Sir Julius Vogel – the ‘father of New Zealand railways’

Sir Julius Vogel, the man regarded as the “father of railways in New Zealand” was convinced about the value of railways long before his role as Colonial Treasurer and Premier gave him the opportunity to put his views into practice.

Vogel was born in 1835. He grew up within a wealthy London-Jewish family at a time when railways were revolutionizing travel in Britain. After an education at London University College and the Royal School of Mines, he set out for the Victorian goldfields in Australia.

But he forsook assaying – valuing gold – for journalism. As editor of the Maryborough and Dunolly Advertiser in 1860, he described the railway as: “the mighty lever of civilization – the reducer, almost the destroyer of distance.”

When economic conditions worsened in Victoria, he moved to Otago in 1861. He founded and edited the Otago Daily Times before gaining a seat on the Otago Provincial Council.

In newspaper editorials, he argued that railways had as much relevance to a young and undeveloped country as they did to mature countries like Britain. “It is for young and undeveloped countries to look to the railroad system as the most powerful agency in their advancement,” he wrote.

To emphasis his point he reproduced the words of British railway promoter Henry Pease: “Let the country but make the railroads and the railroads will make the country.” His approach was based on borrowing the money to create railways and roads and then paying it back from the proceeds of land sales.

Vogel made his early reputation in politics as a supporter of the provincial system of government. It had been the provinces – particularly in the South Island - that had been the early railway builders. But once he’d made the transition to national politics, first as Colonial Treasurer in 1869 and then as Premier from 1873, his views began to change.

The Maori Wars in the North Island that had created a gulf between north and south, were largely over. Vogel believed that public works and increased immigration were critical to the colony’s economic development – and if these goals were to be pursued effectively, it had to be at a national rather than provincial level.

His about turn from being provincial government defender to architect of the abolition of the provinces is regarded by some as his most enduring political legacy.

He also saw public works and immigration as a means of healing some of the wounds that been inflicted by the Maori Wars.

His vision was the creation of a “main trunk” railway linking major centres throughout the colony and in the case of the North Island, opening up land to settlement.

Vogel is regarded as New Zealand’s first “think big” politician. He envisaged something like ten million pounds being borrowed over 10 years to fund a railway network.

The six million pounds proposed to be borrowed for public works in his first budget astounded fellow politicians and created unease about the colony’s capacity to service such debt. But there is little doubt that Vogel’s energy and vision laid the foundation of today’s railway network.

Not the least of his achievements was his influence on financial markets in London where loans had to be raised. Vogel’s advocacy for New Zealand on trips to Britain as Premier and as Agent General from 1976, helped secure the necessary funding from sceptical investors.

In 1870, New Zealand had just 74 km of railway. Ten years later, the network was nearing 2,000 km. But the world economic downturn in the early 1880s that was to last more than a decade, slowed railway construction. It also blighted Vogel’s fortunes as he sought to transform his career from politician to businessman and deal maker.

Increasingly the line between public policy and private interest was becoming blurred. Vogel combined land speculation with railway and other infrastructure projects to fund what had become an expensive personal lifestyle.

The Waimea Plains Railway Company in Southland was one such venture – along with railways in Western Australia and telegraph ventures in Australia and South East Asia.

Dwindling income and increasing personal debt was the catalyst for Vogel returning from London to New Zealand politics in 1886. Restored to his old role as Colonial Treasurer, he sought to revive the expansionist policies of a decade earlier.

But times and economic conditions had changed. Unable to conjure up the old magic and in failing health, he and his family returned to London in 1888.

He retired to Surrey where he resumed his writing career. Before he died in 1899 he produced a novel and a number of articles.

His biographer, Raewyn Dalziel summed up his career in the Dictionary of NZ Biography – Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. “During his lifetime Vogel was often blamed for the recession of the eighties. By the time of his death, however, New Zealand was well on the way to economic recovery and public opinion swung back to praise his policies as far sighted and progressive.” He was recognised as a major statesman of the nineteenth century, and despite some later criticisms of his business dealings, this verdict has been sustained.”

Sources: Julius Vogel, Business Politician, Raewyn Dalziel, 1986; The Dictionary of NZ Biography – Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.

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