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Kōrero: Cumberland, Kenneth Brailey

Whārangi 1: Biography

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Cumberland, Kenneth Brailey


Geographer, broadcaster, local body politician, farmer

I tuhia tēnei haurongo e Eric Pawson, ā, i tāngia tuatahitia ki Ngā Tāngata Taumata Rau i te 2023.

Yorkshireman Kenneth Cumberland was the first qualified geographer to teach the subject at university level in New Zealand. He joined the new Department of Geography at Canterbury University College in 1938, and soon established himself as a prolific author. He later set up a geography department at Auckland University College, being appointed to its newly created chair in 1949. He wrote texts for school and university students, and had a strong sense of the civic purpose and wider application of geography. He gave radio broadcasts, was active for a time in local body politics, and served two terms as a vice-president of the International Geographical Union. In retirement he wrote and presented a ground-breaking television documentary series, Landmarks.

Early life and education

Kenneth Brailey Cumberland was born on 1 October 1913 in Bradford, Yorkshire, the elder son of Ernest Cumberland and Lucy Hodgson. Ernest was appointed cashier with Charles Sykes and Company, manufacturers of knitting yarns, during the First World War, later rising to mill manager and then company secretary. Both parents had rural roots, Ernest in Leicestershire and Lucy in Kettlewell-in-Craven in Wharfedale, Yorkshire. Kettlewell rather than Bradford became Kenneth’s emotional anchor in childhood. On return visits from New Zealand, it was Kettlewell that drew him back.

Cumberland was educated at Grange Elementary and Grange High schools in Bradford, becoming school captain in his sixth-form year. He captained its football and cricket elevens, having been in the cricket, football and swimming teams for his house since Form 1. He also had a range of academic interests, including geography. He attributed this interest to his fascination with the landscapes around Kettlewell, and the experience of travelling around the north of England with sports teams. His first visits abroad were school exchanges to Germany in 1930 and 1931.

Geographical training and career development

In 1932, Cumberland went to University College Nottingham, which awarded University of London external degrees. He read some geography in German, and paid his last pre-war visit to Germany in the mid-1930s, acting as interpreter for a Nottingham field party to Thüringia. He continued playing sport, in 1933 representing British universities in the freestyle sprints and water polo at the International University Games in Turin. Jack Lovelock, the New Zealand miler, then at Oxford, was also in the team.

Completing his geography degree with first-class honours in 1935, Cumberland embarked on a two-year MA course. He enjoyed fieldwork, and wrote a thesis focused on land utilisation patterns in the Craven district of Yorkshire, which was designed to contribute field data to the Land Utilisation Survey of Britain then in-progress. In 1937, with a year of his degree course to run, he accepted a temporary junior lectureship in geography at University College London.

One of his colleagues in London was the New Zealand economic geographer, R.O. Buchanan. Early in 1938 George Jobberns, who had recently been appointed as lecturer-in-charge of New Zealand’s first geography department at Canterbury University College, wrote to Buchanan for help in recruiting a new lecturer. Buchanan proposed Cumberland, who decided ‘within a matter of hours, that if Canterbury College was prepared to make it possible, I was going to go to New Zealand’.1 He arrived in Christchurch in May 1938 with his completed MA degree. Jobberns, a geologist by training who described himself as ‘a geographer by declaration’, bestowed on Cumberland the epithet of New Zealand’s first geographer ‘by qualification’.2 Cumberland quickly found his feet, encouraged by visiting American geographers and by the philosopher Karl Popper – then also at Canterbury – with whom he discussed The nature of geography (1939) by the leading American geographer Richard Hartshorne.

Hartshorne’s commitment to tracing geography’s intellectual origins appealed to Cumberland, as did the book’s attempt to provide the discipline with a coherent focus. Cumberland worked alongside Jobberns to champion the role of geography in the university and in schools. Class field trips introduced Cumberland to Canterbury landscapes, which were the subject of his first published New Zealand paper in 1940. The article was influenced by his work in Yorkshire and the recent work of another leading American geographer, Carl Sauer of Berkeley.

Cumberland’s fiancée Marjorie Denham, whom he’d met 10 years earlier in Bradford, joined him in New Zealand in 1940. They were married in Whanganui on 30 November 1940, and spent much of their honeymoon travelling through the eroding ranges of the central North Island, making field notes as they went. They had three children together.

The family moved to Auckland in 1946, when Cumberland was appointed senior lecturer in charge of the new Department of Geography at Auckland University College. Awarded the inaugural professorship in geography in 1949, he led a growing department, with a steadily increasing research profile, for almost three decades. On his first study leave outside New Zealand, he was a visiting professor at Hartshorne’s university, at Wisconsin-Madison, in 1951.

Scientific research and writing

The intellectual threads informing Cumberland’s thinking, largely drawn from Hartshorne and Sauer, are clearly discernible in his writings. In 1941 he published an article in the Geographical Review of which, he later said, he was the most proud: ‘A century’s change: natural to cultural vegetation in New Zealand’. It focused on the human transformation of the landscape, but was no celebratory piece; following Sauer, it warned that ‘nature’s revenge’ was increasingly evident in terms of land instability and soil loss. Cumberland followed this with original research on soil erosion, based on years of extensive fieldwork. This had begun in the summer of 1938/9 when he visited the North Island, staying on a farm inland from Whanganui managed by Marjorie’s brother.

Cumberland was the first soil conservator in the country, working part-time in this capacity for the North Canterbury Catchment Board in 1944–45; Canterbury University College awarded him a DSc for his soil erosion research in 1945. The Soil Conservation and Rivers Control Council had published his monograph, Soil erosion in New Zealand, the previous year. This book was well received both in New Zealand and overseas, as it reflected contemporary social concerns about the wise use of natural resources. In this, Cumberland was echoing not only Sauer but also George Stapledon, a British grasslands scientist whose work he had read as a graduate student. The book was subtitled A geographic reconnaissance, and emphasised regional differences in the causes and expressions of soil erosion.

Geography was still seeking an identity in university and school curricula, and Cumberland considered that the emphasis on distinct regional influences, inspired by Hartshorne, gave geography an intellectual standing. Cumberland wrote a number of well-regarded regional texts in this mould. Southwest Pacific: a geography of Australia, New Zealand and their Pacific Island neighbourhoods (1954) reflected how he had steered the new Auckland department towards research in the South Pacific. It was published in New Zealand (running to four editions), and also in New York, London and Tokyo. His co-authored text, New Zealand: a regional view, first appeared in 1958, and went through several subsequent printings and a new edition. A book on Western Samoa followed in 1962.

Cumberland applied this regional view of geography to his books for schools, which were standard texts for several decades. His Whitcombe’s map reading in geography (1943), which had gone through nine editions by 1968, was intended to ‘equip the citizens of the future to think sanely’ about the problems of their own area and the world.3 His Whitcombe’s atlas of geography for New Zealand and Australian schools (1942) sold nearly half a million copies over 13 editions. He complemented this with This is New Zealand: a pictorial description (1949), published in five editions up to 1960, which he designed to meet ‘the recent insistence upon the employment of visual aids in education’.4 The royalty income from these books was substantial.

Influence and civic contributions

Cumberland’s influence as an author was matched by his dominant presence in the classroom. As head of department he also fostered the academic development of staff – many of whom became well-known geographers in New Zealand, Australia and the United States – not least through an insistence on the importance of research. He built considerable moral authority through public addresses and newspaper articles on subjects such as agriculture, food security and the future of the national economy. He became an accomplished broadcaster, giving radio talks from the early 1940s.

He was also a highly influential figure nationwide within the evolving academic discipline of geography. Within a few months of arriving in Christchurch he established a local geographical association. This led to the formation of the New Zealand Geographical Society, which had branches in the four main centres by 1945. In that year Cumberland, at the society’s request, set up its in-house journal, the New Zealand Geographer, which he edited until 1955.

His influence was not uncontested. In the 1950s and 1960s, geographers in the new department at Victoria University of Wellington challenged the regional orthodoxy with a call to draw more widely on the social sciences. In 1960 they set up their own journal, Pacific Viewpoint, as an outlet for geographical work concerned with underdevelopment, in contrast to the growth and modernisation thesis that informed Auckland geographers’ research work in the Pacific.

Cumberland applied his geographical knowledge to the practical challenges of developing the Auckland region. Following his inaugural address on ‘Geography and government’ in 1946, he stood for election to Auckland City Council. Between 1953 and 1962 he served simultaneously on the council, the Metropolitan Drainage Board and the Regional Planning Authority (chairing the latter between 1956 and 1959). In 1957, he was urged to stand for the mayoralty but was refused permission by the college authorities. As a council ally of Mayor Dove-Myer Robinson, he had advocated successfully for a more sophisticated sewage treatment system. He also sought the development of a master transport plan, which would combine the electrification and partial undergrounding of the city’s rail lines with a motorway network. Only the latter was ultimately funded.

He decided not to stand again for council in 1962, due to his wife’s ill health and his other responsibilities. After Marjorie died in 1963, he bought land at Brookby, between Whitford and Clevedon, where he farmed in partnership with his son Garth while continuing to teach. Other farm purchases followed, both for sheep and dairy production, which enabled him to put into practice his espousal of agricultural intensification and diversification. For some years he advocated a combination of forestry and farming, in which trees, pasture and horticultural crops were grown together. He married primary schoolteacher Marie Gladys Johnson in Manurewa on 11 October 1979.


After a lifetime of academic and civic activity, Cumberland became a household name in later life with the Landmarks television series. He was approached by the television producer George Andrews, who wished to create a documentary series in the style of BBC productions such as Alastair Cook’s America (1972) and Jacob Bronowski’s The ascent of man (1973). The series was made by Television New Zealand with support from the Department of Education. It was first shown on prime-time TV in 1981 and subsequently repeated, as well as being used in schools for some years.

Cumberland both scripted and presented the 10 hour-long programmes, which took four years to make. He addressed the camera from many of the locations that had featured in his earlier research career, his rich Yorkshire voice carrying the resonance of 40 years of public speaking and radio talks. The programmes ranged across time, encapsulating his interest in the development of New Zealand’s cultural landscapes, and the opportunities and problems arising from their transformation. He used evocative titles, ranging from ‘Castaways in a cold world’ on early Māori settlement, to ‘The looting of nature’s treasures’ by European settlers, and eventually ‘Nature exacts its revenge’. He concluded by ‘Tracing the shape of tomorrow’. The series was accompanied by a best-selling book in which Cumberland emphasised that people are the shapers and makers of landscape, but that their ‘land use and way of life must change strikingly’ if they wished to ensure future prosperity.5

Later life and honours

The university awarded Cumberland the title of emeritus professor on his retirement in 1978, and the following year a festschrift was published in his honour, The land our future: essays on land use and conservation in New Zealand in honour of Kenneth Cumberland. His international academic standing had been recognised in 1960 with nomination as vice-president of the International Geographical Union, a position in which he served two four-year terms. In 1973 he became the first geographer elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand. For his wider civic contributions, and in the wake of Landmarks, he was made a CBE in 1983.

Cumberland and Marie divorced in 1991, and he married Irene Wilkinson at his Te Kūiti farm on 7 December 1991. His farm at Brookby was called ‘Kettlewelldale’; his last home, on his daughter’s property in Awhitū, was ‘Kettlewell Cottage’. He died, aged 97, on 17 April 2011 in Auckland, survived by his three children; Irene had predeceased him in 2007. The annual Cumberland lecture, hosted by the School of Environment at the University of Auckland, is named in his honour.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. K.B. Cumberland. Milestones and landmarks. Auckland, 2011: 95. Back
  2. Ibid: 110. Back
  3. K.B. Cumberland. Whitcombe’s map reading in geography. the interpretation of topographic maps and geographic photographs. Christchurch, 1943: 1. Back
  4. K.B. Cumberland. This is New Zealand: a pictorial description. Christchurch, 1943: 3. Back
  5. K.B. Cumberland. Landmarks. Surry Hills, 1981: 6. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Eric Pawson. 'Cumberland, Kenneth Brailey', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2023. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/mi/biographies/6c12/cumberland-kenneth-brailey (accessed 14 June 2024)