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The Spike or Victoria University College Review 1934

The V.U.C. Debating Society

page 60

The V.U.C. Debating Society

But of all the good maxims, Isay, of debaters—
I ye said it before—
This one is the pick,
Get to know what the audience wants you to say
before you get cm to the floor,
And pile it on thick.

—F.A.M., "Spike," 1902, "The Old Clay Patch," 1920.

To the Debating Society belongs the distinction of being the oldest College Club, next after the Students' Association itself. At the first meeting of the Students' Society (the predecessor of the Association), held on the 6th May, 1899, one of the first motions passed was that the Committee should take steps to form a debating society. No time was lost in suiting the action to the word, and the first debate was held on the 3rd June, 1899, the organisers displaying an astounding prescience of the future in their choice of a subject: "That any system of control of the drink traffic is inimical to civilisation." Years later, when Prohibition became a burning issue at the polls, a motion on the subject was for some time an indispensable part of the annual syllabus and the topic has been three times debated by teams from English and American Universities.

The earliest debates were held in "the Large Hall of the Girls' High School," according to a syllabus of the time, and when the present College building was erected the unfinished top floor was utilised, as it was for all other student activities until the Gymnasium Building was opened in 1909. The subjects ranged from the influence of the Press to the rejection of Mr. Lloyd George's Budget by the House of Lords, with Irish Home Rule as an unfailing spark to the fires of oratory. So many of those early debaters have attained prominence in professional careers that it would be invidious to attempt the casting of a hierarchy, but the records show that five of the present members of the Supreme Court Bench addressed their first juries at the Society's debates and have been at some time among the Society's office-bearers.

The early history of the Society is carefully summarised by Mr. G. G. G. Watson in an article in the Silver Jubilee Number of The Spike, published at Easter, 1924. A full account is there given of the institution of the Plunket Medal in 1905 by Lord Plunket and of the origin of the Union Prize. It is accordingly unnecessary to deal with them here.

Amongst the Society's earliest traditions is one that has been maintained with increasing fidelity as the years have passed, and merits attention at the present time. The original rules, promulgated in 1899, provided that members had the right to introduce friends who might be permitted even to take part in the debates on the invitation of the chairman. Provision was thus made at the outset not only for visiting speakers but for the attendance and interest of the wider public, and that the early Committees made it their policy to encourage these contacts is shown by the annual report for 1903-4, which expresses the thanks of the Society "to the general public for their attendance and for the interest they have displayed in our Society, which does its best to form a link between the College and the public, and to bring the members of this Society in touch with the intellectual force of the Colony." The Capping Ceremony in 1912 was distinguished by the presence of the Right Honourable James Bryce (as the late Lord Bryce then was), who delivered an address to the graduates, in the course of which he pleaded for a much closer connection between the University and the life of the community. Although it has often met with criticism since, such a policy was universally applauded at the time and it was in pursuance of it that the first Visitors' Debate was held in 1913. The naval policy of New Zealand provided a topical subject and the visiting speakers were Sir John Findlay and Professor T. H. Laby. The precedent has been followed ever since and at least one Visitors' Debate appears in each annual syllabus. Many of these debates have attracted

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Eileen Deste photo.

Eileen Deste photo.

G. G. S. Robison, Esq., Registrar.

S. P. Andrew Photo

S. P. Andrew Photo

Dr. I. L. G. Sutherland, Warden of Weir House; Lecturer in Philosophy.

"Dominion" Photo.

"Dominion" Photo.

Weir House

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R. S. Odell Photo.

R. S. Odell Photo.

Fancilis est descensus Averno

page 61

very large audiences and have been perhaps the most successful functions ever organised by the Society.

The years of the Great War were for the Society the years of the locust. Very many of its members were absent on active service; the Plunket Medal Contest was in abeyance for two years; the University Tournament went into a state of suspended animation; and even the familiar records are in some cases missing. Towards the end of the war, however, new speakers began to fill up the ranks and when many of the debaters of 1914 returned, an era of prosperity dawned for the Society. Interest in debating steadily increased, until in 1922 and it was no novelty for the Gymnasium Hall to be packed with several hundred students and members of the public, with a host of eager intending speakers rising at the end of each speech in an endeavour to catch the chairman's eye. The rule that the concluding speakers must be called upon at 10 p.m. was frequently and necessarily applied. The Plunket Medal Contest became an event even more popular with the Wellington public than formerly.

The Committee was so much encouraged and emboldened by the Society's success that when in a team of three debaters from Oxford announced their intention of visiting New Zealand, the proposal was enthusiastically received. Early in 1925 Messrs. Malcolm MacDonald (now Under-Secretary for the Dominions in the National Government), A. H. Hollis and J. D. Woodruffe (author of Plato's American Republic) debated twice with V.U.C. representatives in the Wellington Town Hall and delighted the members of the large audiences with the witticisms, and (it must be confessed) scandalised some of them with the levity, characteristic of the Oxford Union. The tour of this team was so successful that it became the progenitor of others.

It had scarcely departed before the National Union of Students of England cabled its desire to send an official team. The financial guarantee required was too much for the nerve of the Students' Association Executive, which was on the point of refusal, when the members of the Debating Society Committee heard of the matter and as there was no other way out assumed personal responsibility for the necessary amount. The Imperial Debating Team, as this second visitation was known, arrived at Easter, 1926, and enjoyed a highly successful tour throughout the Dominion. The members were A. H. E. Molson (now, like Mr. MacDonald, a member of the House of Commons), T. P. McDonald, Paul Reed and R. N. May, hailing from Oxford, Edinburgh, London and Birmingham respectively. The two debates held in Wellington, were well patronised and amongst the writer's cherished possessions is a box plan of the large Town Hall with almost every seat taken in advance by citizens determined not to miss hearing this team.

For two years visiting debaters left New Zealand's isolation undisturbed, but in 1928 the first of several teams from U.S.A. arrived since when we have had none from other countries. Bates College (Maine) sent C. H. Guptill, J. F. Davis and M. L. Ames, whose rather fetching accent appealed mightily to the audience of fifteen hundred which attended their only debate in Wellington. In 1931 Oregon University was represented by a team of three, P. Pfaff, R. Miller and D. Wilson, and two debates were held. The next American "team," Mr. Robert K. Burns, has only just departed, leaving behind him memories of as earnest and energetic a young man as it has ever been our fortune to meet. Mr. Burns' companion fell ill by the wayside in Sydney and his industry in carrying out alone the original schedule of duties arranged for the two of them was as overwhelming as the falls of Niagara.

It would be melancholy to record such a formidable list of teams that have come to New Zealand, in most cases on terms involving some financial contribution by our student organisations, if we had not sent a team of our own abroad to redress the balance. Three V.U.C. debaters, G. R. Powles, W. J. Mountjoy and W. J. Hall, left New Zealand in September, 1929, for U.S.A. and returned early in 1930 after having debated with twenty-nine American Colleges. Diversity added much spice to their debates; they were met by a mixed colour team at Honolulu; they solemnly discussed Capitalism with Vassar College, the foremost "school for ladies" in the States; they won a debate against Lincoln, a negro University; and returned the call of Bates College of two years before. The Hoover Depression began to settle over the United States even as our debaters were packing their trunks for home, and doubtless explains why no further page 62 fraternal invitations have reached V.U.C. from the home of organised debating tours.

No history of the Debating Society, however brief, can end without reference to its efforts to promote freedom of discussion. On those occasions when reactionary critics have launched attacks upon student activities, the attitude of the Society has been uncompromising, and it has in the main been successful in resisting any limitation upon its right to free discusson, as well as its traditional right to invite visiting speakers to occupy its platform. I do not believe that this privilege has once been abused since the days of Lord Bryce's visit, and it has contributed immensely to the effective standard of debate. Some of us may disagree with the views expressed by some of the speakers, both students and visitors, but unfeigned controversy is the life-blood of debating and, in any event, the words of an eminent English Judge with regard to personal liberty apply with equal force to freedom of discussion: "This care is not to be exercised less vigilantly, because the subject whose liberty is in question may not be particularly meritorious. It is indeed one test of belief in principles if you apply them to cases in which you have no sympathy at all."

The winners of the Plunket Medal, Union Prize and Joynt Challenge Scroll are as under:—
Plunket Medal Union Prize
1905 E. J. Fitzgibbon E. J. Fitzgibbon
1906 H. F. O Leary H. F. O'Leary
1907 F. P. Kelly H. E. Evans
1908 D. S. Smith E. Arm it
1909 G. W. Morice J. McL. Hogben
1910 M. H. Oram M. H. Oram
1911 F. G. Hall-Jones W. J. McEldowney
1912 O. C. Mazengarb G. G. G. Watson
1913 Miss. M.L. Nicholls A. B. Sievwright
1914 No contest L. M. Moss
1915 No contest No contest.
1916 E. Evans K. G. Archer
1917 Miss M. Neumann E. Evans
1918 P. Martin-Smith W. E. Liecester
1919 C. G. Kirk P. Martin-Smith
1920 W. E. Leicester S. A. Wiren
1921 A. S. Tonkin W. A. Sheat
1922 P. J. G. Smith R. M. Campbell
1923 I. L. Hjorring J. W. G. Davidson
1924 J. W. G. Davidson S. E. Baume
1925 S. E. Baume W. P. Rollings
1926 J. F. Platts-Mills W. J. Hey ting
1927 W. P. Rollings J. F. Platts-Mills
1928 W. J. Mountjoy W. J. Hall
1929 A. D. Priestley W. J. Mountjoy
1930 A. E. Hurley R. Powles
1931 Miss Z. R. M. Henderson Miss C. S. Forde
1932 Miss C. S. Forde R. Bannister
1933 A. Katz A. F. T. Chorlton
1934 R. J. Larkin Miss M. Shortall
Joynt Scroll
1906. E. J. Fitzgibbon and F. P. Kelly.
1907. H. F. O'Leary and B. E. Murphy.
1908. J. Mason and H. E. Evans.
1909. D. S. Smith and G. H. Gibb.
1911. C. H. Taylor and M. H. Oram.
1912. F. G. Hall-Jones and G. W. Morice.
1914. A. B. Sievwright and G. G. G. Watson.
1915. L. P. Leary and L. M. Moss.
1916. No Tournament on account of War.
1917. No Tournament on account of War.
1918. No Tournament on account of War.
1919. E. Evans and W. E. Leicester.
1923. F. H. Haigh and J. W. G. Davidson.
1925. S. E. Baume and R. M. Campbell.
1928. W. P. Rollings and J. F. Platts-Mills.
1931. W. J. Mountjoy and H. R. Bannister.
1932. H. R. Bannister and Miss C. S. Forde

—W. P Rollings.