Story: Somerset, Hugh Crawford Dixon

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Somerset, Hugh Crawford Dixon

1895–1968

Teacher, adult education director, university professor, writer

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

Hugh Crawford Dixon Somerset (known as Crawford) was born in Belfast, North Canterbury, on 29 August 1895. He was the eldest of four children of Jane Dixon and her husband, George Crawford Black Somerset, a blacksmith and maintenance engineer at the local freezing works. The family moved to Christchurch in 1906. Crawford Somerset attended Belfast School and Christchurch Boys’ High School.

In 1915 he entered Christchurch Training College. Fellow student Gwendolen Lucy Alley and Crawford had known each other previously, and now found that they had many interests in common, such as the plays of Shaw, Ibsen and Galsworthy and the educational work of A. S. Neill. Somerset edited Recorder , the training college student magazine. The onset of severe osteoarthritis left him with a permanent deformation of his hips and he was to use crutches for the rest of his life. Because of this disability he was unable to obtain a teacher’s certificate and began coaching private pupils for university entrance.

In 1920–21 Alley and Somerset attended the first WEA summer school at Oxford, where they heard lectures on drama by James Shelley and on economics by J. B. Condliffe. Both Shelley (with whom Somerset studied at university) and Condliffe were to be important influences on him. In 1923 Alley, who was infant mistress at Oxford East District High School, suggested Somerset as a ‘temporary’ secondary assistant, a position which he took up in August 1923. His position was always temporary.

In 1924 Condliffe, who was director of studies for the WEA, had suggested that Somerset set up a tutorial class for adults in Oxford. Although there were several WEA groups in Canterbury, this was the first to have a residential tutor. The first class was held on 5 June 1924, when Shelley lectured on drama. Somerset co-ordinated the adult programme in addition to his school teaching. The range of topics was wide, from English literature to economics, international affairs and social sciences. A notable feature was the use of play readings to illustrate social issues or historical events. Somerset’s interest in drama led him later to write two one-act plays, which were published by the British Drama League (New Zealand Branch): The ayes have it and Black sheep (both 1935). He also had a lay-preacher’s licence, and gave a sermon every second Sunday in the Anglican church. While at Oxford he studied extramurally at Canterbury College; he took his BA in 1930, and his MA in 1931, with a thesis, ‘An experiment in rural adult education’, supervised by Shelley.

On 15 January 1930 Crawford Somerset and Gwen Alley were married in Christchurch; they were to have two sons. In 1935 they were awarded a joint Carnegie fellowship for overseas travel and study, and spent 1936–37 in Great Britain, Europe and the United States where they met leading figures in education and visited adult community education centres, such as village colleges in Cambridgeshire and Danish folk high schools. At Shelley’s suggestion the Somersets had made a sociological study of Oxford; this was published in 1938 as Littledene , and is still regarded as a significant study of a New Zealand rural community.

In February 1938 L. J. Wild, principal of Feilding Agricultural High School, invited the Somersets to be co-directors of the country’s first community centre. The scheme had the approval of Peter Fraser, minister of education, and was supported by C. E. Beeby when he became director of education. The Somersets began the experiment by making a social survey of the district, as the centre was to be partly a meeting place for existing organisations. The most important function, however, was to fill in the gaps in the educational and cultural life of Feilding by providing such activities as literature and art classes, drama productions, an informal advisory or counselling service, study groups in psychology and child development, and physical culture classes. Some students from Crawford Somerset’s class in writing had stories accepted for publication. A particularly popular feature was his ‘Open Forum in World Affairs’. As he had in Oxford, he continued to preach in the Anglican church.

Crawford Somerset was one of the joint secretaries of the 1942–43 consultative committee on the post-primary school curriculum (which produced the Thomas Report). He also continued writing, including a contribution on recreation to Making New Zealand (1940); a book for the New Zealand Council for Educational Research, Child nutrition in a rural community (1941); and a school bulletin, The dairy farm (1947). In 1947 he gave four radio talks on the community centre, in which he emphasised his belief that such a centre did its job best when just one or two paces ahead of the average life of the community, and was complementary to it.

The Somersets left Feilding in late 1947 when Crawford was appointed senior lecturer in the Department of Education of Victoria University College; he was promoted to associate professor in 1958. As an academic he regarded himself as a general practitioner and taught all aspects of educational studies, at all levels, from first year to masters. Being 51 when he began university teaching, he brought a wide experience to his work. Stimulating open-house discussions were regularly held in the Somersets’ house on Kelburn Parade.

Somerset published an article on rural education in Education (March 1958), and, with Millicent Kennedy, a small book, Bringing up crippled children (1951). He was president of the Association for the Study of Early Childhood, a member of the New Zealand National Commission for UNESCO and the National Council of Adult Education, and belonged to the British Psychological Society and the International Sociological Association. During the 1950s he undertook further visits to Oxford, which resulted in ‘Littledene revisited’; this was published along with the original book as Littledene: patterns of change (1974). He retired from university teaching in 1962.

Crawford Somerset died on 16 May 1968 in Wellington. He had exceptionally wide interests – intellectual, artistic and practical – and was a powerful personality as well as a very genial man. The community centres at Oxford and Feilding which occupied the greater part of his working life were important pioneering initiatives in adult and rural education. He was survived by Gwen and their two sons.

How to cite this page:

James Collinge. 'Somerset, Hugh Crawford Dixon', 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/5s35/somerset-hugh-crawford-dixon (accessed 17 October 2017)