Page 1: Biography
Davidson, Andrew McRae
Teacher, principal, welfare worker, educationalist
This biography, written by David McKenzie, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 5, 2000.
Andrew McRae Davidson had a distinguished teaching career in Otago and helped shape the social security legislation that was implemented in New Zealand after 1938. Born in Mornington, Dunedin, on 10 November 1894, he was the eldest of three children of labourer William Mackray Davidson and his wife, Lilly Gold Sutherland. He grew up in an environment characterised by hard work, loyalty to family, commitment to the Presbyterian faith and to education, and pride in the fact that both parents were descended from Otago’s pioneer Scottish families. These were values he was to retain throughout his life.
In 1902 William Davidson died, leaving his widow and children in severely straitened circumstances. At the age of nine Andrew began to supplement the family income by herding cows after school, and later began an extensive newspaper delivery round. Despite these demands he distinguished himself at Mornington School, winning prizes each year and becoming dux. He then went on to study successfully at Otago Boys’ High School (1909–12). He later attributed his success at school to his mother who, despite family hardship, was determined that her children would be well educated. Deciding to make teaching his career, in 1913 Davidson enrolled at Dunedin Training College and the University of Otago.
He began teaching at Te Houka School, Otago, in 1915, before serving with the New Zealand Mounted Field Ambulance in Sinai and Palestine. In 1919 he returned to teaching in Otago, and in 1927 was appointed headmaster of Kurow School, which shortly afterwards was upgraded to the status of a district high school. On 11 May 1927, in Dunedin, he married Catherine Martha Telfer; they were to have two sons and a daughter. Davidson’s years in Kurow were among the most significant of his professional and public life. During this period the local population was augmented by workers constructing the Waitaki hydroelectric station and dam. In the depths of the depression of the early 1930s men on unemployment relief were also sent to work on the scheme, and conditions in the work camps were often appalling. Davidson witnessed poverty and hardship in his daily work.
As a result he joined forces with the Presbyterian minister at Kurow, Arnold Nordmeyer, and the local medical practitioner, D. G. McMillan, to design a free medical service for the hydro workers, who made weekly contributions. This scheme was a prototype of the social security system introduced in 1938 by the Labour government. (By that time Nordmeyer and McMillan were both Labour MPs.) Davidson’s role in helping to create the Waitaki medical scheme has been commemorated by a New Zealand Historic Places Trust plaque at the former medical surgery in Kurow.
In 1935 Davidson was appointed headmaster of the Macandrew Road School in Dunedin. He also returned to university part time, graduating BA (1937), MA in history (1939) and diploma in education (1940). The diploma was especially important because it enabled him to study the latest thinking in western education. In 1940 he became head of the Macandrew Intermediate School, established on the site of the old Macandrew Road School. He remained in this position until 1954 and proved himself an able exponent of the reinvigorated ideals of intermediate schooling which the government was promoting.
In his teaching Andrew Davidson sought to provide a generous and worthwhile education to all children, an objective promulgated by the first Labour government. He drove himself and his staff hard, and never wavered in his faith that each child ‘possesses – if it can only be found – a spark of genius somewhere’. He adopted new school-based developments in the teaching of handwriting, music, art, horticulture, arithmetic and science. But his familiarity with current educational literature led him to be cautious about following fads. In 1954, for example, he argued that intelligence tests had serious limitations and discounted many factors involved in success or failure in learning. Former pupils, who knew him as Jock or Andy, remembered him as a rather eccentric but always impressive man, who worked in the school garden and was a devotee of composting.
After his retirement from teaching in 1954 Andrew Davidson served for 12 years as a member of the Otago Education Board, and held several other related educational offices. He was a justice of the peace, enjoyed gardening and frequently wrote letters to the editors of Dunedin newspapers. He died on 14 October 1982 at Waitati, survived by his wife and children.