Page 1: Biography
La Trobe, William Sanderson
School principal, educational administrator
This biography, written by Rollo Arnold, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996, and updated in June, 2017.
William Sanderson La Trobe was born in New Zealand at Ngaroto, near Te Awamutu, on 15 October 1870. He was the son of Samuel La Trobe (who used the name Trobe), a military settler at Paterangi on the King Country border, and his wife, Ellen (Eliza) Sanderson. He was educated at home until he was eight, then attended Paterangi School when his mother became its teacher. Under her tuition he left with an Auckland Education Board scholarship. Proceeding to Auckland College and Grammar School he gained a university Junior Scholarship and entered Auckland University College. In 1894 he graduated with honours in mathematics and mathematical physics from the University of New Zealand.
La Trobe then went to the University of Cambridge as a sizar of St John's College, taking the mechanical science tripos. Like R. C. Maclaurin, his contemporary both at Auckland Grammar and St John's, and Ernest Rutherford, with whom he became friends in Cambridge, La Trobe was drawn there by its growing reputation in modern studies. He graduated with first-class honours in 1896. He was then appointed assistant lecturer and demonstrator in the engineering laboratories. On 23 August 1899 La Trobe married Sarah Eleanor Huddleston at Whitehaven, Cumberland.
In late 1903 the Wellington Technical School was looking for a new director. Set up as the Wellington School of Design in 1886, the institution had become a disparate collection of mainly evening technical courses, inadequately housed and staffed, and running at a loss. Its board sought a director who was both a gifted administrator and a highly qualified engineering teacher, particularly in the new electrical area. Premier Richard Seddon had recently taken over the education portfolio and was working to introduce more manual and technical instruction throughout the education system. He readily granted the board's request that the agent general for New Zealand in the United Kingdom, William Pember Reeves, should assist their search for the new director. La Trobe was appointed early in 1904, and travelled to New Zealand with his wife.
La Trobe was well fitted to his new task. He was a tall man, softly spoken and of unfailing courtesy, but his calm, unobtrusive manner masked a strength of character and purpose which won deep respect from his colleagues. Arriving in Wellington in May 1904, he quickly analysed the school's problems, shaped a policy to deal with them, and gained its acceptance by both his board and the Department of Education. The buildings were lying almost idle during the day; there were too few staff; advanced and beginner students were being taught together to the detriment of both; most students had had no secondary schooling and many had forgotten the elementary skills learnt at primary school. He recommended a day technical secondary school which would make fuller use of the facilities, prepare students more adequately for later attendance at evening trade classes, and provide a larger staff for subdividing classes into beginners and advanced.
To finance the day classes La Trobe proposed using the recent legislation on manual and technical instruction and free places in secondary schools. This, however, was not designed for creating new schools, but for cajoling existing secondary schools into a more democratic outlook and broader curricula. Fortunately for La Trobe's scheme, Seddon and the head of the Department of Education, George Hogben, had just reached the point of exasperation as Wellington's two single-sex secondary schools continued resolutely to reject the proffered free-place students.
The renamed Wellington Technical College opened in February 1905. For 14 years La Trobe guided this combination of a high school with a strong practical, pre-vocational bias, and evening classes for specialised, mainly technical training, encouraging a broad humanistic approach in both sections. In opposition to the prevailing secondary school ethos, he approved of co-education and discouraged corporal punishment. For the evening classes he sought strong bonds with the industries they served. For the whole college he struggled for adequate equipment and accommodation. When he left in January 1919 it was still scattered among six buildings in central Wellington, but the site for a new school had just been acquired on the Mount Cook reserve and La Trobe, whose early ambition had been to become an architect, had spent his spare time for some years preparing building plans.
In February 1919 La Trobe took up the newly created position of superintendent of technical education with the Department of Education. By 1919 the Wellington experiment of 1905 had been so widely followed that technical high schools enrolled one-fifth of New Zealand state secondary school pupils, and their evening classes were a vital part of the country's trade training. The schools having grown up in a haphazard way, La Trobe's first task was to carry out a thorough review of policy and administration. He was given a very free hand to develop technical education as he thought fit. He worked for a balance between the humanities and specialised science and craft work, with both citizenship and vocation in mind. His brief included the primary school manual classes, and also took him beyond the schools to give advice on apprenticeship to industry, and on farming's educational needs to the Board of Agriculture. La Trobe also served on occasions as acting director of education. In the early 1920s he launched the ‘La Trobe scheme’, which imported art teachers from the United Kingdom and Europe to raise the standard of training available to local artists. It proved successful, introducing influential figures such as F.V. Ellis, R.N. Field and Christopher Perkins to the New Zealand art scene.
On 22 October 1907, while in Sydney for medical treatment, Sarah La Trobe had died without issue. On 11 December 1909, at St Stephen's Church, Ashburton, William had married Ina Mary Roberts; they were to have three daughters. On William's retirement on 31 March 1938 they moved to Glendowie, Auckland. He died there on 27 September 1943, survived by his wife and their three daughters.
William La Trobe had been instrumental in bringing about an approach to post-primary education suited to the needs of New Zealand. He had insisted throughout that technical education must be more than narrowly vocational, and would have been pleased with being described as 'a living example of the culture of the expert craftsman'.