New Insights into ‘Fitz’

Fitzgerald’s Folly was a landmark in colonial days when the large verandah’d house lorded it over the growing city of Wellington from its commanding site on Mt Victoria. It was built in the early 1870s. When St Gerard’s Church was built, Fitzgerald’s Folly was demolished.

Clyde Cliff (its official name) was the home of James Edward Fitzgerald – subject of a recent biography by Jenifer Roberts, an English historian. She is the great-great-granddaughter of James Edward and Fanny Fitzgerald. She had access to family papers and sources previously inaccessible to researchers, so her biography provides new and intriguing information about one of New Zealand’s most outstanding colonists.

The ‘folly’ tag came about because the seven acre (2.8 ha) of land was considered “a remote and undesirable site”, being high on a cliff between Clyde Quay and Oriental Bay and some distance from town at that time. One of Fitzgerald’s sons, Otho, certainly appreciated its site. He’s quoted as saying, “My home as a boy was built on a point overlooking a harbour, one of the most beautiful spots and one of the finest views I have ever seen.”

The Fitzgeralds were proud of the modern conveniences in the house. There were gas points in each of the seven bedrooms; running water in the kitchen and bathroom – the latter had a geyser to heat water for the bathtub. The separate WC boasted a toilet seat of polished kauri.

Fitzgerald was the first Canterbury pilgrim to set foot in New Zealand and the first superintendent of the province of Canterbury. In 1861 he founded The Press newspaper in Christchurch. When the first New Zealand parliament was formed in 1854, he was elected to represent Lyttelton. In 1867, Fitzgerald – in poor health – resigned and accepted an appointment as comptroller of the public account (ie controlling the issue of public money) and, later, auditor-general. The family moved to Wellington, living in Karori and then moving to Oriental Bay in 1874 where their thirteenth and last child was born.

These years in Clyde Cliff were filled with family disaster. Robert, aged 23, died after acute lung inflammation. A year later, in the 1880s, another son and two daughters died. Next year the tragedies continued with one son diagnosed with Bright’s Disease and another son with TB, both dying after several years. Fitz dealt with these terrible blows with high activity, drafting the Local Authorities and Audit Bill; then the Civil Service Bill and another to amend the Revenues Act.

Through 1895, his health continued to deteriorate and he died in 1896, five years before Fanny. After her death Clyde Cliff was bought by daughter Amy, who later sold it to the Redemptorists Order. They built St Gerard’s Church in 1908 and the Monastery in 1932. In 1988 the property was purchased by the International Catholic Programme of Evangelisation.

 JCD, Bay View newsletter 68, November 2016