The life of Sir Julius Vogel got off to a rather inauspicious start.
Born in London in 1835, Vogel’s childhood was not a happy one. The son of Phoebe Isaac, from a well-known Jewish merchant family, and Alpert Leopold Vogel, a Christian from Holland, Vogel was abandoned by his father and his younger brother died before he turned 6.
Some accounts, like the 1875 Otego Witness’ report reprinted in New Zealand’s Star newspaper, claim that Julius was orphaned as a young child and left in the care of his maternal grandfather. “Early left an orphan,” the paper reads, “he [Julius] was raised by his grandfather, a retired West India merchant.”
Historian Raewyn Dalziel, however, notes that this account, originally printed in Vogel’s own newspaper, the Otego Witness, leaves out some important facts. In the years following his father’s departure and his younger brother’s death, Julius, his mother and his older sister moved in with his grandfather, where he lived a well-heeled existence for much of his youth.
All was not happy, though. While living in his grandfather’s home, Julius’ mother remained distant from her only surviving son. “The Isaac family was large and prosperous and Julius cannot have wanted for material things,” Dalziel explained, adding, “his mother, to whom he was devoted, was an austere and aloof woman, and Frances [his sister] became his closest companion.”
At age 12, young Julius was sent to board at a Jewish school in Ramsgate where he remained for only two years before returning to a school closer to home for his final year of education. By age 15, the same year his mother died, Julius completed his formal education and began apprenticing at his grandfather’s firm, preparing to follow in his father’s footsteps and join in the family business.
Little in his early years could have predicted the sundry and spectacular life of Sir Julius Vogel. In a varied career path that included statesman, prospector, journalist and science fiction writer, Vogel’s travels and careers took him from the streets of London to New Zealand’s highest office and finally, in words of the Otego Witness, back “to the city of his birth, to receive from the hands of Royalty the award of honor so justly won.”
Off to Australia: Prospector, Apothecarist, Journalist, Editor and Gambler
After a short time spent studying chemistry and metallurgy at the Royal School of Mines and working in his grandfather’s merchant business, Vogel left for Victoria, Australia in 1852, hoping to strike it rich in the region’s goldmines. Instead, he found his first success running a small apothecary shop situated in a small den, which historian B.E. Kennedy reported was filled with “large, colored bottles, a number of empty boxes and a stuffed iguana.”
His interests soon turned to journalism, and in the next few years in the gold mining region, he wrote for the Maryborough and Dunolly Advertiser, the Argus and the Talbot Leader. In 1859, he purchased the Inglewood Advertiser, which he wrote an edited for three years, focusing mainly on local interest stories.
His contemporaries thought little of Vogel’s prose and derided his writing style as “low and vulgar.” The harsh critique did not appear to bother the very social young Vogel, who in addition to his writing duties had dedicated himself to playing cricket, gambling, and immersing himself the life of an aspiring bon vivant.
In 1861, drawn to political office, Vogel sold his paper and ran for the Legislative Assembly on a platform calling for free trade and the abolition of the export duty on gold. Despite being a well-known and colorful presence in the region, he lost the race to J.M. Grant and B.G. Davies, both of whom had run in opposition to Vogel’s plan. The defeat crushed Vogel, who soon after left behind his Australian social scene and moved to New Zealand to start anew.
The Otego Witness
Soon after arriving in New Zealand and settling into Otego, then a prosperous gold mining town, Vogel began writing for the Otego Colonist, a local Dunedin paper in competition with Otego Witness. While writing on the news from the gold industry there, Vogel came to the attention of W.H. Cutten, Commissioner of the Crown Lands and the owner of the Witness.
E.T. Gallon of The Wellington Evening Post described the meeting between Vogel as follows: “Mr. Cutten, the proprietor and editor of the witness, although a brilliant and witty writer, had a constitutional distaste for the work, and between his official duties, his duties in the council and his editing of his paper, his hands were more than full.” The 1891 account continued, “One day I learned in the Witness office that Mr. Vogel had joined Mr. Cutten and there were going to be changing in the paper… Most people thought the venture a mad one and predicted an early collapse.”
Benjamin Farjeon, another young, Jewish Londoner, was also recruited to the Witness at the same time. Born of an Orthodox Jewish family of limited means and receiving only a cheder education, Farjeon first met Vogel in Australia, where they had both come to work the gold mines.
Some papers in England, according to Gallon, even reported Farjeon had been the first sole editor and proprietor of the Otego Daily Times, as the Witness was later known, and that in the early years of the daily, the paper was “such a one horse matter from the outset that he [Farjeon] frequently had to set the matter, print the paper and even deliver it door to door.” Gallon dismissed these claims as “ludicrous.”
In fact, while in Otego, Farjeon served as subeditor and manager of the paper, working closely with Vogel as the paper earned its place as New Zealand’s first daily and developing a close friendship with his fellow London Jew. Later in life, Farjeon returned to London and dedicated his life to writing, eventually penning over 60 novels, including “Aaron the Jew,” known in the US as “The Fair Jewess.”
Finally, a Statesman
In 1862, Vogel decided to throw his hat back into the political ring and won a seat on the Otego provincial council. Three years later, while covering the Parliament election for his paper, he learned that no one was running for Dunedin seat, and decided to have himself nominated for the post. He won.
One year later, he was named Colonial Treasurer, a position that he embraced with the chutzpah of a gambler and prospector. Hugh DeLacy describes the risks Vogel took while in office, borrowing heavily to build the nation, “And borrow he did: nearly $40 million dollars—comparable to a thousand times that value in today’s currency—from London investors over the decade from when he became Colonial Treasurer in William Fox’s administration in June 1869.”
The gamble was apparently worth it. According to DeLacy, “Vogel lit a fire under the New Zealand economy which allowed it to leapfrog other and longer-established British colonies and enabled it to ride out the end-of-century protracted global recession in relatively good heart.”
In 1873, Vogel was named Premier of New Zealand, marking him as one of the few Jewish Prime Ministers in modern history, and the first of three Jews in New Zealand to hold the post. In 1875, in honor of his Premiership and leadership of New Zealand, Vogel was knighted. In reporting the affair, the New Zealand Post wrote, “None will deny that Sir Julius Vogel has well deserved his titular honors.”
Yet never far from controversy, Vogel was, in reality, a divisive figure. In describing Vogel, Warwick Robert Armstrong paints a volatile national leader, one whose brashness and willingness to borrow to invest in public works often caused concern among his peers. “Vogel’s politics were like his nature, imaginative—and occasionally brilliant—but reckless and speculative… Yet Vogel had vision. He saw New Zealand as a potential ‘Britain of the South Seas,’ strong both in agriculture and in industry, and inhabited by a large and flourishing population.”
Anno Domini 2000–A Woman’s Destiny
After leaving New Zealand politics behind and resettling in England, Vogel set out to combine his love of writing and politics in his science fiction manifesto, “Anno Domini 2000- A Woman’s Destiny.” Centered on the life of 23-year-old Hilda Fitzherbert, a politician in a utopian world where women are leaders in every sphere of government, the work features lengthy descriptions of colonial politics and his fanciful vision for a future New Zealand.
Not well-received in his lifetime, the book was later heralded by the female suffrage movement and marked as visionary work by New Zealander Roger Robinson. Robinson noted that by 2000, the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, Attorney General, Chief Justice, Governor-General designate and CEO of New Zealand’s largest company were all women.
Other similarities between the book and New Zealand in 2000 pointed out by Robinson are a reliance on electricity, hydroelectric power, universal air travel, and a “noiseless telegraph” used by both journalists and politicians to get the word out instantly.
Often considered the first work of New Zealand science fiction, in 2001, New Zealand’s fan scientific fiction awards were named after Julius Vogel in posthumous recognition of his impact on the scientific fiction writing community, a proposal that received nearly universal support.
The colorful life of Sir Julius Vogel came to an abrupt end on March 12, 1899 at the age of 64. The Southern Australian Reporter reported on his death in his native London, “The Hon. Sir Julius Vogel, K.C.M.G., ex-Premier of New Zealand died suddenly this morning,” and remarks on his “eventful” career in politics, his allegiance to the Crown and his varied writing career.
Yet according to New Zealand historian William Pember Reeves, Sir Julius Vogel greatest accomplishment was in fact the part of his public life that received the most criticism—his investment in public works. It is this effort, although controversial at the time that Reeves states marks Vogel “one of the short list of statesmen whose work has left a permanent mark on the Dominion.”