Oscar Thorvald (Thorwald) Johan Alpers was born on 28 January 1867 at Copenhagen, Denmark, the only son of Søren Thorvald Alpers and his wife, Frederikke Emilie Philipsen. His education began in Copenhagen, but after he had spent a year and a half there the family emigrated to New Zealand, arriving at Napier in August 1875 with £14. Søren Alpers, an artist and apparently unsuccessful retailer, struggled financially in New Zealand, never becoming fluent in English and he seems to have worked as a signwriter and cabinet-maker.
Oscar Alpers could not speak a word of English on arrival in New Zealand, and received indifferent education at a denominational school. With the assistance of Wesleyan and Anglican Sunday school teachers he had learnt English by the time he entered the new district school at Napier when it opened in February 1879; by October he had passed through the highest class. By misrepresenting his age as 14 (he was 12) he was appointed a pupil-teacher at the school, initially at a salary of £20 a year.
Alpers proceeded to take every opportunity for self-education, inspired by the headmaster, A. B. Thomson, the inspector of schools, Henry Hill, and perhaps by his mother. He was also doubtless motivated by his family's poverty, having as a young foreigner experienced the uncompromising attitudes of a pioneering, English-speaking settlement. He became a voracious reader of English literature and shook off every sign of a foreign culture. He received a substantial gift for the purchase of books from the former missionary printer William Colenso, and continued to take examinations, generally obtaining the highest marks in Hawke's Bay. In 1883 he started his own night-school for working men and undertook bookkeeping work for local shopkeepers.
Alpers obtained a bursary to attend the Christchurch Training College in 1884 and also enrolled at Canterbury College. He graduated BA in 1887 and was awarded the John Tinline Scholarship in English literature; he used the prize money to buy a cottage for his parents in Napier. In 1889 he completed his MA with first-class honours in languages and literature and was appointed assistant to J. Macmillan Brown, the professor of English. He began teaching at Christchurch Boys' High School in 1890. Journalism, in the form of newspaper and magazine reviews, provided additional income, and by 1891 he was writing leaders for the Press. In 1892, while Macmillan Brown visited England, Alpers acted as his locum tenens. The following year Søren Alpers died, and thereafter Oscar supported his mother, who moved to Christchurch in 1896.
During the summer holidays of 1890–91 Alpers made a tour of Taup`o, Rotorua and Wanganui districts. This tour, and in particular a large hui at Parakino, resulted in a continuing exceptional interest in and sympathy for the Maori. Alpers and his fellow traveller, E. W. Roper, produced a series of articles on the trip for the Weekly Press; they were published as Three in a coach in 1891.
Alpers's other recreational interests were literature, the stage, and watching sports – he had a disinclination to participate in physical pursuits himself. He continued with the acting he had begun in Napier, taking many leading roles, always in comedy. His wide circle of friends and correspondents included writers, poets, artists, educators, lawyers and other intellectuals. He gave lectures, took part in public debates and, as an accomplished raconteur, was in demand as a speaker. He enjoyed living to the full and rejoiced in human nature in all its forms and with all its faults. Alpers was impulsive, dashing if not flamboyant, bold and courageous, and had an ability to speak on the spur of the moment on any subject with fluency, force and significance. An effortless mastery of others made him a natural leader and teacher.
A poet of some note, Alpers compiled and published two collections of verse: The jubilee book of Canterbury rhymes (1900) and College rhymes (1923). In 1902, with R. F. Irvine, he published The progress of New Zealand in the century. His chapter on the Parihaka incident was seen as pro-Maori and was attacked violently by the Press. This, and Alpers's vigorous response, ended his connection with the Press, but he continued to contribute to English periodicals.
Alpers studied part time for an LLB, which he completed in 1903. In February 1905 he entered a legal partnership in Timaru with J. W. White. Alpers lived in lodgings while his mother remained in Christchurch. In 1907 he formed a partnership, Alpers and Nicholls, in Christchurch. This was amalgamated with Garrick, Cowlishaw and Company in 1910. Alpers excelled as a trial lawyer. In court, he was impressive, with a powerful voice and command of the English language, and dramatic skills developed over his years on the stage. He displayed, but actually lacked, complete self-assurance.
On 12 September 1911 Alpers married Natalie May Rose, then not quite 21. Now a successful barrister, albeit a little improvident, Oscar had built a magnificent home in Fendalton, on the banks of the Waimairi Stream, where three children were born: Peter, Elisabeth and Antony. For the next 13 years he committed himself to family life and the law. His mother, who had continued to live in his home, died in 1914.
During the First World War Alpers travelled throughout Canterbury, Otago and Southland recruiting, fund-raising and supporting the Red Cross. He was also active in the establishment of the New Zealand Returned Soldiers' Association, and was the first person and one of the few non-servicemen to be elected a life member.
In 1925 Alpers was offered an appointment as the South Island consul for Denmark. He had to decline when he was appointed a judge of the Supreme Court. He was never regarded as, and did not profess to be, a particularly learned jurist. He distinguished himself by a willingness to think independently, and to disregard English and other overseas precedents that conflicted with his own reasoning and morality or his view of what was appropriate to New Zealand. His judgements were characterised by his literacy and wit. He was to serve on the Bench only briefly, being forced by cancer to retire in 1926.
Greatly worried by the prospect of leaving a young widow and three children with few assets other than his home, and with no entitlement to a pension, Alpers dictated the largely autobiographical Cheerful yesterdays to provide funds for his family. It was published posthumously in 1928, initially in a limited edition, with the arrangements for its publication, distribution and sale being organised by his fellow judges and many friends at the Bar. A popular edition followed in 1930.
Oscar Alpers died at his home in Wellington on 21 November 1927. He was buried two days later in the Waimairi cemetery following a graveside service; he described himself as a lapsed Lutheran. He had fully come to terms with his impending death, and in the preceding months had written farewell letters to many of his friends, had chosen his grave site from photographs taken by Christchurch friends, and had arranged and paid for drinks all round for his friends at the Canterbury Club following his burial. Natalie Alpers died in 1969.
Oscar Alpers was unconventional and independent. He was a leader in his several fields of endeavour, a source of inspiration to many of those who encountered him or his writings, and in numerous ways contributed to the development of a civilised and distinctively New Zealand society out of the raw colonial settlement he had encountered on his arrival.