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Since the late 1840s, the Royal Honours System in New Zealand has evolved along with changes in the country’s constitution, from Crown Colony to Dominion, and from Dominion to a fully independent monarchy or realm. Between 1848 and 1996, New Zealanders were eligible to be recommended for various traditional Royal (sometimes called "British" or "Imperial") honours.

In 1975, following the first review of the system, a distinctive New Zealand honour was blended into the system. It was called The Queen’s Service Order (QSO) with an associated Queen’s Service Medal (QSM). A second distinctive honour, The Order of New Zealand (ONZ), was instituted in 1987. Since 1976, a variety of other distinctive medals for award to the community and to military, police, fire and prison services personnel have been instituted.

In 1995 a significant review of the system was undertaken by the Prime Minister's Honours Advisory Committee. From the recommendations of this Committee a totally New Zealand Royal Honours System was established on 6 May 1996 with the institution of The New Zealand Order of Merit and the discontinuance of recommendations for the various British State Orders of Chivalry (e.g. Orders of the Bath, St Michael and St George and British Empire) and Orders (e.g. the Order of the Companions of Honour), and the honour of Knight Bachelor.

Captain George Grey, Governor of New Zealand, was the first person resident in New Zealand to be granted an honour. On 27 April 1848 he was appointed a Knight Commander of the Civil Division of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath (KCB). Grey was invested with his insignia on the 18 November 1848 by the Chief Justice of New Zealand (William Martin, later Sir William Martin) in a special ceremony for which he chose two Maori chiefs as his esquires (supporters). They were Tamati Waka Nene, Nga Puhi, and Honiana Te Puni-kokopu, Te Ati Awa. Thus, there was an important Maori element in the first investiture in New Zealand. James Carroll, who was made a Knight Bachelor in 1911, was the first Maori to be knighted.

Sir Charles Clifford, the first Speaker of the House of Representatives, was in 1858 the first person in New Zealand to be made a Knight Bachelor. He was created a Baronet in 1887.

Sir James Mills, who was born in Wellington on 30 July 1847, in 1907 became the first New Zealand-born Knight Bachelor. He had a rapid preferment with a KCMG in 1909.

The first woman to be invested with an honour in New Zealand was Miss A Crisp. In 1883 she was invested with the Royal Red Cross (RRC) by the Governor, Sir William Jervois, in recognition of her nursing services with British troops in Zululand and Egypt.

The first New Zealand woman to receive a Royal honour was Matron (Miss) J W M Williamson, who received the RRC in 1901 for nursing services with the New Zealand contingents in the South African War. The first civilian woman to be honoured was Sarah Brock, of the Accounts Branch, New Zealand Post and Telegraph Department, 1875-1908, who was awarded the Imperial Service Medal in 1909. It, however, was not until 1918, when the Order of the British Empire was opened to women, that woman gained regular access to honours.

In 1918 the Countess of Liverpool, wife of the then Governor-General, was made a Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire (GBE). The same honour was conferred in 1926 on Mrs Christina Massey, widow of The Rt Hon W F Massey, Prime Minister of New Zealand 1912-1925. It was not until 1951, however, that Mrs Elizabeth Gilmer became the first New Zealand woman to be made a dame (DBE). Dame Elizabeth Gilmer was born in 1880 at Kumara, Westland, the daughter of The Rt Hon Richard Seddon, Prime Minister of New Zealand 1893-1906. The first Maori woman to be made a dame was the Maori Queen, Te Arikinui Te Atairangikaahu, DBE (1970).   In 1987 Dame Te Atairangikaahu became the first foundation member of The Order of New Zealand.

Under the Constitution Act 1986 the New Zealand Head of State is The Queen, who is "Queen of New Zealand". Constitutional conventions have long recognised that the right to institute and grant honours and awards is a Royal Prerogative. In other words, the Sovereign is the "fount of all honour".

With a few exceptions, all honours and awards are conferred by, or in the name of, the Sovereign (The Queen of New Zealand) on the advice of Her Majesty’s New Zealand Ministers. Those honours in the exclusive gift of The Queen (i.e. the dynastic honours such as the Order of the Garter, Royal Victorian Order and Order of Merit) are not conferred on ministerial advice and may continue to be granted to New Zealanders under the New Zealand Royal Honours System.

Three New Zealanders have been made Knights of the Order of the Garter: Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Elworthy, in 1977 for services in the United Kingdom, The Rt Hon Sir Keith Holyoake, in 1980 for services as Governor-General and previously as Prime Minister of New Zealand, and Sir Edmund Hillary in 1995 for services to New Zealand and the Commonwealth, and humanitarian work in Nepal. Sir Keith Holyoake is the first New Zealander to receive the Garter for services arising out of New Zealand and is the only former Commonwealth Prime Minister (apart from British Prime Ministers) to receive this honour. Sir Edmund Hillary's appointment is unique in that it is the first time the Order has been conferred on a person resident outside of the United Kingdom and for services other than Vice-Regal or political services.

Professor John Cawte Beaglehole, CMG (1901-1971), the historian and authority on Captain James Cook and his voyages, is the only New Zealand resident to be made a Member of the Order of Merit (OM). Two other New Zealand born men have been appointed to the OM: Lord Rutherford of Nelson (1871-1937), the Nobel Laureate who is regarded as the father of nuclear physics, in 1925, and Emeritus Professor Sir Ronald Syme (1903-1989), the pre-eminent historian of ancient Rome, in 1976.

The Order of St John

The Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem is a semi-independent Order of Chivalry and while it is outside ministerial authority it remains within the New Zealand system. All appointments to, and promotions in, the Order are sanctioned by The Queen as "Sovereign Head" of the Order. In New Zealand the Order is constituted as a Priory and the Governor-General is Prior (head).

1995 Review

Additional historical information may be found in The New Zealand Royal Honours System : The Report of the Prime Minister’s Honours Advisory Committee / Te Punaha Tuku Honore A Te Kuini Mo Aotearoa : Te Purongo A Te Komiti Tohutohu A Te Pirimia, September 1995, published by the Honours Unit, Cabinet Office. To obtain a copy of the report contact the Honours Unit.

Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau

The Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau with New Zealand shared in the mix of British and New Zealand honours. Since 1996 only the Cook Islands have retained access to the British system.