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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.


HABENS, Rev. William James


Congregational minister, and Inspector-General, Education Department.

A new biography of Habens, William James appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

William Habens was born in June 1839, the son of Matthew Habens and Mary Ann, née Hayter. He was educated at Puget School, Brighton, at Hackney College, and graduated B.A. at London University in 1862. In the same year Habens married Anne, daughter of Thomas Mellish, of Brighton. He was ordained to the Congregational Church pastorate in 1863 and shortly afterwards sailed for New Zealand in the Canterbury. For 15 years he was in charge of Trinity Church, Christchurch, which was designed by B. W. Mountfort and built during Haben's ministry. Later he served a term as president of the Congregational Union.

As a citizen, Habens was remarkable for his ability and for his farsightedness, particularly in the field of education. When the provincial councils were abolished (1876) and the national system of free, compulsory, and secular schools was created by the Education Act of 1877, Habens was appointed the first Inspector-General of Schools. In 1879 he acted as secretary to the Royal Commission on the University of New Zealand and its relations to the secondary schools of the colony, and was largely responsible for its exhaustive and useful report. Later, on the retirement of Dr John Hislop, Habens was appointed Secretary of Education. In these positions he earned high praise for the part he played in organising the new Education Department. On Habens, also, fell most of the responsibility for integrating and coordinating the various education systems which had flourished under the provincial councils. He devised and instituted a scheme for the comparative classification and payment of teachers in State schools. In the early 1890s, Habens took an important part in founding the New Zealand Public Service Association. At this time his health became indifferent, and his zeal for long hours of work further undermined his constitution. He died very suddenly in his office in the Museum House, Museum Street, Wellington, on 3 February 1899.

Tact, originality, independence of thought, and thoroughness in attention to detail characterised all Haben's work, and he was highly regarded both by teachers and by the officers of his Department. To perpetuate his memory his friends and admirers established the fund from which the University of New Zealand annually awards the Habens Prize.

by Herbert Alexander Horace Insull, M.A., DIP.SOC.SC., Principal, Marlborough College, Blenheim.

  • Education in New Zealand, Butchers, A. G. (1930)
  • Fifty Years of National Education in New Zealand, 1878–1928, Davey, I. (1928)
  • Evening Post, 4 Feb 1899 (Obit).


Herbert Alexander Horace Insull, M.A., DIP.SOC.SC., Principal, Marlborough College, Blenheim.