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Beaglehole, John Cawte

by Tim Beaglehole


John Cawte Beaglehole was born in his parents’ house in Hopper Street, Wellington, on 13 June 1901, the second of four sons of Jane Butler and her husband, David Ernest Beaglehole. David was a serious-minded young man who found in literature the key to that ideal of self-improvement so central to the Methodist teaching of his youth. His mind ranged far beyond his work as an accounts clerk in a wholesale chemist’s, and the house where John grew up was filled with books. John’s mother was also a great reader, with a passion for Jane Austen, and was musical. The family progressed from Methodism to Unitarianism, John to church organist.

His schooling at Mount Cook Boys’ School and Wellington College (1914–17) made little impression compared with the high-minded intellectual questioning and social concern of the church, and the books and the music at home. Victoria University College, where he enrolled in 1919 after a year working as a bookseller in Whitcombe and Tombs, offered not much more in its teaching, least of all in history. He joined the Free Discussions Club (presided over by Professor T. A. Hunter) and edited the student paper Spike, for which he wrote quantities of verse and prose; he read prolifically, tramped and made lasting friends. After nearly three years as an assistant lecturer in history and having completed an MA thesis on Governor William Hobson, he sailed for London in August 1926 with a postgraduate scholarship.

London held him enraptured. The bookshops, concerts, theatre, trips to Germany and to France imperilled the frugality which was to enable him to support himself for three years on a scholarship intended for two. The squares of Bloomsbury (he had a room in Brunswick Square), while grimy and fog-ridden in winter, offered a vision of what urban architecture could be. He discovered painting at the National Gallery, Persian pottery at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Fellow students – Australians, North Americans, a South African – provided intellectual stimulation, a diverse range of interests and lively company. He was less enthusiastic about the English, though there were exceptions. He attended R. H. Tawney and Bernard Shaw’s lectures for the Fabian Society; Harold Laski, the precociously brilliant professor of politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science, won his admiration and affection. Laski gave him encouragement when it was sorely needed. He opened the way to the publication in the United States of Beaglehole’s MA thesis, which introduced that lucid, ironic, epigrammatic style into New Zealand historical writing. If, in time, Beaglehole’s admiration for Laski was tempered, his gratitude never was.

In May 1928 Elsie Mary Holmes, a fellow tramper and Victoria University College graduate to whom Beaglehole had become very close, arrived in London. There was an unsettled period before the certainty of their affections was re-established. The doctoral dissertation on British colonial policy completed and the examiners satisfied, there seemed no possibility of staying in Britain or finding a university position in the United States. There was little choice but to take the free passage awarded with the scholarship and, with Elsie, return to New Zealand in September 1929.

The offer of a temporary position as a WEA tutor–organiser based in Dunedin made marriage possible. Elsie’s parents, Robert Holmes, a prominent banker, and his wife, Mary, were not enthusiastic. Robert had regretted his daughter’s determination to enrol at university and for him the social gulf between the Western Hutt hills and Hopper Street was a wide one. Mary, more quickly won over by John’s personal qualities, could not face a ceremony in the Wellington Registrar’s Office (where it took place on 17 February 1930) and stayed home to prepare lunch for the small family gathering. There were to be three sons, and Elsie – forthright, energetic and capable – provided the strong centre to John’s subsequent family life.

Moving to a similar position in Hamilton after the year in Dunedin, Beaglehole quickly established a close friendship with Norman Richmond, his director in Auckland, based on their shared passion for the music of J. S. Bach, their concern for civil liberties and commitment to the work of the WEA. ‘Commercial travelling in miscellaneous wisdom’, Beaglehole once described it, which gives scant recognition to the painstaking course planning and the breadth of his reading at the time. In 1932 he accepted a temporary lectureship in history at Auckland University College but within months the college council had retrenched the position. It was believed by many that the decision owed less to the college’s financial state than to its timidity in the face of Beaglehole’s somewhat inflated reputation for dangerous radicalism.

It was a time, he later wrote, when ‘politics and social life in our country were not exactly encouraging for the free human spirit’, but the three following years – of unemployment and odd jobs, the growing family in a tiny cottage in Lower Hutt – saw considerable scholarly activity. The exploration of the Pacific, largely written in Hamilton, appeared in 1934, a foretaste of great work to come. New Zealand: a short history (1936) revealed an acerbic wit sharpened by the depression. The University of New Zealand (1937) grew from an intended historical introduction to a report on the working of the university. Written for the New Zealand Council for Educational Research, it also marked the beginning of Beaglehole’s long relationship with that organisation, advising on the design of its publications. He continued to write poetry; the Caxton Press brought out his Words for music in 1938 and Allen Curnow was to include poems of these years in his 1945 anthology.

In 1935 F. P. Wilson retired from the chair of history at Victoria. Despite the strong support of Hunter and others, Beaglehole was not appointed; his Auckland reputation made him unacceptable to a number of council members and, it would appear, to some members of government. It was a bitter blow at the time but one which, fortuitously, opened the way to a wider stage. Appointed to a lectureship the following year, he and the new professor, F. L. W. Wood, quickly established a warm working relationship to the benefit of the college and their students.

A little later J. W. Heenan, under-secretary for Internal Affairs, involved Beaglehole – rather against his will – in the preparations for the New Zealand centennial. He was appointed historical adviser to the department and typographical adviser for the centennial publications. He wrote The discovery of New Zealand for the series of centennial surveys. The Centennial Branch of the department became the Historical Branch; Beaglehole, both fascinated by and warmly respectful of Heenan, was called on for advice on questions of history, literature and the arts. Among the branch’s publications were two volumes edited, designed and partly written by Beaglehole; the first, Abel Janszoon Tasman & the discovery of New Zealand, was to commemorate the tri-centenary of Tasman’s discovery of New Zealand in 1642; the second, Introduction to New Zealand (1945), was intended to explain New Zealand to its American allies. To staff the branch Beaglehole recruited some of his ablest graduates, among them Frances Fyfe (Porter), Ruth Guscott (Ross), Nancy Wheeler (Taylor), and Janet Wilkinson (Paul). Janet shared his interest in books and book design, and acquired, with his encouragement, typographical skills to match his own; she was to become a close and lasting friend. Beaglehole later claimed (with perhaps a touch of exaggeration) that working with Heenan converted him into a conscious New Zealander.

From the time of writing The exploration of the Pacific Beaglehole had planned a scholarly edition of the journals of James Cook on his voyages of exploration, and a new biography. A contract with the Argonaut Press for the journals fell through, the press a casualty of the war. After the war the Hakluyt Society proposed an edition of its own. Initially asked to share the editorial work, Beaglehole set a standard of scholarship with the Endeavour journal that made it almost inevitable that he should in the end be responsible for all three voyages. Heenan, through his influence with the prime minister, Peter Fraser, got funding for Victoria to create a research position to enable Beaglehole to undertake this major work. The first fruit, however, was unrelated to Cook. Victoria University College: an essay towards a history (1949) gave a lively portrait of the college’s first half-century marked by an affection and discretion perhaps not wholly deserved. Then between 1955 and 1967 the massive volumes of The journals of Captain James Cook on his voyages of discovery appeared; volume one was dedicated to the memory of Heenan. A supplement to the first was The Endeavour journal of Joseph Banks, published in 1962.

In these volumes, to quote E. H. McCormick, Beaglehole ‘displayed to the full his superb gifts as historian and editor’. Steeped in the written records of the voyages and in the eighteenth century, he had travelled in Cook’s wake from Whitby in Yorkshire to Matavai Bay in Tahiti, to Tonga and the New Hebrides, Pickersgill Harbour in Dusky Bay, Nootka Sound in the northwest Pacific and the fateful Kealakekua Bay in Hawaii. For him place was part of the record, a powerful stimulus to historical imagination. For the first time a writer on Cook sought to unravel the complexities of Polynesian history as well as the problems of longitude. He drew on the knowledge of experts in many fields and in many parts of the world, most notably, in the earlier years, of R. A. Skelton, superintendent of the map room at the British Museum. The volumes of the journals and the later biography were preceded by lectures and papers testing the way ahead.

In 1967, a few months after his retirement from Victoria University of Wellington, he began the long-planned biography of Cook. In the next two years there were long interruptions while he gave lectures for Cook bicentenary celebrations in Britain, New Zealand and Australia. At the time of his death in 1971 he had nearly finished revising the typescript. Published in 1974, The life of Captain James Cook was widely recognised as a remarkable biography and Beaglehole’s finest work.

Beyond the editor and biographer was the public figure, increasingly called to serve on boards and committees. He was president of the New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties (1952–71), to which he gave unwavering support; president of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs (1954–55, 1957–60); and a founder member of the Wellington Chamber Music Society. A board member of the National (later New Zealand) Historic Places Trust (1955–71), he played a decisive role in the long and successful campaign to save Old St Paul’s from destruction by the Anglican church, and forged a highly effective partnership with Ormond Wilson, the chairman of the trust. He was also a member of the New Zealand Literary Fund Advisory Committee (1959–61), the Board of Trustees of the National Art Gallery and Dominion Museum (1959–64), and the Arts Advisory Council (1960–63). He was a long-serving member of the New Zealand National Commission for UNESCO, and a member of the New Zealand delegation to the conferences at Paris in 1949 and Florence in 1950.

He still found time to publish prolifically: reviews, essays, lectures, new and revised editions of earlier books. The interests on which he wrote were legion: art, letters, architecture, music, libraries, archives, politics, public taste, typography, and design. Notable were his 1954 lecture The New Zealand scholar; the foreword to Doctor Agnes Bennett by Cecil and Celia Manson, a vivid portrait of an old friend and the family doctor of his boyhood; his 1961 Landfall article on politics and culture in New Zealand since the Second World War; and some of the pieces, written with affectionate candour, following the deaths of old friends G. W. von Zedlitz, Ivan Sutherland and Randal Burdon.

The passing years brought recognition within New Zealand and internationally: a CMG (1958); honorary degrees from the universities of Oxford (1966), Victoria (1968), Otago (1969) and Sydney (1970); the Linnaeus Medal from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences; and the Gill Memorial award of the Royal Geographical Society, London. He was offered the Beit Chair of the History of the British Commonwealth at Oxford in 1962, which he declined; the following year Victoria University made him professor of British Commonwealth history. In 1970 he was awarded the Order of Merit, the first New Zealander since Ernest Rutherford to be so honoured. He died at Wellington on 10 October 1971, survived by his wife and sons.

For almost 35 years John Beaglehole and his family lived in Karori in the roomy house bought for them by Elsie’s father following John’s appointment to Victoria. He worked there in his book-filled study, a small bust of Voltaire and portrait of Erasmus in pride of place. When he needed a break from writing he walked, with pipe and beret, brooding over the next sentence or page. By the time he put pen to paper little revision was needed. In the large sitting room with more books and the piano, his day often began with Bach preludes and fugues. There too were gatherings with students, musical evenings and memorable parties with family and friends. For special farewells or anniversaries he composed suitable verses, enlivened by his gently ironical sense of humour. On the walls van Gogh and Cézanne prints gave way in time to New Zealand paintings: T. A. McCormack, John Weeks, Evelyn Page, Toss Woollaston, Frances Hodgkins. The collection of pewter grew steadily.

Never the reclusive scholar, Beaglehole enjoyed his family, his students and his friends and was immensely loyal to them. He opened the minds of many to the worlds of ideas and the arts. That loyalty was extended to institutions: to Victoria University and to the Alexander Turnbull Library. More of a listener than a talker, he had been affected in childhood by a bad stutter (largely overcome during his London years) and this almost certainly encouraged the fluency of his pen. He had never hesitated to speak out when he believed it was needed, and although in time a kindly wisdom mellowed him he could still be moved to forthright indignation. His letters, most fully perhaps, reveal the range of his interests, the wit and the sparkling and affectionate play of his mind. He had a meticulous eye and took pains to get things right, whether a footnote to Cook, the design of a title page, or boiling the billy on a family tramp. There was something reminiscent of Cook in this, the patient tenacity that underlay his greatest work. Looking back on his life Beaglehole was struck by how fortunate he had been; others might note the courage and equanimity with which he had faced misfortune and the learning and dedication he brought to the opportunities he was given.

Links and sources


    Beaglehole, J.C. 'I think I am becoming a New Zealander': letters of J.C. Beaglehole. Ed. T.H. Beaglehole, Wellington, 2013

    Beaglehole, T.H. A life of J.C. Beaglehole: New Zealand scholar. Wellington, 2006

    Burnett, R. I. M. ‘John Beaglehole’. Turnbull Library Record 5, No 1 (May 1972): 4–8

    ‘J. C. Beaglehole: some personal recollections’. Victoria University of Wellington. Gazette No 11 (4 Nov. 1971): supplement

    Munro, D. J.C. Beaglehole: public intellectual, critical conscience. Wellington, 2012

    Obit. Evening Post. 11 Oct. 1971: 17

    Obit. Landfall 25, No 4 (Dec. 1971): 413–423


How to cite this page:

Tim Beaglehole. 'Beaglehole, John Cawte', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 June 2024)