Colonial Street Names... Fenton Street
I remember buzzing along that big main road in Rotorua, Fenton Street, and idly wondering where the name came from. Well, I’ve just done a spot of research so now I know.
Francis Dart Fenton was a lawyer who became the first judge of the Native Land Court under the legislation of 1865. This Act put in place what was needed for the direct purchase of land – putting land into individual title. Recognising that huge numbers of acres hand been wrongly confiscated, the Court’s early task was the return of that land, but whereas the land had previously been communally held, and administered by rangatira, it was returned in individual title.
Fenton laid down the guidelines for the Court’s operation. Non-Māori could ask the court to name the owners of a block, even if the owners had no wish to sell. Only ten names could appear on a deed, regardless of the actual number of owners. At first Māori considered the names to be those of trustees, but some time later the court would refuse this interpretation, declaring the ten people to be ‘beneficial owners’, able to sell or use the land for themselves. The Court also fiddled with inheritance. Whereas communal land was administered by rangatira who were gradually replaced or augmented, who took the circumstances and needs of the whanau into account, the Court divided title among all children, so that the parcels of land became smaller with each generation.
He was self-aggrandising and locked in jealous conflict with other settlers who he saw as competition, especially Donald McLean who had been the Chief Land-purchase Officer for many years. But it is fair to say that he fulfilled the wishes of the majority of settlers, and made the court into what Tony Simpson described as “one of the most pernicious measures ever enacted by a settler community to get its hands on the estate of the native inhabitants”.
I can suggest four good sources of information about the Native Land Court and its operations. Tony Simpson covers quite a lot in Te Riri Pakeha. Alan Ward tells us a lot in A Show of Justice. David Williams gives thorough coverage in Te Kooti tango whenua: the court to take land, and the Waitangi Tribunal Report on Ngaati Whaatua offers us a detailed case study of the court in action.