Page 1: Biography
Alexander, William Frederick
Subeditor, poetry anthologist, newspaper editor
This biography, written by Charles Croot, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 3, 1996.
William Frederick (Fred) Alexander was born on 20 July 1882 at Little River, Banks Peninsula, New Zealand, the eldest child of William Francis Alexander, a storekeeper, and his wife, Elizabeth Sarah Phillips. Alexander senior later established a coach service from the railhead at Little River to Akaroa, which ended with an accident in which he suffered severe head injuries; he was thenceforth periodically confined to mental hospitals. His wife, four sons and baby daughter moved to Christchurch. From 1895 to 1898 Fred attended Christchurch Boys' High School, where he wrote the school song. He did well in arts subjects but proved a dunce at mathematics.
After a short time in the Stamp Department in Christchurch, Alexander became a subeditor on the Press in 1900. Four vigorous dailies and two major weeklies vied for Christchurch readers, and Alexander found himself among lively young people enthusiastic about modern literature and anxious to see New Zealand authors encouraged. Alexander himself, collaborating with a former schoolfellow, took a significant step towards this end. He was only 24, and his co-editor, A. E. (Ernest) Currie, a 22-year-old law clerk when their New Zealand verse was published in London in 1906, the first comprehensive anthology of New Zealand poetry. Alan Mulgan recalled that a British reviewer said that 'New Zealand played football better than it wrote poetry', but the book made a considerable impact in New Zealand. The co-editors made no great claims for their colonial bards, but they stated that they had selected 'the best verse available, irrespective of subject'. Their lengthy introduction and the choice and arrangement of the 172 poems by 68 authors (17 of them women) evinced considerable toil and a maturity of judgement.
On 11 April 1906 at Christchurch Fred Alexander married Frances Agnes Alfrey, a tall, lively woman of great good humour. Their only child, Frances Elizabeth, was born in Timaru in 1916.
In 1907 Alexander joined the foundation staff of Wellington's new conservative daily, the Dominion. Three years later he was appointed editor of the Timaru Herald. The following decade saw the Herald, a conservative morning paper, outstrip the Liberal evening Timaru Post. Alexander sharpened the Herald's news coverage, modified its right-wing stance and enriched its literary and cultural content. He was to do the same for Dunedin's Evening Star when he moved there as editor in 1920. Under Alexander's leadership the Star achieved parity with the Otago Daily Times in news coverage and authority, and eventually outsold its rival within metropolitan Dunedin.
As at Timaru, Alexander's employers were ultra-conservative, but his leading articles were marked by moderation, tolerance and compassion. Alexander attracted many talented writers to his feature pages, which became among the country's best. He also fostered young authors, notably Mary Scott (who wrote a weekly column for the Star for more than 30 years) and the blind novelist C. R. Allen, whom he accompanied on many long walks. Another regular contributor was Tremayne Curnow, a friend from Christchurch and Timaru and father of the poet and critic Allen Curnow.
Alexander and Currie brought out a revised, expanded anthology, A treasury of New Zealand verse, in 1926; it was published locally by Whitcombe and Tombs. It sold well but lacked the critical acclaim of the earlier version, being somewhat backward-looking and provoking the publication of a rival, Kowhai gold (1930), which emphasised the new poets and styles of the twenties.
None the less, Alexander continued to encourage new writers in reviews and through his promotion of successful authors' weeks in Dunedin, notably in 1927 and in 1936, when he addressed meetings, opened exhibitions and gave radio talks. He was also active in humanitarian organisations, especially the service club Toc H, and he did much to assist Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany.
Fred Alexander retired in 1946, but continued to contribute articles and reviews to the Star. He wrote and edited that paper's Otago centennial supplement in 1948. He died in Dunedin after a lengthy illness on 14 August 1957, survived by his wife and daughter.
A slight, unobtrusive figure, Alexander was widely known and admired for his honesty, kindliness and gentle humour. An editor of the old school, he is said to have avoided balance-sheets and expense accounts like the plague. His childlike innocence of accountancy was often mixed with guile in his dealings with hard-headed managers and proprietors. Sometimes absent-minded, he seldom carried money, and often rode the Musselburgh tram or took tea at the Savoy 'on credit', but his credit in Dunedin was very good. He had a wide circle of friends and loved his golf and bowls. For over 40 years he promoted the cause of New Zealand writing, and did much to encourage its practitioners.