The Spike Golden Jubilee Number May 1949
Some things stand out very clearly in my memory of seven years at Victoria College: years which were of quite exceptional interest in the history of the College, and of great importance in my own life.
I came to the College in its tenth year (1908), which was rather more significantly, I think—the third year of its occupancy of its own home on the Kelburn "Old Clay Patch." I was the first of the second generation of professors; and certainly the first who could look quite objectively at the College-in-being, and yet know it, in a very real sense, from its earliest years.
I had come from experience—in Scotland and England—of two of the ancient British Universities, to what was then one of the youngest and smallest of such institutions; and my most vivid impression is of pristine freshness and loveliness in the corporate personal life of the College ("lovely and pleasant in their lives")—which is comparable, in my memory, only to the glory of the virgin bush, as I first saw it at Ohakune (when the Main Trunk Line went through, in 1908), and in South Island "hikes" of sorts, with Easterfield, down the Buffer and as far as the Franz Josef Glacier and the Waiho River on the wonderland West Coast of the South Island.
If that reads like hyperbole of exaggeration, my answer is that it describes something that has remained part of my own life: a unique experience in half-a-century of university life in four different countries, and an oft-told tale of my later years. If an explanation of the phenomenon is sought, it is to be found in quite exceptional leadership of the student bodies and the happy relationship of the student leaders with their professorial seniors. The men were round about my own age: part-time students, with stretched-out courses—or recent graduates, employed in the city, who were fired by intense enthusiasm about having a college of their own and keen to make of it all they wanted it to be. They had with them women of the same calibre (if not of quite the same age!) and of immense capacity for unselfish service of the page 64 common good; and they were bringing on a younger generation in the tradition they had shaped. (One of the quondam "colts" is now the honoured and distinguished Chancellor of the University.) They took me into their "charmed circle," and—often with great glee—taught me much about the College I could not otherwise have known.
The quality of it all was conspicuous in the tone and spirit of the College social functions—as of a happy and well-bred family: in particular, the College "Carnivals"—something of which has been captured and preserved in the verse of The Old Clay Patch (of which I have subscribers' copies, but also one—specially bound—presented to me by V.U.C.S.A. in 1914. The two Editors were—and I hope still are—my very dear friends.) Very vivid in my memory is the last (I think) of these I saw: of which the framework was South Polar exploration. In one scene, a well-known Wellington dental graduate, operating in primitive fashion on the hair of a humble member of the "crew," was challenged by him with the agonized cry—"Are you cuttin' my hair or drorin' my teeth?"—quite up to London Punch standard!
I remained long enough in Wellington to see this "morning glory" begin to "fade into the light of common day" (inevitably, I suppose). But its influence on myself—in my subsequent task of steering the course of a college, within a great University in a sister Dominion—could hardly be exaggerated; and something of that same influence remains, I gather, as an inner glow in the continuing life of Victoria College.
The other main feature of my memories of Victoria University College is less happy, but no less significant. It began with the shock of realizing all that was involved in the examination system of the University of New Zealand, at that time. (If I had looked into this carefully before applying for the Chair of Mathematics, I would probably not have proceeded with my application.) My experience had been of examinations utterly subordinate in university education; and it was quite impossible for me to take any other view; so I was a rebel against that system right from the start—and almost at once in the firing line of the conflict (provoked into self-defence).
Professor Laby joined us in 1909—firing his first shots at the system, quite characteristically, in a Press interview in Sydney on his way out. (He was Australian, and knew the situation.) Soon after his arrival he and Professors von Zedlitz and Hunter were planning the campaign of concerted action. We launched out University Reform Association in 1910, with strong public support, and with seven members of the Professorial Board (including its Chairman, that year Professor Kirk) on the working committee (about half its number); Professor Hunter was Hon. Secretary; Professor Easterfield, Hon. Treasurer. It was all-important that Professor Hunter—himself a product of the system—was the most active member of the Association. I became identified with the originating three in a kind of "spearhead" stormtroops, having developed (rather to my own surprise) some capacity for the art of Press controversy.
The eventual triumphant success of the Reform movement stands out clearly in Beaglehole's Historical Study of the University of New Zealand, and in the subsequent leading role of Professor Hunter in both the College and the University. What is not there on record, is the intensive education it meant for ourselves in the true "idea of a university" and in the working out of that idea. That, and the experience of being Chairman of the Professorial Board in my last two and a half years (I "acted" for Professor Hunter in the second half of 1912, and handled the "reformers'" end of the business for the unique Professorial Conference in November of that year), proved to be quite ideal training, for what I did not know then was to be my main life's work—of University education and administration. (Some years later, it was an immense satisfaction to write, at Professor Hunter's request, a review of the Report of the 1925 Royal Commission on the University, which recommended most of the reforms we had battled for.)
In the work of my own Chair: our supply, at that time, of students adequately grounded in Mathematics was far too meagre; but the experience of having to teach (unaided in the actual teaching) over a very wide range of pure and applied mathematics (fortunately not all required in the same year!) was invaluable to me in the investigations of groundwork, in which I am specially interested. I am at present writing up work which was begun in those days—so that Victoria University College is an integral part of my life, in that very real sense also.
But there was not then, in Wellington, sufficient opportunity for either Professor Laby or myself to do the work for which we were, respectively, specially suited; and we were fortunate that such opportunity did, in fact, open up for us elsewhere. It is perhaps significant that the friendship and collaboration we began in Wellington deepened and strengthened till he died in 1946, and that this meant more to each of us than our several relationships of the kind with many other men. The closeness of our partnership came to be taken as a matter of course in Melbourne; and it was fully shared in by our wives, who came both from Wellington families. One competent academic observer made the comment that we had rounded off our service to the Reform movement by our departure from the scene of action at just the right moment!
One of my last duties, as Chairman of the Professorial Board, was to make arrangements (on Reform lines) for the appointment of my successor in the Chair of Mathematics; and the event proved that that, at least, had been well page 65 done. The widely-known, and highly regarded, work of the late Professor Sommerville added much lustre to the name of Victoria College.
I may perhaps be permitted to add that we ourselves have, in recent years, a new bond with V.U.C. in the marriage of one of our daughters to a graduate of the College (Henry Abraham).
To the College, and all old friends and colleagues, we send cordial greetings, and warmest felicitations, on this auspicious occasion.
Professor of Mathematics in Victoria University College, 1908-14; Master of Ormond College, University of Melbourne, 1915-43.