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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.


HIGHT, Sir James


University teacher, historian, and economist.

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

James Hight was born at Halswell, near Christchurch, on 3 November 1870, the eldest son of four in a family of eight children. His father, Samuel Hight, one of several brothers who emigrated from Northamptonshire, arrived at Lyttelton in 1864 as a young man of about 20. He married Mary Ryan, who was of Irish origin, and after working on several farms acquired 100 acres of his own between Racecourse Hill and Waddington in the Malvern district of Canterbury. James Hight grew up on this farm, attending the Malvern district school first as a pupil (from 1875) and subsequently (from 1887) as a pupil teacher. Already marked out by unusual diligence and aptitude, he continued his preparation for the teaching profession in 1891–92 at the Christchurch Training College. At the same time he studied at Canterbury College on an English exhibition, as one of a distinguished generation of students, which included Ernest Rutherford, Apirana Ngata, William Marris, and Michael Myers. He graduated B.A. in 1893, winning scholarships in English and French, and M.A. with first-class honours in those subjects in 1894.

After five years as a teacher of English, commercial subjects, and modern languages at the Auckland College and Grammar School, Hight returned in 1901 to Canterbury College as lecturer in political economy and constitutional history. Except for a year on exchange in the Chair of Modern History at Leeds in 1927, he was never again to leave Christchurch for any long period, and he was to serve the university continuously until he retired from the Chair of History and Political Science in 1949. Both as teacher and administrator he filled many posts of strategic importance, and his biography insensibly merges into much of the history of Canterbury College and even of the University of New Zealand. He was made director of studies in commerce in 1906, and in 1909 he was appointed to the newly created Chair of History and Economics. When, in 1919, the Chair was divided, he became Professor of History and Political Science, and one of his pupils, J. B. Condliffe, became Professor of Economics. He was for many years influential in the counsels of his college at almost all levels, and from 1928 to 1941 he was rector, guiding what was then a comparatively small institution with a wisdom and breadth of vision that would have served greater centres of learning. In the University of New Zealand he was a member of the Senate for 36 years and Pro-Chancellor for 13; he sat for almost as long on the Academic Board (previously the Board of Studies), of which he was chairman for 14 years. Those who met under him always spoke of his patience and fairmindedness, his mastery of business, and his shrewd sense of timing.

Hight's scholarship was deep and wide-ranging. It rested on a lifelong habit of industry (which a robust physique could support) a prodigious memory, quick intelligence, and sober judgment. It received recognition in several awards, including (in 1906) the first New Zealand Doctorate of Literature. It was manifested by numerous publications, among them a standard work on the government of New Zealand, but perhaps more lastingly by the impetus he gave to the study of the social sciences in the university. Not only did he do much to establish the prestige of history as an academic discipline in New Zealand, but, with a forward-looking mind, he fostered allied subjects then struggling for acceptance – economics, political science, sociology, and geography. Characteristically, it was through his efforts, doggedly maintained through 30 years or more, that the University of New Zealand Press was set up shortly before his retirement.

He gave his time and talents freely to the wider community, whether in advising Governments or in encouraging neighbours to beautify their street by tree planting. As publishing editor for Whitcombe and Tombs early in the century, he planned and commissioned many school textbooks in Australia and New Zealand, and edited both the predecessor of the modern School Journal and the first professional journal for teachers. As an educationist, he served on school boards and the Workers' Educational Association. Capable in his younger days of eking out his earnings as an orchestral violinist, he remained a collector of violins and a supporter of local musical societies. As an economist, he was a member of the Royal Commissions on the cost of living (1912) and on mining (1919), and he was chairman of the Economists' Commission of 1932, whose report, with its emphasis on frugality and “sound” remedies, reflected typically the teachings of Marshall rather than of Keynes. As an historian, he was still at the time of his death joint editor of the Canterbury centennial provincial history. He was awarded the C.M.G. in 1932 and created K.B.E. in 1947. He died in Christchurch on 17 May 1958.

Grown to manhood in the late Victorian era, Hight was a true Victorian in his capacity for hard work, his zeal for improvement, and his liberal but firm ideals of conduct, which he displayed by example rather than precept. One of the most remarkable of the earlier generations of the native-born, he was a New Zealander by inclination as by birth, with his roots firmly fixed in Canterbury. Not for him, however, the brasher forms of colonial nationalism. Though he was in advanced middle age before he saw the Old World, his immersion in the Western cultural tradition saved him from any hint of insularity and enabled him to see his country's needs in perspective. His greatest contribution was, while it was still of a formative age, to humanise the university – to ensure that it was a place no less human in its conduct than humane in its learning. Entrance policy should exclude none who might profit by admission; curricula should be liberalised and kept in step with the best overseas models. Sometimes, as one colleague observed, the heart triumphed over the head. But Hight's aims were well adapted to New Zealand society in its second-half century, though he would have been the first to confess failure to win adequate public acknowledgment of the university's needs. His influence as a teacher was more direct and no less pervasive. He could not and would not – inspire by histrionics; his shyness and grave demeanour could induce awe in younger students; but in the end his extreme courtesy and tolerance, his quiet humour, and his many unsolicited kindnesses won him their lasting affection, and bred in them a little of his own respect for exact scholarship and intellectual integrity. He sought out and encouraged promising students, and a few of them went out into the world as eminent scholars; but ultimately these were less significant for New Zealand than his work in moderating frontier attitudes to higher learning.

by Neville Crompton Phillips, M.A., Professor of History, University of Canterbury.

  • Liberty and Learning: Essays in Honour of Sir James Hight (ed. R. S. Allan) (Christchurch, 1950) (contains a bibliography of Hight's works). New Zealand Listener (Wellington), 5 Mar 1948
  • Press (Christchurch), 19 May 1958 (Obit)
  • Landfall (Christchurch), No. 47, Sep 1958.


Neville Crompton Phillips, M.A., Professor of History, University of Canterbury.