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A Life of J. C. Beaglehole: New Zealand Scholar

2 — Childhood and Youth

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Childhood and Youth

John was the Second of the four sons of Jenny and Ernest Beaglehole and was born at home on 13 June 1901. It was apparently a difficult birth; Jenny haemorrhaged badly and was said to have nearly died.1 The family was not impressed with the baby's appearance, 'the most hideous baby they'd ever seen',2 but the midwife, Mrs Kilfoy, disagreed and declared him to be a 'really good boy'. His elder brother, Geoffrey, had been born three years earlier, in 1898. Keith followed John in 1903 and Ernest in 1906. John, for reasons we do not know, was the only one to be given a second Christian name, Cawte, from his maternal grandfather, Joseph Cawte Butler, who in turn had been given it for his mother, Jane Cawte. Until his years as a student at Victoria University College John was always called Jack, and within the family this went on rather longer.

We know little of his early years. At seven he wrote to his Uncle Joe to thank him for a Christmas present, and continued: 'I should like to no how much money you are getting a month. I hope you are not to busy'. He ended with the news that they had been to the zoo, where he 'went on the camel three times and keith to times and ernest went on and before the ride was ended he cried'.3 About the same time his father reported him to be very keen on marbles. 'And he lives to win too. And makes plenty of commotion whether winning or losing.'4 It was a lively family, 'rowdy as ever', Annie wrote to Joe,5 and Ern worried whether his salary would be enough to feed and clothe them decently. He considered trying to get a bookshop of his own,6 but in spite of such dreams he was to remain in the accounts department at Sharlands.

Wellington, in those first years of the twentieth century, had certainly progressed since William Henry arrived over forty years earlier. Its population of over 50,000 was crammed on the little flat land there was between the harbour edge and the bare hills, stripped page 38of the bush which once covered them, but still largely empty save for the first beginnings of the suburbs of Wadestown and Brooklyn. Te Aro flat, of which Hopper Street was a part, was a mass of working-class housing, backyard tradesmen, and local shops. The more substantial citizens lived on the western and northern sides of the city, in the more spacious houses on The Terrace or in Thorndon. Shrewd investors had built the cable car, opening up the farms of Kelburn for development. The business part of the city was still largely built of timber, the occasional building soaring three storeys skyward, with the Government Building, completed in 1876, one of the very few that had any sense of grace or fine proportion. One of Victoria's first professors, arriving in 1902, was amazed at Wellington's physical aspect. 'That agglomeration of derelict tinshanties and pretentious pseudo-Corinthian stucco pilasters that was Lambton Quay', he described it, though he continued, 'with the harbour and sky and hills and cloudscapes more than making up for man's handiwork'.7

Many years later John tried to recapture something of the Wellington of his early boyhood. He was writing a foreword to a life of the forthright, Edinburgh-trained, Australian doctor Agnes Bennett,8 who arrived in Wellington in 1905 and became a well-known figure as well as the Beaglehole family doctor and a close friend of John's mother.

Looking back on Wellington in her first years here [John wrote] I seem to see not merely a ridiculously colonial, provincial, gauche, conventional, narrow piece of society, but a sort of heroic age. There weren't the goings on, certainly that there were in London or Paris. For the dedicated painter, or the dedicated writer, there wasn't much to do with New Zealand but to leave it. For certain other people … there was just as much to do as in London or Paris, and they might quite well find it worth their while to come here and make of that time, quite unpretentiously, an heroic age. I, who was a small boy and neither a hero nor a dedicated anything, and never considered the merits of the place at all (though I may possibly have heard that Mr Seddon considered it God's Own Country) had no theories, no historical or geographical generalisations whatever.9

These were, perhaps, thoughts that John would not have until much later; for the moment the most important thing was that the Beaglehole boys were part of an extended family of formidable size, most of them living in close proximity, which provided a warm and lively base for their early years. Next door were their Beaglehole grandparents. John recalled his grandmother as 'a sweet person, with a softly wrinkled face and most often dressed in black'. She page 39gave birthday parties for her grandchildren. Their grandfather gave them a penny and an orange on Sundays when they arrived home from the Primitive Methodist Sunday School.10 Auntie (their aunt Annie) at times found employment minding children or in domestic service but often was living at home fulfilling the single daughter's role of caring for elderly parents. Increasingly, her life came to focus on her nephews next door and she became renowned for her fruit salads made for birthdays and other special occasions. In contrast to her brother Ern, she remained faithful to Primitive Methodism, and she and her mother were known to sweep off to revival meetings in the Town Hall in the taxi owned by Jason Cotterill, who lived nearby in Wallace Street.11 For much of John's early years his Uncle Joe was away from Wellington. For five summers beginning in 1907–08 he worked as an assistant guide and labourer on the newly opened Milford Track. Years later his uncle George Butler told John that while Joe was a guide 'a myth grew up about him that he was an Oxford undergraduate & perhaps a remittance man, & all the young ladies were most sympathetic & reverent … It was because he always carried about some hefty book with him on logic or something which he read at odd times'. Even if it was never clear how much he did read, Joe, like his brother, collected books. But he was always something of a roamer and his bad stutter cannot have helped him in looking for work. After a number of odd jobs, he settled in Wellington as librarian in the Department of Agriculture.

Ted Beaglehole, having had the opportunity of secondary schooling, was to show more ambition. He was the first Beaglehole to gain a university degree, to travel back to Europe, and to have a successful career as a teacher and school inspector, including several years in Western Samoa. John always liked and admired his uncle. Ted began his career, as a pupil-teacher, in 1889; in his second year he passed examinations in Latin, French and mathematics to complete the first section of a BA degree from the University of New Zealand. It could not have been easy. As Victoria University College was not yet established, it was a case of solitary study with a textbook as an 'exempted student' – that is, one who was not attending lectures. The following year he failed the next section of the degree. Ted taught at a number of Wellington schools and in the Wairarapa until 1905, when he enrolled at Victoria – by now with a wife, Laura Pinney, and two small daughters, Joan and Margaret – to complete his BA. This was followed by an MA with first-class honours in mental and moral science (which was to become the two separate subjects of page 40psychology and philosophy). He then went off to Germany with his family for further study at the University of Jena. At the end of 1909 Auntie reported to Joe that there were fears whether Ted's German would be good enough to satisfy the examiners,12 and in the event he returned without a further degree. The family were once more in Wellington towards the end of 1913, living in Ngaio, with Ted back in school teaching. In 1915 he was an unsuccessful applicant for the registrar's position at Victoria College, but the same year, because of his knowledge of German, he was sent to Western Samoa as Director of Education following New Zealand's occupation of the former German protectorate. Laura and the girls, now at secondary school, remained in Wellington, though John was never as close to Joan and Margaret as he was to the cousins on his mother's side, especially the Patersons and the Osbornes.

Ada, the second Butler daughter, who had an unforgettable chuckle, had married Alexander Paterson, a draper who later became an art dealer. Joseph Butler had bought the Wellington picture framer and gallery, McGregor Wright's, when its founder moved to Christchurch in 1906. Alex ran the firm for some years and it was later taken over by his nephew, Dick Osborne, in 1932. Of the Patersons' four children the second, Alan, born a few months after his cousin, was the one John saw most of. The third Butler daughter, Annie (Aunt Nancy to her nephews and nieces), married Hezekiah Osborne (Uncle Ky). They lived in Daniell Street not far from Hopper Street. Hezekiah, it was said by his sisters-in-law, gave his wife 'a time'.13 He was a tailor and the Osbornes never had much money. Dick and Stephen, the eldest of their five sons, were close in age to John and Keith and in their early years the four spent a lot of time together. Keith later remembered Dick as 'probably the most inventive of the bunch. At one stage he had a passion for making guns out of bits of tube much to the horror of our Mothers who doubtless expected to see us borne in as corpses one day suffering from a stray charge of shot. Then there was bicycle riding on a bone shaker around McFarlane Street.' Keith 'learned to ride on one of the tireless wonders Dick put together out of scrap iron. And the roads thereabouts were hilly enough for a turn of speed.' Later, in the years before he took over McGregor Wright's, Dick, always ingenious, 'served his time – or partly served it – as an engineer, a carpenter & a jeweller and went on to gramophone building as a hobby'.14 Stephen, John's favourite cousin, became ill in his early teens with some kind of progressive paralysis. He was increasingly bedridden and able to communicate only by typing messages or page 41letters on his typewriter. He was to die in his twenties, shortly after his mother.

Winifred, the next Butler daughter, did not marry. She worked for a period in McGregor Wright's and years later had memories of Kathleen Beauchamp (Katherine Mansfield) visiting the shop. Something of a stickler for the proprieties, she remained a stalwart of the established church. Amy Butler married Will Jackson. Their eldest child, Ralph, was one of the youngest of the gang of cousins. Jessie, the last of the Butler girls, was only ten when her mother died in 1899. Her father remarried (to his housekeeper, Elizabeth Holland) in 1904 and Jessie spent a lot of time at 49 Hopper Street, a youthful and very popular aunt to her four nephews. On 2 October 1913 she married a young Church of England clergyman, Harold Monaghan.

The network spread even further, mainly through Tiller relations. Many lived within walking distance of Hopper Street and before the time of the telephone they kept in touch with messages and visits. John was often the bearer of notes from his mother, and was remembered by the family of his cousin Amy Denton for such an occasion when he was ten. John was hanging around, eating apples but not saying much, while Amy's mother cooked. Finally she ventured, 'What time does your mother want you home, dear?' She was kneeling at the oven putting in a tray of rock cakes. 'What time do the rocks come out?' John asked.15 It became a family saying. The Beaglehole boys were all said to have great appetites; none of them shared their mother's vegetarian principles, which seem to have left them feeling hungry. Large appetites may have run in the male members of the family. A story tells of someone looking out of the window at Hopper Street during afternoon tea and suddenly crying out, 'Hide the cake under the sofa, here comes Joe!'

The extended family moved around to one another's houses for parties with music or charades, occasions of great jollity and youthful high spirits. Ern showed a lighter side, teasing the girls. He clearly adored them and would have liked a daughter. A young relative met him one morning, very dapper, on his way to work. 'Whither away fair maid, whither away', he greeted her. He 'had some very flowery language'.16 In the charades Uncle Will Jackson was a star, and Alan Paterson made his mark early, portraying a reformed sinner who had taken the pledge – a live issue, as most of the older generation were strong temperance supporters. Alan also showed an early talent for drawing, a foretaste of his career as a cartoonist on the Dominion. His gifts for drawing, acting page 42and writing were all to flourish during his later membership of the Wellington Savage Club.17 John went to dancing classes conducted by Miss Moore, 'incredibly frizzed and rouged'.18 A cousin later recalled dancing with him 'when Miss Moore called out: "Jack and Amy, relax your muscles", and you muttered into my ear, "Good God, how are we supposed to do that?" and I said, "You ass, you know how to relax your muscles, don't you?" And your memorable reply was: "Gosh, I thought the woman said bustles."'19 In the summer there were picnics at Scorching Bay, reached after a good walk from the end of the newly opened Seatoun tramline.

The boys went to Mount Cook School. John began in 1906, when he turned five; Geoffrey had already been there for three years and Keith started two years later. The school, opened in 1875 as a development of the Buckle Street Girls' School, was run by a Mrs Wilkinson and her daughter. The Mount Cook district was something of a social mix. The homes of the better-off were on Willis Street, where Dr Bennett lived and had her rooms, and climbed the hills to the south, where the Kirkcaldie mansion at the top of Thompson Street looked down on many fine houses. On the Te Aro flat, which included Hopper Street, the houses were the much more modest dwellings of manual workers and the unemployed. The Mount Cook School grew rapidly at first, reaching a roll of 598 in 1897, before declining to 384 in 1907 and 330 in 1913. This decline followed the suburban development that was closely linked to the construction of the new electric tramway system. In 1904 the trams began running down Hopper Street, crashing and swaying within a few metres of the Beaglehole house. Surely one day, the boys hoped and feared, one would fail to take the corner into Webb Street and would hurtle into Burbidge's greengrocery, spraying fruit and vegetables everywhere.

Mount Cook School when the Beaglehole boys were there was in three separate parts: the infants' school (under Miss Watson) and the girls' school in Buckle Street, the boys' school in Taranaki Street. By this time the neighbouring Mount Cook prison had become the home of the permanent artillery (the prison having moved to The Terrace, from whence prisoners were marched through the city each morning to work in the brickworks still on the site of the old prison). This, along with the barracks and defence stores on Buckle Street, gave a military air to the area, and created interest, particularly to those at the boys' school. This was housed in a rather forbidding Gothic building erected in 1878, which by the turn of the century was somewhat the worse for wear. School logbooks and the minute page 43books of the school committee20 give glimpses of the school and its activities at this time. The drains were a long-standing problem as the original ones were open and a constant health hazard; with the site subject to flooding in the winter they also occasionally overflowed. Finally in 1907, John's second year, the Education Board built a new toilet block. In 1913, his final year, the inspectors reported the rooms to be 'rather dark and badly lighted … the asphalt requires renewing in places, as in wet weather pools of water settle in front of the building. The floors were fairly clean but the windows more especially those at the back of the building were very dirty and some were broken.' The schoolwork done by the standard six pupils, however, was said to be very good.

There were the usual excitements that year: the annual picnic at Days Bay with the ferry trip across the harbour; school cadets for the boys who had turned eleven. There were also special events. Percy Burbidge, son of the greengrocer in Webb Street, who had graduated in physics from Victoria University College and been awarded an 1851 Exhibition Scholarship for research in science, visited his old school to talk to the boys before going off to Cambridge. He was to reappear in John's life in 1932, when they were both on the staff of Auckland University College. Ted Beaglehole, just back from Germany, taught John briefly as a relieving teacher for standard six. 'Your uncle, I believe', Mr Bary, the headmaster, said to John. 'Yessir!', replied John, covered 'in a blaze of glory'.21

During the waterfront strike in 1913 the school was taken over to house the special constables and was closed from 3 to 18 November, after which the rooms used by the 'specials' were scrubbed out and disinfected. The standard six classes, with exams imminent, spent some of that time working at Te Aro school in Willis Street. Even after the school reopened the back playground was kept until early December for police horses. On 27 and 28 November John sat the examinations for those finishing primary school. He was placed thirtieth on the Wellington district list, with 497 marks out of a possible 800 (top of the list was Doreen Mary Britland* with 611 marks).22 This placing qualified him for a 'Junior free place', tenable for two years at a state secondary school. He was the only successful Mount Cook pupil that year, but his achievement was matched by his three brothers.

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When John was eleven he produced the first number of Smudge, a handwritten paper with family news, stories, illustrations, quotes from other works, and jokes ('thanks to Richard Francis Osborne for jokes contributed').23 Before long there was opposition, with the Paterson cousins each producing a paper, as well as Stephen Osborne. Such productions, while not unusual among the young, tend to be ephemeral, but there were eight issues of Smudge in 1913; none survive from 1914, but a further five came out in 1915. The quotes and extracts that John included suggest that for a twelve-year-old he was reading widely: Shakespeare, Burns, the Children's Magazine, Chums (for jokes), Browning, Shelley, the London Magazine, Wordsworth, the Ladies Magazine (1809) were all drawn on in early numbers. Later he twice used stories from Sir George Grey's Polynesian Mythology. In the seventh number he reports that he had been reading Sir Walter Scott's romances Guy Mannering and The Bride of Lammermoor. This was followed up in 1915, just before his fourteenth birthday, when he helpfully included a 'Wanted!!!' list, beginning with a watch, a fountain pen and a bicycle and continuing with a printing press and four more books by Scott. During these teenage years he collected the complete A. & C. Black edition of Scott's works. Recollecting his early passion for books many years later, John said, 'I don't mean that I had no other interest at all. I was not interested in football, but I was interested in food, and marbles, and making toy theatres. It just happened that I had a natural affinity with the printed page.'24

When he was thirteen John wrote descriptions, or 'Brief Biographies', of the members of his family:25

David Ernest Beaglehole.

Head of the family. Born in New Zealand. Exact age not known. Suspected to be about 45, though. Bookish man. Head accountant at Sharland & Co. Ltd. Dixon Street. Has a mania for pinching the Editor on the inside of his leg. Otherwise, quite an agreeable gent.

Jane Beaglehole.

Wife of D.E., and second in command. Very beautiful. Makes the best apple pies in New Zealand – best everything, in fact, in the way of scrunch … Been married twenty years odd. Very agreeable personality. Reads about 17 books a week. At present, fond of reading novels by Russian johnnies.

Geoffrey Beaglehole.

Motor-maniac and sparking-plug fiend. Scoffs at everything else. Is assistant assistant assistant greaser of axles and carburettor-cleaner at Norwoods Motor Agency, Thorndon and Kent Terrace. Owns a bicycle page 45which has always got the gripes somewhere in its inside … Started work and Technical School 1915.

John Cawte Beaglehole.

… Celebrated man of letters. Poems and articles, stories, etc. have appeared in past numbers of "The Smudge". Also famous stamp-collector. Has magnificent collection of the postage stamps of the world, which can be inspected on payment of a small nominal fee to the Smudge Company, Ltd. Aspires to be a wholesale and retail bookseller. He is the editorial staff, the printing staff, the publishing staff, and a few more staffs, of "The Smudge".

Keith Beaglehole.

… Fond of reading Henty's books. Has no particular ambition, but is said to have a leaning towards speculating in dentists' outfits. Very humorous lad sometimes … Also likes smashing up bikes, and trying to put them together again.

Ernest Beaglehole

… Is a foolish young spark.

There followed a more extended article on Ernest's character, which suggested that he could be a rather trying younger brother.

With pen in hand, the 'celebrated man of letters' and stamp collector was something of an extrovert and wit. Unarmed, the reality was a little different. Rather plain in appearance with a prominent nose, beady brown eyes and spectacles, John was remembered by one cousin, Amy Brown, as a funny little boy, very gauche, very shy and with a bad stammer.26 His closest friend was his brother Keith, two years younger, who shared and was to share many of John's interests, but as a boy was more outgoing and assertive. 'Keith kicked up the Sunday before yesterday', Auntie reported to Joe, '& wouldn't go with the others to Sunday School, so Jennie bundled him off to bed, & kept him there all day much to his disgust … you know what Keith is when he makes up his mind.'27 John ribbed Keith, admired him, loved him dearly, and the bond between them lasted all their lives. Of the four boys' relationships with their mother, John's was probably the most intense. She was constantly very supportive, always listened to him and encouraged his writing. John admired his father, but until her death in 1929 his mother was the central focus of his emotional life. She, without doubt, was the greatest influence on the growing boy. John 'was the creation of his mother if any man ever was'.28

John moved on from Mount Cook School to Wellington College in 1914. The college was not, it would seem, an important formative page 46influence in his life. Of the masters there, only one, H.B. Tomlinson (later headmaster of Wairarapa College), who taught him English, was remembered with any warmth or enthusiasm as 'one of the few school teachers we ever came across who showed any interest in what he taught'.29 Eric McCormick, who was at the college a little later than John, wrote in the foreword to his book The Friend of Keats: 'In 1923, my last year at Wellington College, I was lucky enough to have a gifted English master, H.B. Tomlinson, who was a great admirer of Keats'. Many years after his school days John recalled, 'I was soaked in Keats when I was young, from about 17. Earlier? I remember reading him when I was camping with Keith in the sandhills a bit north of Paekakariki … (& how my mother came up to see us, & we gave her a stew, a bit tasteless). I wallowed in the Odes. He was a sort of standard.'30

The headmaster, J.P. Firth, was a man of great reputation in Wellington and something of a conservative in his ideas. At the time of Firth's death, John wrote, 'I suppose he was a good headmaster in his way … but I never heard anybody accuse him of having taught any boy to think. Too new-fangled an idea, perhaps.'31 By the time John was at the school Firth was past his best, and his decline was hastened by the First World War. From the back garden of 49 Hopper Street John had heard the cheering at the barracks in Buckle Street on the announcement of the declaration of war in 1914, but the initial excitement soon faded. Many old boys of Wellington College served overseas and from 1915 the school magazine, the Wellingtonian, is dominated by lists and photographs of the dead, the wounded and those on active service. The 'old boys' notes' consist almost entirely of letters from servicemen. Firth tried to write personally to all of the former pupils serving overseas, and he was deeply affected by the casualties among them. By the end of the war 1658 former pupils had been on active service; of this number 226 were killed and a further 350 wounded.32 During the war years, the school, in a sense, took second place among Firth's concerns.

The Wellingtonian gives an occasional mention of John's activities. In the athletic sports he was second in the heat of the 100 yards under-14 but unplaced in the final. When Keith arrived in 1916, with an altogether more successful record in athletics and cross-country running, the two of them, somewhat improbably, entered the boxing competition. John was beaten in the first round of what must have been his one and only boxing match; Keith survived to the second round. The following year John was awarded his bronze medallion for life saving but, much more significant, he is page 47listed for the first time among those winning academic honours. As well as completing the Matriculation examination, he was awarded the Barnicoat Essay Prize, the Liverton History Prize and the Navy League Essay Prize, and shared the Eichelbaum Prize for English literature for Form VIA.

Mount Cook School and Wellington College in many ways were less important in shaping John than his family and the comparative richness of the intellectual and cultural life they shared. The three main elements were music, books and the Unitarian Church. From his earliest years there was music in the house. His mother 'must have sung continually when she was a girl and a young woman, and so must her sisters – their family indeed must have been a nest of singing birds', John later concluded.33 This judgement was based on the heaps of sheet music and bound-up songs which he had found in cupboards when he learned to play the piano and was working through all the music he could lay his hands on. 'I might try out the accompaniment of some Mendelssohn duets, just discovered: "Oh that we two were maying; on the banks of some something-or-other stream!" – my mother's voice would rise like a lark: and "Oh that we two were maying!" my Auntie Nancy, who happened to be in the house, would reply; and after a time they would break down, in happy laughter.' Jenny was one of those people who could play any song by ear if she did not have the music, a gift which John very much envied. At family parties all the cousins gathered around the piano, Jenny played, and they 'roared out those lushly sentimental songs of the 1914–18 war' such as 'It's a long, long trail a-winding'.

Music was not just a family activity. It was also 'a communal exercise, a choral exercise, a public exercise'. John got to know the Messiah and Elijah as early as he got to know anything else, earlier than he got to know the piano scores of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas or saw those works on the stage. The family went to the Messiah every year and to Elijah most years. John's mother and his aunts sang in the Musical Union, conducted by 'the great, the revered, Mr Robert Parker, the touchstone of the musical art in Wellington'. John's Butler grandfather was one of the two men who played the double bass in the Musical Union orchestra – who supplied the double bass, indeed, in everything that demanded a double bass in Wellington. John understood that his grandfather was 'personally known to Mr Robert Parker' and he 'derived great satisfaction from that circumstance'. page 48The Musical Union also sang Hiawatha and Faust in my hearing more than once under Mr Parker, and I think they had a go at Israel in Egypt, and it was said that they had once done The Bartered Bride, and the Golden Legend by Sir Arthur Sullivan, and a long time back, long before I was born, even some Bach; but in my time they really concentrated on the Messiah and Elijah, the 'immortal masterpiece', as it was generally known, of Handel, and the 'immortal masterpiece' of Mendelssohn. After every performance everybody rushed to the Dominion to see what Harcus Plimmer said about it. Harcus Plimmer was the great critical eminence of those days. You had to know what he thought. You could hardly exist, if you belonged to the Musical Union, unless you knew what he thought. You should have heard another of my aunts, also a devotee of Mr Robert Parker, when as a skittish adolescent I began to cast some light-hearted aspersions on the immortal masterpiece of Handel. Well, so much was the Musical Union part of the texture of our lives that when it coalesced with the rival concern, the Choral Society – and still more, when Mr Temple White founded his Harmonic Society – I felt as if the order of the universe had somehow been tampered with.

That was John looking back many years later. In his younger days he was more critical. When in 1921 the Choral Union (the amalgam of the Musical Union and the Choral Society) published its proposals for a choral festival – the Messiah, Elijah, Cavalleria Rusticana, Merrie England, The Golden Legend – John, just turned twenty, offered his views to the Evening Post:

this list is about the worst you could possibly draw up, showing an utter and almost inconceivable lack of originality and a total absence of musical interest … the way to interest the musical public of Wellington is not to go on doing the same old things in the same old mediocre way, but to strike out boldly and do something new and really worth while.

And, wishing to be constructive, he went on to offer some suggestions:

First, why not one of the works of the greatest composer of all? Bach's St Matthew Passion was given here very successfully some years ago under Mr Robert Parker and would bear repetition; or why not the glorious B Minor Mass, which, so far as I know, has never been given at all? Why not Haydn's Creation? If we must have Handel, why not Israel in Egypt, Joshua, Samson, Saul, The Ode on St Cecilia's, Acis and Galatea? Anyhow, give the poor old Messiah a rest. If we must have operas, why not Purcell's … Dido and Aeneas, or his King Arthur?34

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The Year 1904, in which the Rev. W.A. Evans returned to the Congregational ministry and the Forward Movement in Wellington effectively ended, also saw the Rev. Charles Hargrove, representing the British and Foreign Unitarian Association, visiting Australasia. He lectured in Wellington and met Sir Robert Stout, now Chief Justice, who had long had an interest in liberal religion. A Unitarian Society, later the Unitarian Free Church, was formed in Wellington with Stout as an active member. At one of the first services held by the society Stout gave an address on 'Theology and the Universe' that illustrates how someone of his ideas could be attracted to unitarianism:

The immensity of the stellar universe was brought within the comprehension of the audience, and a very natural deduction was drawn that inasmuch as the ancients were unacquainted with these grand facts, it was fair to conclude that they had not said the last word on theology. The lecturer exhorted his hearers to devote their time and abilities to the search after further truths, and the service of humanity.35

The Wellington Unitarian Church and the Forward Movement had much in common. Again, members of the Richmond–Atkinson clan were to the fore. Miss Mary Richmond, daughter of C.W. Richmond, was among the founders, along with J. Gammell, a school inspector, and Hugh Mackenzie, professor of English at the recently founded Victoria University College. A minister was sought; the Rev. W. Tudor Jones from Swansea arrived in 1906, and immediately started to raise money for a building fund. The new church was opened in Ingestre (later Vivian) Street on 18 April 1909, with special hymns composed for the occasion by Dr Jones, Miss Richmond, Mr Gammell and Professor Mackenzie. The membership had grown to over 200.

Unitarians rejected creeds, ecclesiastical organisation, and central authority of any kind; instead, they stressed right thinking and conduct. This did not always make it easy for the church to define precisely what it was. Unitarians tended to be clearer on what they did not believe in than on what they did. For them theology was 'a Science which must be in accord with the Thought of the Day, and … Religion is the realisation of the highest and best in the human mind and spirit'. 'Revelation' they saw as 'the gradual unfolding of the meaning of things through the activity of man', and, above all, they believed, 'the service of God is to be found in the service of man'.36 The confession of faith in many of their churches was 'In the Love of Truth and the Spirit of Christ, we unite for the Worship of God and the Service of Man'.

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It was hardly surprising that Ernest and Jenny Beaglehole, after their time with the Forward Movement, should become involved. 'Ern … goes to Dr Jones every Monday and reads with him', Annie reported to Joe, 'and into the bargain has been elected secretary of the Unitarian Church, but he says he will have to resign this as he hasn't the time, and of course he hasn't, it's really madness of him attempting it.'37 Ern does appear to have resigned on that occasion, but he accepted the position again two years later, in 1911, and became increasingly involved in the activities of the church. He took charge of the Sunday School while the minister was on his summer holiday and was 'organ blower' on those Sundays when Jenny played the organ. John, Keith and Ernest left the Primitive Methodist Sunday School and attended a Sunday morning Unitarian service for children and then Sunday School in the afternoon. Old William Henry Beaglehole, the stalwart of Primitive Methodism, died in 1910, but Aunt Annie clearly had her doubts about the family's new allegiance, writing to Joe with the news that Tudor Jones was leaving, 'and so the Infidel Church are left to mourn the loss of their beloved pastor'.38 Jones was succeeded by the Rev. W. Jellie, who had been the founding minister of the church in Auckland. He stayed three years before returning to Auckland, and in 1914 there followed the Rev. Ernest Hale, a young Baptist clergyman from Melbourne who had 'outgrown his orthodox beliefs'. Hale stayed until 1920.

A number of printed Calendars of the church that have survived from these years record the family's involvement. Jenny became secretary of the correspondence committee, which sought to win friends for the church by sending 'interesting and thoughtful little books' to those known to be 'interested in Religious Freedom'. In 1915 Ern became a church warden, and for a number of years he was treasurer; Jenny was elected to the church committee and was still taking her turn at playing the organ. The following year an appeal was made for £200 to buy a new 'two manual pipe organ'. The Beagleholes gave £5. The annual report of the church committee of management for 1918–19 tells us that during the year a choir had been formed and that 'sincere thanks were due to the members of the choir and to Mr J.C. Beaglehole for his untiring zeal as choirmaster and church organist'. A year later the committee noted that Mr Beaglehole's 'fine work as organist again merits special praise' and he received an honorarium of £5. A comment in a later letter suggests that John was taught to play the organ by Bernard Page, the city organist, but we do not know when or how he began to learn. A sonnet he wrote in 1917, 'addressed to the shade of J.S. Bach' –

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… thou art
The man who set the seal upon my brow
Of premature age, and broke my youthful heart.
So do I hail thee, even 'neath the yoke
Of overwork thou hast for me bespoke39

– suggests he was already learning at that time. After the evening service on Christmas Day 1919 he gave an organ recital with pieces by César Franck, Mendelssohn, Bach, Handel and Somervell. The choir had mixed fortunes, being disbanded the following year for lack of male voices, but John continued as organist for several years. For him, Bach remained supreme. In 1921 he bought the translation of Johann Nikolaus Forkel's Johann Sebastian Bach (just published in London) and the following year C. Hubert H. Parry's Johann Sebastian Bach.40

Ernest Hale left Wellington for Adelaide at the end of 1920. Ern, along with Sir Robert Stout and Professor Mackenzie, took services in the period before the Rev. Wyndham S. Heathcote arrived for what was intended to be a brief visit on his way from Adelaide to the United States. Heathcote stayed from March until August and made a great impression. Numbers increased, the church was full for the evening services, and a crowd was attracted to the Town Hall to hear Heathcote speak on 'Why I left the Anglican Church'. The Beagleholes were to the fore at his farewell (which rather overshadowed the joint welcome to the new minister, the Rev. James Shaw Brown). Ern spoke in support of the chairman's remarks, Keith sang a song and Jenny expressed the gratitude of the women's alliance (of which she was secretary) to Mr Heathcote for 'the wonderfully interesting Sundays he has given us since he has been in Wellington, and the new point of view he has helped many of us to see things from'. Brown lasted only eight months; he clearly suffered in comparison with his predecessor and was not helped by the precarious state of the church's finances. On his resignation, the committee (Sir Robert Stout, chairman; D.E. Beaglehole, vice chairman) cabled to Heathcote, who was by then in Ottawa, and he agreed to return. John marked this with a fulsome column of welcome and exhortation in the church Calendar:

We know we will get any amount of inspiring talk and inspiring example from our Parson. It is up to us to do something ourselves worthy of him and the Cause, which is greater than any man. We have fetched him back over a continent and an ocean to be our leader; let us see that we become worthy followers … Garibaldi conquered half Italy with a thousand men; can't we conquer Wellington with our small army?41

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'We devoutly hope and believe', John wrote, 'that Mr Heathcote is the right man in the right place', but for all Heathcote's sardonic eloquence this, sadly, proved not to be the case. Heathcote lost support when he spoke critically about prohibition, arguing from his experience in the United States that it was a complete delusion to think that prohibition would abolish alcohol. Rather, the traffic would be 'driven beneath the surface, secretly corrupting the springs of national life'.42 The church was deeply divided on the issue; it lost members and Heathcote returned to Australia (after a 'short but brilliant ministry', the Calendar recorded), lamenting 'I should not have left Ottawa [for Wellington] if I had known what was ahead. Unitarians must learn to set the example of broad-mindedness in New Zealand – an example which is sadly needed'.43 Thereafter it was downhill for the church in Wellington. Declining numbers and financial problems led to a decision to carry on without a minister from the beginning of 1925. John had continued to look after 'the musical portion of the services' although, the 1923–24 report noted, 'at times of unavoidable absence, this work has been done by other members of the family'.44 With Heathcote's departure the family commitment to Unitarianism began to wane. John was increasingly absorbed by his life as a student at Victoria College; the claims of the Tramping Club on a Sunday were coming to outweigh those of the church.

An early short story by Frank Sargeson entitled 'Chaucerian' begins: 'When I was a young man I used to go to the Unitarian Church. In those days it was the thing for quite a number of young men to go to the Unitarian Church. It was their way of letting people know they had grown up and had independent minds.'45 As a child John had no choice about going. For him the church was more than a symbol of adulthood and independence; for a decade or more it was a significant part of his life, an important influence for both his intellectual and musical development during his teenage years and early twenties. It played its part in his becoming 'grown up' and having an 'independent mind'. Although his church-going days ended when he was a young man, the Unitarian commitment to intellectual freedom, to reason and to the working of conscience remained a lasting legacy.

It was also through the church that John met the Hooper family.46Richard Henry Hooper, a farmer who later became a journalist, was at this time editing the New Zealand Journal of Agriculture. A born idealist with a passion for new ideas, though not very practical, he had spent from 1902 to 1909 in England with his wife Sophia and page 53family on the staff of the New Zealand High Commission. While there he had taken an interest in movements for social reform. He found a home eventually in the Fabian Society, with which he kept in touch following his return to New Zealand. Sophia Hooper was a daughter of Richard Arthur Hould, an Aucklander and ardent socialist with a fixation on the single-tax notions of Henry George (a belief not shared by his son-in-law). The Hoopers joined the Unitarian Church in 1918. Their second daughter, Estelle, known as Star, taught in the Sunday School. Their elder daughter, Challis, was in Dunedin training to be a nurse and returned to Wellington in 1920.

John was drawn to the Hooper family and became a close friend of them all; with Challis, six years his senior, the friendship was to be lifelong. The families were not close socially, in spite of the church, but for John the Hoopers' ideas and their experience must have marked them as being 'a little different'.47 For a while, during his undergraduate days, he used to have the evening meal with them almost every Sunday.48 Challis was later to remember him as an almost daily visitor. 'He came and went. The door was on the latch for him … and when he didn't come he wrote, letters, verse, poems streamed from his hand … about the days doings, about books, and very humorously about people.' She recalled John propping up the kitchen door while her mother went quietly on with the cooking or the ironing and John talked. And he seemed so relaxed that his stammer all but disappeared. With her father, who was slightly deaf, the roles were reversed: John mostly listened while Hooper, who normally did not make contact with people easily, did the talking. The affection between them is shown in the ode John wrote to mark Richard Hooper's birthday in 1920:

O, gentle Muse, inspire my pen,
To sing the worthiest of men,
To sing his virtues and his praise –
To glorify his winning ways –
To lay my tribute at his feet,
Infused with all a poet's heat.
Give me to celebrate the worth
That rarely, on this poor old earth,
Is concentrated in one man,
Rarely, since earth and time began.

The ode continued, reviewing Mr Hooper's career and home life for over a hundred lines more – an indication also of John's growing facility with his pen.49 Even more revealing, perhaps, is a letter John page 54wrote to Mrs Hooper a year later, when she had been ill and he was recommending something to read:

How would you like Horace Walpole's Letters, in XVI vols with two supplementary vols, notes, addenda, & corrigenda etc? – my Mother has just finished them, having read with great enjoyment and advanced to the very familiar stage of referring to the Author in casual conversation, as 'Horace'. And he an Earl, too, at that! She a mere Beaglehole!! – Or how about Gibbon's Decline and Fall? If you read that you could carry it over her for a while; because She has never been able to get through more than half the first volume so far … Or England under the Stuarts, by G.M. Trevelyan, a standard and fascinating Book … Or I can recommend two books of fairy Stories – The Happy Prince, by Oscar Wilde, and Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard, by Eleanor Farjeon. Or how about Speeches on British Foreign Policy, edited by Edgar R. Jones, M.P.? Or Bealby, a humorous novel by H.G. Wells? Or a book of Short Stories? Or Terrorism & Communism, by Karl Kautsky? … Madam, I have several hundred books to choose from, and my Father several thousand – all are at your service. I think perhaps a good one to start on would be The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard, by Anatole France, which is very charming and fanciful and altogether delightful – at least I found it so … Perhaps, however, a Punch might be the ideal as Challis suggested – the Liquid Nourishment of Convalescent Literature? – I think I had better trust in her greater judgment and familiarity with the curious twists and turns and divagations of your Character, and send you a very light Punch.50

With Star, his contemporary, John shared his interest in music, and they went assiduously to concerts, especially anything free. They attended Bernard Page's free organ recitals on Sunday afternoons. John was not uncritical. 'Mr Page may be said to have three chief faults', he noted, 'over-use of the full organ, over-use of the tremulant, over-use of the 3rd movement of R-K's Scheherazade. They were all in evidence last Saturday night … You go to an O[rgan] R[ecital] expecting and having a right to a certain amount of intellectual enjoyment, instead of which you get an overdose of neurotic Russians forced down your unwilling gorge.'51 Star tried to teach John to dance but had no more success than the earlier Miss Moore. He noted, at this time, 'The great sorrow of my life at present is that there is no dance music by Bach (7/6/20)'.52 One doubts whether this would have made any difference. Coming from a family of boys, with a gang of male cousins, John was clearly intrigued by Star and may for a time have fancied himself in love. But their common interests did not go much further than music, page 55for she lacked his intellectual cast of mind and his passion for books. 'I regret to say her taste in books was & is dreadful; & this used to give me serious qualms'.53 As she became absorbed in her nursing training at Wellington Hospital, their paths diverged. As a confidante her place was increasingly taken by Challis, whom John came to judge 'the pick of the family'.54

By this time he was well embarked on his student career. University study had not been his first choice. One of his teachers at Wellington College, 'a kindly soul, whom I admired greatly', asked him, '"What are you going to do with your life, Beaglehole?" I said modestly I didn't know. "Well", he said, "you know a little about a lot of things and nothing much about anything; you might do quite well as a librarian." I thought he did a little injustice to the depth of my learning, but I was struck with his perception otherwise.' John's father consulted Charles Wilson, the Parliamentary Librarian, who was discouraging.55

John's second choice was to become a bookseller.56 His father really wanted him to go to university, but, John later recalled, 'he was a wise as well as generous man, and a bargain was struck. He would get me a job in a bookshop, and I should try that for a year – my honour satisfied; and then I should concede to him a year at the university, after which I should make a free choice'. Ern saw the book manager of Whitcombe and Tombs, a Mr Cameron, and a position was arranged.

John's choice was hardly surprising. He had been brought up in a house full of books by parents for whom books of all kinds were 'precious vehicles of the mind'. Ern had been buying books since his youth and had dreamed of leaving Sharlands and opening a bookshop of his own. Jenny, for her part, 'if not exactly omnivorous, was always reading: she read while she knitted, or dressed, or did her hair; she was one of those people, as she herself said, who couldn't see a scrap of printed paper lying on the pavement without bending over to read it. As a young girl in Southampton she'd worked in a bookshop herself.' As her sons grew she developed the habit of leaving books out where they would see them, with passages marked that she believed they would find interesting – or improving.

John began to frequent the Wellington bookshops. One of the first books he bought, he later recalled,

was at Smith's (I speak as a Wellingtonian, who knew the contents of that second-hand establishment fairly well, though sometimes a bit afraid that Mr Smith might throw him out) – it was an odd volume of the Tatler, vol.II, a little crown octavo thing, bound in panelled leather, page 56blind-stamped, gilded spine and (once) edges, 1733, 9d. Romance. I see I wrote my full name on the fly-leaf, and the sacred date, 26/1/1917. Just think – 1733! It may have been to make this article look even more antique that I repeated my name on the inside front cover, in my best writing, with the words 'Hys Booke'.

A year later, when he was seventeen, John produced a volume of his verse for his father's birthday, a 24-page handbound pamphlet. He had come a long way since the days of Smudge, having absorbed the conventions of traditional book layout, including the use of a half-title page, flyleaves, and a two-colour title page with ruled border; he also made a considered and assured use of fleurons. 'Remaining coolly classical and neither ostentatious nor pretentious', Sydney Shep writes, this slim volume carried the germ of aesthetic beliefs in typography and book design that were to be exercised two decades later. Among the assured verses, the ironically titled 'Doggerel' expresses John's ambition to keep a bookshop 'complete with leaded windows – no common banal one', in which poetry, essays, chapbooks, first editions, rare books, prints and broadsides will be his stock in trade. Was there an echo of Ern's dreams in all this? He wrote, too, of having workmen to 'execute fine bindings' and a printing press 'For printing fine editions/Of books both old and new.'57

Whitcombe's might have seemed something of a let-down after this, but clearly it was not, and during his year there John managed to persuade the company's book buyer to include in his orders some private press works from the Shakespeare Head Press and the Cuala Press (run by W.B. Yeats's sisters) as well as works on lettering and wood engraving by Eric Gill.58 His official duties were upstairs in the educational department headed by H.G. Sturt, a rather small and lively man, already fighting an heroic but losing battle against tuberculosis that killed him a year or so later. He was dedicated to bookselling, and was a hard-boiled rationalist, at which John rejoiced. Sturt was devoted to the books of an American who wrote about the joys of being a small farmer in New England (a sort of watered-down Thoreau), also cultivated by John for a while under Sturt's influence. Mr Coventry, the second-in-command, in contrast, never gave any indication that he read and was a modest but solid pillar of the Methodist church. After the shop closed for the weekend, late on Friday evening, John would walk up Lambton Quay with Sturt and Coventry or Archie (one of the boys from the ground floor) and 'at the invitation of Mr Sturt, call at Gamble and Creed's for supper, tea and hot buttered toast, and listen to page 57Mr Sturt expatiate on life and goad Mr Coventry into argument'. Then there was Maie Ross, the sister-in-law of the manager, 'an exceedingly pleasant warm-hearted young woman from Australia' whom John liked very much. She sang in Temple White's young Harmonic Society, and John was soon her accompanist in church socials and other such festivities. Most of the staff John remembered with equanimity, even affection.

The first thing John learned was how to make a neat parcel of any size, tearing off the proper amount of plain brown paper from the roll at the end of the counter, folding it precisely and tying it up with string. It was a skill he never lost, which was later greatly admired by his sons. He had to unpack as well as pack. Large wooden cases from London arrived off the ship and on the first floor. John unpacked the books and sorted and counted them and arranged them on a long counter. From America they came in large mail bags, cardboard boxes containing two or three volumes each, cheap reprints, mainly from Grosset and Dunlap, which were to vanish completely from the market with the end of the First World War. Cameron came and stuck bits of paper in the different lots with the New Zealand price (plain figures) and the net price (secret signs) and John marked the books accordingly; he then cut the English prices off the dust-jacket flaps, and carried the general literature downstairs. That was the theory. In practice every book had to be examined carefully and dipped into or read in large chunks (another skill he never lost), John's theory being that a bookseller ought to know about the inside as well as the outside of his books – and then, of course, he had an injunction from his father to look out for his special orders. His only apprehension was the inopportune arrival of the manager. If the excitement of unpacking the books was the high point of John's life as a bookseller, it was a year which he altogether enjoyed greatly. Just before Christmas he received a rise of half a crown a week, from twenty-five shillings to 27s 6d:

I concluded that my worth as an asset to the trade was now recognised, that I was successful, and a great future lay before me. Not very long after this I was faced by the other half of the bargain with my father; and bitterly repining, but with my duty clearly pointed out by my mother, informed my colleagues that they would have to get on without me for a year.59

At the beginning of 1919 he enrolled at Victoria University College.

* Doreen Britland graduated from Victoria University College with an MA in 1924 and became a secondary school teacher of classics. In the 1930s she was teaching in Hawera.