Victoria University of Wellington 1899 ~ 1999 A History
[one] — The college is founded
The college is founded
THIRTY YEARS AFTER the first legislative steps were Staken to provide for university education in New Zealand the newly appointed Council of Victoria, the ‘Cinderella’ of the colony's four university colleges, held its first meeting, in May 1898. The history of the University of New Zealand during those three decades – which its chancellor, James Hector, described when he welcomed Victoria's founding professors to Wellington in 1899 as a ‘thirty years’ war' – has been recounted in splendid detail elsewhere and need only be summarised here.1
Provincialism and parsimony is the short version of the story. In 1868, after some years of discussion, a University Endowment Act was passed, establishing eight scholarships for study in Britain (none of which was ever held) and setting aside a land endowment for a future university in the colony itself. The following year the provincial government of Otago, rich with gold and imbued with a Scottish reverence for education, moved to establish a University of Otago in Dunedin. This prompted the legislators in Wellington to pass, with uncommon speed, a New Zealand University Act in 1870, creating a colonial university. Now Canterbury, not to be outdone by its neighbour, took steps to found its own university college, which was affiliated to the new University of New Zealand – an institution that as yet existed in little more than name – in 1872.
In the period of ‘internecine war’ that continued through the 1870s,2 provincial politics were intertwined with a debate about the nature of a university: an argument about whether (curious as it may sound) a university should teach, or it should not. This was to be a prolonged and hard-fought debate, and one in which, four decades on, Victoria's professors were to take a prominent role. On the one hand, there might be an examining and degree-granting university, with no fixed abode, to which approved teaching institutions would present candidates for degrees. The model was the University of London, and it was promoted by the page 12 Canterbury interests. Alternatively, there was the teaching university (such as the University of Otago), which had buildings and professors and conferred its own degrees – and of which, anticipated the premier, William Fox, in 1870, ‘we may have, hereafter, others of the same class established in Auckland, in Canterbury, and even in Wellington – if poor Wellington should ever rise to such a height of prosperity as to entitle it to have a university of its own, or even rise beyond mere elementary teaching’.3 Under a second act passed in 1874, however, the Canterbury view prevailed. The nascent University of New Zealand was re-established as an exclusively examining university, consisting of a Senate and a chancellor, and a Court of Convocation. To it the University of Otago, Canterbury College and several secondary schools affiliated – among the latter the Wellington college and grammar school (which was thereby renamed Wellington College) in order to become eligible for a 63-acre endowment from the provincial government.
In 1878 a royal commission was appointed to review what was by now widely agreed to be an unsatisfactory state of affairs (the affiliation of secondary schools was of particular concern). Its recommendation was for a federal system of four university colleges, two of which should be established in the North Island (one in Auckland and one in Wellington), with the colonial government providing sites, statutory grants and land endowments. Alas, an economic recession intervened. Nevertheless, in 1882 the Auckland University College Act was passed, establishing a college in that city on the cheap, with no permanent site, unpromising land reserves and a meagre annual grant of £4000.
Continuing the theme of efficiency, Stout suggested that the staff of the Colonial Museum could provide the teaching in geology and natural history. The Wellington University College Bill he introduced in 1887 would effectively annexe the museum to the new college: the director of the museum, James Hector, and his staff of ‘able scientific men’ would devote half their time to teaching, and Hector would become warden of the college. (Hector, who had apparently not been consulted, was unimpressed.) For an endowment there was the acre occupied by the museum next to Parliament, and 14,000 acres of educational reserves (confiscated Maori land) in Taranaki. Stout asked for only £1500 as a statutory grant, less than half of Auckland's.5 Nevertheless, the bill was defeated after a lengthy debate.
Stout lost his seat at the general election a few months later. By the time he re-entered Parliament in 1893 (representing the city of Wellington on the opposition benches), a considerable groundswell of opinion had risen in favour of a university college to serve the area known as the Middle District: the former provinces of Wellington, Nelson, Westland, Taranaki and Hawke's Bay. Its population had grown rapidly and now provided more university entrance candidates each year than any other. Pressure was mounting from the university itself, from the Wellington Board of Education and from Congregationalist minister W.A. Evans' newly launched Forward movement (a philanthropic-cum-adult education crusade). An additional factor in the debate was the future of Wellington's large, brick, Mount Cook gaol, which was empty, and occupied the most imposing site in the city. It was a civic disgrace, ‘the ugliest structure that is to be found between the Bluff and the North Cape’, declared Evans' Citizen.6 The site was ideal, however, for a university college.
In 1894 Stout tried again with a Middle District of New Zealand University College Bill. The debate followed the same pattern as that in 1887. It was extravagant, outrageous, to think of establishing more university colleges before the needs of primary education were properly met; the bill would rob the children of Taranaki of the educational reserves; and how many university colleges did the colony need? ‘We are not in a position to have universities at every corner of the page 14 street,’ observed the member for Otago. And even if there was a need for a college in the Middle District, must it be in Wellington? Masterton, Nelson, Picton and Blenheim were put forward as superior sites. ‘I can only say that some of the rankest duffers I have met … are undergraduates,’ contributed the member for Masterton, A.W. Hogg, at the same time suggesting that Masterton was more deserving of a college than Wellington.7 A strong theme of anti-intellectualism underlay the debate. However, being a private member's bill and therefore entailing no financial commitment on the part of the government, the measure was passed. A Middle District of New Zealand University Council, chaired by Stout, met several times during 1895, surveyed the district for available land for endowment, and pressed the government to take action, but in vain.
In the event, Wellington got its university college as the result of something of a whim. In 1897 the Liberal premier, Richard Seddon, who had previously been unsupportive, returned from Queen Victoria's 60th jubilee celebrations in London with an honorary Doctorate of Laws from the University of Cambridge. In a humour of academic romanticism, he decided that the establishment of a university college in Wellington would be a fitting way for the colony to mark the Queen's jubilee year. ‘I do not think there will be any question as to the necessity for the establishment of a University College here in Wellington,’ he remarked when he introduced the second reading of the Victoria College Bill in December 1897, ignoring the three decades of debate and two bills that had preceded it.8 The House was loath to disagree, although this bill too did not pass without some debate. Couldn't the wealthy citizens of Wellington pay for their own university? it was asked. This was a recurrent theme: Wellington was a crass commercial town, once poor and now grown wealthy, with little interest in the higher things of the mind. Perhaps, Jock McKenzie, the minister of lands (and half-brother, as it happened, of one of the new college's founding professors), added facetiously when seconding the bill, ‘those gentlemen who have made fortunes by dealing in Native lands should establish a chair in the University College at Wellington, and call it the “Maori Land Chair”’. (‘I … hope Sir,’ he continued, ‘that for the next twenty years we shall hear no more about universities.’)9 Most of the debate was over the technical details of the somewhat peculiar scholarship scheme with which the college was to be burdened.
Under the act which was duly passed on 22 December 1897, Victoria was established as a ‘poor man's college’, in two senses. It would receive, like Auckland, an annual statutory grant of £4000. Its endowment was 4000 acres in the Nukumaru survey district in Taranaki, ‘of such a nature,’ the Council would remark in 1902, ‘that it cannot be let, even though offered at 6d. an acre’.10 The Council was repeatedly and unsuccessfully to plead for an adequate endowment for its college. The land, which remained vested in the Crown, returned an average income to the college annually of £55: Auckland's 30,000 acres were earning by 1920 some £700, and Otago's and Canterbury's reserves, endowed by their provincial governments, £7000 and £10,000 respectively.11 Out of this modest income the Council was to provide annually six Queen's Scholarships, which were established page 15 ‘for the purpose of bringing higher education within the reach of deserving scholars’.12 They were to be awarded competitively to primary school pupils from the Middle District for two years' secondary and three years' university education. Thus, Victoria was founded upon a democratic ideal, as a ‘people's university’. This too had been Stout's vision: ‘You will have men working during the day, clerks in offices perhaps, perhaps mechanics, going to the evening classes, and thereby obtaining a university education,’ he had told the House in 1887.13
The college was to be governed by a Council of 16. Three members would be appointed by the Governor-in-Council; three elected by the members of Parliament and the Legislative Council representing the Middle District; three by the graduates of the University of New Zealand; three by the Education Board; three by the teachers of the district; and one by the college's Professorial Board. The new councillors held their inaugural meeting on 23 May 1898, and elected to the chair John Rutherfurd Blair, an energetic educationalist, chairman of the Education Board and currently mayor. By June they had determined upon four chairs: in English language and literature, classics, mathematics, and chemistry and physics. The chairs were to be advertised in Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand. The appointments would be initially for five years, at a salary of £700.
The professors were formally welcomed by the Council at the offices of the Education Board on 12 April. A week later they delivered their inaugural lectures. Brown put the case for Latin as the necessary foundation for the study of literature and for accuracy of expression, regretting the prevalent ‘popular attack on the Classics’ in schools and universities, and emphasised the importance of the classics most especially in a colony ‘where one would naturally expect to find the views of the practical man predominant’, and, moreover, in ‘a commercial centre like Wellington’.16 Academically unadventurous, shy and serious with a ‘pawky’ sense of humour (in J.C Beaglehole's portrait), Brown was to be well liked by his students as an excellent and kind teacher; his publications were school editions of Caesar.17 Mackenzie was a livelier personality, ‘a character of Dickensian breadth and geniality’. Jovial, robust, and a lover of gossip and anecdote, it was to his home that everyone went for afternoon tea.18 The theme of his inaugural address (unfortunately, difficult for many to hear beneath his heavy Scottish accent) was the relative claims of art and of science, ‘which is now taking a prominent place in the realm of intellectual activity, would exalt herself and thrust religion and literature into a lower place’. Without wishing to place them in opposition, literature (specifically, English) ‘may save us from ourselves,’ he told his audience; ‘It is the study of life – is, indeed, life.’19 Mackenzie's was a wide-ranging rather than penetrating mind, his teaching conscientious. His aim, as he would later define it, was ‘to make the heavier and more exacting parts of the study of English philology as light as possible for students that could not give their whole time to study, or that began their university course indifferently equipped’.20
Easterfield had a more definite pedagogical purpose. He had gone from Cambridge to Zurich and Würzburg, and with his German research training came to Wellington with the intention of ‘establishing in this city a research school whose fame shall be the pride of our University’. In his lecture on ‘Research as the prime factor in a Scientific Education’ – a topic he had been warned against as likely to be controversial – he argued for early specialisation by students, research and original investigation as a significant component of undergraduate work, and the ‘absolute necessity’ of a ‘really good laboratory’.21 In his 20 years at Victoria, Easterfield undertook research on the chemical properties of native plants (to which he had alluded in his inaugural lecture), published widely (he was the most page 17 productive, in this sense, of the colony's four chemistry professors) and succeeded in establishing research as a defining characteristic of the college's science faculty. When he left in 1919 to become the first director of the Cawthron Institute in Nelson, he was made Victoria's first professor emeritus.
It is scarcely surprising that science, more than the arts, should flourish (rhetorically at least) in a university founded at the end of the nineteenth century, in a scientific age. However, a university gains its distinction, and distinctiveness, from the capabilities and the character of its teachers – especially when there are so few of them. ‘These men taught by their personalities,’ it has been said.22 The brightest star of all was Maclaurin. Although born in Scotland, he had grown up in Waikato and Auckland; he excelled in mathematics at Auckland University College and the University of Cambridge, subsequently took up law, and studied philosophy in Strasbourg. He was to publish in both law and mathematics (On the Nature of Evidence of Title to Realty, 1901, and a significant work on The Theory of Light, 1908). He was ‘brilliantly witty and a wonderful raconteur’,23 and his inaugural lecture was the most impressive, exciting even, of the four. Euclid, he said, ‘suddenly takes your breath away’ with his axioms on parallels. Maclaurin considered Euclid's geometrical theorems as ‘possibly only approximations to the truth’, and discussed the development of wireless telegraphy and the application of mathematics to the theory of evolution. Let it not be thought, however, that mathematics was a purely practical science: its ‘interest is mainly philosophic – it touches the great question of the knowable and the unknowable – it may alter our views of the nature of the universe’.24 Maclaurin intended to stay only five years. He stayed for seven before being lured to New York to become professor of mathematical physics at Columbia, and from there, within a year, to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which he virtually created. A later president of MIT would thank Victoria for performing an ‘international service for which we shall ever be grateful’ in ‘yielding him to us in America’.25
In the typically make-do way in which New Zealand's universities were established, each of the professors was required to teach additional subjects. Maclaurin took classes in law; Easterfield taught physics and mechanics in addition to chemistry; Brown, French as well as Latin; Mackenzie, mental science – but he declined to take political economy and history. In May the Council appointed a lecturer in political economy, David Ritchie, a ‘cultured gentleman with a countryman's tastes’ (golf, billiards, fishing and horses) and means, who had come to the colony for his health and with the intention, by and by, of taking up a farm.26 The registrar of the University of New Zealand, J.W. Joynt, who had been a candidate for the classics chair, offered to take classes in German.
The Professorial Board was empowered – subject to the approval of the Council – to fix the course of study, timetable and attendance regulations, and to manage disciplinary matters, the library and college servants (such as janitors, when they would be needed). They could not, however, decide what they would teach. Course curricula and degree regulations were laid down by the University of New Zealand page 19 (to which the college was formally admitted as an affiliated institution on 23 February 1899). At their first meeting the professors defined the academic year to consist of two terms: the first from the beginning of April to the end of June, the second from the third week of July until the last week of October. ‘Terms’ would be kept by attendance at three-quarters of the lectures in at least two subjects, and passing the college examinations in these. The subjects for terms were to be Latin, Greek, English, chemistry, physics, mathematics, applied mathematics, French, mental science, jurisprudence and constitutional history, and general history and political economy (although general history was not in fact taught). Degree examinations were the responsibility of the University of New Zealand, and were set, and marked, in England: the execrable external examinations system against which university reformers would battle for some 40 years. Indeed, it was not necessary to attend lectures at all to sit the exams. Those who did not were ‘exempted’ students, and were mostly teachers living outside the college centres.
Victoria's first students enrolled on 8 April. Regular lectures began on the 18th. Within the first month 49 students enrolled for classes in Latin, 38 in English, 37 in mathematics, 30 in chemistry, 17 in jurisprudence, 15 in mechanics and in French, and 11 in physics. (One hundred and fifteen students in all enrolled the first year, nine of them exempted.) Most lectures were held after 5pm except on Saturdays, so that law clerks and civil servants could attend. This was another bête noire of the university reformers. Of the four colleges, Victoria (followed closely by Auckland) continued to have the highest proportion of part-time students: in 1915, 82.5% of those attending classes were evening students. Thus, in pursuit of the democratic ideal, the college gained ‘that damnosa hereditas of a nightschool atmosphere’.30
The professors also set about defining the college's identity in more obvious ways. A motto, Sapientia magis auro desideranda, was adopted in 1902 after a ‘desperate argument’ over its precise meaning (was wisdom more to be desired than gold, or was lack of wisdom preferable to a lack of gold; or, contributed Easterfield, was wisdom to be desired for the sake of more gold?).31 For the seal, a brief experiment with a crown and laurel wreath was superseded by a lozenge-shaped device ‘with a representation of a figure of the late Queen standing crowned and sceptred’. In 1903 a badge was adopted, depicting the college arms, ‘vert on a fesse engrailed between three crowns or, a canton azure charged with four estoilles argent (in the form of the Southern Cross)’, topped by ‘that lion, or dubious spaniel, “the crest of the Duke of Wellington”’.32 John Rankine Brown penned the college song (in Latin), a classic statement of the colonial condition: ‘We cherish the shrine of Wisdom/ urged by longing/ to know the liberal arts/ in this hemisphere./ We cherish the shrine of the Muses/ under a southern star/ Us from the Muses/ extensive seas cannot separate.’33 It was the students, however, who chose, with some difficulty, the college colours. First there was ‘chocolate and gold’, or ‘brown and mustard-colour’, but this was soon discarded as an unpleasant combination. Maroon and light blue was deemed unflattering to the women. The story goes that it was the visiting French soprano Antonia Delores, a family friend of one of page 20 the students, who, gesturing operatically to the dark green and the golden gorse (or was it broom?) of Tinakori Hill, suggested in 1905 that they look no further than nature itself.
The college acquired teachers and subjects as funding allowed. At the beginning of 1900 Maurice Richmond, member of a prominent political, legal and land-owning family, was appointed to teach second- and third-year law. In 1903 the Council accepted his offer to add classes in jurisprudence and constitutional history as an interim measure; it intended to establish a professorship in law, ‘with a view to making the Law School at Wellington the most complete in the Colony’,34 as soon as it could afford to. The college's fifth professor, of modern languages, was appointed in December 1901 after Brown had refused to continue teaching French and the obliging Joynt resigned to free funds for the creation of a new chair. George von Zedlitz, of English and German parentage, was educated at Oxford where he had distinguished himself as a brilliant extempore speaker in Union debates (though had failed to get a first): ‘young, tall, handsome and altogether charming’, the New Zealand Free Lance reported, he brought to the college wit, urbanity and a European sensibility.35
However enthusiastic and forward-thinking the professor of chemistry, students could not complete a science degree at Victoria so long as the college did not offer classes in either biology or geology. Stout still had his eye on the government scientific establishment. Hector remained unforthcoming. Indeed, he advised the Council not to undertake the natural sciences at all at present, having such meagre resources; but, if it must, it would do better to choose biology than geology, ‘the surroundings of Wellington offering very little opportunity for its study in the field’.36 In February 1900 C.E. Adams of the Lands and Survey Department (later to be government astronomer) was engaged to give lectures in geology. He subsequently proposed a course in surveying, or a full course in geology, or in civil engineering, but the Council had now determined on a professorship in biology, to be established in 1903.
This appointment was an uneasy one. The new professor, Harry Borrer Kirk, had no academic teaching experience and had been educated wholly in New Zealand.37 The son of a distinguished colonial botanist, he had studied on his own for the University of New Zealand examinations before there was a college in Wellington, and spent 17 years traversing the country as an inspector of native schools, building a working knowledge of his subject. But it was a fortunate choice. Kirk has been described as gentle, courteous, ‘modest to the point of self-effacement’ and a ‘born teacher’.38 He was not so courteous, however, as to agree to take geology as well, once the Council had decided to dispense with the services of the enthusiastic Adams, even though there were few students. The biology department was set up in a room in Miss Baber's kindergarten in Pipitea Street along the road from the Girls' High School. Kirk would work long into the night: his research interests were wide ranging, but his special field was sponges. He was page 21 the only university scientist in the colony at this time doing any significant original research in zoology or botany.
The New Zealand Educational Institute would have liked a chair in pedagogy, but the Education Department would not put up the funds. Stout wanted extension or correspondence classes, but the already overburdened professors were unwilling. They did agree in 1901 to a series of public lectures, which opened with Easterfield on ‘The romance of coal tar’ on 29 May, followed by Mackenzie on ‘English literature in relation to the philosophical influences of the century’ – an experiment that was not repeated. (Easterfield had also given a special chemistry class for the city's lawyers, at their request.) However, there was in the Professorial Board's view an ‘absolute need’ for a professor of mental science (in later parlance, philosophy and psychology). By 1903 the classics professor had decided that he no longer wished to teach this subject too. Having decided to terminate Ritchie's part-time lectureship in political economy, the Council advertised at the end of 1903 for a lecturer for both subjects – or possibly one for each. (Indeed, ‘political economy’ could perhaps be taken as the leitmotif of the college's early development.) They appointed Thomas Alexander Hunter, for one year initially. In 1906 his position was confirmed for another five years, and at the end of 1907 he was made a professor, on a reduced salary of £500.
An emphasis on research, even if it could be said to be becoming a theme, did not give the college the academic distinction that was desired. It was long to be Victoria's lament that it had no professional, or ‘special’, school. Otago, precociously, had founded its medical school, followed by a school of mines, in the 1870s; Canterbury got engineering in 1890, and control over an agricultural college at Lincoln; Auckland was shortly to establish a mining school. Special schools brought prestige, full-time students and, most importantly, funding. Prolonged territorial battles were waged as the university Senate endeavoured to maintain some rationalisation in the system as a whole – for how many mining, or engineering, or agriculture schools could the colony afford? At the Senate meeting in 1904 Stout, long an advocate of ‘separate but equal’ development of the colleges, put forward a scheme of specialisation in which Victoria ‘could become the Law School … and perhaps pay attention to the allied subject of Political Science’.43 That year Parliament voted an additional ‘specialisation grant’ for each college of £1500, which became available in 1905 (and was increased to £2000 in 1907). Victoria successfully requested an extra £500 so that the college could specialise in both law and science.
The Council began by establishing two chairs of law. Maurice Richmond, the lecturer, was promoted to the junior professorship of English and New Zealand law. For the senior chair Stout recruited J.W. Salmond from the University of Adelaide. Adelaide was piqued.44 Salmond, like Maclaurin, was one of Victoria's shooting stars: a legal theorist of international eminence, and a future New Zealand solicitor-general and Supreme Court judge. His works on Jurisprudence (1902) and The Law of Torts (1907) were international classics. Students appreciated his droll humour and excellent teaching. But he was to stay only a year before being persuaded to the Law Drafting Office. The Council now prevailed upon Maclaurin – whose request for additional remuneration for the law teaching he had been doing they had already declined – to abandon mathematics for law, with the special title of dean of the faculty of law and a special salary of £800. Maclaurin agreed so long as he could have an honorary chair in his chosen field, and so in April 1907 became professor and dean of law and honorary professor of astronomy. page 23 Thus law became the college's first faculty, Maclaurin its first dean. Five months later, though, he was headed for New York.
In Salmond and Maclaurin, Victoria had had, briefly, a promise of brilliance in its ‘school of law’, which now entered a long period of thorough but uninspired instruction. This, however, was all that the legal profession and evidently most of the students – who were law clerks for the most part – desired. A degree was not required for the practice of law, and the legal establishment it seems was happy to employ low-paid clerks who could study outside their working hours for their professional examinations and perhaps a degree. To replace Maclaurin the Council appointed James Adamson from Edinburgh, an impressively learned but shy, dour, frustrated Scot. With ‘solid and unimaginative persistence for the next thirty years he drove his men through the requirements of the New Zealand LL.B’ in an accent that remained almost impenetrable to new students (he was known as ‘Scotchy’), and at legendary volume: ‘Lectures, save to the brilliantly resourceful and the highly industrious, were an ordeal.’45 Richmond, by contrast, was a man of pensive, philosophical mind, who found it difficult to bring his lectures to an end. There were complaints; the Council made moves to investigate; and Richmond decided not to seek reappointment at the end of his five-year contract. (He retired to Christchurch ‘as a consultant on knotty points, and to compose a metaphysical work … of some complexity’.)46 In his place in 1911 came James Garrow from Otago, famed for his lecture notes and a pioneering series of published textbooks that were to remain in use for several decades. His teaching was prosaic but efficient.
Adamson, when he arrived, had devised a plan for a national school of law at Victoria. This, to his chagrin, was not to be. Yet the college had, with its two full-time professorships, the largest law faculty in the university. Otago had abandoned the subject for some years after 1902, and it now continued there with only part-time teaching; Canterbury and Auckland's law faculties were also part time and staffed by practising lawyers. It was the best Victoria would do, for now, for a ‘special school’. But the college also endeavoured to give some effect to its ‘specialisation’ in science. Maclaurin had been replaced in mathematics at the end of 1907 by David Picken, who came from a brilliant academic career at Cambridge and an assistantship at his native Glasgow. Writing some years later, he compared the ‘pristine freshness and loveliness in the corporate personal life of the College’ that had impressed him when he arrived with the glory of the ‘virgin’ South Island bush through which he went hiking with Easterfield – a somewhat romantic view of the character of the young college which was, nevertheless, to endure.47 Picken was less impressed with the number and educational standard of the senior mathematics students, and would be gone, like Maclaurin, in seven years.
At the beginning of 1909 the Council was able to make three new appointments. A deputation had waited on the premier and the minister of education to impress upon them the urgent needs of general teaching at the college, and had been granted £1500. To a new chair in physics, at a cut rate of £600, they appointed an Australian, Thomas Laby, whose pioneering research in radioactivity at the University of Sydney had taken him to the Cavendish laboratory in England, page 24 despite his never having matriculated. An indifferent lecturer but a proficient trainer of researchers, he was also to be known as one half of ‘Kaye and Laby’ (Tables of Physical and Chemical Constants, published in 1911). But he too was not to stay long.
The other scientist appointed that year did, and became, if ‘not perhaps one of the [college's] colourful figures’,48 yet one of its, and New Zealand's, illustrious scientists. Charles Cotton, born in Dunedin and a graduate of Otago, was appointed lecturer in geology, ‘and also to give assistance to the Professors of English Language and Literature, Classics, Modern Languages, and Mathematics; besides providing Professor Kirk with an assistant’.49 He went on to become the first professor of geology in 1921, and to prove Hector at least partly wrong by establishing an international reputation in the innovative field of geomorphology, drawing on the work of American physiographers and on the natural landforms and tectonic interest of the Wellington region (whose rocks, it is true, offered little excitement for the geologist). The third new addition this year was F.P. Wilson, tall and dashing, who had been one of the college's founding students in 1899. He was appointed to lecture in economics, history and geography ‘with a view to the Commerce degree’,50 and became a professor (of history) in the same year as Cotton.
At least the college now had its own home. The newly appointed Council in 1898 had resolved immediately upon the much talked-of Mount Cook site: the gaol and 13 acres. A deputation went to the premier. The government was non-committal but offered as a temporary measure the ministerial residence in Tinakori Road, then in use as a boarding house, which would be available in the middle of 1899. This, Easterfield reported on examination, was quite unsuitable for science laboratories, and was anyway too small. As classes began in borrowed rooms the Council reaffirmed its choice of Mount Cook, and in July petitioned Parliament. The response was a definite refusal from the premier, Seddon, who then accused the Council in the House of having brought out its professors under false pretences and threatened ‘to enquire whether Palmerston North, Nelson or Blenheim, or some other place could be utilized for the purpose’.53 A year later the mayor led a deputation to the college Council to urge it to acquire the Mount Cook site, which the government continued to withhold. A suggestion that Wellington College (now that it was no longer affiliated to the University of New Zealand) should forfeit 10 acres of its reserve land met with little enthusiasm. In the words of the college magazine, ‘Wellington does not abound in sites suitable for University buildings.’54
Work began forthwith on levelling one and a half acres of the near-vertical site, and in July 1902 the Council asked the government for £40,000 for a building. The government offered first £25,000, then £15,000 over three years. Bravely the Council called for competitive designs for a £30,000 building, and in June 1903 announced the winning design by local architects F. Penty and E.M. Blake: ‘a handsome building, strongly reminiscent of Parliament Buildings and the Canterbury College buildings, yet with an imposing appearance of its own’.58 It became more imposing when the government architect added a third storey to the design at the insistence of Seddon – in the interests of efficiency rather than aesthetics. Economy was the rule of the day. Tenders were called for only the science block and middle portion of the arts block (the brick to be of the deepest red locally available, the roof of Welsh slate, and the external facings and carvings of Oamaru stone), and the governor, Lord Plunket, laid the foundation stone on 27 August 1904.59 When the building was officially opened on 30 March 1906 flags and greenery obscured the unfinished third storey. Still, the Evening Post was moved to describe it as ‘a handsome pile’.60 The style was late nineteenth-century revival Gothic, or ‘collegiate Gothic’ (but inside changed to ‘a sort of bastard Early English, breaking down in the science building, as the architects gave up the page 27 unequal struggle, into plain utility,’ observed the college's jubilee historian, who held definite views on its architecture).61 At the opening ceremony Easterfield was upbraided by a choleric Council member for the extravagant size of the science block, for which he had provided specifications, and refrained from mentioning plans for an additional science wing to be built within a few years.
Assembled professors, councillors and clergymen on the steps of the new building, opening day, 30 March 1906
North and south wings were added to the central arts block with the provision of two government grants (of £20,000 each) after the First World War. The north wing, built to a new design by the same firm of architects (assisted by a Scottish Gothic specialist), was completed in 1922, and provided class and staff rooms, a women's common room, a new tearoom, and a library, the building's architectural pièce de résistance. The college library had had its beginnings in the Girls' High School cupboards, a few donations and some modest purchases, the remains of the Provincial Council library, and in 1901 a grant of £100 from the college Council. In 1906 it was installed in the oriel-windowed first-floor room above the main entrance of the new building. A student, H.D. Skinner (who was to become a distinguished anthropologist), was appointed assistant custodian, and an annual Council grant of £200 was instituted, soon augmented by a £300 bequest.65 In July 1910, now with 7000 volumes, the Council appointed the college's first librarian: the formidable Reverend Horace Ward who, dressed in skull cap and clerical black, ruled over his domain from a raised desk in the centre of the reading room.
Prime Minister Richard Seddon turns the first sod of the tennis courts on 9 September 1905
The professor of physics drew to the attention of the Council the following year ‘the amount of dirt which comes through the windows of the Physics Department, even when the windows are closed’, causing damage to his equipment: ‘We have certainly endured this nuisance for some years, but since it is local dirt, I think the nuisance could probably be overcome by tar-sealing the path around the physics end of the building,’ he suggested.68 The college had hardly begun to outgrow that quickly bestowed and well-earned epithet, ‘the Old Clay Patch’. Protracted negotiations were begun in the mid–1930s with the City Council and the Catholic Cemetery Trustees, custodians of the cemetery on the college's eastern boundary, to allow access to a new science building: a two-storey biology building at the south end of the site. This, and a small administration block, also in brick, erected between 1937 and 1939, completed the college's occupation of its original six and a half acres.