Page 1: Biography
Public servant, child welfare reformer
This biography, written by Bronwyn Dalley, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998, and updated in August, 2015.
John Beck was born on 22 January 1883 at Kirkcudbright, Scotland, the son of Thomas Fazakerly Beck, a railway guard, and his wife, Margaret Darsie Smith. The family emigrated to New Zealand in 1886 and settled in Otago where Thomas Beck worked for the railway service.
After leaving school, John Beck worked briefly for an engineering firm in the hope of gaining an apprenticeship. However, the low pay and the fact that his family could not afford the £100 premium for an apprenticeship induced him to sit the junior civil service examination in 1899. His results earned him 31st-equal place on the list of 260 candidates and an automatic offer of a cadetship. Accepting a position with the Department of Education, Beck moved to Wellington in 1899, wearing an ill-fitting made-down overcoat and carrying his possessions in a converted lumber box as his family had no suitable luggage.
Although his appointment to the department coincided with major changes in the system of state care for deprived, neglected and delinquent children, most children committed to the state were still initially sent to large industrial schools and reformatories. These institutions were often punitive in character and under law the children could be held in them until they reached 21. An official inquiry into the mismanagement of the Stoke industrial school in 1900 prompted Beck's interest in children's welfare and made him aware of the 'vital human problem' behind routine office work.
As the first cadet assigned to assist Roland Pope, inaugural assistant inspector of industrial schools from 1901, Beck visited all industrial schools and reformatories, gaining an insight into their management. He travelled to Australia in 1907 to inspect various aspects of the New South Wales child welfare system, and on his return was responsible for auditing the accounts at the industrial schools.
Beck acted for several years as officer in charge of industrial and special schools and in May 1917 was formally appointed to this position. Convinced, like others in New Zealand and elsewhere, that children did not thrive in an institutional setting, he began a systematic campaign to close the industrial schools and board more children in foster homes in the community. By 1920 he was well on the way to achieving these objectives. He had also developed a plan for extending the fledgeling system of children's courts and juvenile probation, begun in 1906 and 1912 respectively.
The changes culminated in the Child Welfare Act 1925, which provided for the establishment of children's courts and a child welfare branch of the Department of Education. Beck became the first superintendent of the branch in 1926. The act also gave primacy to non-institutional methods of tending to children's welfare, noting that committal to an institution was a last resort. To symbolise the complete break with the past, the old term 'industrial school' was abandoned and the new ideology of child welfare embraced. Both the act and Beck's reforms guided New Zealand's child welfare system for the next 50 years. Shortly before the Child Welfare Act was passed, Beck had travelled to the United States and Canada to study their children's courts and child welfare systems, which were arguably the most modern at the time. The findings allowed him to fine-tune elements of his scheme as well as reassuring him that New Zealand's system was among the best in the world.
Although Beck's successors claimed he was a 'genius' who made the largest single contribution to New Zealand child welfare, his reforms aroused opposition at the time. Many feared the consequences of closing industrial schools, and Beck faced hostile crowds in Christchurch during discussions on the closure of the girls' reformatory. Some officers within the Department of Education also chafed at the proposed changes, and relationships with his colleagues and ministers were sometimes strained. Ill feeling between Beck and John Caughley, the director of education in the early 1920s, led Beck to take the unusual step – for a public servant – of communicating directly with the minister of education and declining to make written records of their meetings. Beck's outspoken criticism in 1920 of the delay in introducing the proposed legislation detrimentally affected his working relationship with his minister, C. J. Parr.
As superintendent of the Child Welfare Branch, Beck set himself a heavy workload, particularly in the early phases of implementing the Child Welfare Act when he travelled throughout the country explaining the new regime to his staff. He had a reputation as a hard but fair taskmaster, with one child welfare officer noting that 'when John Beck called, you went'. A combination of ill health and pressure of work led to Beck's premature retirement in 1938, at the age of 55.
Beck was married twice. On 24 September 1913 in Oamaru he married Ethel Agnes Sinclair. Ethel died in 1932, and in Dunedin on 30 January 1934 he married Doris Mary Katherine Muir, a supervising and inspecting officer in the Dunedin office of the Child Welfare Branch. The couple moved to Ngaruawahia following Beck's retirement. Beck continued to take an interest in child welfare matters up until his death, with government agencies periodically seeking his views on policy matters. He died in Hamilton on 13 January 1962, survived by his wife and five children of his first marriage.