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Speight, Robert


Geologist, university professor, museum curator

This biography, written by Maxwell Gage, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

Robert Speight was born in Stockton, Durham, England, on 2 October 1867, the son of Ellen Swaine and her husband, James Speight, a teacher. The family emigrated to Canterbury, New Zealand, when Robert was about 12. His father, reputedly a staunch Anglican and stern disciplinarian, was a teacher at the school at Taitapu, 10 miles south-west of Christchurch, and later headmaster of St Albans School, Christchurch. While at Taitapu Robert was awarded a scholarship to Christchurch Boys' High School. It has been suggested that his early interest in geology may have been kindled as he travelled past the rocky flank of the long-extinct Lyttelton volcano during daily journeys between Taitapu and the high school in town. Indeed, the volcanic history of the area remained a lifelong interest.

In 1885, having won a Junior Scholarship, Robert Speight entered Canterbury College. Tall and strong as a young man, he excelled in sport and represented the college in rugby and rowing. Graduating BA with a Senior Scholarship in 1888, he completed an MA with first-class honours in mathematics the following year. He then took up a teaching position at Christchurch Boys' High School and began studying science part time under Professor F. W. Hutton, graduating BSc in 1891.

In 1903, after Hutton retired, Speight took over the geology courses at Canterbury College for the next 27 years, but also retained his teaching position at the Boys' High School for six more years. In 1908, two years before graduating MSc, he was appointed to the Canterbury Museum as assistant curator and in 1914 became curator, a position he retained until retiring in 1935. Since all three institutions were administered by the Canterbury College board of governors Speight served the same employer throughout his working career.

The heroic era of New Zealand's great nineteenth century explorer-geologists, dominated by Julius Haast, James Hector and Alexander McKay, had ended by the time Speight's research contributions began to appear in 1893. The essential outline of New Zealand geology was known and further advance called for specialised studies. Research was hampered by a lack of good technical facilities and adequate base maps, the latter being available only for those areas investigated by an economically motivated Geological Survey. Nevertheless, Speight produced nearly 130 papers and reports which, thanks to his thoroughness, meticulous accuracy and objectivity, remain a valuable resource for his successors. Mostly about the Canterbury region (although he wrote on the Kermadec Islands, and also on the New Zealand subantarctic islands after he visited them in 1907), Speight's publications span a wide spectrum of earth science. Three central themes recur: the volcanic activity and periods of erosion that shaped Banks Peninsula over 10 million years; alpine landscape features, gravel plains and terraces and their formation by extended glaciers during the last ice age; and the then much-disputed sequence, correlation and ages of the younger rock strata of New Zealand.

From the second of these themes arose Speight's interest in the worldwide climate changes of the past, and their causes. His observations, especially in geomorphology, gained him overseas recognition. He was one of the few New Zealanders to be elected to fellowship in the Geological Society of America and was a fellow of the Geological Society of London. An original fellow of the New Zealand Institute, in 1921 he was awarded the Hector Memorial Medal and Prize, the institute's most prestigious recognition. He was president of the institute from 1933 to 1935, the period when it became the Royal Society of New Zealand.

Primitive facilities and lack of space at Canterbury College did not prevent Speight from becoming a successful and inspiring teacher. From 1921 until his retirement in 1930 he was professor of geology. He was liked and admired by students despite an apparent austerity and an insistence on hard work and high standards. During frequent field excursions by train, bicycle and on foot students discovered him to be a kindly and approachable man.

Robert Speight's enduring love of alpine valleys was obvious to his students and to fellow naturalists like Leonard Cockayne and Arnold Wall who journeyed with him in the Southern Alps. One of the founders of the Canterbury Mountaineering Club, and its president in 1927–28, he remained a member and committeeman until late in life. In 1929 he was on the initial Arthur's Pass National Park Board, and he was a member of the Waimakariri River Trust.

For many years, in addition to his university teaching and research work, Speight had responsibility for the running of the Canterbury Museum. He struggled to keep the institution alive as it languished from lack of money, staff and civic support. Towards the end of Speight's life, in 1948, a trust was established to ensure the future financial security of the museum. Although he was a scientist and scholar, he could communicate with laymen and always found time to answer questions or identify specimens brought in by visitors. He gave public lectures, wrote popular articles and contributed substantially to the widely read Natural history of Canterbury, published in Christchurch in 1927.

Speight's family life was evidently happy. On 4 January 1899 at Christchurch he had married Ruth Mary Seager, daughter of Esther and Edward Seager. Ruth, who like him was a keen gardener, died in 1941. Their daughter, Eleanor, and two sons, Robin and Stanley, all eventually lived abroad so Speight's last years were rather lonely. A brusqueness of manner, attributed to shyness by those who knew him well, obscured great generosity and unselfishness. In her autobiography, the writer Ngaio Marsh wrote with warm affection of her uncle ('Unk') Robert, his sense of humour and his sartorial eccentricities.

Robert Speight died at St George's Hospital, Christchurch, on 8 September 1949. Only a few months earlier, aged 81, he had led an excursion of visiting scientists to view outcrops on the Port Hills. He did so with all the vigour of a much younger person. It is for this sprightly enthusiasm that he should be remembered.

How to cite this page:

Maxwell Gage. 'Speight, Robert', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3s30/speight-robert (accessed 25 July 2024)