Story: Pascoe, John Dobrée

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Pascoe, John Dobrée

1908–1972

Mountaineer, photographer, writer, editor, historian, archivist

This biography, written by Jock Phillips, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 5, 2000.

John Dobrée Pascoe was born at Christchurch on 26 September 1908, the elder of twin sons of Effie Denham and her husband, Guy Dobrée Pascoe, a prominent solicitor. After primary education at Sumner School, John attended Christ’s College (1921–27). Always slightly uncomfortable in conformist institutions, he found his greatest enjoyment at school in cross-country running. On leaving, he joined his father’s legal firm and studied law, but failed to graduate. His future career was largely built upon self-education. Initially his energies continued to go into harriers and he represented Canterbury in 1930–31.

In 1928, as training for running and weekend relief from the boredom of law, Pascoe joined the Canterbury Mountaineering Club and began tramping in the foothills of the Torlesse and Craigieburn ranges. Before long he had graduated to longer, more perilous trips among the mountains and passes of the Waimakariri, Rangitata and Rakaia headwaters. During the 1930s, particularly at Christmas and Easter, he would set off with a party of two or three mates to explore little-known valleys and conquer unclimbed peaks. In an area where there were few huts or marked routes and fierce nor’wester storms were common, he showed remarkable stamina, courage and a fine judgement in reading a compass, interpreting the weather and navigating routes. His major mountaineering achievement in this period was his conquest of Mt Evans on New Year’s day 1934. This was his third attempt on what was then the highest discrete unclimbed peak in New Zealand.

From these experiences in the mountains of Canterbury Pascoe’s other interests and achievements grew. He began to take photographs as an aid for future route-finding and discovered a skill with the camera. Some of these alpine scenes were published in weekly newspapers, and to explain the images and share with others his enthusiasm for the wild beauty he had encountered he began to write. Researching the journals and accounts of early explorers and prospectors led to an interest in history. The combined result of all these endeavours was a classic of mountaineering literature, Unclimbed New Zealand , which documented his mountain adventures in a relaxed, easy style, combining a slightly understated humour with highly visual descriptions.

When the book appeared in 1939 John Pascoe was living in Wellington: despite the close proximity of the Canterbury high country he did not enjoy his time as a law clerk in Christchurch. In 1937 he had written to Joe Heenan, the visionary under-secretary for the Department of Internal Affairs, and asked for employment. Heenan was putting together a team to produce publications for the 1940 centennial, and the editor, E. H. McCormick, offered Pascoe a job eventually formalised as illustrations editor. His main responsibility was to find the photographs, drawings and maps for the 30-part centennial series, Making New Zealand .

By the time the centennial project had ended, New Zealand was at war. The army doctors, presumably unaware of Pascoe’s climbing feats, looked at his ‘spindly shanks’ and classified him unfit for military service. His war work took two forms. He served in a bush guide platoon of the Home Guard, marking and mapping routes in the Orongorongo and Rimutaka ranges near Wellington, and in 1942 Heenan appointed him official war photographer. He now turned his lens to the social experiences of workers in wartime New Zealand. Pascoe was never interested in photography as technical trickery, nor as puffery and propaganda. Influenced by the British documentary film-makers and American photojournalism, he wanted to capture the human realism of his subjects’ lives. As an official photographer he was able to document experiences forbidden to others: Japanese prisoners of war, soldiers training in bush warfare, and women in munitions factories. Many of his images are sombre and unheroic, and some – the coast watcher at Punakaiki rocks, the physical exercise series, VE Day celebrations – have become New Zealand icons.

Small and wiry with tousled hair and a moustache, Pascoe had a slight speech hesitation and smoked a huge, round-bowled calabash pipe. Never a typical public servant, he described himself as ‘not a red-tape wallah in a red-tape department’. He was fortunate that Heenan had an acute sense of his interests and would send him on special outdoor assignments such as reporting on a forest fire in the Gouland Downs. When the war ended and McCormick returned to set up a war archive, Pascoe was given a new job organising the picture files of the armed services for a planned series of war histories.

By this stage he was very much the family man. On 22 June 1940 at St Barnabas Church, Khandallah, he had married Dorothy Gladys Harding, a painter and fellow tramper, and in 1947 they began to carve out a bush section in Eastbourne and build a new home designed by John’s twin brother, Paul, a prominent architect. There John and Dorothy brought up four daughters in an environment which reflected his enjoyment of music (he was a proficient performer on the banjo), art and literature as well as his continuing enthusiasm for getting into the hills.

Often in the company of Dorothy and later his daughters, Pascoe explored new areas of the North Island and the Marlborough Sounds, although the mountains of the South Island regularly called him back. He did further exploration at the headwaters of the Rakaia River, especially the Arrowsmith Range, with his great climbing mate Stan Conway, and in the 1950s he undertook a series of transalpine journeys, often in the footsteps of early explorers. In 1967 he climbed Mounts Aspiring and Rolling Pin with Dorothy. In all it is claimed he conquered over 100 peaks, of which some 23 were previously unclimbed. For his work on New Zealand mountaineering, literature, mapping and photography, he was made a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

Pascoe never climbed without his camera and notebook, records from which contributed to a stream of publications. In 1950 a second book appeared, The mountains, the bush & the sea , and over the next two decades his books revealed the history of mountain exploration in New Zealand. These included two contributions to the ‘Great Days’ series, a guide to the Southern Alps, a book of mountain reminiscences ( Land uplifted high ) and a well-edited collection of the journals of one his heroes, the explorer C. E. Douglas. Pascoe also produced a number of smaller works and articles in magazines, and edited the Oxford New Zealand encyclopaedia. One of his last publications, Of unknown New Zealand (1971), was a collection of poems which expressed a more mystical relationship with the great outdoors. Though Pascoe took pride in the peaks he had conquered and the passes he had traversed, he took equal enjoyment in the relaxed contemplation of natural beauty.

If the 1950s and 1960s brought successes and enjoyments to Pascoe as a writer, his career in the Department of Internal Affairs also flowered. In 1955 he served as founding secretary of the National Historic Places Trust, and five years later briefly became controller of the Wildlife Branch. From 1961 to 1963 he was a legal executive officer in the department’s clerical division, and then was appointed chief archivist, responsible for the public archives of the country. He took the job six years after the establishment of the National Archives when the status of the institution was not high. The holdings were scattered in 26 different sites. During Pascoe’s time the archives moved to a new building, Borthwick House, and the holdings expanded considerably. He worked hard and generously on behalf of the National Archives, but it was not an easy task raising the profile of the institution in a society which still had little appreciation of its history. Pascoe’s first loves remained his writing, his family and the great outdoors.

Pascoe was still chief archivist when he died in Christchurch on 20 October 1972, survived by his wife and daughters. He left to his many friends memories of a warm generous spirit, a fine story teller and an enthusiasm for life; to posterity he left an impressive body of writing on the Pakeha discovery of New Zealand’s mountains.

How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips. 'Pascoe, John Dobrée', first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol. 5, 2000. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5p15/pascoe-john-dobree (accessed 28 July 2017)