Story: Wood, Frederick Lloyd Whitfeld

Page 1: Biography

Wood, Frederick Lloyd Whitfeld

1903–1989

Historian, university professor

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

Frederick Lloyd Whitfeld Wood was born in Sydney, Australia, on 29 September 1903, the son of George Arnold Wood and his wife, Eleanor Madeline Whitfeld. His father had migrated to Australia to be the University of Sydney’s first professor of history. Frederick, or ‘Freddie’ as he became universally known in New Zealand, was educated at Sydney Grammar School, then studied at Sydney University, graduating BA in 1925. He then entered Balliol College, Oxford, graduating BA with first-class honours in modern history in 1928. He took an active part in the British general strike of 1926, which consolidated his vaguely left-wing frame of mind. After graduating he taught for a short time at Repton School.

Balliol left an indelible mark of leisurely, elegantly intelligent, intellectually incisive, sceptical and tolerant scholarship on him. In demeanour, speech and mental stance he was the archetype of the proverbial Oxford scholar. After his return to Sydney he privately tutored Patrick White, later a Nobel Prize-winning novelist. In 1930 he began lecturing in history at the University of Sydney. His books The constitutional development of Australia (1933) and A concise history of Australia (1935) were both used in Australia as textbooks for many decades. He married Joan Myrtle Walter, a teacher, at Blackheath, New South Wales, on 23 January 1932; they were to have two sons and two daughters.

In 1935 Wood was appointed to the chair of history at Victoria University College in Wellington. It was here that he became a major influence on New Zealand’s intellectual and administrative life, both through the many students he taught and through his publications. Yet his initial appointment took place under a political cloud. The committee had recommended J. C. Beaglehole for the chair, but Beaglehole’s earlier appointment at Auckland University College had ended in politically controversial circumstances because he had been an outspoken advocate of social justice. Victoria’s administrators were therefore pressured to offer the chair to Wood instead. It was the college’s good luck that they did not get what they had expected: Wood was as honestly dedicated to social justice as the man they had passed over. While the situation had all the potential for intra-departmental jealousy, Wood and Beaglehole, appointed as lecturer in 1936, were both men of complete personal integrity and co-operated fruitfully and constructively. Their students received the best of them both.

Wood’s remarkable personality (a happy combination of care and gentleness) and his scholarship were displayed in both his personal and professional lives. His home in Gladstone Terrace became a centre for Wellington’s intellectual and artistic life where people like Ernst Plischke, Alister McIntosh, Frank Corner, Colin McCahon, Philip Smithells, Clarence Beeby and Tom and Sylvia Smith met. Often a large number of students congregated to improvise an evening meal and discuss and converse until late at night. Within the college, the history department became a focal point of intellectual and political stimulation. For over a decade the graduate course on the history of Puritanism in England was a centre from which investigations and critical discussions of historical and political topics radiated. Wood’s informality and tolerance promoted intellectual friendships, and the fact that seminars and lectures were held in late afternoon encouraged a convivial spill-over of formal teaching into the evening and often into the night.

Wood’s lecturing style was not altogether different from his chairmanship of his seminars. He would stand in front of the class, slightly stooped (he was very tall), and tentatively open up a subject, questioning rather than informing his audience. Though he himself would continue to talk for the whole hour, the students felt that he was really questioning them and inviting them to agree or disagree. They were learning, but did not get the impression that they were being told, because Wood would never lay down the law on anything. The very voice he used was always doubting, questioning, exploring.

He used the same technique to administer the department. In those days the head was the unquestioned authority, but Wood would always ask for his staff’s opinions, invite their opposition, then gently advance his own view only to withdraw it in the same breath. He always got his way, but nobody ever felt that they had been silenced. The unsurpassed value of his teaching method was his insistence that for every discovery and every position there was at least one, and often more than one, alternative. Not his least merit was that he held a protecting hand over those members of his staff who embarked on research of their own or tried novel teaching methods.

In Wood’s mind, teaching, scholarship and friendly conviviality all went hand in hand. It is a remarkable tribute to his social conscience that – with the exception of Jim Davidson, Jock Salmon and Bill Oliver – his best students tended to become public servants rather than academic teachers. Men such as Frank Corner and Bryce Harland, both senior officials at the Department of External Affairs, and others in other departments, became prominent and influential leaders. The intellectual training they received contributed to the enormous influence Wood exercised on New Zealand’s public life.

Wood was a dedicated advocate and promoter of the transformation of the old empire into the commonwealth. He took an active part in overseas conferences and in the Royal Institute of International Affairs, holding a fellowship at its headquarters, Chatham House, London, in 1952–53, and kept in close touch with Sir Keith Hancock, the Australian historian and author of the monumental Survey of British Commonwealth affairs. He was active in the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, and was a leading member of the group of scholars who during the 1940s urged the government to adopt the Statute of Westminster.

His first New Zealand publication was New Zealand in the world , his singular contribution to the series of books published to mark the country’s centenary in 1940. A little later he wrote a more popular book, Understanding New Zealand. For many years from the late 1940s onwards he was a guiding light in the War History Branch, where many Victoria history graduates worked. His own major work, based in part on the researches carried out by this branch, was entitled The New Zealand people at war , published in 1958. Wood retired from teaching in 1969, and was made a CMG in 1974. He died at his home on 11 September 1989, survived by his wife, a son and a daughter.

How to cite this page:

Peter Munz. 'Wood, Frederick Lloyd Whitfeld', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5w46/wood-frederick-lloyd-whitfeld (accessed 17 October 2018)