First Railways Minister the son of a saw-miller

New Zealand’s first Minister of Railways was Alfred Cadman, appointed in 1895 by Liberal Party Prime Minister, Richard (King Dick) Seddon.

The New Zealand Dictionary of Biography records that Cadman was born in Sydney in 1847, the son of a saw-miller and his wife who came to New Zealand in 1848. The family settled first in Auckland but then moved to the Coromandel goldfields where Alfred’s father Jerome became a builder.

His father’s election to Auckland local authorities including the Auckland Provincial Council, introduced the young Alfred to public life.

Schooling was followed by a spell as a volunteer during the Maori Wars of the 1860s and a carpentry apprentice. By the time Alfred Cadman was elected to Parliament a representative of the Coromandel seat in 1881, he was a successful businessman.

“His business interests and local body activities had enabled him to develop a network of contacts among the numerous and often isolated townships and rural districts of his electorates,” writes Graham Butterworth in the Dictionary of Biography. “He had, therefore, much in common with the country Liberals' emphasis on building roads and bridges and facilitating closer land settlement.” Soon after the Liberals won office in 1890, Cadman was appointed Native Minister. He oversaw the dismantling of the Native Department and the incorporation of its functions within the Department of Lands and Survey. His views and policies brought him into conflict with Auckland lawyer William Rees and James Carroll, a man whose main aim in Parliament was to empower Māori and secure a role for them in the economic life of the country.

Cadman was briefly out of Parliament after resigning his seat when he became embroiled in a libel suit with Rees. When he returned in 1893, he refused the Native Affairs portfolio but accepted the role as Justice and Mines Ministers.

In 1893, he was appointed Minister of Railways when the Government took back railway management from commissioners.

“The Liberal cabinet could now better co-ordinate its policies of land settlement, public works and employment,” wrote Graham Butterworth, in the Dictionary of Biography.

“The railways were seen as agents of settlement because of their ability to transport farm and other goods conveniently and cheaply, and to supply new settlers on small-holdings.

“Cadman's task was to develop these policies as economically as possible. He had also to introduce a replacement policy for locomotives and to arrange for the carrying out of neglected maintenance work.

“By 1899 he was able to point to major achievements. He had raised the return on investment, increased the number of miles of railway in operation, and overseen a rise in revenue. “Tonnage had increased substantially and various tariff concessions had been made, the most important being the free cartage of lime for farmers.”

Ill health forced Cadman’s retirement in 1899. He was subsequently appointed to the Legislative Council and was knighted in 1903.

He died at Auckland on 23 March 1905.