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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.


HUNTER, Thomas Alexander, K.B.E.


University teacher and educational administrator.

A new biography of Hunter, Thomas Alexander appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Thomas Alexander Hunter was born at Croydon, London, on 4 October 1876, the third son of William Hunter, a banker. He was brought as a child to Dunedin, where he was educated. At the University of Otago he was a senior scholar, and took his M.A. with first-class honours in mental and moral philosophy in 1899. He also became an expert and formidable footballer. After school teaching for some 10 years, during which time he also took part in some exploration in Southland, he was appointed in 1904 lecturer in mental science and political economy at Victoria University College, thus beginning an association of almost 50 years with the same institution. In the following year he married the beautiful Zella Pope; they had one son and two daughters. In 1906 he took the degree of M.Sc., and in 1907 went to America to study experimental psychology under Edward B. Titchener at Cornell; on his return he founded the first psychological laboratory in New Zealand and was made professor of philosophy and economics. In 1909 his chair was altered to philosophy and psychology, and this he retained till 1947.

Not merely was Hunter an enterprising and stimulating teacher, but he rapidly came to take a critical view of the New Zealand university system, and when the University Reform Association was set up in 1910 he was its secretary. He was not the first originator of the movement, but no man was more consistent and untiring in advocacy of it, long after its first impetus was spent and its first successes gained, and no man could more justly have claimed, in the end, to have been its leader. By the time of his death the battle was virtually won, though it was not till eight years later that the single examining University was finally transformed into four separate properly functioning institutions. In the meantime he had naturally begun to be interested in university administration; he was chairman of his own professorial board in 1911–12 and 1920–21 and a member of the college council 1917–21; and he was elected in 1912 to the University senate, on which he served, with one gap of a year, till 1950. His career, apart from the teaching side of it, may be described as a continuous pursuit of administrative efficiency, combined with a lively realisation that the administrator had to deal not merely with machinery but with human beings. When the University was reorganised under a new Act of 1926, it was hardly possible that any other man than Hunter could be appointed as vice-chancellor, and in this office he served from 1929 to 1947, in a valiant and not unsuccessful effort to get a system, of which he could not really approve, to work reasonably well. Similarly, when the increasing complexity of the business of his own college made urgent the appointment of a permanent academic head, he was the obvious choice in 1938 for principal. At the end of 1947 he vacated his chair to serve full time in this capacity, though by now his earlier vigour was declining.

Hunter's educational interests were not confined to the University; when the Workers' Educational Association was introduced to New Zealand in 1915, he immediately became one of its principal figures both as lecturer and as administrator. He was president of the Wellington branch, 1915–19. Like no one else he could gain the confidence of working-class leaders, and in his own classes had men like Peter Fraser; his advice, like the support he could gain for the movement in academic circles, was invaluable, and his influence continuous. He edited the short-lived New Zealand Highway (1925–28), the organ of the movement. As the basis of adult education was broadened throughout the country, its administration presented increasing problems, and Hunter played a considerable part in the work of a committee set up by the University senate, at the request of the Minister of Education, Peter Fraser, to recommend a better organisation. This was the origin of the Council of Adult Education (1938), of which he was the chairman till 1947, after which the structure was still further elaborated. When Massey Agricultural College, Palmerston North, was founded in 1927 by the transference of chairs from both Auckland and Victoria University Colleges, Hunter, strongly in favour of the amalgamation, naturally became one of the governing body; he was chairman of the college from 1936 to 1938. But his longest period of continuous service, apart from that given to university institutions, was his chairmanship of the New Zealand Council for Educational Research, founded in 1933 with a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York; Hunter was one of its architects and he was at its head from its foundation to his death.

In 1939 Hunter was created K.B.E., to the pleasure of his colleagues, and in 1946, on his seventieth birthday, he was the recipient of the first festschrift ever presented to a New Zealand university teacher, the volume entitled The University and the Community, which attempted to reflect or parallel some of his own manysidedness and his own insistence on the social conscience. In 1949 the University of New Zealand made him an honorary Litt.D. He retired from the principalship of his college in 1951 with the title of Emeritus Principal, and died on 20 April 1953.

Hunter's free and critical mind, his willingness to argue, his hatred of injustice, ignorance, muddlement, waste and mere good intentions, his willingness to fight in any cause he thought a good one, however unpopular, his enthusiasm but lack of sentimentality, his disinterestedness, his ability as an administrator, inevitably made him enemies as well as friends. Devoted to reason, frankly secular in his approach to every problem, he was inevitably labelled both an atheist and a socialist. He was neither. There was nothing he distrusted more than rigidity of the mind or the easy acceptance of labels. This made him a first-rate teacher and a first-rate controversialist, though he was never a great or profound scholar in the professional sense. As an administrator he kept on a little too long, and his passion for carefully preparing his ground brought on accusations of too much indirectness. But in his long prime he was superb, and no honest enemy would ever deny his honesty any more than his courage. No man certainly ever did more for education, as a social and liberalising force, in New Zealand.

by John Cawte Beaglehole, C.M.G., M.A.(N.Z.), PH.D. (LOND.), Professor of British Commonwealth History, Victoria University of Wellington.

  • The University of New Zealand, Beaglehole, J. C. (1937)
  • Victoria University College, Beaglehole, J. C. (1949)
  • Evening Post, 20 Apr 1953 (Obit).


John Cawte Beaglehole, C.M.G., M.A.(N.Z.), PH.D. (LOND.), Professor of British Commonwealth History, Victoria University of Wellington.