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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 3 (June 1, 1939)

New Zealand Anthem — “God Defend New Zealand” — Story of Bracken's Hymn

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New Zealand Anthem
“God Defend New Zealand”
Story of Bracken's Hymn

The New Zealand Centennial Council's adoption of Thomas Bracken's “New Zealand Hymn” as the Dominion's National Anthem has increased public interest in the poem, which dates back to the early ‘seventies. The musical setting was written more than seventy-four years ago.

Until comparatively recently, however, the song was rarely heard, but with the advent of radio and community singing it has gradually caught the imagination of many New Zealanders.

Thomas Bracken, who is best known for his poem, “Not Understood,” was a romantic figure in the life of the Dominion. Born in Clunes, Ireland, where at an early age he was left an orphan, he was given a home by one of his uncles, a chemist, and during his youth served in his uncle's shop.

As he was of an adventurous nature, he decided to try his luck in Australia, where the gold fever was then at its height. Little is known of his life in Australia, except that after spending some time on the goldfields he did some sheep-shearing. A natural gift for writing found expression during this period and several of his poems were printed in Australian journals. The lure of gold, however, again proved irresistible and when reports of the fortunes being made in Otago reached Australia he sailed for New Zealand. His subsequent career showed him to be a man of many parts. Miner, hotelkeeper, journalist, poet, member of Parliament—these and many other occupations gave him that broad outlook on life which is reflected in many of his poems. The late Sir Robert Stout paid this tribute to the poet:—

“This may be said: Mr. Bracken need not be ashamed of his efforts. When the history of our literature is written, his poems will not be forgotten, and in the future will not the labours of the writer be ranked as high as the work of the statesman or the warrior?”

Those whose memory of Dunedin goes back to the ‘nineties will remember the well-known figure of Thomas Bracken, and many Wellingtonians will also recall the romantic figure who lived in Tinakori Road during the Parliamentary sessions.

Bracken, for some years, edited “The Saturday Advertiser,” a Dunedin journal which ceased publication in 1893. It was this journal which was responsible for giving New Zealand its National Anthem, for although the poem had been published some years previously as “A New Zealand Hymn,” it was not until 1875 that “The Saturday Advertiser” inaugurated a competition for a musical setting of the words, and offered a substantial prize to attract the best musical talent in the colony. Three of the leading musicians in Australia were appointed adjudicators; each was required to act independently in making his award.

There was at this time teaching school in Lawrence, Otago, a young man named John Joseph Woods, who, like Bracken, had come to the young colony from Australia. Woods read in “The Advertiser” the particulars of the competition and decided to submit an entry. Although it was late at night when he learned of the competition he sat down at his piano and did not rise till the score of “God Defend New Zealand” was completed.

(Thelmo R. Kent, photo.) View of the Hooker and Tasman Valleys, from Sealy Lake, Mt. Cook.

(Thelmo R. Kent, photo.)
View of the Hooker and Tasman Valleys, from Sealy Lake, Mt. Cook.

The three Australian musical adjudicators, acting independently, had no hesitation in selecting Mr. Woods as the winner of the competition. With their opinion Thomas Bracken expressed his full concurrence, and thus New Zealand got its National Anthem. Bracken subsequently assigned to Woods all his rights in “God Defend New Zealand” and these rights were later acquired by Messrs. Chas. Begg & Company Ltd. It is interesting to note that the original manuscript is filed in London and lies alongside that of the German National Anthem.

Woods outlived Bracken by thirty-six years. He died in 1934 at Lawrence, where he was for many years the Town Clerk.

“God Defend New Zealand” has also a Maori musical setting, by Mr. R. A. (“Bob”) Horne, a well-known Christchurch musician who was for many years manager of the Bristol Piano Company, and a generous benefactor of most of the Christchurch musical societies. This Maori setting was a popular feature at the Boy Scouts’ Jamboree in England in 1929.

“God Defend New Zealand” (under the title of “New Zealand Hymn”) was included in the collection of Bracken's poems in the book “Musings in Maoriland,” published in 1890. It was dedicated to Alfred Lord Tennyson “with the sincere admiration of the author.” The preface by Sir George Grey was preceded by an historical sketch, “The Rise and Progress of New Zealand,” by Sir Robert Stout.

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