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Story: Hopkins, Henry James

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Hopkins, Henry James


Civil engineer, university professor

This biography, written by John Pollard, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000. It was updated in October, 2021.

Henry (Harry) James Hopkins was born on 11 August 1912 in the tiny Western Australian town of Dwellingup, the son of Emma Eliza Watts and her husband, Harold Hopkins, a yard foreman and later forestry department inspector. After attending Perth’s Guildford Church of England Grammar School (1925–28), a scholarship and a vacation cadetship with Western Australian Government Railways enabled him to attend the University of Western Australia, where he completed bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering. A hockey captain and cricket player, he was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship in 1934 and graduated MA from Brasenose College, University of Oxford. Vacation experience included working on London’s Chelsea bridge under Ralph Freeman, designer of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. At Oxford, on 21 July 1938, Hopkins married a fellow student, Dorothy Louise Trott. Subsequently he was employed by the Air Ministry’s works department and the Southern Railway Company’s bridge department.

Hopkins was awarded a DFC during his wartime service as a Royal Air Force bomber pilot and flying instructor. Although a fully qualified pilot, he often found himself instructing pupils who were better fliers than he was. He realised, however, that he could still be extremely useful, provided that ‘I genuinely made my experience available to them without clipping their wings and restricting them to my ceiling’. This early precept set the tone for his career in university teaching and administration. He was unstinting in his encouragement to others to soar but always stood beneath as the wise counsellor.

After a period as a structural engineer with the Coventry nylon and rayon manufacturers Courtauld’s, Hopkins returned in 1948 to the University of Western Australia as senior lecturer in civil engineering. Initial doubts about an academic career were dispelled by his first encounter with final-year students. The group, which included eight returned servicemen, kindled a love of teaching that never left him. Three-and-a-half years later he accepted the chair of civil engineering at New Zealand’s Canterbury University College. Together with his Perth research on reinforced concrete, Hopkins brought a passion for bridges, enhanced by a scholar’s appreciation of the classical world. He was equally familiar with the everyday work of the practical engineer, and in the RAF he had been trained to command.

However, Canterbury University College in 1951 was not a happy place. A small, dedicated but grossly under-rewarded staff had carried the college through the depression of the 1930s and the exigencies of the war years, when full-time student numbers had fallen as low as 780. Now the students were flooding back to ill-lit, overcrowded classrooms. There had been no new buildings since 1923. The once acclaimed School of Engineering had grown inbred and inward-looking; post-war staff recruitment was not easy, nor did those who had grown up in the school always take kindly to new leaders.

Canterbury’s chair of civil engineering had remained vacant from 1942 until 1946, when it went to the incumbent senior lecturer, G. G. Calvert, who had been on the staff since 1929. In 1950 he retired early, believing that the department, scheduled for a new campus at Ilam, should be planned by a man holding the prospect of a long headship. For the interregnum, the college council placed the civil staff under the professor of mechanical engineering, R. J. Rastrick, a valiant, overworked man who gave of his best until the new civil head could be appointed. It was a challenging if not altogether inviting post. The University of Western Australia’s vice chancellor reassured Canterbury’s rector that ‘Hopkins has a good enough opinion of himself not to be bluffed by any disappointed senior lecturers’.

When he took up the post in August 1951 Hopkins said he believed his most important requirement at Canterbury would be enthusiasm. He brought this and many other talents. Later described as an ‘obstinate advocate with the stubborn thrust to the jaw’, Hopkins was ‘a forthright leader whose academic example, rigorous standards, shrewd assessment of human potential, literacy, scholarship and good fellowship won the respect of those who did not know him intimately and the admiration of those who did’. Engineering students could relate to his continuing activity in cricket and in turn he challenged them at bridge, assisted the occasional inebriate to bed on field excursions, and always kept them more than a little in awe of his presence.

Confident in his ability, he fought valiantly and successfully for the development of his department at all levels, from professorial board to University Grants Committee. Although by nature a man of action, Hopkins showed remarkable patience in filling staff vacancies, believing it better to endure a temporary work overload than endanger the department’s excellence by appointing the second rate. Graduates who through his encouragement had gained experience overseas were welcomed, but he always ensured a judicious appointment of new blood. The end result was a generally loyal, close-knit staff who enjoyed the loyalty of their head.

From the outset Hopkins had argued that the curriculum should be determined more by the progress of science than by the requirements of current practice. His own eminence brought many outside demands and rewards: he was a member of the board of inquiry into the 1953 Tangiwai rail disaster, chairman of the Lyttelton road tunnel advisory panel, and a member of the Mineral Resources Council, the Standards Association of New Zealand and the New Zealand Concrete Research Association. He was also chairman of the Christchurch Boys’ High School board of governors and a member of the Rotary Club of Riccarton. He was awarded the New Zealand Institution of Engineers’ Fulton Gold Medal in 1953 and its special award in 1957; he served two terms on its council and was president in 1966–67. His services to engineering and education were honoured with his appointment as an OBE in 1980.

Harry Hopkins unabashedly championed the contribution engineers could make to social change. Their achievements, he believed, were epitomised by bridges, which provided the frequent theme of his always erudite, eminently readable technical papers. His passion culminated with A span of bridges, an illustrated history published in 1970. His writings display his wide knowledge of history and the role engineers played in the development of civilisation.

The engineering school’s founding director, Robert Scott, was hugely successful, but he so dominated his staff and sapped their initiative that after his retirement in 1923 the school remained without a true leader for nearly 30 years. Hopkins brought new leadership and vision not just to a department but to a whole school. Although he too was a dominant personality, he was willing to delegate and when he retired in 1977 he left a successor experienced and ready for leadership; for his department there was a legacy of excellence and enthusiasm.

In 1978 the profession founded an annual Hopkins Lecture to foster public interest in engineering. Hopkins delivered the inaugural lecture – the subject, as of old, was bridges. Dorothy Hopkins died unexpectedly in 1984. Thereafter Harry’s zest for life dimmed and he died in Christchurch on 9 January 1986. They were survived by four sons (two of whom had become civil engineers) and a daughter.

How to cite this page:

John Pollard. 'Hopkins, Henry James', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000, updated October, 2021. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5h35/hopkins-henry-james (accessed 13 July 2024)