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Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria University College, Wellington N.Z. Vol. 21, No. 1. March 13, 1958

Foundation Member Reminisces: The Old Traditions Survive

page 5

Foundation Member Reminisces: The Old Traditions Survive

"They builded their Gods in the Wilderness of Old . . ."—S.S.M.

"Ring out the old, ring in the new."


Hail to the Victoria University of Wellington! Farewell to Victoria University College, to which, nearly sixty years ago, we swore troth and fealty! The King is dead; long live the King! There remans to us merely the decent obsequies; a few kind words, and an age of reminiscence. Wherefore am I bidden, because I am the sole survivor of the first editorial staff, to give a final bow for the happy past, and to offer a proud salute to a still more happy future.

It is not my task to add materially to the dry records of a great institution, but just, in a few odd places, to lift the curtain; to expose the human touch; to give, if I can, to a few statistical facts the breath of life; for it is to the written word the future must look to discover whether we were men and women and not merely automata. If the first four professors do not spring from the page, the fault lies in the telling. Each in his own fashion was an individual, "a scholar and a gentleman". They were, at the beginning of the century, a trifle young for the conventional professor, and we, the students, eager and waiting, a shade elderly for the traditional "fresher". We knew, however, our own and each other's handicaps. We took all things lightly—and together. It was for these things that we loved the College. If we thought Professor John Rankine Brown a trifle pompous in the Little matter of Caesarian prose, we soon discovered that he was "all white" underneath; appreciative, helpful and forbearing. We owe the "Song of Victoria College" to his enthusiasm. That song was placed in my own hands and construed by the Professor word for word, down there on Thorndon Quay. "Auferunt decidiam" was "blow away the cobwebs!" for the "venti turbulenti" were already blowing. That was in 1902, when we had no "local habitation" and the Quay led to the old Thorndon Baths, where, in due course, we held our first swimming sports. Speaking of verses, I felt I had received another gift from the gods when Seaforth Mackenzie (S.S.M.) handed me the manuscript of "The Ode on the laying of the foundation stone of Victoria College, 27th August, 1904", and with what pride I took it to the University Office for appraisal by our old friend J. W. Joynt, of Trinity College, Dublin (Registrar of the New Zealand University).

Mr. F. A. de la Mare, besides being a foundation student, an enthusiastic sportsman (athlete, rugby player and cricketer) also, in 1958, finds it possible to belong to both the N.Z. Alliance and the N.Z. Rationalist Society. Now practising as a lawyer at Hamilton, he finds time each May to write to "Salient" protesting at the depravity and loose-living of the modern student, as evidenced in each Cappicade.


In those days Hugh Mackenzie was the heavyweight of our professorial team. It looked easy to score off old Hugh, who was so easy going. But it was necessary to take care. For instance, Brother Ostler, in an effort "to brighten cricket", used sometimes to throw in a silly question. Once, when the question before the class was the history of language, the Professor came to the "Pooh, Pooh" and "Bow Wow" theories. Here was a clear case for intervention. "Please, sir," came the inquiring voice, "how do you spell 'Pooh, Poh'?" Deliberately came the letters, with an addendum: "Mr. Ostler will be able to tell you how to spell 'Bow Wow'". Thus old Hugh.

Portrait photo

The question of coat of arms and motto gave rise to much heraldic erudition from the highbrows, but the lowbrows had their turn too. Professor Easterfield, sternly practical (as became a chemist and a miler) rendered our "Sapientia" legend into "Wisdom is to be desider for the sake of more gold", but his smile was a little lopsided. He knew that if a professor could run a mite under four minutes and thirty seconds, his latinity didn't matter—and he could get absolution anyhow. The major criticism, as it happened, came from an anonymous newspaper correspondent who stoutly maintained that "desiderare" incorporated the idea of unattain-ability, i.e., of desiring vainly. Now those in the know, knew that the anonymous gentleman was one P. J. O'Regan, who had several times crashed in matriculation Latin, and his opponent was Rankine Brown, who had many times examined in the same test. Now old Hugh was a friend of O'Regan, and he thought it great fun to bolster up the case against his friend and colleague Rankine Brown. To the onlooker it was a notable encounter. There was, indeed, one unexpected but practical result. It was thought that O'Regan case helped to bring about the change of regulation which enabled a candidate who had passed all his professional law subjects, to count his law passes if he gained his matriculation subsequently. It was thus that O'Regan acquired his qualification to practise, which he did for a number of years with credit to himself and his profession. All issues in this matter have no doubt long been settled amicably in the Elysian fields.

The stories told of Von Zedlitz would fill a book. One of them should never be forgotten, the story of his "dismissal" and the fight of Victoria to save "old Von" from his political enemies. The College Council, to its lasting honour, refused to dismiss him, and it took an act of Parliament to complete the deed of shame. So was enacted a Statute, the Alien Teachers Act, which drove from his post at Victoria perhaps the greatest scholar and teacher that ever entered her doors. Even then the play was not ended, although the scene was changed, and the "last grim joke" was entered in the courts of law and justice. The "N.Z. Times", now mercifully deceased, had published a libel, the last act of a campaign of calumny, and old Von was persuaded to take legal action to protect his name and vindicate his honour. C. P. Skerrett, afterwards Chief Justice, appeared for the plaintiff, and Sir John Findlay defended. In due course Von entered the witness-box and submitted to cross-examination. He had not been naturalized, and the imputation was made that he was a German at heart and a traitor in sympathy. Of course he had not applied for naturalization. He took the somewhat quixotic view that as he had not applied in times of prosperity, he could not in honour use naturalization as a means of saving his skin. He had for family reasons made a decision and now he was faced with the consequences in the witness-box. The crucial question came bluntly: "What do you call that, Mr. Von Zedlitz, if it were not treason, what was it?" Then came the measured answer— "Snobbery, Sir John, snobbery." So simple, so truthful, so perspicient, so unexpected, and the case was ended. Judgment for plaintiff with damages and costs.

It is impossible for any one article or any one memory to contain more than scraps of the wit and wisdom which cluster round the names of the very considerable personalities which flavour a university. Any attempt to impose a censorship is bound to meet a hostile reception at some point in any institution which boasts of freedom of thought or action. Any such attempt is an event of moment and Victoria had at least one. "The Spike," No. 61 (1933) had just been put on sale in the entrance hall, some few copies had been sold, when a member of the College Council, our old friend and first editor, H. H. Ostler, no less, came on the scene. He took action which resulted in the withdrawal and reprinting of No. 61, Two acts of censorship came into the discussion which followed: an earlier one by the Student Executive of "The Student" (a publication of the V.U.C. Free Discussion Club"), and that instigated by Ostler. This is no place to discuss the important questions involved. The Editor of the day, Ian D. Campbell, wrote an editorial in reply, of which all his successors in office may well take heed. I myself have a personal grievance. I wanted two copies and they cost me five shillings a piece. The price doubled in half an hour.

The War, 1914-1918

No story of Victoria students can be told without reference to war, its profound influence on life and its enormous sacrifice. The Route Nationale in France, when the N.Z. Division was out resting, seemed like a stretch of Lambton Quay— so many were the old friends one would meet along the road. There is no space to tell of the individuals who gave their lives in a great cause. The story has been told, the record stands, and the tradition survives.

—F. A. de la Mare.