board of Education from 1866 to 1875, and was chairman from 1867. He was associated with Tancred, Rolleston, Habens and the Hon. W. C. Walker in the successful working of the Canterbury system. Later, on the introduction of the present system of education, Montgomery was a member ot ihe Education Board from 1876 to 1885, and was again for some time chairman. From 1873 to 1903 he was a member of the Board of of Canterbury College, and for ten years of that period he was chairman. During his chairmanship many college buildings were erected, and also the buildings of other institutions under the control of the Board, such as the Museum, the Boys' High School, the School of Art, and the Public Library. Like other prominent Canterbury educationists, he was strongly opposed to the Bible in schools. "The Bible is one of the grandest of books to study," he said. "It contains the history of the human race in its various phases.It contains the greatest consolation for men, whether in health or in sickness. But let it not be introduced to destroy a system of education which is a credit to the Colony."

In 1892 the Liberal Government appointed him to the Legislative Council, one of the earliest appointments under the new seven-year system. His term was renewed in 1899 and in 1906, and when he resigned in 1907 he was granted the title of Honourable for life. He was frequently consulted by both Ballance and Seddon and was for two years (1893-1895) a member of the Executive without portfolio. "An orderly and methodical rather than a forceful speaker, he rarely if ever indulged in harsh language even under strong provocation, remarks Saunders. Having supported manhood suffrage and even women's suffrage as long ago as 1879, he voted with the Liberal party on all such questions.

After his retirement the Honourable William Montgomery lived quietly at Little River until his death on December 21st, 1914.

Press, Volume LXVI, Issue 19866, 1 March 1930

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