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The Spike Golden Jubilee Number May 1949

The Battle of the Sites

The Battle of the Sites

It has already been stated that the Mount Cook site had been suggested as the best for a University College but in a few days news came that the ministerial residence in Tinakori Road had been offered. Mr Blair, the Chairman of the Council, asked me to go and see it as he was doubtful of the advisability of taking a building which would so quickly become outgrown. I reported against it for I knew that a chemical laboratory in the building would be an intolerable nuisance to my colleagues. It had been stated by the Agent General that the number of students was not likely to exceed fifty for several years. Actually 115 took lectures in the first year and there is no doubt that the number would have been far greater if they could have been brought together in a convenient building.

The next suggestion was that Victoria University College should have the use of the Girls' College after the girls left the building and on Saturday mornings, and two good rooms for chemistry and physics were lent by the Education Board in Victoria Street at least a mile away from the Girls' College. Neither gas nor water were laid on and there was no drainage. Also there was no money available for construction of laboratory benches and furniture. So boards on trestles had to be used and heating had to be done by spirit lamps. The goods ordered in England had not arrived, but Mr G. W. Wilton had a sufficient stock for me to supply immediate needs for chemistry. When asked to submit his account, it came already receipted, and, when asked to explain, he said it was the least he could do after the courteous reception given to the pharmaceutical association. For practical physics a sextant and a theodolite were borrowed and there was much home-made apparatus. I do not think it was ever known to the College Council that I called on the Minister of Education and had a heart to heart talk about page 22 the absurdity of the position and he promised to see what could be done. To everyone's surprise the Council received an intimation that a sum of £1,000 would be provided to be earmarked for chemistry and physics, and, during the first long vacation, a nicely equipped chemical laboratory was provided of which a photograph taken from a water colour painting by Sybil Johnson (the late Mrs Hanna) hangs in Victoria College.

Various suggestions were made as to where the permanent home of Victoria University College should be. So far as I can remember it was seriously proposed by Mr Seddon that it should be placed on Wellington College cricket ground. Kelburn Park, at that time a barren waste, was then suggested and the proposal found much support. Finally the present site was agreed to.

When it was decided to build on Salamanca Road, all members of the Professorial Board, which by this time had grown very considerably, were asked to state what their requirements would be. A prize of £100 was to be given for the best design for the building for which, I think, £20,000 had been promised (subsequently increased to £30,000 to provide a third storey) and the condi-tions were duly published. Three architects proposing to compete approached Mr C. P. Powles and asked him to explain an apparent inconsistency in the conditions and he referred the competitors to me. I furnished each with a ground plan showing my ideas and insisted that the science buildings must occupy a separate block with physics and metallurgy on the ground floor, chemistry on the second floor, and biology above and indicated the very special provision which must be made in order that the chemical department should not become a nuisance. The report of the adjudicator, who was the government architect in Melbourne, was illuminating. It was to the effect that three of the plans were remarkably alike and were the only ones which could be considered. In particular, the science block left nothing to be desired. However, only one of the designs could be built for the sum provided and therefore it must receive the prize. He would have awarded it to the most expensive but for the limit placed upon the expenditure.

On the occasion of the opening of the College by the Governor General in 1906, I was roundly abused by a choleric member of the Council for having suggested such large science buildings which he regarded as a waste of money. Had he lived a few years longer he would have seen a great increase in accommodation in Physics for Professor Laby, a new biology block which cost far more than the original science buildings, and a separate building for Geology.

Probably it was in 1904 that I was asked by the late J. G. W. Aitken, Mayor of Wellington, to accompany him in a round of calls upon citizens who were well known to him, with the object of raising funds on behalf of the College for which I suppose the plan was already approved. Our first call was upon Mr Jacob Joseph who appeared to be nearly blind but thanked us for calling. He was emphatic that he would give nothing for buildings but would help the College in the matter of scholarships. He died in 1905 and was found to have left £3,000 for these scholarships, the first of which, in the same year, was awarded to P. W. Robertson the present holder of the Chair of Chemistry. Our second call was made on Mr William Weir who to Mr Aitken's disappointment did not seem interested but intimated that he might do something later. On his death in 1926 he left something over £70,000 for the building of hostels. It is not improbable that he consulted Sir Robert Stout in the matter for it has always been said that it was owing to Stout's advocacy that the benefaction was received. A third citizen met us with insulting rudeness but we subsequently learnt that he had submitted a sub-tender for a supply of builders' sundries and had been very badly beaten. It looked as if the work we had set out for had not given any immediate result. My wife then suggested that I should try Mrs Sarah Ann Rhodes who lived on the Highland Park Estate, Wadestown. Mrs Rhodes was not interested in College buildings but gave a cheque for £25 for the Chemistry and Physics Department and stated that she hoped to do something on a larger scale at some future date. In 1915 she left a sum of approximately £10,000 for the Education of women. Incidentally it is of interest that William Barnard Rhodes, her deceased husband, was a distant relative of Thomas Cawthron, the founder of the Cawthron Institute.

Why did I leave Victoria College which I loved so deeply and the members of the Professorial Board for whom I had such a high regard, never having had a serious difference with any one of them? I had the feeling that my period of usefulness at Victoria was coming to an end and that a younger man was required for the work. There was also a sensation of war weariness and frustration. I had for some time been concerned with the need for more intense agricultural research work in New Zealand and had twice, at the request of Sir James Wilson, President of the Board of Agriculture, addressed the Annual Meeting of the New Zealand Farmers' Union on this subject. There was a humorous sequel to the address to the Farmers' Union in 1912. On that day Lord Islington arrived in Wellington as Governor General, and the next day the private secretary rang up to say that His Excellency had seen the account of the address in the Post and would appreciate a few notes which he could make use of at the forthcoming Victoria University College capping ceremony at which he had been asked to speak. The notes were at once supplied and appeared practically verbatim in the speech. The Post commented on His Excellency's perspicacity in putting his finger on such an important need page 23 for the Dominion practically as soon as he set foot in New Zealand.

Discussion had for some time taken place as to whether Wellington would be a suitable place for the establishment of a Chair of Agriculture so that science students might qualify for positions as teachers of Agriculture. The discussion ceased for the time being when a highly placed officer in the Education Department stated that "teachers of agriculture had no need for high falutin science." The Buchanan endowment for a Chair of Agriculture was not given till some years later.

In 1916 the Trustees of the late Thomas Cawthron set up a private commission of six scientific men under the Chairmanship of Sir James Wilson to take evidence in Nelson and advise as to the best procedure for giving effect to Thomas Cawthron's wishes. In 1917 the Trustees asked me to deliver the first annual Cawthron Lecture and to explain to the audience the report of the Commission and the great benefits which were likely to accrue to Nelson and the Dominion if these recommendations were adopted. The lecture was entitled " The Aims and Ideals of the Cawthron Institute."

In 1919 the Trustees invited me to become Director of the Institute and to nominate a staff, and I naturally accepted. It was, however, with deep regret that I said goodbye to Victoria College and my many friends in Wellington.

May the alumni ever remain true to the excellent motto of Victoria University College—Sapientia auro magis desideranda. Still stands the ancient proverb "Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom and with all they getting get understanding."

Sir Thomas Easterfield, K.B.E., M.A., Ph.D., F.R.I.C.

Since going to press we have learned with deep regret, of the death of Sir Thomas Easterfield.

"Long is the way Of the Seven Stages, slow the going, And few, indeed, as faithful to the end."

adapted from Auden