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Oliver, William Hosking


Historian, poet, editor, social commentator

This biography, written by Margaret Tennant, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2021.

W.H. (Bill) Oliver was one of New Zealand’s most eminent twentieth-century historians. He gained distinction as a scholar of British and New Zealand history and was part of a tradition of poet-historians, with five highly regarded volumes of poetry to his name. He was also a teacher, facilitator and editor of the work of others, and a social commentator and writer of prose characterised by elegance, sagacity and style. His breadth of intellectual interests was complemented by personal and administrative skills, which supported his role as foundation editor of the major historical project of his time: the Dictionary of New Zealand biography.

Early life and education

Known to family and colleagues as ‘Bill’, William Hosking Oliver was born at Mākino near Feilding on 14 May 1925. His parents, William Henry Oliver and Ethel Amelia Hosking, were Cornish migrants to New Zealand. The youngest of three children, Bill grew up in a working-class Methodist household, his returned-soldier father a stalwart of the labour movement and sometime Labour Party political candidate; he attributed his own ‘leftish disposition’, in part at least, to his father’s idealism and labour activism.1 Oliver’s early memories were of his father’s small poultry farm and his later employment uncertainties, and of his mother’s domestic skills which, even during the Depression, ensured that he and his siblings ‘were better clad, were better sheltered and kept warmer than many of our contemporaries’.2 The local dairy factory and the surrounding farmlands, bush and creek, places of unsupervised adventure, were childhood influences which ensured that ‘W.H’ Oliver, the mature scholar, had a vision of history informed by the local and regional and social – though the railway line which ran alongside the family home hinted at a wider world, and the family were very aware of their Cornish inheritance.

After a primary education at Manchester Street School, Oliver endured a miserable year at Feilding Agricultural High School before his family shifted to Dannevirke, where he had a much more congenial and intellectually stimulating learning experience under some talented women teachers at the local high school. He then moved to Wellington to study at Victoria University College in 1943. There, as a resident of Weir House, Oliver befriended Pat Wilson and Alistair Campbell, who shared and fostered his passion for poetry. In the wider Wellington scene he interacted with many others who were to gain prominence as writers, artists and religious leaders. These included Erik Schwimmer, Louis Johnson, James K. Baxter and Charles Brasch, in whose company he learned that ‘words, if they did not earn you a living, at least gave you a life’.3 Brasch, in particular, became ‘an admired and loved friend’, publishing Oliver’s poetry in Landfall.4

It was through his studies that Oliver developed a competing passion for history, particularly under the tuition of Professor Fred Wood. After working in various clerical and programming positions in the Department of Internal Affairs and the New Zealand Broadcasting Service, he was appointed to a junior lectureship in history at Victoria in 1949. In this position he finished a master’s thesis on a seventeenth-century topic, gaining a scholarship to study at the University of Oxford in 1951. Based first at Balliol College, then at Nuffield, he completed a DPhil on British trade union history, returning in 1955 to a lectureship at New Zealand’s Canterbury University College.

Before leaving for Oxford, Oliver had married Dorothy Rachel Nielsen in Christchurch on 30 June 1951. The pair had met at a Student Christian Movement conference in Christchurch, and over the next two decades they were to have five sons and a daughter. Also raised as a Methodist, Dorothy joined her husband, not always easily, on a religious journey into Anglicanism and then Catholicism, and away from it altogether. Bill Oliver came to reject what he described as creeds and affirmations, but he was later to acknowledge, very firmly, the ways that he had been shaped by Christianity in the many forms in which he had encountered it.

Oliver remained connected to the literary scene, reflecting upon New Zealand history and society, along with his own life, through poems which regularly appeared in the country’s literary magazines and poetry anthologies. He guest-edited two issues of Landfall in 1957, the same year his first collection, Fire without phoenix: poems 1946–54, was published; it won the 1957 Jessie Mackay Poetry Prize.

Academic life

Oliver’s career can be divided into three stages, and in each he generated a landmark piece of New Zealand history, among a repertoire of writing including poetry, reviews and social commentary. His single-volume Story of New Zealand (1960), written during his lectureship at Canterbury, associated him with a distinguished line of New Zealand history writers, extending from William Pember Reeves, to J.B. Condliffe and J.C. Beaglehole, and which included Oliver’s near contemporary, Keith Sinclair. The book was characterised by the breadth of vision, talent for synthesis and elegance of prose which characterised all of Oliver’s work. It was attuned to New Zealand’s British inheritance, a reflection of his dual background as a child of immigrants. Equally importantly for an academic with a growing family, the publication brought his first royalties of any consequence, and he later recalled how it enabled him to take delivery of his first car (a grey Mini).

In 1960 the family moved to Wellington, where Oliver took up a senior lectureship at Victoria. In co-teaching the first ever undergraduate course on New Zealand history with Mary Boyd, he helped launch an era when the country’s own stories would engage a new generation of students and researchers, and in vital and interesting ways. From Victoria he went as foundation professor of history and head of department to Massey University of Manawatū in Palmerston North in 1964. At first he saw this as a stepping stone to other academic appointments but stayed for nearly 20 years, finding there a mix of students, colleagues and opportunities that were ultimately very satisfying. He later concluded that there was no better place at the time for what he wanted to do as a scholar. Massey University was making the transition from an agricultural college to a fully-fledged university, and Oliver soon gained the respect of his scientist colleagues as well as those in the new arts faculties. He made a full contribution to the collegial life of the university in such roles as the first Dean of Humanities and as a member of the university council, gaining a reputation as a moderate and wise academic leader, albeit one with a certain disregard for the minutiae of bureaucratic requirements. (There was the comment to subordinates that a first and second memo from administrative quarters could safely go in the rubbish bin; if the matter was important enough a third memo would come in time to warrant a response.)

At the same time, Oliver did not restrict himself to academic domains and, as editor of the public affairs journal Comment (1959–63 and 1978–82), contributor to Vietnam War teach-ins, and public lecturer, he established his reputation as a social commentator whose knowledge of the past made him all the better informed to reflect upon current issues. He continued to contribute book reviews and essays to literary journals, and published two more collections of poetry, Out of season (1980) and Poor Richard (1982).

At Massey, Professor Oliver also showed his special blend of quiet guidance and inspiration in fostering a generation of postgraduate students. The tall, slightly stooped, pipe-smoking ‘Prof’ – as he was respectfully but affectionately known – presided over honours seminars in New Zealand social history (then a new and exciting area) with a combination of gentle suggestion and open-ended questioning. His postgraduate students were encouraged to extend their research into such relatively unexplored areas as rural history, women’s history and the history of bureaucratic institutions. From them came a view of New Zealand’s history from the provinces, but one which linked the minutely local to the national and global. A number of Oliver’s students were themselves to become academics, attributing their life-long passion for history to Oliver’s influence.

This second, Massey-based stage in Oliver’s career was marked by key publications, including, in 1971, Challenge and response: a study of the development of the East Coast region (a commissioned work co-written with Jane Thomson). This reinforced Oliver’s interest in the regional and provincial, but also underlined for him the racial dynamics so pervasive in New Zealand’s past. He returned to his early interest in British history with Prophets and millenialists (1978), and to his interest in New Zealand literature with the short biography James K. Baxter: a portrait (1983). His co-editorship, with Bridget Williams, of the Oxford history of New Zealand (1981), firmly established him as a New Zealand historian of the greatest stature. It was a landmark project which brought together the efforts of established New Zealand historians and those of a younger generation. It drew upon a huge mass of new thesis research, contained significant chapters on Māori as well as Pākehā experience and was, in itself, a statement that New Zealand’s history could no longer be contained within the covers of the short, single-volume, single-authored history.

Dictionary of New Zealand biography

The collaborative nature of the Oxford history prepared Oliver for a major career shift and for work on a third historical publication which would change the shape of New Zealand’s historical scholarship. He left the academic world and moved to Wellington in 1983 to take up editorship of the Dictionary of New Zealand biography, a major public history project being undertaken by the Department of Internal Affairs for the 1990 sesquicentennial. This drew not only upon his administrative skills, political nous and wide contacts within the historical community, but also on his experience as a teacher and guide in shaping the work of others. The polished, authoritative volumes which ensued under his editorship, and that of his co-editor, successor and friend, Claudia Orange, belie the immensity of the task which faced Oliver and his initially small team. He had to train specialised researchers and editors, oversee complex computer and data entry systems, and liaise with Māori and other community groups. He had to establish standards to which the more than a thousand individuals who wrote for the Dictionary could work, anticipating that these writers would include academics, enthusiasts, descendants of Dictionary subjects, and people who had never written professionally before. He also had to cement in place funding and political support for his Dictionary Unit within Internal Affairs, and for its products, which included Māori language publications based on Māori life stories, a major enterprise in itself. The strong body of Māori biographies reflected the leadership role of senior Māori figures in the early stages of the project, subsequent Māori engagement with individual essays, and Oliver’s commitment to seeing them, and the translation process, through to successful publication. The te reo Māori volumes of the Dictionary were the largest Māori language publishing project yet undertaken.

The Dictionary was a major exercise in historical entrepreneurship and a feat of composite scholarship that illuminated the lives of thousands of New Zealanders, the humble as well as the prominent. This first volume won the Goodman Fielder Wattie award for best book of the year in 1991. In 1990 Oliver himself was made a CBE and awarded the New Zealand 1990 Commemoration Medal and an honorary DLitt from Victoria University of Wellington.

The move to Wellington had the effect of further distancing Oliver from a marriage that had become increasingly difficult for both parties. He nonetheless returned to the family home in Palmerston North at weekends, and considered that he and Dorothy had made their peace by the time she died from cancer, in his presence, in 1988.

Ongoing contributions

Although Bill Oliver retired as editor of the Dictionary in 1990 he stayed on as consulting editor, reading and commenting on drafts of essays, for another decade; he was sometimes described as the dictionary’s kaumātua. He also kept writing during the 1990s, returning to poetry with Bodily presence: words/paintings (1993), in which his verse engaged with paintings by Anne Munz. He continued as a practising historian in his own right, producing a history of claims to the Waitangi Tribunal and becoming involved in the claims process himself, working with the Crown Forestry Rental Trust and giving expert advice in relation to the Muriwhenua and Hauraki claims. He became uneasy with the ways participants in the Tribunal process applied historical methodologies and, in an essay entitled ‘The future behind us: the Waitangi Tribunal’s retrospective utopia’ (2001), argued that the Tribunal interface between adversarial legal process, politics and history was to the detriment of the latter, raising questions about whether the primary loyalty of a historian was to their retaining agency or to the profession. The article was controversial and generated heated debate among historians. It was a continuation of the public commentator role that he had assumed decades earlier: as ever thoughtful, self-reflexive and incisive, but now expressed with a firmness that befitted his role as New Zealand’s senior public historian.

Further reflections on the nature of history were to be found in Oliver’s memoir, Looking for the phoenix (2002). An intellectual as much as a personal history, the carefully crafted memoir outlined Oliver’s family background as a prelude to his later development as a historian, concluding that his life had been immensely enriched by his parents’ Cornish background, and that ‘twentieth century New Zealand was a good place for the son of an immigrant farm labourer’.5 By this time Oliver’s professional relationship with publisher Bridget Williams had become a personal one, and the two had settled together in Ngaio, Wellington.  He had been awarded another honorary DLitt, this time from Massey University, in 2000, and a Prime Minister’s award for literary achievement followed in 2008. Both were public tributes to the breadth of Oliver’s accomplishment and his unsurpassed way with words as poet, writer of prose, and editor. In 2005 Victoria University Press published an anthology of his published poetry, Poems, 1946–2005, comprising the full text of his earlier volumes along with uncollected and new pieces.

Oliver’s health declined after the publication of his memoir, and along with it the energy for sustained research. He continued to read widely and engage in a life of the mind, while watching, with great enjoyment, cricket and rugby, even after his move to the Vincentian Home and Hospital in Berhampore, Wellington. He died there on 16 September 2015, aged 90.

Oliver once commented, with typical modesty, that his eventual standing as ‘the grand old man of New Zealand history’ largely rested on his having outlived other historians.6 This belied his ongoing productivity and influence upon the intellectual life of New Zealand. Equally important was the private affection and regard in which he was held by a generation of historians who were shaped by his generous, incisive yet gentle guidance over many decades.

  1. W.H. Oliver. Looking for the phoenix: a memoir. Wellington, 2002, p.176. Back
  2. Ibid, p.28. Back
  3. Ibid, pp.70-72. Back
  4. Ibid, p.75. Back
  5. Ibid, p.178. Back
  6. M. McLeod. ‘The history man’. New Zealand Listener, 11 November 2000, p.58. Back
How to cite this page:

Margaret Tennant. 'Oliver, William Hosking', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2021. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/6o3/oliver-william-hosking (accessed 21 April 2024)