Story: Smyth, Patrick

Page 1: Biography

Smyth, Patrick

1893–1954

Nga Puhi; teacher, principal, educationalist

This biography, written by Steven Oliver, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.

Patrick Smyth was born at Pungaere, Bay of Islands, on 21 October 1893, the ninth of eleven surviving children of Irish-born Patrick Francis Smyth, a farmer, and his wife, Katherine Mangu Wheoki. His mother was from Waihou, Hokianga, and was of chiefly rank in Nga Puhi. Although she was a full Maori, only English was spoken in the family home.

At the age of 16 Smyth left the isolated settlement of Pungaere to attend St Stephen's Native Boys’ School, then in Parnell, Auckland. He knew nothing of city life and on one occasion while on a tram he leapt across the aisle believing a lamppost was coming straight at him. He worked hard at St Stephen's and was made a prefect at the end of his first term. He was colour sergeant of the cadets in 1910, and became head boy and dux. After passing the civil service examination he became a pupil-teacher at Newmarket School in 1911–12.

The headmaster of St Stephen's, Albert Wilson, persuaded a reluctant Smyth to return to the school as a junior teacher by offering him £30 per term plus board. He had to learn Maori in order to teach English to Maori boys. Although he may have had some knowledge of the language from growing up in Pungaere, Smyth had rejected any association with Maori. As a child he had tried to wash the brown off his face and later in Auckland he had crossed streets to avoid elderly Maori women sitting on the footpath. Through his teaching, however, he developed a keen interest in the language, history and traditions of the Maori people.

On 5 February 1916, in Auckland, Patrick Smyth married Marion Cooper, a dressmaker. While raising a family of three sons and two daughters, he studied part time at Auckland University College, graduating BA in 1934. During these years he was also an active member of Te Akarana Maori Association, serving as its secretary from 1927 to 1931. In 1930 he published a textbook, Maori pronunciation, and gave a public lecture at the university college on the preservation of Maori language and the need to pronounce placenames correctly. The following year St Stephen's School was moved to Bombay, south of Auckland, where it had a school farm. This was later leased by Smyth who, although admitting he was no farmer, set up a horticulture course.

By 1936 he had become senior assistant master, commander of the cadet company, gymnastic instructor and sports master. In 1939 he wrote a second book, Te reo Maori, and served on the committee that organised the Young Maori Conference in Auckland. St Stephen's closed in 1942 and was used by the Auckland Hospital Board as an auxiliary hospital. Most of the boys went to Te Aute College and Smyth joined the army. He was too old to go overseas and served as commandant of the Home Guard Maori Training Camp at Kamo.

St Stephen's School reopened in February 1947 with 26 boys and Smyth as acting headmaster; he became headmaster in 1948. Seeking to increase attendance, he published a prospectus, advertised in newspapers and went on recruiting drives in Waikato, Bay of Plenty and Northland. By 1952 the school's roll had risen to 100. However, it faced financial difficulties and in 1953 the student fee was raised from £75 to £135. As a result the roll fell sharply.

As headmaster Smyth continued the self-help tradition of the school, in which the boys did house and gardening work, and he maintained a strict, military-style discipline among his pupils. He had the assistance of two other teachers and taught 37 periods each week. In addition, his administrative workload included supervision of war and dental bursaries, social security boarding and clothing benefits, and general school maintenance. His wife helped him with the kitchen, laundry and sickbay. He also travelled to Auckland University College twice a week to lecture on Maori studies. In 1950 he fell ill from overwork. Although advised to have complete rest, he continued working after leaving hospital. He was forced to retire by the school's trust board in January 1954, and died in Auckland on 29 May that year. He was survived by his wife and children.

Patrick Smyth overcame his earlier rejection of Maori to become a leading Maori educationalist. He remained, however, critical of his people and stated in his 1949 report that there was among Maori too much promise without fulfilment, too much discussion without sustained effort, and an abundance of children without sufficient nurture. Nevertheless, his published works made a significant contribution to the teaching of Maori.

How to cite this page:

Steven Oliver. 'Smyth, Patrick', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4s34/smyth-patrick (accessed 15 December 2017)