Open discussion on the evolution of Australian and New Zealand Thought

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Transmission of ideas and the New Zealand Workers Educational Association 3

Photo: Walking on White Hot Stones. New Zealand International Exhibition 1906-1907, Christchurch. This may seem an odd photo to illustrate this article. However, it does link to a theme later in this post, the involvement of New Zealand academics with Pacific issues. From the seventies and especially the eighties, Australia was blinded to the Pacific by our focus on Asia. New Zealand remained a Pacific country.

This post concludes my brief discussion on the transmission of ideas, using the New Zealand WEA and some of those associated with it as an entry point.

In this post I want to extend my analysis, first tracking back into the story to introduce some new people and issues, then tracking forward to look at international issues. To avoid overloading with hyperlinks, references are included at the end of the post.

In the earlier posts I suggested that education at all levels appeared far more advanced and accessible in New Zealand in the early years of the twentieth century than in Australia. I think that this is important because it helps explain why New Zealand with its small population relative to Australia had such a disproportionate influence in areas such as economics.

I made some preliminary comments here in my first post. I now want to amplify these a little.

In 1906 Australia's population was around 4 million, that of NSW around 1.5 million, that of Northern NSW - the area later defined by the Nicholas Royal Commission as suitable for statehood - around 400,000. I have included Northern NSW for comparative purposes because it is a major sub-state area with its own history and is also the location of the first Australian moves into decentralisation of higher education.

In 1906, the total population of New Zealand including the Maori was 936,309. I do not have population figures for Canterbury as a whole. However, in 1906 the population of Christchurch and its immediate environs was 67,878.

Canterbury College was established in 1873, the second university institution in New Zealand. By the end of the First world War Canterbury with its relatively small population was serviced by an extensive school system, a university and a teachers college. Some measure of distance education was already available, with the growing WEA providing an adult education network.

In NSW by contrast, there was one university plus one teachers' college servicing 1.5 million people. Northern NSW with its 400,000 people lacked any higher educational institutions.

The Armidale Teachers College would not be established until 1928, the New England University College in 1938. Both were the first higher educational institutions in New England and the first non-metro institutions in Australia. In adult education, the mechanics institutes and equivalents described by Rafe in his post provided a limited and fragmented service compared to the WEA in New Zealand. There were technical colleges, but their scope was limited, especially outside the capital cities.

This is not a comparative history of education in both countries. My point is that in those days the universities and the cultural institutions that clustered around them were arguably far more important than today in the development and transmission of ideas. We can see this in Christchurch.

In some ways, Christchurch in the first part was a very English and Empire city. Yet according to the Christchurch city library web site, in the 1890s and early 1900s, the city was "buzzing with new ideas, full of radicals, reformers and eccentrics". It became a Liberal stronghold in 1890 and remained so for the next 20 years. Fabian socialist and architect of many of the Liberals’ social reforms, William Pember Reeves was a Christchurch member of parliament.

Christchurch was also been the cradle of the temperance and suffrage movements, the home of leading suffragists Katherine Wilson Sheppard and Ada Wells, as well as their parliamentary advocate, John Hall. It was the home of the trade union movement and of artisan radicalism, led by men like Thomas Edward Taylor, another Christchurch member of parliament who would later become mayor.

In all this mix, Professor James Hight (1870-1958) found a solid and permanent home.

Born at Halswell near Christchurch where his father was a farm labourer who then acquired his own small farm, James Hight completed his teacher training at the teachers' college, then went to Canterbury College on an English Exhibition. Among his fellow students at the time was Ernest Rutherford who would later be described as the father of nuclear physics.

After a period teaching in Auckland, Hight was appointed lecturer in political economy and constitutional history at Canterbury College in 1901 and with the exception of one year on exchange, remained there for the rest of his working life.

In 1908 Hight was appointed to the new chair of history and economics. When the chair was divided in 1919, he became professor of history and political science with John Condliffe taking the new economics chair.

Professor Hight was obviously an influential teacher. I have already mentioned his influence on Professor Condliffe who in turn influenced Horace Belshaw. These were not the only cases.

Sir Douglas Copland was one of the best known and most influential Australian economists of the first half of the twentieth century. While he is best known for his Australian work, he was in fact a New Zealand whose earlylife displayed the pattern we have already seen in Hight, Condliffe and Horace Belshaw.

According to biographical notes prepared by the Australian National Library, Copland was born on 24 February 1894 at Otaio, between Timaru and Waimate in the Canterbury Plains, one of sixteen children of Alexander and Annie Copland, wheat farmers from Scotland.

From 1899 to 1906 Copland attended Esk Valley Primary School and spent the next six years at the Waimate District High School. He then studied teaching at the Christchurch Teachers' College, before gaining Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degrees at Canterbury College.

By the time he left New Zealand in 1917 to take a position as lecturer in history and economics at the University of Tasmania, Copland had taught at his old high school and at Christchurch Boys' High School. In addition, he also tutored for the Workers' Educational Association and worked as a Compiler in the Census and Statistics Office of the Department of Internal Affairs.

Copland's love of teaching and fascination with economics stems from these years - in particular from his work on his father's wheat farm and the research for his M.A. thesis, 'The progress and importance of wheat production in New Zealand'.

We can see in fact see the same pattern in my own father, Professor James Belshaw, although because he was younger than Horace the institutions were different.

Born in Canterbury in 1908, he too followed a path through teachers' college into university. In his case he was involved with the WEA in Auckland, completed two masters degree in history and economics by distance education while teaching at a small one teacher school outside Auckland, and then followed in the footsteps of Condliffe and brother Horace to England to complete his PHD.

Under the terms of the scholarship, he had his choice of university and could have chose, like Condliffe and Horace Belshaw, to study at Cambridge. However, because Horace had studied at Cambridge, James Belshaw chose Manchester.

After completing his PhD, James Belshaw worked briefly in the League of Nations and with the New Zealand Department of Labour before accepting in 1938 the foundation lectureship in history and economics at the newly established New England University College. There, like Hight, he settled in, later becoming foundation professor of economics when New England gained full autonomy.

Copland's departure for Australia in 1917, my father's in 1938, is a sign of another feature of these earlier New Zealand economists. New Zealand could train them, but was too small to retain them. However, in their moves around the world they carried the New Zealand influence with them, making major contributions to academic and public life.

We can again see this by looking at briefly at the patterns in their later life.

About 1925 Condliffe, still professor of economics at Canterbury college, was a member of the New Zealand delegation to the first conference of the Institute of Pacific Relations. In 1926 he accepted the newly created position of research secretary for the IPR, travelling extensively in Asia. Then in 1931 he was invited to join the economic secretariat of the League of Nations, writing its first World Economic Survey.

Condliffe was now part of an eminent group of economists who were to shape international discussion on trade, monetary order and economic policy in the three decades after 1935, arguing that continued expansion of world trade was a necessary condition for world peace and prosperity.

In 1939 Condliffe accepted a professorship in economics at the University of California, Berkley. While California would now remain his base, he retained his New Zealand connections. His later New Zealand focused publications included The welfare state in New Zealand , a revision of New Zealand in the making, a book on the New Zealand economy and a biography of his friend Te Rangi Hiroa (Sir Peter Buck).

Many of the same patterns can be found in Horace Belshaw's later life, although his New Zealand focus was stronger.

Described by Frank Holmes in his NZDB article as New Zealand's most notable applied economist of his generation, Horace Belshaw was concerned that economics should be used to solve social, economic and public policy problems.

After returning from Cambridge to accept the chair of economics at Auckland in in 1928, and like Hight and Condliffe before him, he encouraged his students to examine current New Zealand issues and their wider social implications. He also remained active in the WEA, organising and directing several of the first WEA summer schools.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Horace Belshaw wrote extensively on the economic position of New Zealand farmers, their increasing indebtedness and possible reforms to the system of land tenure and credit, including the need for a central bank. In 1936 he directed a research project that culminated in what Frank Holmes has described as the encyclopedic publication Agricultural Organisation in New Zealand.

The depression hit New Zealand hard. In 1932 Horace Belshaw, along with professors Copeland, Hight and Albert Tocker, was appointed by the government to an economic committee to advise on measures to deal with the depression. Then in 1934 he accepted a position as economic adviser to the the mister of finance, Gordon Coates. This proved short lived, with the Labour Party winning the 1935 election.

In the late 1930s he became actively involved in moves for Maori improvement. He addition to discussing measures that would allow Maori to be self-supporting on their own lands, he argued for a generous approach to education, health and housing assistance for those forced to move to the cities. In 1939 he organised and chaired a successful conference of young Maori leaders.

In 1944 Horace followed in John Condliffe's footsteps to become research secretary to the Institute of Pacific Relations in New York and then in 1946 to California as professor of agricultural economics at the Davis campus of the University of California. His growing interest in rural welfare and agrarian reform in developing countries led to his appointment in 1948 as director of the Agriculture Division of the Rural Welfare Branch of the FAO.

When the headquarters of the shifted to Rome in 1951, he returned to New Zealand as professor of economics at Victoria University College, Wellington, maintaining his interest in Pacific and development issues.

Now here I want to pause in what might otherwise become a boring chronology to draw out a few threads that I found interesting, in so doing bringing this excessively long post to a conclusion.

The first is the interest in and involvement with the Maori and, more broadly, the Pacific among many New Zealand academics. This appears much stronger and more focused than the Australian equivalent. The second is the focus on agricultural and development economics and the role of applied economics in meeting community needs. The third is the way in which ideas and intellectual interests carried across space and time.

A few closing examples to illustrate these threads.

In Horace Belshaw's case, the interests created by his own background combined with the influence of Hight and Condliffe created a thread that ran through the family.

His brother in law, Vic Fisher who met his wife to be through the WEA, became curator of anthropology at the Auckland museum. One son, Cyril, became a world famous anthropologist specialising in the Pacific. A second son, Michael, also became an anthropologist, although he is probably best known in the US because of his work with wolves.

My father carried the interest in adult extension and in economic development through to his work.

There is, for example, a direct connection between the story that began in Canterbury all those years ago and the later establishment of agricultural economics as a major discipline at the University of New England. There is also a direct connection between the extension work and the community involvement that marked the early days of the New England College and the extension work and WEA model developed in Christchurch.

One could even argue that this blog itself is a direct lineal descendent of those early days!

Introductory post in series. Previous post.


Belshaw, James. "Decentralisation, Development and Decent Government: the Life and Times of David Henry Drummond, 1890-1941", PhD thesis, University of New England 1983. Material on the history of education in Australia is drawn from here.

Christchurch City Libraries, Christchurch 1906-1907

Fleming, Grant. 'Condliffe, John Bell 1891 - 1981'. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, updated 22 June 2007 URL:

National Library of Australia, Guide to the Papers of Sir Douglas Copland, provided biographical material on Sir Douglas Copeland.

Holmes, Frank. 'Belshaw, Horace 1898 - 1962'. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, updated 22 June 2007 URL:

Phillips, N. C. 'Hight, James 1870 - 1958'. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, updated 22 June 2007URL:

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