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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.


BECK, John


Educational reformer.

A new biography of Beck, John appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

John Beck was born in January 1883 at Kircudbright, Scotland, and was the son of Thomas Fazackerley Beck and of Margaret, née Smith. In 1889 he came to New Zealand with his parents and his father found employment with the Railways Department. In June 1899 young Beck joined the New Zealand Education Department as a clerical cadet. He worked his way rapidly through the basic grades and, in 1915, became officer in charge of the Industrial and Special Schools Section of the Department. His dislike of the system whereby delinquent children were sent to institutions led him to advocate that, except for the most serious of handicapped cases, they should be boarded out in foster homes. Beck's outspoken campaign against the industrial schools drew strong opposition and he quickly became a controversial figure. His arguments, more than any other single factor, induced the Government to close its three industrial schools–at Auckland, Dunedin, and Burnham.

In 1924 the Government sent Beck to study child welfare methods in the United States and Canada. When he returned he wrote a report which laid the foundations for the Child Welfare Act of 1925. When the Act came into force in the following year Beck was appointed Superintendent of Child Welfare. Among the innovations contained in the Act were provisions for the establishment of Children's Courts and for the appointment of Child Welfare Officers. Beck remained in his post until 1938, when failing health obliged him to retire. After this he lived quietly at Ngaruawahia until his death, in Hamilton, on 13 January 1962.

John Beck was twice married: first, on 24 September 1913, at Columba Church, Oamaru, to Ethel Sinclair (who died on 26 July 1932); and, secondly, on 30 January 1934, at St. Kilda, Dunedin, to Doris Mary Catherine Muir, the first woman to be a Child Welfare Inspector in New Zealand. He had four sons and one daughter by his first marriage.

By his singleness of purpose, Beck inaugurated widespread reforms in the New Zealand child welfare system. His forceful exposition soon caused his ideas to be accepted and there has never been any serious suggestion that the industrial schools should be revived. He was greatly aided in his campaign by J. A. Lee, the novelist and member of Parliament, who drew much of the background material for Children of the Poor and The Hunted from the industrial school at Burnham.

by Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.

  • Dominion, 17 Jan 1962 (Obit)
  • Evening Post, 17 Jan 1962 (Obit).


Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.