Scientist and collector, Director of the Dominion Museum.
A new biography of Hamilton, Augustus appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Hamilton was born in 1853 at Poole, Dorset, England, the son of Augustus Priestly Hamilton, M.D., and Mary Eleanor, née Tebbott. He was educated at Dorset County School and at Epsom Medical College, but did not complete his degree. In 1876 he came to New Zealand and entered the teaching profession. He taught in primary schools at Thorndon, Okarito, and Petane. It was during service at Petane that he joined the Hawke's Bay Philosophical Society, becoming secretary, and establishing the first Napier Museum, founded largely on items of ethnographic interest which he had collected from Maori sources. This museum was destroyed in the earthquake of 1931 and many valuable pieces disappeared; but those that remained form the basis of the present collections.
In 1890, when Hamilton was appointed Registrar of the University of Otago, the most productive period (1890–1903) of his life began, as is indicated by the great list of papers on botany, zoology, and ethnology in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute. In that period he also began his outstanding work – The Art Workmanship of the Maori – which dealt with all aspects of Maori material, culture, and life.
In 1903 Hamilton was appointed Director of the Colonial (later, Dominion) Museum and from then until his death, 10 years later, he devoted all his energies in the direction of increasing that institution's ethnological, historical, and entomological collections. Under him worked two remarkable assistants: James McDonald, artist, sculptor, and photographer, and Amy Castle who helped to found the entomological collection. Hamilton was responsible for the appointment of Elsdon Best to the museum staff. His museum custodian, W. A. McKay, a man of rare qualities was a son of the geologist Alexander McKay.
On September 1882, at St. John's Church, Napier, Hamilton married Hope Ellen, daughter of James McKain, a Petane farmer. He died suddenly on 12 October 1913, while on a visit to the Bay of Islands and is buried in the courtyard of the historic Anglican Church in Russell. Hamilton had two children, a daughter Pearl, and a son Harold, who became Director of Arts and Crafts at Rotorua, specialising in the carving of Maori assembly houses.
Whether as a zoologist among the bones at Castle Rocks, as a botanist in southern Westland or distant Macquarie Island, or as the gatherer of his unrivalled collection of New Zealand stamps, Augustus Hamilton was primarily a collector and systematiser. He was above all a collector of objects throwing light on the life, industry, and art of the ancient Maori. His personal collections were mainly from Hawke's Bay sites where with characteristic energy and thoroughness he collected anything of an ethnological nature – his principal interests being carvings of all descriptions, garments and flax fabrics, as well as articles connected with fishing. At Otago, with the assistance of Mr Justice Chapman, Hamilton excavated the camping ground of the moa hunters at Shag Point. As a result, they reached the conclusion that the Polynesians who hunted the moa knew and worked greenstone.
In his 10-year term as Director of the Dominion Museum, Hamilton devoted his boundless energy to augmenting the national collection of ethnological material from Maori sources. Outstanding in this respect were the gifts of the collections made by Sir Walter Buller and A. H. Turnbull, as well as the collection of objects brought to England by Captain Cook and ultimately presented to the museum by Lord St. Oswald. Unfortunately, however, Hamilton failed to persuade successive Ministers of Finance that the priceless collections he had assembled should be adequately housed.
Through the force of his personality and by his outstanding ability, Hamilton rose from the position of school teacher in a Hawke's Bay township to become Director of the Dominion Museum. In 1912 on a first visit to the Dominion Museum, the writer had the privilege of meeting Hamilton. He was indeed a kindly enthusiast, one who was ready instantly to show a junior student all the many things he wanted to see. Carvings were there by the score – Maori carvings of all kinds and conditions, enough for a lifetime's study, and practically all gathered together by the zeal of a single man. A memorial fund in memory of Augustus Hamilton was established by the Wellington Philosophical Society, and vested in the New Zealand Institute (now the Royal Society of New Zealand), to enable a small sum of money to be awarded for pure scientific research at intervals of not less than three years by the annual meeting of governors.
by William John Phillipps, formerly Registrar and Ethnologist, Dominion Museum, Wellington.
- Art Workmanship of the Maori Race in New Zealand, Hamilton, A. (1896–1900)
- Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, Vols. 25–36 (1892–1903) (articles)
- Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vols. 4 (1895) and 12 (1903) (articles).