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Story: Bickerton, Alexander William

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Bickerton, Alexander William


Scientist, university professor, eccentric

This biography, written by H. N. Parton, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.

Alexander William Bickerton was born at Alton, Hampshire, England, on 7 January 1842, the second son of Sophia Matilda Eames and her husband, Richard Bickerton, a builder's clerk and draughtsman. He was baptised in the Anglican church, of which he remained an unorthodox member throughout his life. His parents died when he was young, and as a ward in chancery he was placed in the care of an uncle.

Bickerton's early grammar school education in Classics was unsatisfactory, and he found employment in railway engineering and then in cabinet-making. His first education in science he owed to Moses Pullen's classes in the Cotswolds; he also taught for a period in Birmingham. He married Anne Phoebe Edwards on 27 September 1866 at Bristol; they were to have seven children.

In 1867 Bickerton won an exhibition to the Royal School of Mines at Kensington, where he attended lectures by P. F. Frankland, John Tyndall and Thomas Huxley. He organised science classes for working men at Chelsea, and from 1870 taught at the Hartley Institution, Southampton, and at Winchester College.

In 1874 Bickerton accepted, out of several promising offers, the post of foundation professor of chemistry at the newly established Canterbury College, New Zealand. He received a salary of £600 a year plus student fees, £150 for travelling expenses, and £450 to buy equipment in England. Bickerton and his family arrived in Christchurch on the Atrato in June 1874.

Bickerton had few students, and his first classes were held in the Oddfellows hall; even when the college's first buildings were opened in 1877 he was given only a temporary structure of wood and corrugated iron. His role expanded beyond the terms of his original appointment. He taught physics as well as chemistry, served as a government analyst and gave public lectures on practical science. The first of these attracted an audience of about 400, and an extra-curricular elementary chemistry course drew 118 students. His contribution to chemistry lay in teaching, while his theoretical interests lay in philosophising on stellar impact and energy transfer. In 1874 he published papers in the Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute on a new thermometer, an electric lamp for projecting spectra, and 'a scheme of university and general education'.

From 1877 to 1881 Bickerton engaged in a dispute with the college authorities over his teaching duties and college administration. He was also in dispute with the University of New Zealand over a teaching system which seemed to place too much emphasis on memory and rote learning. At the same time he began to publicise his theory that the partial impact of heavenly bodies was the origin of new stars and the cause of other unexplained astronomical phenomena. He claimed that his theory succeeded 'in carrying the principle of evolution beyond a mere planet or even a solar system, and [showed] it to be a universal law controlling the cosmos'. Unhappily, the scientific world did not agree. Bickerton found some popular support, and in 1879 served as president of the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury.

In 1894 the college's board of governors set up a committee to inquire into the management of the Department of Chemistry and Physics. The numbers in the classes had been falling since 1890, and Bickerton's critics believed that his extra-collegiate activities were adversely affecting his performance. They were also disturbed by his outspoken scorn for social respectability and his espousal of socialism. Bickerton was opposed at the hearing by a long-standing enemy, Charles Cook, professor of mathematics, and by one of his own students, John Erskine. Another student, Ernest Rutherford, paid tribute to Bickerton's interest in his research topic. The committee's recommendations, unfavourable to Bickerton, were overturned by the board.

The events of 1894 left Bickerton exhausted and he was granted a year's leave to prevent a complete breakdown. Having found the basis on which society was organised to be seriously in error, he set himself the task of improving it. In 1896 he founded a 'Federative Home' at Wainoni, a house he had built in 1884 among the New Brighton sandhills; by 1899 it was established with some 30 members. Domestic work was co-operative and most members had outside occupations, although a few ran small industries at the home, including a fireworks factory. Bickerton meanwhile was writing books about his cosmic theories; one of these, The romance of the earth (1898), contained sociological ideas about the decline of civilisation, which led to a newspaper controversy. One of Bickerton's contributions to this was headed 'The morality of marriage' and concluded, in words borrowed from Max Nordau, that marriage was 'A deeply immoral relation, fraught with the most fatal results for the future of society.' Further bitter correspondence followed in the columns of the Lyttelton Times.

In 1899 Bickerton applied for a year's leave. This was granted in circumstances which made it seem that his appointment was being terminated. He was eventually reappointed from 1 January 1901 as professor of chemistry only, and at a reduced salary of £700. His year in England was unsatisfactory. The scientific establishment was not converted to partial impact, and his new book, The romance of the heavens, was poorly received.

Back in Christchurch Bickerton alienated much of his popular support by attacking the jingoism associated with the South African war. He was again accused of neglecting his duties, and in an atmosphere made worse by his public attacks on the board of governors, the decision to terminate his appointment was made in March 1902.

Bickerton now set up the Wainoni Remedy Manufacturing Company to market his own patent medicines. Wainoni itself was turned into a public pleasure park. He lectured in Australia and became an itinerant geography teacher in New Zealand. In February 1910, at the instigation of E. J. (Ted) Howard, president of the Canterbury Trades and Labour Council, a committee was formed to raise funds to send Bickerton to England. A government subsidy was secured, and Bickerton left New Zealand for the last time in July 1910. Wainoni was left in the care of his wife and three of their children.

Bickerton devoted himself to gaining acceptance of the partial impact theory from England's leading scientists; he ignored Rutherford's advice to re-examine it in the light of recent advances in knowledge. For a time he had a small income from the sale of pamphlets, and remittances from Wainoni. In 1915 Rutherford secured for him a grant of £50 from the Royal Society of London; an annuity of £100 followed in 1916.

Anne Bickerton died at Wainoni on 22 April 1919 and Bickerton invited a long-standing friend from Christchurch, Mary Maria Wilkinson, to join him in England. They were married in London on 12 July 1920. Shortly before his death Bickerton was made professor emeritus of Canterbury College and granted an annuity of £120 by the New Zealand government. He died of toxaemia in London on 22 January 1929, survived by his second wife. His friend and former student, Ettie Rout, had his ashes returned to Christchurch where Ted Howard eventually managed to secure their deposit behind a brass tablet in the hall of Canterbury College.

Photographs of Bickerton show him with a heavy beard and earnest gaze. He courted public acclaim and professional distaste by taking science out of the academic cloisters, and held doggedly to what he believed to be his contribution to physics. It was said of him that 'he did not know very much, but…was convinced that there was a great deal yet to be known and discovered.'

How to cite this page:

H. N. Parton. 'Bickerton, Alexander William', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2b23/bickerton-alexander-william (accessed 23 May 2024)