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Robert Spence, 1878 - 1917

Robert Spence was aged 38 when he was killed in action at Ypres in Belgium during the First Battle of  Passchendaele on 12 October 1917. A brilliant law student, he had built up a large litigation practice in Stratford before he enlisted in 1916.

Robert was born in Woodstock on the West Coast on 14 October 1878, the son of Bridget and David Spence. He grew up in Hokitika and was 17 when he passed the matriculation examination for the New Zealand University. He obtained employment in Hokitika as managing clerk to the law firm of Park and Murdoch (now Murdoch James & Roper), spending time studying at Canterbury University College in Christchurch. In December 1897 the West Coast Times announced: "Amongst returned Hokitikians on the Square yesterday afternoon was Mr R. Spence, of Park and Murdoch, who has just sat for a legal examination in Christchurch where he has been studying for the last few months. Mr Spence looks very well, after making due allowance for study and a rough passage around the ports." (3 December 1897, page 2).

He moved to Taranaki a year later when he was employed by New Plymouth solicitor JB Roy as managing clerk (the firm later became Roy and Nicholson).

In 1899 the West Coast Times was proud to announce his admission to the bar: "We learn with pleasure from a Taranaki paper that Mr Robert Spence, formerly managing clerk to Messrs Park & Murdoch of this town, and now managing clerk to Mr J.B. Roy, solicitor at New Plymouth, was on Friday, November 3, at Auckland, admitted by Mr Justice Connolly as a solicitor of the Supreme Court of New Zealand. Our contemporary goes on to say 'We congratulate Mr Spence and hope to hear of his speedy rise in his profession. He has a record as being the youngest student to pass the final examination, being but 18 years of age at the time, and in this law examination obtained the highest marks of any candidate in New Zealand.' Our readers will not only be glad to hear of Mr Spence's continued advancement in his profession, but also of the golden opinions he is winning in the community where he now resides." (21 November 1899).

In 1901 Spence went into practice in Stratford, forming the firm Spence and Stanford with RL Stanford and building a busy practice over the next 15 years. He was very active in litigation, appearing regularly in the Magistrates Courts and Supreme Court and also travelling to Wellington to appear in the Court of Appeal in a number of cases. As suited a country practice he acted in a wide range of matters, defending clients in criminal proceedings but also acting in divorce, land, bankruptcy, slander and contractual matters.

From reports of his appearances it is clear that Spence was an able, determined and articulate advocate. The Taranaki Daily News of 16 March 1912 entertained readers with a quote from an opposing counsel in a civil dispute over the purchase of oats: "'If Mr Spence wants to address the court, let him get up on his feet and do it,' ejaculated Mr Anderson in court today, when he was subjected to a series of interruptions from his over-eager 'friend'." 

Another solicitor, William Malone - also to be killed during the War - had a run-in with Spence in 1912 which showed Spence's tenacity. During an action for recovery of a debt Spence alleged that his client had only accepted a promissory note on the assurance of Malone that his client, the debtor, could and would pay. Spence said that after he had withdrawn the summons, Malone had accepted a mortgage on the debtor's property and had prevented Spence from obtaining payment of the debt. "I will not allow my friend to baulk this judgment summons," said Spence.

This resulted in an angry outburst from Malone: "I have stood a good deal in this court from my friend. He has no business to insult me. He blares away at me in this court week after week. I put up with it good-naturedly, but I will not have him assume some improper act on my part." The Magistrate, WG Kendrick SM, eventually managed to get Spence to withdraw his reference to baulking the judgment summons. However, after withdrawing, Spence continued: "I desire to substitute what I intended to convey - namely, 'I strongly object to the improper tactics adopted by my friend in deliberately interrupting my examination, and thereby preventing an effective examination of the debtor.'" This was accepted by Kendrick SM but Malone did not accept the wording of withdrawal and said he would not appear before Kendrick again without a further assurance from Spence.

Displaying his oratorical style at a ceremony to mark the departure of the respected Stratford solicitor TC Fookes for England in 1914, Spence said "...he desired to speak of Mr Fookes professionally, and most men desired to hear the opinion of others in their profession. It was often said that it was hard to find an honest lawyer, but Mr Fookes was not only an honest lawyer, but an ultra-honest lawyer and a good man in his profession. That was not an idle statement but an honest conviction after three years' experience of him," (Taranaki Daily News, 5 March 1914, page 3).

Spence was a keen golfer and represented Stratford Golf Club many times over the years in matches around Taranaki. He was also a long-standing member of the Stratford Club. He was joined in practice by his brother Samuel in 1910, first as junior clerk and then as a solicitor with the firm. Spence remained single throughout his life.

In March 1914 he was farewelled by the Stratford Club before he left Stratford for what was described as a "world tour'. Spence was reportedly expecting to be absent from Stratford for about 12 months. In July 1914 he was reported as having called at the New Zealand Government offices in London. World War I began at the end of that month and it is not known what impact this had on his travel plans.

By February 1915 he was back in practice, appearing in the Supreme Court in New Plymouth in a sheep stealing case. Later that year he represented one of the defendants who had been involved in a daring but unsuccessful attempt to rob an Eltham bank by digging a tunnel.

He continued to appear in Taranaki courts until early 1916. The Auckland Star reported that well-known Stratford solicitor R Spence had volunteered and been accepted for active service, and on 29 March 1916 the Hawera and Normanby Star reported that Mr R Spence of the legal firm of Spence and Stanford had received official notice to leave Stratford to proceed to NCO Camp. Along with another solicitor, S Macalister, he was farewelled again by the Stratford Club, with the President wishing them God-speed and a safe return.

photo of Robert Spence
Second Lieutenant Robert Spence.

Spence proceeded to training at Trentham Camp near Wellington, as a corporal. His medical examination showed he was 5 foot 9 tall (1.75 metres), weighed 167 pounds (75.7 kg) and had blue eyes and brown hair. In May 1916 Taranaki Magistrate WR Haselden SM "before commencing the Court business this afternoon referred to the fact that during his recent visit to Wellington he had the pleasure of meeting Mr R Spence, and was pleased to say that he was wearing two stripes, with a chance of soon receiving a third." (Taranaki Daily News, 20 May 1916, page 3). He did receive a third stripe, and in October he passed the examination for first appointment to a commission, receiving promotion to Second Lieutenant before he embarked from Wellington with the New Zealand Rifle Brigade on 16 February 1917.

He arrived at Devonport in England on 26 April and was at Sling Camp until 30 May 1917 when he proceeded to France, going into action on 11 June. From 12 July to 11 August Spence underwent training at Officers' Corps School. He had a further period of training at Brigade School from 28 September to 5 October before he returned to the front line.

On 12 October 1917 Spence was one of 845 New Zealand soldiers who were killed during the First Battle of Passchendaele. His unit, the 3rd Battalion of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade, took up the attack at 6:30am in heavy rain but quickly encountered heavy machine gun fire. Almost all of the 3rd Battallion's officers were casualties and by 8am the attack had come to a standstill. Spence's body was not recovered and his name is on the Tyne Cot Memorial, Tyne Cot Cemetery, Zonnebeke, West-Vlaanderen, Belgium

News of his death reached New Zealand, the Hawera and Normanby Star reporting: "Many residents on this coast will sincerely regret to hear that word was received today that Lieut R Spence had been killed in action. The late Lieut Spence had been in practice as a solicitor in Stratford for several years. Formerly he was managing clerk for Messrs Roy and Nicholson, of New Plymouth. He was an able lawyer, and very well-known and popular on every part of the coast." (1 November 1917, page 4). 

Shortly after, tributes were paid to Robert Spence at the Stratford Stipendiary Magistrates' Court: "At the SM Court sitting this afternoon, Mr T Fookes, on behalf of the bar of Stratford, said he desired to express the deep regret of all members at the great loss they had sustained in the untimely death of Mr Robert Spence. They were proud to say that Mr Spence was a young New Zealander.

"After a brilliant career at school and filling several responsible positions with credit, he entered into business in Stratford in 1901. For sixteen years he continued to practise, and the results achieved were sterling testimony to his zeal and ability. He was a great worker, and devotedly loyal to his clients' interests, and never spared himself in his efforts to faithfully discharge his duty to those who entrusted their business to him. As a barrister he achieved great success, and had he removed to one of the larger centers, where he would have had more scope for his exceptional abilities, he would have become one of the leaders of the bar in the Dominion.

"At great personal sacrifice Mr Spence nobly offered his services as a soldier in the present war, and proceeding to the front, met his death on October 12. During his short military career he won the esteem and respect of all ranks, and the loss of so promising an officer would be universally deplored. To the parents, brothers and sisters of the late Mr R Spence they offered their heartfelt sympathy in their loss. Stratford and New Zealand had sustained a loss that it was hard to estimate, but the memory of Robt. Spence would ever live, and be held in the highest honor by those for whom he had made the supreme sacrifice.

"The magistrate said he had to endorse the remarks for Mr Fookes. Personally, he did not know the late Mr Spence, but he felt sure that he possessed ability that would have carried him far in the profession. It was a source of regret that they would not have the opportunity of welcoming him home again. Mr Coleman, on behalf of the relatives, expressed appreciation of the remarks made by bench and bar." (Taranaki Daily News, 3 November 1917, page 3).

Spence is remembered in the Stratford Memorial Hall of Remembrance, opened in 1920 by Edward, Prince of Wales. His portrait is there along with other soldiers who died in the War.

Sources: Grey River Argus, 1 February 1895, page 4; West Coast Times, 3 December 1897, page 2; Taranaki Herald, 7 November 1899, page 2; West Coast Times, 21 November 1899, page 2; Taranaki Daily News, 10 March 1904, page 4; Taranaki Daily News, 5 June 1906, page 2; Hawera and Normanby Star, 15 September 1909, page 4; Taranaki Daily News, 21 December 1911, page 3; Taranaki Daily News, 16 March 1912, page 3; Hawera and Normanby Star, 16 September 1912, page 3; Taranaki Daily News, 5 March 1914, page 3; Hawera and Normanby Star, 11 March 1914, page 4; Hawera and Normanby Star, 25 March 1914, page 4; Evening Post, 14 July 1914, page 3; Taranaki Daily News, 4 February 1915, page 7; Taranaki Daily News, 15 September 1915, page 7; Evening Post, 25 October 1916, page 7; New Zealand Gazette, 8 February 1917; Hawera and Normanby Star, 1 November 1917, page 4; Taranaki Daily News, 3 November 1917, page 3; The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade (LT Watkins Ltd, Wellington, 1924), pages 237-245.

Auckland War Memorial Museum Online Cenotaph soldier profile.

This obituary has been prepared by the New Zealand Law Society to preserve the memory of members of the legal profession who died while serving in World War I.

Lawyers Roll of Honour. 

By Geoff Adlam, New Zealand Law Society. Further information is welcomed: geoff.adlam@lawsociety.org.nz.

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Last updated on the 9th October 2017