ALPERS, The Hon. Oscar Thorwald Johan
Barrister, journalist, Judge of the Supreme Court.
A new biography of Alpers, Oscar Thorwald Johan appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Oscar Thorwald Johan Alpers, the only son of Thorwald Alpers, was born on 28 January 1867 at Copenhagen, Denmark, and received his first education there at Kelskov's Grammar School. When he was eight years old, however, his family emigrated to New Zealand where his father had determined to start a new life in Napier. At that stage Alpers could not speak English but within four years, despite indifferent schooling, he had attained such a command of the language and of the subjects that he was appointed a pupil tutor at the Napier District School, and by the age of 16 had obtained a bursary for education at the Teachers' Training College at Christchurch. Whilst at the training college he also attended Canterbury University College, and in 1887 obtained a B.A. degree and the John Tinline Scholarship in English literature. The following year he proceeded to M.A. with first-class honours in languages and literature and was appointed assistant to the professor of English. For three years he served as the professor's assistant and in 1893 when the professor went to England for a short period, he acted as his locum tenens.
During this period Alpers was also on the staff of the Christchurch Boys' High School where he remained for the next 15 years. In 1903, however, Alpers turned to the study of law at Canterbury University College, and, acquiring his LL.B. in the following year, entered into partnership at Timaru. In October 1907 Alpers returned to Christchurch to practise, at first on his own account, and then after 1909 in partnership with the firm of Garrick, Cowlishaw, and Co., where he remained until his appointment to the Supreme Court Bench in 1925. On the very day that he was informed of his appointment as Judge, he was advised from Copenhagen that he had been appointed Consul for Denmark in respect of the South Island, but this office, by reason of his judicial appointment, he was obliged at once to decline. His duties as a Judge of the Supreme Court commenced at Wellington in February 1925 but it was not long before he was a victim of cancer. He died at Wellington on 21 November 1927.
Alpers was survived by his wife, Natalie May, the daughter of Captain Henry Rose, of Dunedin, whom he had married in 1911, and by whom he had three children, two sons and one daughter.
As an advocate Alpers was not, and never professed to be, a counsel learned in all the intricacies of the law but he excelled as a trial lawyer. His strength lay in the examination and cross-examination of witnesses and appeals to the jury, and his appearance in Court was always commanding and impressive. He had a powerful voice with a full and easy command of the English language and a highly developed sense of the dramatic. His large frame, complete self-assurance, and dramatic use of a monocle all contributed to the impressive effect he created, but this was never turned to unfair advantage. As a Judge, Alpers unfortunately had inadequate health and time to demonstrate fully his powers, but his contemporaries spoke of the painstaking care of his judgments and of his courtesy and kindness from the bench.
Alpers appeared to have played no important part in local or national politics but his contribution to local affairs was considerable, especially during the First World War. For in that period he made great efforts to assist the recruitment of armed forces and the raising of war funds by campaigning throughout Canterbury organising meetings, concerts, and the like. He was a powerful force behind the Red Cross movement and was largely responsible for the establishment and monthly publication of its journal The Red Cross Record. He also helped to establish the Returned Servicemen's Association and did much to gather funds for that organisation; he was the first person, and one of the few non-servicemen, to be elected a life member of the association.
His purely recreational interests were in literature and the stage. The dramatic talents which were so characteristic of his Court appearances received fulfilment in his performances in local theatrical productions, and it is significant that his best leading roles were not in tragedies. He was a constant contributor to newspapers in Christchurch and conducted a regular column in the Lyttelton Times for some time. He was also a contributor to The Fortnightly Review, Empire Review, Nineteenth Century and After, and other journals. In 1900 he collaborated with Mr (later Professor) R. F. Irvine in the writing of a history of New Zealand in the Nineteenth Century. He was also the author of The Jubilee Book of Canterbury Rhymes, and College Rhymes; An Anthology of Canterbury College Verse, which was published for the jubilee celebrations of the college in 1923. Probably the most important of his works, however, was his autobiography Cheerful Yesterdays which was dictated largely from his death bed.
Alpers was a man who loved life and people and was essentially of a gregarious and generous nature. Even though his conversation smacked of the egotist, he was never a selfish or unilateral egoist, and throughout his life he always had the capacity for making and keeping many good friends. It was an indication of his popularity that on the night of the announcement of his appointment as a Judge, the whole audience of a Christchurch theatre spontaneously burst into applause when he entered with his wife.
by Donald Edgar Paterson, B.A., LL.M.(N.Z.), LL.M., J.S.D.(YALE), Lecturer in Jurisprudence and Constitutional Law, Victoria University of Wellington.
- Cheerful Yesterdays, Alpers, O. T. J. (1951)
- Press (Christchurch) 22, 23 Nov 1927 (Obits)
- Evening Post 21, 25 Nov 1927 (Obits).