Page 1: Early life
Curnow, Thomas Allen Monro
Journalist, poet, writer, university professor
This biography, written by Terry Sturm, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2010.
Thomas Allen Monro Curnow (known as Allen) was born in Timaru on 17 June 1911, the second of three sons of Tremayne Monro Curnow, an Anglican clergyman, and his wife, Jessamine Towler Gambling.
On his father’s side, Allen Curnow was a fourth-generation New Zealander, the great-grandson of a Scottish-born settler and merchant, Peter Monro, who arrived in Hokianga in 1835. Tremayne Curnow gained an MA at Canterbury College in 1904 and in 1907 was ordained a priest of the Anglican church. A poet and the author of light weekly newspaper verses, he was the strongest influence on his son’s early interest in poetry.
Jessamine had met Tremayne in Timaru in the late 1880s, shortly after emigrating to New Zealand with her mother, Rose, who had separated from her husband before emigration. Rose lived with her daughter and son-in-law until her death. She played a large part in Allen’s upbringing while his mother attended to parish duties. The two worlds represented by his father and mother – one strongly rooted in New Zealand, the other aware of colonial exile and loss – provided a formative dual influence on Allen’s personality and poetry.
Allen Curnow grew up as a vicarage child, in a supportive environment. He nevertheless acquired a sense of difference from other children and a strong need to live up to parental expectations. He attended primary schools at Belfast, Waddington and West Lyttelton, where he was dux in his last year, but was not academically ambitious. He enrolled at Christchurch Boys’ High School in 1924. In 1929, he became a proof-reader’s copyholder at the Christchurch Sun newspaper.
Theological and university education
Still uncertain about his future, Curnow started at St John’s College, Auckland, in 1931 with a Marsh Scholarship to study for ordination into the Anglican church. Curnow was the top student in the national theological examinations in 1933. He studied towards a bachelor of arts degree at Auckland University College and completed it at Canterbury in 1938.