‘Honest Willie Swanson’ tried his hand at many things and perhaps his proudest achievement, although now largely forgotten, was his contribution to writing the revolutionary Education Act of 1877. In the name of that far-sighted Act of Parliament, New Zealand led the world with education that was “free, secular and compulsory”. It even paved the way for women and Maori to seek education.
This was not a happy accidental outcome. Swanson believed in education and opportunities for everyone regardless of “class”. He was also a pioneering multi-culturalist and believer in opportunities for women. He was married three times (de facto on two occasions and always to Maori women). First to Mere Ngaoko and they had two sons who were foundation pupils at St Stephen’s School for Maori boys. After Mere died, he developed a de facto relationship with Timata Titoki and together they had son who was an early pupil at Auckland Grammar.
Finally, he married Ani Rangitunoa, high-born of the Ngati Whatniapiti of Hawke’s Bay and they had five children, two boys and three girls. According to the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand “His daughters are finished musicians, their indulgent father having provided his children with every opportunity of culture, besides attending to their material well being. ”
Like those other two pioneering giants of early Auckland, Henderson and Sir John Logan Campbell, Swanson was a Scot who tried his hand in various industries including politics, making himself rich several times over. Yet above all, during his life, he seems to have had an enduring reputation for honesty, generosity and for his charity.
He must have been a formidable personality. He was born at Leith just outside Edinburgh on 30 May 1819, and was soon orphaned and brought up by his grandfather and then by an uncle. As a youth he had little education and no family fortune but he was apprenticed as a shipwright, a useful trade for a man who would try his luck in the colonies by the time he was 25.
He moved first to Cork in Ireland and then joined a band of emigrants travelling first to Sydney before arriving in the fledgling settlement of Auckland in 1844 and sought employment in his trade. At first he worked at boat building on Great Barrier and then later he collected sea shells to make lime for the building of the Albert Barrack Wall.
Finally he went into the cabinet making business. However, low wages drove him to seek his fortune on the California gold fields and brought his enterprising, not to mention courageous, and independent character to the fore.
He built a tiny sailing boat of a mere 14 tonnes in which to sail to America. This plan was immediately thwarted by an Auckland customs officer who refused to clear the vessel to sail because he believed it was far too small to cross the wide Pacific. Undaunted Swanson sneaked away to the Bay of Islands where, he “found an officer more ignorant or less strict as to the tonnage of his little craft.”
This encyclopedia entry, written while Swanson was still alive, went on in a humorous vein that “his mates, though possessing a theoretical knowledge of seamanship, were divided in opinion on some of the more abstruse points of navigation.”
The guardians of our coasts today would have nightmares at the thought of such a tiny boat setting off across the vast Pacific with no-one on board who had the slightest idea of navigation. As it was a Mr Bell, who did know his way around a chart and a sextant, joined the vessel which duly made it to Tahiti and then Honolulu.
Selling the boat in Hawaii, Swanson went on to the goldfield and made a fortune. It seems from the information now available, he was one of the smart ones who made a lot of money providing for the needs of the miners rather than actually chasing the elusive “colour” himself.
In any event Swanson landed back in West Auckland in 1852 with money in his pocket he went straight into the timber trade based in the area that now bears his name. He lived at the end of what is now Tram Valley Road.
By 1861 he was finished with the timber trade and two years later was elected to the equivalent of the Auckland Council. Two years later he was elected to the Provincial Council and in 1870, along with Sir George Grey and two other Public Buildings Commissioners, he helped oversee the creation of Auckland Hospital.
The following year he was elected to Parliament and he remained a serving national politician for the rest of his career, making him a member of that almost legendary group who helped create the New Zealand we know today. He was then appointed to the Legislative Council where he served until his death on 23 April 1903. William Swanson died a few days short of his 84th birthday and is buried with his family at Waikumete Cemetery.
Rugged Determination, p14