Page 1: Biography
Tancred, Henry John
Politician, education reformer and intellectual
This biography, written by Edmund Bohan, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2022.
Henry Tancred was an important public figure in nineteenth-century Canterbury, active in a variety of Christchurch organisations, and represented the town in both provincial and national politics. He was especially active in developing educational institutions, and was a driving force behind the establishment of Canterbury University College (later the University of Canterbury).
Henry John Tancred, the second son of Harriott Lucy Crewe and her husband Sir Thomas Tancred, the sixth baronet of Boroughbridge, Yorkshire, was born at Cowes, Isle of Wight, and baptised there on 14 May 1816. He was educated at Rugby School and went on to Balliol College, Oxford, in 1834. Following a family tradition of younger sons joining the Austrian army, he enrolled as a cadet in the 7th Hussars in August 1835 and by April 1843 was a First Lieutenant. He served in Italy – in Cremona, Milan and Vicenza – until December 1847, when he applied for discharge, as family circumstances necessitated his return to England. By then he was fluent in German, Hungarian, French and Italian.
With his brother, the seventh Sir Thomas Tancred, he decided to emigrate to New Zealand. They joined the Canterbury Association as colonists for the newly created Canterbury settlement, and arrived in Lyttleton on the Barbara Gordon in December 1850. The brothers bought town sections in Christchurch and successively held the Malvern Hills and Ashburton runs. He married Georgeanna Janet Grace Richmond, daughter of Matthew R. Richmond, in Nelson on 30 July 1857. They had no children.
In spite of a speech impediment, Henry became an influential public figure, respected for his ‘high character,… unblemished honour,’ intellect, common sense and wide cultural interests.1 He was chairman of the Christchurch Colonists’ Society and, in 1855, resident magistrate for Lyttelton and Christchurch, keeper of public records, sheriff and commissioner of police. He participated in all aspects of civic life, from chairing the inaugural meeting of Canterbury’s Society of Arts to chairing the Spreydon Road Board, the Drainage Board and the board of West Christchurch School. He was a fellow of Christ’s College from 1856 until his death, and served as the school’s bursar (1863–67) and public examiner. As its Hulsean Professor of Modern History, he lectured on the separation of the eastern and western Roman empires. Above all, he advocated wider education for all, including high schools for girls. He was an influential member of the 1863 commission that restructured Canterbury’s chaotic education system, and served as a member of the provincial board of education which resulted. His passion for education inspired one of Crosbie Ward’s most famous jibes:
Herr Tancred is coming, Oh dear! Oh dear!
Herr Tancred is coming, Oh Dear!
To prove education is best for the nation
Enforced by a tax and a jeer.2
Tancred served on the Canterbury Provincial Council for much of its existence. He stood for the superintendency in 1853 but, nervous about his speech impediment, asked his brother to speak for him at nomination; he was howled down for advocating Chinese immigration to solve Canterbury’s labour shortage. He was elected to the Council, however, serving on it from 1853 to 1857 and 1864 to 1876. He was a member of its executive from 1853 to 1858 and 1864 to 1866, and acted as its speaker from 1866 until the system of provincial government was abolished in 1876. He acted as deputy superintendent in 1866 and 1871.
While serving on the Provincial Council he also participated in national politics. In 1856 he joined the Legislative Council, New Zealand’s upper chamber, whose 11 members were appointed by the government of the day rather than elected. In that capacity he served as a member of Henry Sewell’s brief 1856 ministry, as secretary for crown lands and postmaster-general in Edward Stafford’s successor ministry (1856–61), and finally as a member of Alfred Domett’s ministry (1862–63). In 1866 he resigned from the Legislative Council, and the following year was elected unopposed to the House of Representatives for Ashley, serving a single three-year term before retiring. There he formed an influential opposition splinter group of moderates with E. C. J. Stevens and Oswald Curtis – nicknamed the Cave of Adullam – concerned that Stafford was moving too slowly in limiting or even abolishing provincial government.
Establishing Canterbury University College
Tancred’s most significant political contribution, however, came during the debates on the University Endowment Act 1868. Otago’s Julius Vogel and James Macandrew argued that their university, established by Otago’s Provincial Council in 1869, should be New Zealand’s sole university. Canterbury’s leaders, led by Tancred, thought otherwise, and the New Zealand University Act, creating a national system of affiliated university colleges, was passed in 1870 after ferocious debate. When the national governing council first met in 1871, Tancred was elected chancellor. He established the head office in Christchurch, and was foremost in establishing the University of New Zealand as an examining body for the regional teaching colleges, modelled on the University of London, with overseas examiners.
Tancred was a driving force in establishing what would become the University of Canterbury. He joined with trustees of Canterbury Museum and fellows of Christ’s College to form a Collegiate Union, to work towards the establishment of a university college in Christchurch. This became the first college to be affiliated to the University of New Zealand in April 1872. At its inauguration in July, Tancred delivered an inspirational address to 200 of Christchurch’s elite, emphasising that higher education must be available to all – especially girls and women – without class, wealth or distance acting as barriers to entry, as they did in Britain. It should reflect local conditions and values, ‘confer the highest kind of education on the greatest number of students’, and enable the ablest to undertake further study.3 ‘Liberal’ or ‘general’ studies would be supplemented by specialist or ‘professional’ schools (such as a School of Agriculture). A scientific study of languages – including Māori – was needed, and Classics would provide training for logical and independent thought.
Tancred initially lectured in history at the college and, with his wife, even enrolled in botany and zoology classes in 1874. He remained chancellor of the University of New Zealand, and a Canterbury College board member, until his death, and continued to be involved in all local education activities. He remained a formidable influence on every committee on which he served. Presiding as chancellor at Canterbury College’s first graduation day in July 1880, he memorably conferred BA degrees on its first women graduates, Anne Bolton and Helen Connon.
Tancred died in Christchurch on 27 April 1884, aged 68. An obituary praised him as a courteous gentleman who nevertheless possessed ‘a very keen appreciation of any kind of humbug or imposture, and rebuked it with a humour, which, although generally genial and most attractive, could on occasions be sufficiently caustic.’4 Although prominent in national and provincial politics for over 20 years, Tancred’s true legacies were the University of New Zealand and Canterbury College. He bequeathed 456 volumes to the college’s library. His widow endowed the Tancred prizes at Christ’s College in history and literature in his memory.
This replaces an earlier entry on Henry Tancred by Hugh Parton, published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.