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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.


HARPER, Arthur Paul


Mountaineer, explorer, and naturalist.

A new biography of Harper, Arthur Paul appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Harper was born in Christchurch in 1865, a son of Leonard Harper and grandson of Bishop Harper. He was educated at Christ's College and at Christ Church, Oxford (1884–87). A member of the Inner Temple, he was called to the Bar in 1888, returning to New Zealand in 1889. Towards the end of his Oxford career Harper became interested in alpine climbing and in 1887 and 1888 climbed in the Alps. In 1890 and 1891 he was climbing in New Zealand. Revisiting England, in 1892, he enjoyed his third and most successful Swiss season, which included the first ascent of the Nollenhorn, guideless, with his most constant companion, the Rev. George Broke.

Harper's first New Zealand climbing included expeditions with G. E. Mannering, such as the first crossing of Ball Pass and the first exploration of the Murchison Glacier, and the first ascent of Harper Saddle (1890). In August 1893 he joined the Survey Department as an “explorer” assistant to the celebrated Charles Douglas. Harper's mountaineering knowledge was put to good use during the next three years in the exploration of the Fox, Franz Josef, and Balfour Glaciers and of adjacent West Coast river systems such as the Karangarua and the Landsborough. The association with Douglas, who did not often venture above snowline and characterised climbers as “alpine lunatics”, was of value to both men and resulted in the completion of the exploration of much difficult country. Douglas's failing health entailed Harper doing much of the work alone. Harper learned much of the fascinating bird life of the region. In 1895 he accompanied the English climber E. A. FitzGerald and his famous Swiss guide, Matthias Zurbriggen, from the Copland Valley through to the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers and by Grahams Saddle to the Hermitage. Harper had cause to disagree with many statements in FitzGerald's book (1896), one of the main controversies centring round whether or not FitzGerald's transalpine pass from the Hooker to the Copland was a new discovery. Harper himself published in the same year Pioneer Work in the Alps of New Zealand, describing with gusto the West Coast exploration he had been engaged in for the Survey Department.

His West Coast stay had kindled Harper's interest in mining matters. He was twice in legal practice in mining districts (Thames and Greymouth) for some eight years, but during the rest of his life was engaged in various forms of business, often connected with mining.

With Malcolm Ross, Mannering, and Dixon, Harper in 1891 founded on lines similar to the Alpine Club, London, the New Zealand Alpine Club, with which he was to be closely associated for the rest of his life, serving as president for longer than any other member (1914–32, 1941). The club's first president was his father, Leonard, who had made the first crossing by a European of the Southern Alps to the West Coast by way of Harper Pass from the Hurunui to the Taramakau in 1857. In middle life Harper made few mountain expeditions, though he achieved the first ascent of Davie in the Waimakariri in 1912. But in 1926 he returned to the Southern Alps to introduce his daughter Rosamund (who afterwards made a number of ascents), revisiting the Karangarua and other areas he had first explored. He was active at a quite advanced age, climbing Hector Col in the Matukituki in his middle seventies.

Harper married Marion Florence Campbell in 1899, by whom he had two sons and two daughters. One son was killed in the Second World War.

Resident in Wellington during the last 30 years of his life, Harper became well known as the spokesman of mountaineering and also put to good use his intimate knowledge of bird life and bushcraft. In 1930 he helped to found the Federated Mountain Clubs of New Zealand. He was for over 20 years a member of the New Zealand Geographic Board, and served also as a member of the National Parks Authority. He was a president of the Forest and Bird Protection Society. In 1932 he was elected an honorary member of the Alpine Club (London), after many years ordinary membership, and was a life member of the New Zealand Alpine Club. In 1946 he published Memories of Mountains and Men, a lively account of his mountaineering and other activities. In 1952 he was awarded the C.B.E. in recognition of his achievements in exploration and mountaineering, as well as his work for the preservation of scenery. He died in Wellington on 30 May 1955.

Harper always repudiated high climbing ambitions but felt justified in claiming recognition as an explorer. He was a strong personality and perhaps his greatest direct contribution to mountaineering lay in the encouragement of others, whether as an attractive and eloquent lecturer or as a club administrator whose natural conservatism was modified by a healthy regard for the adventurous spirit of youth.

by David Oswald William Hall, M.A., Director, Adult Education, University of Otago (retired).

  • Pioneer Work in the Alps of New Zealand, Harper, A. P. (1896)
  • Memories of Mountains and Men, Harper, A. P. (1946)
  • New Zealand Alpine Journal, (1955)
  • Alpine Journal, Vol. 60.


David Oswald William Hall, M.A., Director, Adult Education, University of Otago (retired).