Stout, Sir Robert

Sir Robert StoutSir Robert Stout (September 28, 1844-July 19, 1930), prominent New Zealand lawyer, politician, and educator, was his country’s Prime Minister and Chief Justice, and Chancellor of the University of New Zealand. He promoted liberal social legislation, including legal equality for women, and fought to keep the church out of public affairs and education. He was a champion of the freethought movement and supported the rationalist cause throughout his life. For his last 25 years he was a leading member of the Wellington Unitarian Church.

Born on September 28, 1844 at Lerwick in the Shetland Islands, Scotland, Robert was the eldest of six children of Margaret Smith and Thomas Stout, a merchant and landed proprietor. He was educated at the parish school and the Lerwick Academy. In 1858, at age 13, he sat the teacher’s qualifying examinations, specialising in mathematics and science, and was appointed a pupil teacher at the parish school. In 1860 he qualified as a surveyor.

From the age of ten Robert regularly attended the Sunday afternoon discussions of his father and uncles on scientific, religious, and political topics. He later said that ‘theological disputation was part of social life’. His father was an elder in the Free Church of Scotland. Although it was disapproved by the church, his uncle William accepted the theory of evolution. At Bible class Robert was taught the doctrines of various churches, and debated them with the other children. This skill was of value to him in adulthood. Reflecting on these controversies, he rejected sectarianism and religious dogma.

Stout emigrated to New Zealand, arriving in Dunedin on the ship Lady Milton in April 1864. Initially he was employed as second master at the Dunedin Grammar School, teaching mathematics. Later he was first assistant at the North Dunedin District School. He helped found the Otago Schoolmasters Association, which became the Otago branch of the New Zealand Educational Institute.

In 1867 Stout joined the law firm of William Downie Stewart as a articled clerk. In 1871 was admitted as a barrister and solicitor and formed the firm of Sievwright and Stout. He later headed the firm of Stout, Mondy and Sim, where he remained for the most important part of his public practice. Because of his influence with juries he achieved prominence in the legal profession as a pleader.

In 1871 Stout enrolled at the University of Otago and obtained first class passes in mental and moral science and political economy. Between 1873 and 1875 he continued his legal studies and also lectured in law at the university. He was a student of Professor Duncan MacGregor, foundation chair of mental science, a rationalist and advocate of the English philosopher Herbert Spencer. MacGregor and Stout remained lifelong friends.

Stout’s philosophy was strongly Spencerian. Spencer applied the idea of evolution, which he interpreted as increasing complexity, to both the development of philosophy and to social progress viewed in Utilitarian terms. Stout was to use and adapt these principles throughout his life. Initially he believed in individual progress within a Spencerian evolutionary framework, without state involvement. Later he revised his views and allotted the state a more active role.

Stout also admired the English freethought champion Charles Bradlaugh. The feeling was mutual. Although they never met, Bradlaugh, when contemplating a visit to New Zealand, said that the main attraction would be to meet Stout. Besides sharing freethought views, both supported Irish Home Rule. Stout was held in high regard by many New Zealand Irish.

Stout was elected to the Otago Provincial Council in 1872 and was Provincial Solicitor, 1874-76. By this time the provincial governments of New Zealand had become largely dependent upon central government support and to the extent that they were effective were obstructive of national policies. Popular support for provincialism was strongest in Otago. Elected to the House of Representatives in 1875 as a Liberal, Stout’s first speech was a stirring defence of the provincial government system. Although the provinces were abolished the following year, he had made his mark on national politics. He was Attorney General and Minister for Lands and Immigration, 1878-79.

In 1876 Stout married Anna Paterson Logan (1858-1931). Anna’s parents John and Jessie Logan were social reformers and members of the freethought and temperance movements. Between 1878 and 1894 Anna gave birth to six children, four sons and two daughters. One of the children, Sir Thomas Duncan MacGregor Stout, followed in his father’s footsteps as a promoter of education. He was knighted for his services to Victoria University of Wellington.

The Stouts were both members of the New Zealand Alliance for the Abolition of the Liquor Traffic. Robert was elected President on three occasions. Anna helped found the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in 1885. Throughout her life she worked to educate women politically and campaigned to give them equal pay and equal legal rights with men.

In debate on the Education Bill in 1877, Stout defended the secular system on the ground that the various religious sects would have their conscience violated if their taxes were employed to teach what they believed to be religious error. He opposed the Bible in Schools Movement all his life. Because he deplored denominational influence in university education, he voted against the introduction of divinity degrees. He also worked to eliminate the influence of the Presbyterian church over appointments to chairs at Otago University.

In 1879, because of the ill health of his law partner, Stout left politics in order to devote more time to his practice. During the next five years Stout pursued freethought activities. In 1880 he became President of the newly-formed Dunedin Freethought Association. In his inaugural address he explained that ‘we recognise no authority competent to dictate to us. Each must believe what he considers to be true and act up to his belief, granting the same right to everyone else’. In a further address, 1882, he praised the heterogeneity of the movement, describing it as an alliance of ‘Theists, Deists, Atheists, Spiritualists and Unitarians’.

After returning to Parliament in 1884 Stout used his influence to advance freedom of speech when it came under attack from the religious orthodox. When the Auckland Rationalistic Association was threatened with prosecution for selling their magazine at Sunday meetings, he sent them a telegram denying the sabbatarian laws were in force and urging them not to surrender. In 1885, after police confiscated the takings from a freethought lecture, he ordered return of the money and an end to the prosecution. Subsequently he introduced a new Police Offences Bill into Parliament which reduced the Sunday restrictions and penalties.

For three years, 1884-87, Stout was Prime Minister, Attorney General, and Minister of Education. His government developed secondary education, organized medical and welfare services through the Hospital and Charitable Aid Board Act, reformed the civil service, moderated criminal punishment by introducing probation for first-time offenders, prohibited liquor in the King Country (at Maori request), passed the Married Women’s Property Act which stopped the automatic transfer of women’s property to their husbands upon marriage, and nearly succeeded in getting women the vote. In 1886 Stout accepted a knighthood. His ministry was, however, ineffective in dealing with an economic depression. Stout, because of his Spencerian individualist principles, refused to accept Government responsibility for relief measures. When the government was defeated at the polls he also lost his own seat in the House. Out of office Stout nevertheless continued to advocate social reform. He supported Dunedin seamstresses in their struggle for better working conditions.

Stout returned to politics via by-election in 1893 and challenged the new Liberal prime minister, Richard John Seddon, with his own more radical Liberalism. He introduced a tough Licensing Bill giving direct control of liquor to local government. This was defeated by the Seddon’s government, which then introduced and passed its own weaker measure. Stout’s unsuccessful leadership campaign nevertheless prevented the government from effectively opposing the amendment to the Electoral Bill of 1893 which at last gave women the vote. Alienated by the party politics which offended his individualism and opposed to Seddon’s autocratic style, Stout drifted toward opposition and lost political influence. He represented Wellington City, 1893-98, and moved his residence and business there in 1895.

As Chief Justice, 1899-1926, Stout assisted in the consolidation of New Zealand statutes, completed in 1908. He also initiated reform of the procedure for appeals to the Privy Council in Britain. As a result, beginning in 1913, the Privy Council, wherever possible, included a judge from the relevant dominion when hearing a case. In 1921 Stout was appointed to this judicial committee of the Privy Council. Although he was held in high esteem as Chief Justice, one in three of Stout’s liberal decisions were overturned upon appeal.

When Stout became Chief Justice, however, it was no longer appropriate for his wife to play a part in politics. Anna had an opportunity once again to speak out in 1909 when the Stouts visited England. During her three-year stay she publicly supported British suffragettes and joined their marches.

Stout had sympathy for the well-being of the Maori. He served on a royal commission, 1907-08, whose recommendations influenced the Native Lands Act of 1909. This restricted government purchases of native land and gave more power to Maori land boards.

Stout played a significant role in the development of the New Zealand university system. He was a member of the Senate of the University of New Zealand, 1885-1930; chancellor, 1903-23; and a member of the Council of the University of Otago, 1891-98. In Wellington he helped found Victoria University College and was a member of its Council, 1900-15 and 1918-23. He received honorary L.L.D.s from Manchester and Edinburgh Universities and an honorary D.C.L. from Oxford.

It was not until late middle age that Stout had the opportunity to gather with Unitarians or to attend a Unitarian church. In Wellington Stout met up again with an old friend John Gammell, an inspector of schools and an outstanding Hebrew scholar. Gammell, a Unitarian, most likely introduced Stout to other Unitarians. In 1900 the British and Foreign Unitarian Association (BFUA) sent William Jellie to be minister to the newly-formed Auckland Unitarian Church, the first in New Zealand. Shortly after Jellie arrived Stout wrote him that there was an opening for the Unitarian movement in cities outside Auckland. Later, when Jellie transferred to the Wellington church, 1910-13, he and Stout became more closely acquainted.

In 1904 the Rev Charles Hargrove was sent to New Zealand by BFUA to establish other Unitarian churches. After Hargrove lectured in Wellington, Stout helped organize a Unitarian Society upon the basis of freedom of thought, and served as Chairman. Two years later another BFUA missionary, the Rev Dr Tudor Jones established the Wellington Unitarian Free Church. Stout was the first Chairman and held this position until appointed President, in which honorary office he remained until his death. Jones commented that Stout ‘was greatly interested in all efforts which were made in the direction of freedom of thought and religion.’ Stout often lectured at the church. In 1914, speaking on ‘Religion and the State’, he said ‘It is not right of the State to select one religion and teach its creed because it is the religion of the majority’ and asked ‘why should children be taught what many intelligent adults doubt?’

Stout espoused a humanist approach in his writing and speeches during the last ten years of his life. In an address to the Unitarian church he said ‘If only we could get us a Humanist religion we would be able to solve many problems yet unsolved. But now Humanism has developed and we can hope for better days.’

Upon his retirement as Chief Justice Stout was appointed to the Legislative Council (Upper House). In the same month he was appointed he rose to defend secular education. ‘Unitarians do not accept the creed of the Churches’, he declared in a speech to a Bill to introduce Bible reading and prayers in schools. ‘I fear that parliament may set up a little state church to make people morally good . . . it will make them immoral, for it will inaugurate bitterness and ill feeling.’

Throughout his association with Unitarianism Stout remained a rationalist. He was vice president of the New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Rationalism. He continued to write for their journal until a year before his death. He has been described as being to New Zealand what Robert Ingersoll was to the United States and Bradlaugh was to Britain.

After Stout’s death there was controversy about conflict between his Unitarian affiliation and his rationalism. ‘He was a Rationalist,’ conceded Jellie. ‘But Rationalism and Unitarianism are not incompatible. I also claim to be a Rationalist, repudiating any authority for truth outside the human spirit and the final court of appeal within myself.’

The extant Stout-Jellie correspondence is located in the Unitarian Archives in the Auckland War Memorial Museum. There is a substantial collection of Stout’s writing on religion in the Len Beckett Memorial Library, Rationalist House, Auckland, and other extensive archival material in the Stout Research Centre at Victoria University of Wellington. The one book-length biography, Waldo Hilary Dunn and Ivor Lloyd Morgan Richardson, Sir Robert Stout (1961), gives an unsatisfactory account of Stout’s Rationalism and Unitarianism. A briefer account is David Allen Hamer, “Stout, Robert 1844-1930” in The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (1999). John Maindonald, A Radical Religious Heritage, Auckland Unitarian Church and Its Wider Connections (1993) mentions Stout’s participation in the Unitarian movement. For a biography of Anna Stout see Raewyn Dalziel, ‘Stout, Anna Paterson 1858-1931’, The Suffragists, Essays from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (1993). Excellent accounts of Stout in the early freethought movement are found in James Dakin, ‘New Zealand’s Freethought Heritage, Chapter 3: The rise and decline of Freethought in Dunedin, 1880-90’, NZ Rationalist and Humanist 74(2) (2001); ‘New Zealand’s Freethought Heritage, Chapter 5: Early Freethought in Wellington and Other Centres’, NZ Rationalist and Humanist 74(4) (2001); and ‘Sir Robert Stout and Freethought’, NZ Rationalist and Humanist (June 1995). Rationalist and Unitarian obituaries are found in The Truth Seeker (August 2, 1930 and September 6, 1930) and The Inquirer (July 26, 1930 and August 2, 1930).

Article by Wayne Facer
Posted September 9, 2003