Seals of the realm

By the time the Union Jack was fluttering over Russell, the colonisers of the British Empire were old hands at the business of ruling the native peoples of far-away lands. Apart from their dazzling technological wonders, such as the sailing ships that brought them, they mustered an array of military and ceremonial hardware that initially impressed the locals with a display of power. But the real stamp of their legal authority came from the Public Seal.

This Public Seal arrived from England in New Zealand in 1841. Created in Britain by the Chief Engraver to the Seals, Benjamin Wyon, it depicted Queen Victoria with a group of Maori chiefs as her compliant subjects. It endorsed the British Governor's signature on all significant matters of government. Without its imprint nothing, including even the Governor's signature, was official and only the Governor could use it.

A second seal was also designed by Wyon and approved by Queen Victoria in 1848. This time the Maori, perhaps because they had shown their mettle in battles with the Crown, were no longer depicted as the Queen's supplicants. It was sent with the seals of New Ulster and New Munster, the names given at that time to the North and South Islands. These seals arrived in September. The second Governor's seal was made of silver and it remained in use until wear necessitated its withdrawal, whereupon it was sent to Queen Victoria in council with her ministers. They duly defaced it and returned it to New Zealand, replacing it with a steel one.

Later seals were usually withdrawn on the death of a sovereign and replaced with a new seal on the accession of a new ruler. Alfred Wyon, son of Benjamin, engraved the third seal, used from 1881 until 1903. With its screw press, copper counters, and box it cost 90 pounds and 6 shillings (the equivalent of almost $9,000 today).

Although much has changed constitutionally since that time, the Governor-General, as the agent of the Crown in New Zealand, is still the highest constitutional authority in the land and his or her seal still represents that authority.

More information

The following publications may be found on the Discovery Centre bookshelves, or in Te Aka Matua Library and Information Centre on Level 4. Photographs of Te Papa collection items may be ordered from Images, on Level 4.
  • An Encyclopedia of New Zealand. (1966). Vol. 3. Wellington: Government Printer. pp 201-202.
  • Duncan, J.B. (1963). Seals of Colonial New Zealand. Auckland: the Numismatic Society.
  • New Zealand Centennial News. (1939). No. 8.


Positive seal matrix for the Public Seal of New Zealand
Maker Alfred Wyon
Made from copper and brass
Neg No: B.029025 © Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
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