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Hill, Henry


School inspector, educationalist

This biography, written by Kay Morris Matthews, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993. It was updated in September, 2011.

Henry Hill, sometimes known as Henry Thomas Hill, was born at Wollescote, in the district of Stourbridge, Worcestershire, England, on 24 October 1849. He was the son of Benjamin Hill, a horse-nail maker, and his wife, Mary Parkes. When both of Henry's parents died suddenly he came under the care of the local Anglican vicar. He attended Lye national school, excelled at his studies and was encouraged to become a pupil-teacher at St David's School, Birmingham, in 1863. During his time there he was commended as 'a superior teacher' and one of the most promising pupil-teachers ever known to the principal.

In 1868 Hill was awarded a scholarship to St Mark's Training College, Cheltenham. It was here that he befriended Emily Knowles, who was a student at the local women's training college. On leaving Cheltenham with a first-class teacher's certificate in 1870, he was sent to organise a group of new schools in Nottingham. Here he balanced an onerous workload with extramural study. His efforts were rewarded when in 1873 he qualified as a science and art master.

On 4 July 1873 Hill signed an employment agreement with the Canterbury Provincial Government in New Zealand to assist with the organisation of public schools. It was made clear that he must be married prior to departure. Less than a month before his ship, the Merope, was to sail, he telegraphed Emily Knowles who was now teaching at the Lye national school: 'Will you go with me to N. Zealand. I must have a yes or no.' They were married at Halesowen, Worcestershire, on 23 July 1873, 12 days before embarking. On the voyage out Emily was the ship's matron and Henry the schoolmaster.

When the Hills arrived in the colony in late 1873 new schools were being constructed in Christchurch and Henry assisted with the administrative aspects of their establishment. Then, in June 1875, he was appointed headmaster of the new Christchurch East School; Emily became the school's first infant mistress. Over the next three years Henry combined his teaching duties with part-time university study and increasing family responsibilities. There were to be four daughters and three sons of the marriage.

Henry was the first recipient of the University of New Zealand's Bowen Prize in English literature and in 1878 he graduated bachelor of arts. In studying for his degree he undertook advanced studies in English, geography, geology and botany. Encouraged, no doubt, by his university successes, Henry applied for the position of inspector of schools for the Hawke's Bay Education Board. His application, supported by glowing testimonials, was successful. By July 1878 he had taken up his duties in Napier.

Henry Hill's appointment coincided with the implementation of the Education Act 1877 which provided free primary schooling. Hawke's Bay children flocked to the 14 available schools. That Hill was shocked by what he saw is illustrated by his first report to the education board, in which he claimed that most teachers were untrained and inexperienced and were attempting to work without assistance in unsuitable buildings.

Hill was, however, undaunted by the task confronting him. He enthusiastically began what was to be a 37-year mission to raise the standard of efficiency of public education in Hawke's Bay. In his first months in office he examined pupils, investigated potential school sites, arranged temporary accommodation where school buildings could not cope with increased numbers of pupils, met with school committees, advised teachers and even took demonstration lessons with their classes. He then embarked on a rigorous programme of school inspections.

The diaries Hill kept indicate that he had a very deliberate pattern of visiting to enable him to cover his 8,578-square-mile district on horseback twice within the year. On these trips he had to spend nights either camped in the open or in substandard backblocks accommodation. On returning to his Napier home it was the custom for Emily to throw a fresh set of clothes from an upstairs window and for Henry to strip off his travelling attire in the yard.

During his term as inspector of schools from 1878 to 1915, the number of schools increased from 14 to 148. By the time Hill retired in 1915 all were serviced by roads or railway and stood neatly painted and well maintained in their tidy playgrounds. The Hawke's Bay Education Board school population grew from 1,500 pupils in 1878, with an average attendance of 60 per cent, to 12,782 in 1915 with an average attendance of 90 per cent.

Henry Hill's influence over the board, especially during his 13 years as secretary from 1878 to 1891, resulted in many interesting educational developments. Although he was not responsible for all the changes that took place in Hawke's Bay education during the nineteenth century, he can fairly be given credit for pioneering efforts in the design of school buildings and furniture, the in-service training of teachers, the development of a geography and natural science curriculum, and the fostering of teacher union membership. Under his editorship New Zealand's first professional educational journal, The New Zealand Schoolmaster, was published and he wrote the first locally published geography text. He played a significant part in bringing one of the most educationally backward of provinces into line with those more richly endowed.

Henry Hill was a tall, well-built man, who tended to speak very loudly. He possessed an outgoing personality, boundless energy and an enquiring mind, and was a great enthusiast. Both Henry and Emily were regular attenders of the Cathedral Church of St John the Evangelist and strict temperance observers. The Hills also had a reputation for humanitarian deeds. They were foster parents to Hamiora Hei, who with their help received a good education and returned to the East Coast as a qualified lawyer.

A keen scientist, Hill had a particular interest in the volcanic plateau of the central North Island, and he presented many papers to the New Zealand Institute on the subject of earthquakes and volcanoes. He is thought to have been the first Pakeha to climb to the crater of Mt Ruapehu, and the Ruapehu group was the subject of many of his papers. He was also interested in river systems and water supply, and oil-bearing structures. His contribution to scientific research was recognised when he was made a fellow of the Geological Society of London in 1887.

Henry Hill was mayor of Napier from 1917 to 1919. He was also a member of the Hawke's Bay Hospital Board, the Hawke's Bay Electric Power Board, the Napier High School board of governors, the Anglican diocesan synod, the Napier Athenaeum & Mechanics' Institute and the Hawke's Bay Philosophical Institute (later a branch of the Royal Society of New Zealand). He contested the Napier seat as the Labour candidate in 1911, and as an Independent Progressive candidate in 1919.

In retirement Henry Hill divided his time between his Napier home and the property he had purchased at Lake Taupo. He continued to pursue his geological interests and in his 70s made explorations of the Kaingaroa Plains. However, distressing events marred his final years. Emily Hill died in August 1930. The following year a large proportion of Henry's hillside section subsided in the Napier earthquake. He suffered financial losses, having borrowed heavily against the property in order to travel to Britain with Emily some years earlier. Henry Hill died at Napier on 15 July 1933 and was buried at the Park Island cemetery.

How to cite this page:

Kay Morris Matthews. 'Hill, Henry', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993, updated September, 2011. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2h36/hill-henry (accessed 25 April 2024)