While Wellingtonians were enjoying the delights of ‘summer’ weather over new year, my partner Janis and I winged our way to the UK for one of our regular visits to her family in the north-east of England. They live in South Shields, a town on the southern bank of the mouth of the River Tyne, just down river from Newcastle-upon-Tyne and just north of the city of Sunderland. South Shields used to be a major centre for ship building and coal mining, as well as a fishing port and a northern seaside resort. Now the ship yards and mines are all closed. Fishing continues but on a smaller scale and, while the town still gets summer visitors, the British holidaymaker is more inclined to head for Benidorm or Grand Canary. Much of the employment in Shields now comes from caring for the town’s high proportion of elderly, while many of the townsfolk commute to jobs in nearby Newcastle and Sunderland.
South Shields is a place that greatly appeals to me. The Geordies are rightly renowned for their down-to-earth friendliness and sense of humour. (The local people, the ‘folk o’ Shields’ are known as ‘sand dancers’). Shields has a vibrant open-air market, its Ocean Road is famed as one of best ‘curry miles’ in the north-east, there is a spectacular coastline with massed seabirds to attract the twitcher, while in summer brass bands can still be heard playing by the seaside. The archaeological remains of the Roman fort of Arbeia can be seen in the centre of town, Bede’s church of St Paul’s at Jarrow is just down the road, and the medieval priory at Tynemouth is a ferry ride away on the north bank of the Tyne.
There is one historical site in the South Shields suburb of Westoe that provides a direct link with my own home town of Nelson. The William Fox Hotel in Westoe is so named as it is the birth place of William Fox. The William Fox in question was from 1843 to 1847 the New Zealand Company agent in Nelson and went on to become premier of New Zealand on four different occasions!
Fox was born at Westoe around 1812, at a time when it was still a leafy rural village. Born into a reasonably well-off middle-class family, Fox trained and qualified as a lawyer. In 1842 he and his wife Sarah set out for New Zealand, just six weeks after they had married. In New Zealand Fox did some legal work but spent more time as a journalist and editor, and as a New Zealand Company agent. He also went on exploring expeditions with Heaphy, Brunner and Kehu, and built up a reputation as a landscape artist.
Fox became involved in provincial and colonial politics – with a penchant for making enemies and keeping them. Governor George Grey, Attorney General Martin and the entire Richmond-Atkinson political clan were among those on Fox’s enemies list. Despite the fact that he was premier four times, Fox seemed happiest in opposition. He opposed the Waitara war of 1860, but this appears to have been due to his enmity towards the government of the time rather than due to support for Māori. He was later premier in the mid-1860s when large areas of Māori land were confiscated. Fox continued in politics until 1881; in his later years campaigning for prohibition, state education and votes for women.
In 1849 the Foxes purchased a property in Rangitikei, which they named Westoe after William’s South Shields birthplace. They lived there on and off from 1854 to 1887. His wife Sarah died in 1892, and William died exactly one year later. Fox is commemorated in New Zealand by Foxton and Fox Glacier. In South Shields he is mentioned on the historical information panel at Westoe and with the William Fox Hotel.