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Victoria University College an Essay towards a History

VI — War Years

page 155

War Years

In the years that were now at hand the college shared fully the life of the community to which it belonged: it also, very early, found itself in radical opposition to the demands of the community. It suffered doubly from the war—that depressing and frightful struggle that was first The War, then the Great War, and then, more depressing still, as possibly the first of a series, merely World War I. It suffered as every institution suffered whose life depended on youth, in the death and wounds of its members, in the maiming of function, in the snatching from civilized life of so many men whose duty to civilization seemed to be expressed in the grim paradox of denying civilization, in the breaking down of those values of wisdom and beauty which the college existed to perpetuate. At the same time it suffered from that other paradox that whenever it, or one of its teachers, upheld one of those values –truth, decency, tolerance, honesty—in some specific application, apart from resounding principle, it incurred odium. To ‘fight for freedom’ overseas was an admirable thing; to stand up for freedom and justice in New Zealand in such passionate and word-confused days was another thing altogether. For this was a democratic war, and democracy, which sacrificed page 156 so much so selflessly, was quite prepared to regard as the least of its sacrifices its duty of thought and its power of rational judgment.

Possibly, indeed, these were the years that laid the foundation of the college's unpopularity with a good many of the respectable people of the community. In this particular community, with its lack of an educational tradition, it would have been hard for the college to attain real ‘popularity’ in fifteen years, but at least it seems to have been tolerated. The less important citizens, certainly, took a positive pleasure in the foolery of Capping Day, and the news that the students were out was enough to fill the Post Office Square with a throng prepared for any piece of vaudeville, however gauche. But this was not quite the impact of education on society. Degrees that were won, the capping photograph, all white fur and rolled diploma, gave pride to parents; but perhaps this was not quite the impact of education on society either. It was something subtler that caused a vague unrest. It may have been partly the circumstances of the college's founding; there was something of the poor relation about the institution, in a day when the ‘poor relation’ still carried the Victorian penumbra of unease and lack of quite enough breeding. Persons of the ‘Middle District’ who might have contributed something to its material welfare preferred to regard it as a night-school, as a bad second-best among colleges; the country genteel too often preferred the superior gentility of the South Island. People—more important citizens—who might have given the college active support, possibly were relieved to find some reason which made plausibly virtuous the withholding of support. It might have been better for the college if its professors had been pillars of the church: Wellington was not an unusually godly city, but there is something reassuring about pillars. Instead they were, too many of their small number, restless and critical, disrespectful of established in- page 157 stitutions; instead of getting on with their teaching they talked about research and held heretical views on examinations. The University Reform Association had never a very wide public following: it caused too much trouble. Professor Mackenzie thought religion was a luxury; Professor Picken, to whom religion was a necessity, said dreadfully awkward things; it was beginning to be whispered that Professor Hunter was a socialist. Should one entrust one's sons and daughters—the question was sometimes asked—within the ambit of an influence determined by these unprincipled persons? Even as the college was developing a richer corporate life, becoming in its small fashion more truly a universitas, it was growing away from the community. Or rather it may be said that, not a natural spontaneous growth of the community, but placed there from outside by the ‘the Government’ (no very assiduous gardener), it had not succeeded in pushing down real roots in the ungrateful soil. There is something symbolic about the clay of the Old Clay Patch.

Yet, with all these modifications, the college did somehow express the community. For the community was not unitary, it had its dissident elements. The life of the college was all the richer in so far as it transcended its own dissidence and created out of its own being something corporate, something perhaps a less forced growth than the admirable but rather self-conscious feeling of the first years. There was room now for quite violent differences of opinion. In the next few years a new strain is to strengthen and proliferate in a number of ways, the social conscience which has already been seen in the Christian Union, working amateurishly in Tory Street, and the Officers' Training Corps drilling amateurishly for it knew not what event. The social conscience is there in Laby and Arnold Atkinson, contemplating at their Round Table the vast unmanageable bulk of that British Empire that they so much wanted to arouse and reorganize; it is there, simultaneously. page 158 in the editor of Spike, who in 1911 made the grand onslaught on imperialism in the name of a New Zealand nationality, and in Boadicea, the extravaganza of 1914, which professed its disbelief that the colonizing methods of Britain had been particularly noble. It is there in the great majority of the six hundred men of the college, of whatever years, who went to fight in the Expeditionary Force, and in the hundred and fifty who died. And often enough (so queerly does the human conscience work) what seemed moral compulsion to one student seemed scandalous levity to another: until war imposed what seemed to all a common duty. Meanwhile something had gone, the first flush and excitement of being a college, the witty verse, the devotional verse—gone with the group of witty and devotional writers who had made the place their own, the high-spirited Victorian-Edwardians. After 1914 no one would ever be quite so high-spirited again. Perhaps that is wrong; for it is impossible to be young and not sometimes high-spirited, in spite of all; perhaps it was merely that the light heart had departed from the world.


There was, at the outset of this brief unhappy period, some change in the professorial staff. Early in 1915 both Laby and Picken left for Melbourne—not before Laby had called on the Prime Minister and urged him to form a National Government –Laby to fill there the chair of Natural Philosophy, Picken to become Master of Ormond College, a residential college that was part of the University. They continued as brothers-in-arms; when Laby had worn himself out in academic and public service and died in 1946, it was Picken who wrote the memoir of his friend for the Royal Society. As things were, they were bound to pass from Victoria College, where they had learnt so much. Laby wanted to organize a great laboratory, and in Melbourne he had the chance, which here he could not have, page 159 to stimulate research in X-ray analysis and optics, precision measurement and radio-physics and the modern field of nuclear physics.1 He was like Rutherford, it had been said, in that, although a hesitant and uninspiring lecturer, he yet inspired a remarkable number of young men and women to follow physics as a career. As Australian science was largely founded on him, our college may take some pride that its very defects contributed to the education of his character. Picken, for himself, was positive about the value of the Reform movement– although he, also, was in the wrong place. A mature mathematician, brooding over fundamental things, he suffered, as Maclaurin had done, from the paucity of adequately trained students; nor even under the act of 1914 was there scope for his administrative ability. He could tolerate the system no longer. At Melbourne things were better, but from Melbourne this sensitive man continued to hark back, even more than thirty years later, to the young life which had so impressed itself on him in 1907.

Laby was succeeded by Ernest Marsden, and Picken by D. M. Y. Sommerville. Marsden, and Englishman, had taken his D.Sc. at Manchester; he had been lecturer in physics at the East London College and gone back to Manchester as lecturer and research assistant. With military leanings, he had commanded the O.T.C. at East London and the Manchester Wireless Company, and before long he was off again to France in the N.Z.E.F. While he was away an able and energetic American, Harry Clark, occupied the chair, not to its disadvantage. Then, within three years more, Marsden, who had also administrative leanings, left the college for the Education page 160 Department. Sommerville was a more static person. He continued the Scottish procession; a St Andrews man, he had lectured at his own University, and came out as an F.R.S. of Edinburgh. Quiet, not of abounding physical strength, an excellent teacher, a considerable student of his subject—he was described as the ablest Scottish geometer of his time, the most distinguished mathematician his University had produced for a generation at least—and the writer of more than one book of first-rate importance in its field, he conferred a measure of international academic luster upon the college without stirring controversy; a rather shy and charming man, it seems not unfitting that, with all his mathematical talent, his hobby should be water colour painting. His sudden unostentatious death in 1934 left the college scarcely quieter, but certainly intellectually poorer, than it had been.

There were other things in the air. In 1912 Thomas George Macarthy, an eminent brewer and patron of the Turf, had died, leaving a large bequest to be managed by trustees for the benefit of education and charity in Wellington. It was natural for the Council, in 1913, to turn its eyes in this direction, and to make plans. The professors were anxious that a fund should be secured that would make day-time teaching possible at least in science, and the Council was not unsympathetic; alternatively, would not a chair of economics be desirable? Economics was the coming subject; everybody was beginning to talk about economics. The college might specialize, if not in law, then in economics and commerce. That ought to appeal to Wellington. The trustees were sounded and seemed to be quite reasonable. Why not a professor of economics (it was now 1914) who could act as Dean of a Faculty of Economics, Commerce and History? But there was a war on. By 1915 there had been little progress beyond proposals for a professor, a lecturer in economics who would assist with the newly founded Workers' Educational Association, a lecturer at an inferior page 161 salary in history, and lectures (at even more inferior salaries) in accountancy and commercial law. Would the Macarthy trustees contribute £500 per annum or its capital value? The trustees were prepared to be generous, they would grant £10,000. But war continued. Something must be done, to give earnest of the college's good intentions; and in 1918 Bernard Edward Murphy was appointed lecturer in economics. This was an exceedingly clever fellow, a New Zealand graduate in arts, law and commerce; he had been a junior and senior scholar of the University, and coming to Victoria from Otago, had been one of the able trio, Hunter's students, who all got firsts in 1906. Mr Murphy the lawyer was said to have used his clients mainly as an audience for his views on economics, and Mr Murphy the debater (he had helped to win the Joynt Scroll in 1907) found equal scope in that dubious science. There arrived on the college staff in Mr Murphy, certainly, one of the most brilliant lecturers that the country has ever had, and a man of wit.

But by 1918 we have come nearly to the end of the war. It is necessary to turn back. It is necessary to record, it may be with a tinge of irony, the other great gift of 1915, the Sarah Anne Rhodes bequest of £10,000 for the education of women –which was all to be expended on the popularization of ‘the sciences and arts relating to the home’, sciences and arts with which the college had nothing to do, and from which its women therefore could not profit. It is necessary to record, as an index to the growing complexity of our college life, the appointment, in succession to the capable part-time. Powles, of a full-time registrar—G. G. S. Robsion, who watched over growing complexity until the end of 1948. This too was in 1915. And it is necessary to record that tragic episode in which the college found itself at odds, not merely with the community of nits own university district, but the whole of page 162 New Zealand—the episode which was for some years referred to as ‘the von Zedlitz case’.


Von Zedlitz, it will be remembered, was son of a German father and an English mother. The fact that he was a German baron, and entitled to call himself the Count von Zedlitz, had given some passing pleasure to students, who found it useful in capping songs; but like other things in that pre-war era, it had ceased to seem important. Von Zedlitz himself had left Germany, except for fleeting visits, at the age of nine; his education, apart from two years in Switzerland, had been English, and his teaching experience, before he came to New Zealand, had been Scottish. Nationality, in a formal sense, in that lost pre–1914 European Eden, was another thing that had ceased to seem important to educated persons. One travelled without passports, one belonged to European civilization. So it happened that von Zedlitz, the good European, had never been naturalized a British subject. It cannot be said with any confidence that he was a German subject either. A German law of 1870 deprived those who had left the Fatherland of their nationality after ten years' consecutive absence, and von Zedlitz had long been struck off the list of persons liable for military service. But an amending law of 1913 had made it possible to revive nationality thus lost, the English courts refused to regard the loss as absolute, and failing naturalization, it seemed that von Zedlitz must be regarded as more rather than less German.

When war at last sundered Germany and Russia, on 1 August 1914, this man in his early forties, who had been out of Germany for thirty years, was visited by ancestral stirrings. To liberal Germans, when the enemy was Russia, it was also barbarism; and conscience, or a sense of noblesse oblige, a feeling that the individual had no right deliberately to stand page 163 aside from the agonies of his fellows, took this one to the German consul in Wellington to volunteer to return to Germany for Red Cross or some other non-combatant work. The consul, at that moment more of a realist, declared the impossibility of the step; and von Zedlitz, having made his honourable gesture, reflected that he had long ceased to be a German subject (on his reading of the law) and that the German authorities would probably have refused him admittance as an alien enemy. For on 4 August the war became a British one also, and the case of conscience was automatically decided. Unfortunately the gesture, however honourable, had consequences. A people unused to war had been plunged into that greatest of mass emotional crises, and emotion had to have some outlet. Young men enlisted—before a year was out two hundred Victoria College men had enlisted—but older men, and women, who could find nothing useful to do, fell back on the organization and propagation of their own hysteria. It was a period of ‘Patriotic Societies’, of wild charges and denunciations, of a sort of mania which the social psychologist can regard as natural (the social psychologists learnt many lessons from that war) but which was the despair of the rational man. So von Zedlitz, the honourable, the civilized, the humane, became the target of every uncivilized fool in the country who could write an anonymous letter to a newspaper. He was a menace to democracy, obviously he was a spy, he had been seen signalling to German submarines; by implication, he was responsible for the invasion of Belgium and the sinking of the Lusitania and the whole host of atrocities which became one of the staples of anti-German propaganda. It was even possible for Mr H. D. (shortly to be Sir Francis) Bell, the Minister of Internal Affairs, who had been a member of the college Council and who knew von Zedlitz well, to write to him in what must be taken as a friendly letter: ‘I am aware that you are of German birth and race, and that you have retained your page 164 national character and sympathies, which are at this present time as widely different as possible from the sympathies and aspirations of England and of New Zealand’. And Bell had the reputation, not undeserved, of being a clear-headed man.

The von Zedlitz sense of honour made the bearer of the name write to the chairman of the Council on 4 August, offering to resign. After all, he was certainly part-German, he was unnaturalized, and he was in a British university. The chairman at the time was Ostler; he consulted members of the Council, and assured their professor that such a step was unnecessary. Any possible conflict between the Council's attitude and law or government policy was removed by the proclamation of 19 August 1914, declaring the maintenance of the legal rights of all German subjects in New Zealand (saving Crown prerogative), ‘within the peace and protection of His Majesty in the same manner as if they were the subjects of His Majesty’. Then began the struggle. Unnaturalized Germans in the public service had been dismissed; Germans considered dangerous were interned on Somes Island. The Patriotic Societies began to pass motions; the anonymous correspondents began to demand that von Zedlitz should be interned. Bell wrote his letter, on 2 December, asking for a written assurance that his friend would hold no communication with nor give any information to the enemy: ‘not for my personal satisfaction, for my knowledge of your sense of honour and duty is sufficient, but I desire to be able to refer to your own word of honour as well as to my confident belief’. He wrote with the concurrence of Allen, the University senator, who was Minister of both Defence and Education; and von Zedlitz gladly gave the desired assurance, in (said Bell) ‘entirely satisfactory terms’. This German, it seems, was not to be sacrificed to popular clamour; and at the beginning of January Bell sent the correspondence to Ostler, as ‘of use in allaying any feeling of doubt’ as to the attitude of the government. In May he page 165 freed the Council to make any use, private or public, of the correspondence it thought fit. May was a critical month. The assault on Gallipoli had begun on 25 April, public excitement and distress over the casualty lists was great, and a fortnight later, on 7 May, the Lusitania was sunk. Helpless horror found its outlet in the demands for stricter treatment of Germans in New Zealand. The Council was assailed with such demands; it was called on with a rising bitterness to dismiss its man. By this time von Zedlitz was not merely the object of the queer personal hatred which is method out to the scapegoat, he was also a symbol. He was also mixed up in an oddly inverted sense of justice: he might be an admirable person, it was argued, with the most impeccable connections; but if other Germans were dismissed and interned, why not he?

Against all this noise and confusion the council stood like a rock. Certainly there were one or two waverers, and there was Wilson, who disliked von Zedlitz intensely for his criticism of the administration of the General Assembly Library; but Clement Watson, who succeeded to the chair when Ostler left the Council, in May, was kept in line. Stout was no waverer, but under the provisions of the 1914 Act, he retired in June. More rock-like than all were A.R. Atkinson, the lawyer and journalist (to seduce Atkinson would have been to seduce Abdiel), C. B. Morison, the University Reformer and immensely able K.C., and William Ferguson, the Harbour Board engineer. No one could accuse such men individually of lack of ‘Patriotism’; they were all, even, in politics supporters of the Reform party. They were prepared to stand against a whole eternity of howling mobs. But they were men of affairs as well as men of principle, and they were not above taking precautions. So when in May the matter was raised by Wilson it was referred to the Finance and General Committee. A deputation waited on Bell, to get clear the legal as well as the moral position. The Minister, possibly thinking that the Council page 166 wished to bow before the storm, said the government would do nothing to help it put an end to its contract with von Zedlitz—indeed the Council was persuaded that the government even desired that he should be retained in office, and that in so retaining him, it was acting not merely in the best interests of the college and the community, but with the full approval of ministers. This was certainly the impression of von Zedlitz himself, who was anxious above all not to be a cause of embarrassment. The Council had received a memorial, almost unanimously signed, from the Professional Board, and another from fifty modern language students and past students begging for his retention in the most serious terms. It was aware that though the war had caused a decline in the total number of students, those studying under von Zedlitz had increased. Finally the Committee could report that a royal to public safety, before which the case would presumably come; and its conviction that his services should be retained. At the June meeting an amendment by Wilson that he should be asked to resign was thrown out and the Committee's report adopted. In due course, in July, the royal commission, the so-called Aliens Board, held its enquiry and came naturally enough to a favourable conclusion. The battle seemed won.

But it was not won. The popular outcry went on, a chorus in the midst of which von Zedlitz himself had to go on with the struggle was carried into parliament. On 25 August the Prime Minister was asked ‘whether in view of the strong public opinion throughout the Dominion, the Government will take steps to deal with the case of Professor von Zedlitz in the same way as they are treating other alien enemies; an if not, why not?’ It will be noticed at this point that the case had been ‘dealt with’ fully by a properly constituted body, the Aliens Board, quite apart from Bell's precautions; and that ‘strong page 167 Public opinion’ was by now simply a loud irrational demand for the victimization of the bearer of an alien name. ‘Public opinion’, certainly, could no be expected to exercise any scruple over the obscure legal question of nationality; but it should be noted also that New Zealand, unlike the United Kingdom, denied naturalization during war-time. A man must pay, it was clear, for his selection of a birthplace, It was clear because the government made it clear. Cabinet, which had started in 1914 with good intentions (to judge from the names of Bell and Allen) had decided to capitulate to hysteria.2 Mr Massey did so with the mixture of confusion, self-righteousness, and bellicosity characteristic of statesmen in false position; and in a statement which, when read in the newspapers, hit with complete surprise a Council which had been led to give the government the trust one gives to honourable men. The words of his answer to the question deserve quotation: ‘(1) Whether Professor von Zedlitz should retain his position or not is a question to be decided by the Victoria College Council, not by the Government, he being a servant of the Council, and not of the government’. (2) The House should understand that the Government has, since the outbreak of war, strictly carried out the instructions issued by the Imperial Government, to the effect “that care should be taken not to arrest persons whose known character precludes suspicion, or who are personally vouched for to the satisfaction of the Gov- page 168 ernment.” (3) In addition to what has been said above the Government wishes to make clear that, if necessary legislation will be introduced before the end of the session to deal with the situation, inasmuch as it is of opinion that neither in University Colleges nor Public Schools is it desirable that unnaturalized enemy subjects should continue to give instruction to the youth and children of the Dominion. ‘The answer’, he went on in debate, ‘speaks for itself, and he did not think anything could be clearer of plainer: that, if steps were not taken by the Professor himself, or by the University Council who controlled the position, to remove him from his present position before the session came to an end, the Government would introduce legislation for the purpose.’3

The Council, to quote also its words, ‘was no more disposed to yield to the threat of interference on the part of the Government and the legislature than to the popular clamour which had inspired it’. At this stage von Zedlitz moved again. To rumour and clamour and anonymity he, no more than the Council, had ever felt disposed to yield; though, as he said, it had not been pleasant to face almost daily attacks in the Press, and to receive threatening letters couched in the vilest language, But the pressure was now so great—on the Council, not on himself—that he wrote, on 1 September, relinquishing all rights he had, and desiring the Council to deal with him as it pleased. But the Council still ‘controlled the position’, and as long as it did so it was determined to do justly. The New Zealand patriotic Society asked it to receive a deputation. It was willing—it never failed in courtesy; but by the date set things had gone too far. On 14 September Massey introduced the Alien Enemies Teachers Bill. This, like the third paragraph in his reply to the question of 25 August, was deliberately general in form: it disqualified all ‘enemy subjects’ from employment in any educational institution supported wholly or in part from page 169 public revenue, ended any existing contracts for such employment and provided that compensation for the dismissed person should not exceed one year's salary. Von Zedlitz thereupon urged the Council to allow him to retire, lest legislation passed expressly to sacrifice him should affect others. There were, as everybody knew, no others, On 15 September the Council resolved that a resignation thus tendered could not honourably or consistently with its dignity be treated as a voluntary one, and therefore could no be accepted. Prendergast Knight, who before the introduction of the bill had put forward a motion to give twelve month's notice, now withdrew it; and the Council unanimously agreed to present a petition against the bill to both houses.

This petition was presented on 17 September. The Legislative Council ignored it. The Petitions Committee of the House of Representatives heard evidence on 29 September. Those who managed the Council's case put extreme importance on this occasion, and also on the giving of evidence by von Zedlitz himself. If the honour and decency of one man could only be exhibited, they appear to have felt, the outcome could not be in doubt. They seemed justified. Von Zedlitz gave his evidence. A member of the House rang up a professor who, unable to bear the tension, had left the hearing: ‘It was all right, the bill was dead’. Alas for honour and decency; there was not to be this easy outcome. The government felt its own interest, its own prestige in the country, too much at stake. To drop now, merely at the dictate of justice, a bill which had been introduced to meet that country's clamour was unthinkable. The Petitions Committee must be converted as rapidly as possible. There was one way, to lie. It was stated that the government possessed a letter from von Zedlitz to Bell, written at the beginning of the war, informing the then Minister of Internal Affairs of his preparedness to fight for Germany against England. A more fantastic lie was page 170 probably never invented, much more plausible lies have never been believed. A more stupid lie, considering the course of government policy until towards the end of August, would be hard to conceive. But this was was-time, the emotions of members of parliament were not guided by logic, and the report of the Petitions Committee was that ‘That subject matter of the petition being one of public policy, the Committee has no recommendation to make’. It may possibly be argued that Sir Francis Bell should have shed on the subject some of the light of the truth with which he was acquainted, if not on grounds of public morality, at least on the narrower consideration that he had been, ‘an old and trusted friend’ of the victim—to use the victim's own words. Possibly Sir Francis Bell would have replied that as a member of the Legislative Council he had nothing to do with the activities, or the committees, or the untruths, or the confusions of thought of the Other Place. Possibly he salved his conscience in one of the other ways known to persons of high political culture.

A deputation to the Prime Minister did no good.4 Von Zedlitz. Wearied beyond endurance, wrote to Mr. Massey himself, saying that he was about to insist on resignation as a matter of dusty—and this he did in a letter to the Council of 4 October. The bill came up in the House for second reading on 6 October, introduced by the Prime Minister, who said he felt ‘somewhat strongly on the subject’, There was indeed on this occasion a sort of patriotic moral orgy. The bill, it was insisted, was ‘general in application’; notwithstanding which page 171 the major part of the debate was devoted to the infamous letter. One nobly calm and reasonable member only, A. S. Malcolm of Clutha (he had a copy of the letter) pointed out its exact meaning, and argued that a feeling that one ought to do non-combatant service in a war against Russia, on 1 August, was not identical with a determination to fight against Britain on 4 August; but Malcolm's plea for justice and tolerance might just as well have gone unsaid. Robert McCallum, a member of the college Council, would carry opposition no farther (for was not the bill ‘general in application?’) than to urge in committee the adoption of the section of the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act, 1914 which allowed naturalization in war-time—an amendment which was duly negatived. The bill passed on the voices. It was introduced next day in the Legislative Council by Bell, Who appealed rather needlessly, for support. It was a bill ‘general in application’ J. G. W. Aitken, like McCallum a member of the college Council, thought It would have been improved by the addition of the English provision, but beyond that contented himself with speaking in praise of von Zedlitz: ‘The whole responsibility is in the hands of the government, and I am content to leave it there.’ His colleagues had no hesitations at all. They spoke as denunciatory prophets. Nothing could stop that bill.5

Two days later, on 9 October, the college Council, at a special meting, still did not know whether the bill had received the Governor's signature or not. If the bill was law, and its man had been dismissed, then it would certainly not stultify itself by accepting his resignation—however many times, and with whatever insistence, he might resign. When page 172 it met again, on the 20th, all doubt had been resolved. The Council exercised the right that had been left to it, and voted him a year's salary, in a motion that recorded both its appreciation of his work for the college and its regret at the mode in which that work had been cut short. A large number of its members had intended to resign office and to submit themselves for re-election, ‘to obtain an expression of opinion from their electorates as to whether the Council were justified in declining to sacrifice an innocent man to a popular clamour’, The government, however, in a perverted way, was exceedingly wide-awake. Such procedure was made impossible by a clause added to the Education Amendment Act, which provided for the suspension of any election thus caused, and the filling of cil fell back upon the publication of carefully drafted Report of the essentials of the case, with an appendix of the documents. It is, even after the lapse of thirty-three years, a moving little pamphlet. The Council had done all that men could do. It had the support of the staff, the students, the graduates, the men of the college who were ‘at the front’. Against the people of New Zealand it could stand indefinitely. Against the sovereign state it was bound to go down. Was it right in refusing to accept that resignation, so often and so honourably proffered? Would it have been better advised to have gone with the storm rather than to be overwhelmed by it? The mind can produce plausible reasons for any surrender. Depressing as is this story of defeat, there is nothing in the college's record of which its men and women have the right to feel more proud.


The impact of the war on the college was evident not in this controversy alone but in all those ways in which a body of young men and women can be affected by international catas- page 173 trophe. The young men and women did, to a considerable extent, keep their heads. Clubs, of course, suffered: football, athletics, tennis went to pieces; the Easter Tournament, after 1915, was abandoned. Under the first shock of August 1914 the Debating Society put and end to its programme; the Heretics' Club ceased to exist. There were no capping carnivals– to the annoyance of one critic at least who thought that extravaganza profits could have been handed to ‘one of the numerous and deserving charitable funds’. The women were assiduous knitters of socks; Kirk, in a famous victory, obliterated the flies of Trentham Camp. As time went on there were ‘patriotic entertainments' and concerts, like the Gentle Gertrude, or Drugged and Drowned in Digbeth, of 1915–’ the most pleasing thing of its kind ever attempted by any victoria College amateurs'–or The Profs' Progress of 1918. Spike itself at first suffered badly and was much smaller than usual; with club members either on active service or preparing for it clubs had little or nothing to report, and literature was for the time being in eclipse. Instead, with 1915, came ‘letters from the front’ and Gallipoli casualty lists; and then, from France, the casualty lists lengthened. By October 1918 spike was beginning to look back. That year, it recorded, had been much as other war years had been. Men were in the minority, and most them were young. Some, wounded and discharged from the army, had returned : but men were constantly leaving as they reached military age… they went very quietly, and it was often along time before it was discovered that they had gone into camp. There had been Memorial Services in the Gym. By October 1918 indeed the list had become long, for one small college, of those whose fate it had been to ‘carry back bright to the coiner the mintage of man’. In that list were outstanding men and ordinary men; men who had made the college its best self and men, unknown even to college fame, who had simply been students; men who heroically, or page 174 with the plainness of so many other thousands, laid down a limitless potentiality of life. If any one man could stand for them all, as a summary of the college, perhaps it was Allan McDougall, the Rhodes scholar, whom his friends thought ‘its most perfect student’; but can any one man stand for all that loss and grief?

Even with depleted numbers, however, and the sombre background of those years, life went on. The Debating Society did not pick up till 1916. In 1914 it had held the first of its debates with the Social Democratic Party, and the second of these was the only event that starred that depressing year 1915 with excitement. ‘The Society is clearly doing right in arranging these annual meetings’, noted its reporter. Did the progress of human society depend upon the triumph of Social Democracy? Would the highest form of morality be found in a socialist state of society? Mr Harry Holland and Mr Peter Fraser and Mr Tom Brindle came to know the boards of the platform in the Gym almost as well as did the winners of the union Prize, as they asserted the nobility of man under socialism; and such high themes were a change from the theories of Norman Angell and the probable effects of the attitude towards anything of the U.S.A. The Women's Debating Society for a short while seemed to be letting the college down (‘That vegetarianism is beneficial; That Smoking is objectionable’, etc.), but in 1916 women suspended their separate activities for the sake of the general welfare; and then it was that judges were reminded of ‘the palmy days' of the society. That year 1916, also, saw rising on the ashes of the Heretics a club that, phoenix-like, claimed direct relationship, the Free Discussions Club. Its title was perhaps a little cumbrous, thought Spike, a little lacking in grace, but its objects were unimpeachable; for this club had been formed’ for the purpose of enabling those students who take an interest in the deeper things of life, to met and discuss those questions, discussions upon page 175 which nearly all other college clubs as a rule forbid', (Certainly the Debating Society steered away from religion and sex.) So we have the ransacking of Nietzsche's moral views, Ann Veronica and the status of women (the women present took part in a keen manner, and Miss England was good enough to give the benefit of her views) and the Moral Effects of War, and Harry Holland on socialism again, and eugenics and Maeterlinck on Death, and the Conscription of the Clergy, and Militarism and Citizenship and of course University Reform. By 1919 a certain very late back-door flowering of the Aesthetic Movement had set in (some of the leaders of college thought were beginning to discover with admiration the wit of Oscar Wilde and to lend their prose a rather strained air); and naturally we get Morality in Life and Art– ‘The highest art was always above morality. Morality was but a passing phase' art was eternal.’1 On a lover level the club had to act as executor in disposal of the Heretics' library—which was divided gracefully between the Philosophy Department, Mr Ward's Library, and the Christian Union. There was by then a good deal of sauntering, almost arm-in-arm, on the borders of Christian Union and Free discussion. Perhaps the liberal religion preached at the Unitarian Church was beginning to have its effects. Perhaps rather, the religion of undergraduates was undergoing the same metamorphosis under the pressure of war as that of other people. Certainly, as yet, there was at college no organized fundamentalist sect. There were still those, of course, whose feelings were subject to outrage: as when (1916 again—how full that year was) Spike had the first of its incursions into blasphemy, with the celebrated sonnet ‘Nay! Christ! I seek no mercy at Thy Throne!’ Whereat the president of the Christian Union wrote in protest to the Editor, and the Editor wrote largely in impassioned terms of Freedom of Thought, and the controversy spilled over into 1917–when, the Editor having departed to the war and being ‘unable page 176 to answer the peculiar accusations brought against him’, his judicious successor thought it might be safely dropped.

The social conscience continued to be active. In 1914, even before the war, the Christian Social Service League had turned its women's work over to the Y.W.C.A. The men of the League still carried on for a while some work with the Boys' Institute, but the war ended that. Then came (in 1916 again) an attempt at a Women's Social Investigation League, not altogether a college club, though the inaugural meeting was held in the Women's Common Room, and the officers were closely connected with the college. It was one of those leagues bound to meet frustration, but, merely in connection with the college, it is ‘significant’. To educate members in their social and civic duties; to create a wider scope for women in public life; to originate or take part in such public movement as might be thought desirable; to work by means educative, legislative, co-operative—how excellent, how familiar it sounds! There is a more positive note: ‘Any evil that needs exposure, any problem that needs investigation, should be made known to the league—which will do its best to remedy things’. It was composed, it confessed, of humble individuals for the most part, and knew that its work would be painfully slow. One sighs, indeed, thinking of that inaugural meeting, and the years that have gone past. Very little more seems to have been heard of the Women's Social Investigation League; and when a rather odd motion was brought in 1918 by one of its leaders before a special meeting of the Students' Association, to affiliate that body to the Women's National Council, the opposition was noisy and flippant and effectual. The social conscience at the end of the war had its practical application in the great Epidemic, when all examinations were stopped, and students, for some reason little affected themselves, slaved at relief depôts, or as hospital orderlies, drove ambulances, and dug graves. Then in 1919 came the arguments over conscription page 177 and disarmament. Spike denounced the proposals of the Minister of Defence, and another special general meeting refused, after long argument, to declare those proposals detrimental to the best interests of the community. After all this, it is mildly surprising to find one Spike correspondent accusing the college of complacency: its reformers were complacent and ignorant, its Free Discussions Club was utopian, its debates were without humour, the Christian Union had poor executive, and people scrawled on notices. But it was probably a young Tory, alarmed by the onrush of Bolshevism far away, who made the other accusation that the ‘university man and woman’ were not taking enough part in the national life of New Zealand. Were they too smugly self-satisfied, too engrossed in their pursuit of private ends? There were acute problems arising out of the war. ‘Are you going to join the ranks of the active workers for the nations, or are you going to stand idly by and watch the country being overwhelmed in a deluge of anarchy born of ignorance?’ As the country did not undergo this unpleasant experience it must be presumed that our students had the right answer.

Spike itself continued to register the ‘tone’ of the college (true, it also registered its editor's predilections). We may say perhaps, varying the metaphor, that it was covered all over with the bootmarks of the march of mind. The ‘letters from the front’, with their cheerfulness in the midst of death and mud, were balanced by the solemnity of domestic writes. The essays on Sincerity and on Flattery, the ‘Pastel in Prose’, were prodigiously significant of the change. Verse was booming, though carefully ‘screened’ by conscientious editors. The poets, suggested one of these functionaries, should study the rules of poetic diction; for though they had plenty of ideas, they had also an unfortunate disregard of metre. But were not rules breaking down in the world at large? We see in Spike not merely signs that New Zealand was catching up on the page 178 early Yeats, but the first tentative essay in vers libre. Naturally at all this the critics roar. As early as 1915 there was a loud roar. Spike ‘did not suit a student community. It never aimed at portraying the students as they were. Men who worked vigorously, played vigorously, prayed vigorously, and blasphemed equally vigorously, when they came to reflect the glamour of their doings on paper suddenly became dull and cold and issued a journal that had neither the moral fibre of strong conviction nor the material fibre of good shaving paper’. When there was moral fibre the journal was upbraided for its sombre and sober tone. Why had it discarded sparkle and snap? Why not have a bit of a row? Spike, complained another, was too cultured. ‘Be true to your old self and be sane. Above all, be cheerful.… Just try to be more of a New Zealander and less of a stilted schoolmistress.’ At that the worm-like editor turned: it was a good thing to have a host of willing critics, but, he thought, ‘if these same students would put their shoulders to the wheel and direct their energy towards producing some real, live copy, they would have no reason to worry about the future’. A brighter day was to dawn; but who, now, really can blame those unfortunate pages for reflecting their age?


In 1918, at last, the war ended. Possibly it was reaction from grimness that stimulated the formation in that year of the Haeremai Club. The old club for men had gone, but there was a fresh breed of those souls who hold that ‘there are moments when men want to be alone’, and that with ‘wit, hilarity and good fellowship’ as ‘sponsors’ they could be advantageously alone. With smoke-concerts and hakas the members managed to achieve a satisfactory degree of hilarity and good fellowship. A new Women's Club was begun also, but apparently under less elevated auspices. Then came the first year page 179 of peace. More and more men returned from the army; the sight of them lessened ‘that vague sense of incompleteness’ that had been about the college in the war year; there was stir and bustle; now, it was thought, the tendency to a general level of mediocrity would be overpassed, there would be giants again, now would college tradition be revived, college spirit be strengthened. The Students' Association held social teas, the Glee Club dragged out old music and sang again. There was again a real Capping Carnival, a procession wound its way to the Post Office Square and the usual deluge of rain, danced round policemen and invaded the pubs; an extravaganza modelled in form on the best precedents, wherein Tommy Hunter was burnt at the stake, assailed the intolerance of critics of student activities and above all that scandalized correspondent of the Evening Post, ‘Parent and Guardian’. Students' working-bees, headed by the chairman of the Council, had already done something to improve the breakneck Mount Street approach to the college; now students wanted to plant creepers to beautify the building; there was a great scheme for a Consolidated Club Fund to stabilize all finances. The Council had been discussing the needs of the college— had not the time come to embark upon day classes? The building was crowded, the student population was now over five hundred, Students' Association, Council, Professiorial Board, Graduates' Association were all talking hostels and residential college—could the land to the south of the existing building be levelled and laid out in playing fields and living quarters? Could the college perhaps be moved altogether to the site of Government House? Could the Taranaki reserves question be re-opened and some of that locked-up wealth utilized for urgent needs? A committee of the Council had reported on the best methods of improving the work of the college ‘in response to the Educational progress of the community’. There was need for the northern and southern wings page 180 of the building originally planned; the staff, obviously, must be increased, the Library must be enlarged, parliament must be asked for an increased annual grant. Then came the news that there was to be at least a new northern wing of four stories, containing a great Library itself tow stories high. It was almost like 1904, or 1899. ‘The world's great age begins anew.’

1 There is little doubt that Laby was the most distinguished physicist working south of the equator; that he built in Melbourne the finest and most influential school of physics in the Southern Hemisphere: and that he fostered in Australia an integrity and scientific tradition upon which the present high standard of Australian scientific work is founded.– Professor M. L. Oliphant in Picken, Thomas Howell Laby, in Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, Vol. 5. May 1948, p. 754.

2 The curious thing about this capitulation is that Massey was now in a stronger position in the country than he had been since his accession to power in 1912. For though the general election of December 1914 had returned only 40 of his party, against 34 Liberals and 6 Labour members on 12 August 1915 he had become the head of a National Government. The opposition in the house was reduced to the six Labour men, but of course, the pressure of his own followers was immense, In the national Government, Bell, though his prestige was great and he was Messey's principal adviser, had relinquished Internal Affairs to the Liberal, G. W. Russell– ‘Rickety Russell’. This man was an unfortunate change, from the college point of view. Apparently Massey did not know about the Bell-von Zedlitz exchange of letters.

3 N.Z.P.D., Vol. 173. p.145.

4 The deputation included the first Mrs A. R. Atkinson, a sister of Kirk. The Kirks were ancestrally Baptists. This able and eloquent woman, with all the moral fervour of a member of that church, tried hard to instill some of her own highmindeness into Mr Massey. The effort was vain; but as the visitors turned to go, the Prime Minister, anxious to end on a more agreeable note, said, ‘Well, Mrs Atkinson, I hope next time we meet you won't treat me so hardly,’ ‘Tchk!’ exclaimed the indignant woman, turning on that large figure with something like savagery, ‘Why can't you show some backnbone!’

5 The desolating series of speeches, which must be referred to technically as the ‘debate’ on the Bill, will be found in N.Z.P.D., Vol, 174, pp, 706–17 (House) and 722–5 (Council). They are interesting as illustrations of the effect of war on legislative opinion—as illustrations, also, of individual character.