Story: Holloway, John Thorpe

Page 1: Biography

Holloway, John Thorpe


Alpine explorer, forest ecologist

This biography, written by Peter McKelvey, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.

John Thorpe Holloway was born at Oxford, in rural North Canterbury, on 15 November 1914, the son of Margaret Brenda North and her husband, John Ernest Holloway, an Anglican vicar. In 1916 the family moved to Hokitika and, after brief sojourns at Nelson and Leeston, in 1923 they settled in Dunedin, where John senior became lecturer in botany at the University of Otago. John junior, or Jack, as he was known, received much of his primary schooling in Dunedin before being sent as a boarder to Waitaki Boys’ High School in Oamaru, where he was dux in 1932. As a schoolboy he discovered the joys of tramping and climbing, often camping out alone. He then went to Otago University, where in 1937 he received an MSc with honours in botany and chemistry.

At university Holloway took up climbing in earnest, and became a notable alpine explorer. In his summer vacations from 1934–35 to 1937–38 he explored the unmapped Olivine Ice Plateau in Fiordland. With one or two companions he made some 50 first ascents, discovered a dozen new passes, explored many little-known headwater tributaries and produced detailed maps. On one occasion his party had to spend several days storm-bound in a hut with the local character Arawata Bill (William O’Leary), whom Jack had known since childhood. Although of slight physique, Holloway was wiry and became renowned for his stamina.

In 1938 he sailed for Britain to undertake PhD studies in plant physiology at the Imperial College of Science and Technology and Rothamstead Experimental Station. The Second World War disrupted his plans, however, and he returned to New Zealand in November 1939 to enlist. On 20 March 1940 Holloway married laboratory technician Una Scott Stevenson in Dunedin, and soon after left New Zealand with the 11th Forestry Company, Corps of New Zealand Engineers. He spent almost four years in Britain working in sawmills and compiling a national census of woodlands. Injuries received during a bombing raid on Bristol made him very deaf for the rest of his life. He returned to New Zealand in late 1943 and for a short time was a chemist at the Mataura paper mill.

In 1945 Holloway joined the New Zealand Forest Service to work on the National Forest Survey, a 10-year timber and ecological inventory of the lower and mid altitude indigenous forests; he was in charge of operations in the South Island. The data collected, together with his own observations, led to an influential paper, ‘Forests and climates in the South Island of New Zealand’, which was published in 1954. Holloway’s basic thesis was that from the thirteenth century there had been a fall in temperature and precipitation that caused beech to displace softwood species. Although now largely superseded, in the 1950s and 1960s this hypothesis provided a valuable focus for forest ecological enquiry and stimulated a vigorous debate between Holloway and the geographer Kenneth Cumberland. In these years Holloway came to be regarded as New Zealand’s foremost indigenous-forest ecologist and the successor to Leonard Cockayne.

Although concentrating on timber stands at lower altitudes, National Forest Survey field parties had observed the depleted condition of some mountain forests, and the subalpine scrublands and alpine grasslands above them, which resulted in accelerated erosion. Introduced deer and possums seemed to be key agents of this destruction, but a systematic examination of ecological processes at these higher altitudes was needed. So began what was probably Holloway’s greatest work: the recruitment and leadership of a multi-disciplinary team to examine these problems. Protection forestry research was initiated in 1956 with the establishment of the Forest and Range Experiment Station at Rangiora, where Holloway lived. A vigorous programme of catchment surveys led to an increased emphasis on large-scale animal control programmes in critical areas and the development of remedial re-vegetation techniques. His perceptions broadened as he came to understand the problems faced by the high country runholders. His involvement with them was formalised by his membership of the Tussock Grasslands and Mountain Lands Institute at Lincoln, where he worked closely with its first director, L. W. McCaskill.

A determined man of great intellectual capacity, Jack Holloway was the author of 29 major publications. Persuasive and persistent, he was also kindly and modest, indeed almost shy. He received a number of honours including fellowship of the Royal Society of New Zealand (1959), the Hector Memorial Medal and Prize (1966), an honorary DSc from Otago University (1974), and honorary membership of the New Zealand Institute of Foresters (1975). He retired from the Forest Service in November 1976 and died at Christchurch on 10 June 1977, survived by his wife, four sons and three daughters.

How to cite this page:

Peter McKelvey. 'Holloway, John Thorpe', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 December 2017)