Victoria University of Wellington 1899 ~ 1999 A History
[four] — Wayfarers together
THE COLLEGE CELEBRATED its golden jubilee over a week in May 1949 in much the same manner as it had its silver anniversary in 1924: with church services (two this time), an academic procession, civic and Council receptions in the Town Hall, the conversazione, a Jubilee Ball, and matches and reunions of some of the earliest founded college clubs (hockey, tennis, football, debating). Former residents of the women's hostel Victoria House attended an afternoon tea. Ex-‘Weir men’, veterans of the male students' hostel Weir House, had a Reunion Smoke Concert in the Savage Club Hall. There were three jubilee publications: special issues of Spike and The Old Clay Patch, an occasional anthology of college-inspired verse, and the ‘essay towards a history’ of the college by J.C. Beaglehole.
A review of Beaglehole's jubilee history in the student newspaper Salient (founded in 1938) occasioned a comparatively rare instance of disciplinary action by the Professorial Board – excluding occasional fines for the unlawful ‘abstraction’ of books from the library and reprimands for smoking in corridors (and one explosive Guy Fawkes incident in 1929).1 The reviewer considered the work ‘a scientific and artistic triumph … balanced, philosophical and amusing’, and ‘both readable and accurate – a rare achievement in the Twentieth Century’. He (Salient articles were unsigned, but it was less likely a she) especially noted Victoria's ‘tradition of heresy’, its habit of respect for freedom of speech as a central theme. In a paragraph captioned ‘Victoria's sons’, it was suggested that the college could take more pride in a graduate like Gordon Watson, a classics scholar (and grandson of a founding member of the college Council) who was secretary of the New Zealand Communist Party in the 1930s, than in those who had followed more respectable careers – such as the governor-general, the mayor and the chancellor of the university, about whom some less than respectful comments were made.2 It was this paragraph that caused the trouble. A member of the Council, C.A.L. page 77 Treadwell (a well-known lawyer and author of military memoirs), complained: the article was ‘generally communistic in outlook’ and ‘grossly insulting’ to the personages named.3 The Professorial Board, displeased by both this review and an editorial in an earlier issue of Salient on the quality of food at Weir House (a topic of perpetual complaint), banned the paper and fined the editor £5.4
The dissident tradition to which Victoria laid claim derived in part from the role of its young professors in spearheading the ‘epic and glorious’ struggle for university reform;5 from its brave stand against the persecution of von Zedlitz; to a considerable extent, perhaps, from the guiding spirit of the rationalist Hunter; and also from the political temper of its students. Peter Munz, a student at Canterbury in the early 1940s, listened in awe ‘to a report that some students in Wellington had actually demonstrated about some political issue or other; and that at some crucial moment in the history of mankind they had painted a hammer and sickle on the roof’ of the college building. When he came to Victoria's History Department in 1944, Munz later recalled, ‘I felt as if I had been tossed into metropolitan life.’ The professor (Wood) was ‘a youngish man who actually talked to students’.6 Victoria's jubilee history itself represents something of this character in its focus, unusual for the genre, on the students. But Beaglehole's larger theme was not the college's radicalism, but rather its ‘astonishing corporate feeling’.7
There are many dimensions to student participation in university life – student politics and journalism, cultural and academic societies, sports clubs and Tournament, flats and hostels, ‘Extrav’ and ‘procesh’, not to mention lectures and exams. So too there are as many different student experiences as there are students themselves. This is obvious, but worth stating. It has been argued that university students in New Zealand have a stronger sense of collective identity than their peers overseas (for reasons which include the society's historical anti-intellectualism and the university system's egalitarian, meritocratic basis). And it has been suggested too that at Victoria the distance between ‘town’ and ‘gown’ – the students' consciousness of themselves as a culture apart – has been particularly strongly felt.10 Yet, apart from the shared territory of the class and exam room, how much was there in common in the college experience of the full-time arts undergraduate, the postgraduate science student, the teacher or teachers' college student doing a few BA units, the law clerk-cum-law student, the civil servant and part-time commerce student, and the exempted student who never set foot on the campus at all?
About a fifth of Victoria's students came into the last category. The percentage of exempted students fell between the college's foundation and its golden jubilee year, but only slightly – from 21.5% in 1901 to 17.5% in 1949. This was twice as many as in the university as a whole.11 Part-time study remained the norm. In 1949 still only a quarter of those attending classes at Victoria were studying full time. With the brief exception of the war years, women were a shrinking minority of Victoria's student body. In 1899 a little over a third were women (35.6%); by the late 1940s this had fallen to about a fifth. The decline in the proportion of young women enrolling that began after the First World War has been accounted for by the assistance given to ex-servicemen, the changing character of the feminist movement (the 1920s were a less optimistic decade) and, perhaps more importantly, by the opening up of new occupations for women that did not require a university education, notably in the secretarial and nursing fields. A more dramatic fall occurred in the early 1930s with the closure of the teachers' training college, when the number of women students fell from 32% in 1931 to 22% in 1933. Teaching remained the preferred occupation of women who graduated throughout this page 79 period, and accordingly they were enrolled mostly in the arts faculty.12
Given Victoria's historical claims for specialisation, the notable trend in the distribution of its students among faculties over this period is the decline of law. In 1910, 33% of students who passed sections or finals for their degree were taking law. Between 1924 and 1949 the percentage of students enrolled in law fell steadily from 29% to 7% (indeed, down to just half that during the Second World War). Commerce showed a reverse trend, rising from about 8% to just over 20%, with a notable increase in the late 1930s. Commerce students outnumbered law from 1932. Since the late 1920s accountancy had been one of the fastest-growing professions in the Dominion, while the law in the 1930s was overcrowded. Leaving aside the temporary effects of the war, the proportion of students in the arts faculty over this period ranged between 40% and 50%; in the science faculty, between 17% and 22% or about a fifth.
The Spike, the college review, was launched in 1902 with a jaunty appeal to collegiate fellow-feeling: ‘We be wayfarers together, O Students, treading the same thorny paths of Studentdom, laughing at the same professorial jokes, grieving in common over the same unpalatable “swot,” playing the same games, reading the same indigestible books.’ The Spike (‘a free lance’) declared three aims: to provide an official record of college activities; ‘to bring out the dormant talent, perhaps even genius, in both art and literature, that cannot help but exist, and too often lie hidden, amongst two hundred University students’; and above all ‘to strengthen the bonds of union and goodfellowship amongst us, to foster that brotherly comradeship which, to our mind, is the chief charm of studentdom’.15 There was as much humour as satire intended in the title. It appeared biannually at first (the literature in June, statistics in October) and from 1931 annually. The relative balance of club news, literature and opinion varied with the predilections of editors and the flavour of the times. It is arguable how much dormant talent, let alone genius, found expression in its pages. There was a good deal of fairly execrable verse, and some memorable; there was at least, it was thought, enough worthy of republication in an anthology, The Old Clay Patch, the first edition of which appeared in 1910.16
There are three salient characteristics of student and social life of Victoria in those first few decades. One is the involvement of the staff in student activities; this, it has often been stated, fostered a particularly happy level of understanding at the college. Perhaps this had something to do with age. The professors were not so old, and, because of the delay in founding a college in Wellington and its predominantly part-time nature, many of the students were not so young. Perhaps page 82 it also had its origins in the college's difficult infancy: the six-year battle for a site, Easterfield observed when the foundation stone was laid in 1904, had united them ‘with a bond of sympathy almost unparalleled’.18 Picken would later write of social functions in these early years having the atmosphere of ‘a happy and well-bred family’.19 The memory is no doubt exaggerated by nostalgia. But later generations of student clubs did not, as was the norm until the 1930s, elect professors as their presidents, vice-presidents and patrons.
Notable too (but not remarkable) is the recurrence of a handful of names in the record of student activities: names like de la Mare (F.A., known as ‘Froggy’ or ‘the Frog’), an arts and law student, a founding editor of Spike and compiler of The Old Clay Patch, a passionate athlete, tennis, rugby and cricket player, later an outspoken penal reformer and champion of academic freedom; and Siegfried Eichelbaum, another tennis-playing law student, and Seaforth Mackenzie, assiduous writers of odes and capping songs. Above all there was G.F. (George) Dixon, later memorialised in a plaque in the student union building, who might be described as Victoria's original perennial student. A foundation student, he served as president of the Students' Association for three years; single-handedly completed the excavation of the tennis courts although he did not play tennis; was founder of the Hockey Club and Easter Tournament (‘Clad in a new Norfolk suit each year, with increasing badges and presentation walking-sticks and a tremendous air of here-comes-my-team–dont-show-any-of-em-a-bun-till-Tuesday, the man was an institution in four cities’); chair of the silver jubilee committee in 1924; treasurer of the foundation portrait fund in 1934, and of a collection to inaugurate academic prizes in honour of Brown and Kirk in 1946; organiser of the jubilee student union appeal. He never took a degree.22
Thirdly, and equally unsurprisingly, there is the ‘robustly masculine’ tone of student culture, at least in its public expression, in capping activities and the college review.23 This is not to say that Victoria was a hostile environment for women students. On the contrary, the testimony is that the college generally was liberal towards women, and a number of members of the staff were particularly supportive (notable exceptions were Murphy, Brown and the librarian Horace Ward). Not all colleges permitted their female members to smoke. In 1920 the Professorial Board investigated appointing a supervisor of women students – inquiries were made overseas – but decided that none was necessary, for the time being at least. From the outset there were women office-holders in most student clubs. Indeed, the first students' executive has the appearance of being deliberately representative: one of the two vice-presidents was a woman (Mary Blair, one of Victoria's first two science graduates), which became the rule, and five of the 13-member committee. Spike was first edited by a collective of three: H.H. Ostler (another lawyer), ‘the Frog’ and Fanny Irvine-Smith, later a stern but stimulating history lecturer at Wellington teachers' college and author of the popular local history The Streets of My City, who wrote and drew sketches for Spike for several years. No women, however, were elected president of the Students' Association before 1969. On just three occasions a woman vice-president deputised in wartime or assumed the position when the incumbent left mid-year.
Clubs and societies proliferated as the college grew, some perennial, some ephemeral. There were 16 in 1924, 40 in 1949. They waxed and waned with the enthusiasm and talents of the students and the fashions of the times. Consistently throughout this period, half of them were sporting. Along with tennis, hockey, football and athletics there was cricket of course: formed in 1906, the club was congratulated by the college Council on winning the senior championship for the first time in 1946. Other sports also had their devotees: rifles, swimming, boxing (the first college boxing club in the university, in 1910), fencing and women's fencing, harriers, soccer (but not until 1944), swords, miniature rifles, table tennis and chess. The women found sport liberating, and they were more successful in the college's earliest, tennis and hockey; the Ladies' Hockey Club was also famed for its picnics.24 A Women's Indoor Basketball Club – a relatively new sport – was formed in 1918 and flourished.
It would appear that Victoria sport went into a general decline in the 1930s, in competitive terms at least. The Football Club, after its unpromising start, thrived in the 1920s but in the next two decades periodically fell from the local first division. Hockey, the biggest club in New Zealand at the beginning of the 1930s, also experienced a post-depression slump. In athletics Victoria won the Tournament shield eight times between 1919 and 1929, but only twice more by 1949; it received the Wooden Spoon 15 times.
It was in debating that Victoria excelled, apparently because of its comparative strength in law. The prominence of law students among its prize winners, one noted in Spike, ‘has led to the criticism that the Debating Society is merely a school in sophistry for budding criminal lawyers’.25 Before 1929 Victoria's debaters won the Joynt Scroll at Tournament 12 times – twice as many times as their page 85 nearest rival, Otago. The society modelled its debates on the Oxford Union. The Union Prize which was awarded to the best debater each year was named, however, for the Wellington Literary and Debating Societies Union which had funded it. The more prestigious Plunket Medal contest for oratory – in which contestants spoke on a famous person in history – was endowed by the governor-general and always attracted a large public audience to the Town Hall.26 (It was an index, perhaps, of its celebrity – or perhaps just of her affection for the college – that Fanny Irvine-Smith's The Streets of My City listed as appendices the mayors of Wellington, premiers of New Zealand and Victoria's Plunket medallists.) The predominance of law students also meant a predominance of men. Women (who had their own debating society between 1908 and 1916) won the Union Prize only twice before 1948 and the Plunket Medal five times.
The arts were a slower growth. A Literary Society, in various guises, made an intermittent appearance from the mid–1920s; but not until the end of the 1940s would a literary ‘movement’ emerge at Victoria comparable with that at Auckland – the famous Phoenixers – in the early 1930s. The Dramatic Society, formed in 1921, until the 1940s presented an unremarkable repertoire of Coward and Milne and the occasional revue. Science students were the keenest at forming academic societies: a Chemical Society in 1910, followed by the Mathematical and Physical Society in 1921 and a Science Society in 1928. A Law Faculty Club was formed only in 1930, a Commerce Society in 1932. Of other non-sporting associations, there were the political – of which more will be heard – and the purely social.
For the latter, men and women marked out their separate territory. Women students had their own common room and founded a Women's Club in 1918 whose activities ranged from supper and debating to wrestling and 30-a-side rugby in the gym. It went out of existence, in the way of college clubs, in 1930, to be succeeded briefly by the Hui Marae. A new women's common room was opened under the library in the newly built northern wing in 1921. If it provided a sanctuary in a predominantly male institution (although its intention no doubt had more to do with decorum), it could also be an intimidating place for new students: ‘it really mortified me,’ one later recalled, ‘to go into the common room and see sophisticated young women sitting on the edges of chairs or tables, puffing cigarettes and looking superior’.27 When the gymnasium was opened in 1909 the men promptly founded their own Men's Common Room Club for ‘light mental recreation’ and ‘social evenings on odd Saturdays’ (the rules of the gym forbade the presence of women after 5pm).28 This was succeeded in 1918 by the Haeremai Club, devoted to smoke concerts, haka parties, saveloy evenings, drinking and other forms of fun. (Its club note in Spike in 1930 lamented that for new members it ‘had to contend with the more gentle type of fresher this year owing to the fact that all the two-fisted beer-craving he-men had joined the rowing club’.)29 A ‘common common room’ would be a 1950s innovation.
And there was the Tramping Club, which was at once a political, social and sporting affair. Founded in 1921, the Tramping Club enjoyed its heyday in the 1930s and 1940s, reaching a membership of 80 before the skiers seceded in 1947. page 86 The Tararuas became as important a venue for discussion of the political issues of the day as the Free Discussions Club or Debating Society, the French Maid (Wellington's first coffee bar and bohemian haunt) or the Grand Hotel. Its other reputation was social: ‘The Tramping Club is Every Girl's Problem. “Shall I marry into the Varsity, or shall I not?”’30 Boyd-Wilson, president until 1954, contributed his enthusiasm not only for the outdoors but also for brewing: the Mulled Wine Reunion of 1942 is famous. For some, a veteran of this era recalls, the Tramping Club was ‘the real essence of varsity life’.31
It was the common wisdom that residential university hostels (not tramping clubs) were essential for the cultivation of ‘corporate spirit’, and for the students' proper intellectual, cultural and spiritual education. Scattered in lodgings around the city, ‘they are in their home life removed from an atmosphere of thought; they lack the refining and stimulating influences which are found in community life directed by a capable and cultured head. Hostel life,’ observed the college's annual report in 1927, ‘provides a nucleus about which the true university spirit will grow.’32
As well, smaller numbers were catered for by the Society of Friends, which operated a hostel for women teachers' college students in The Glen from 1915 until it closed along with the college in the early 1930s, and by the Bishop Hadfield Hostel for men built by the Anglican Church in 1908 (in what is now Hadfield Terrace). In the Reichel–Tate survey taken in 1925, 17% of Victoria's women students and 10% of the men were living in hostels run by religious or philanthropic organisations; of the remainder, 23% and 36% were in private lodgings, the rest lived at home. What the college wanted, but couldn't afford, was a hostel of its own. Its opportunity came in 1926 with the death of William Weir, a timber merchant, bachelor and friend of Robert Stout, who left the bulk of his estate – £77,500 – to the college for a hostel for male students. A contract was let to Fletchers in 1930 for a palace on the recently acquired Kennedy estate, just north of the college across the Kelburn Cable Car track, a site endowed ‘with many fine trees’ and ‘a magnificent view of the harbour’.35 Anticipation soon turned to frustration, however. Work was already under way when the Napier earthquake struck in February 1931, and the building had to be redesigned in ferro-concrete instead of brick. Then the government reneged on the subsidy payable on the bequest. The result was one building instead of two – a separate dining block and staff quarters was abandoned – and accommodation for about 90 rather than 120 students.36 Nevertheless, the thus compromised building, designed by Gray Young & Swan in ‘English Renaissance’ style, would once be described, somewhat generously, as ‘one of the finest structures to catch the eye of the traveller sailing into Lambton Harbour’.37
The governor-general planted a pohutukawa and officially opened Weir House (initially it was to have been called Weir College) on 1 March 1933. Sixty-five students took up residence that year. By 1935 there was a waiting list and senior residents had to be evicted to make room for ‘freshers’. The hostel was overseen by a committee of the Council, and a member of the teaching staff appointed as warden (the first was I.A. Henning, lecturer in modern languages, succeeded shortly by I.L.G. Sutherland). A residents' association was formed and an annual Weir magazine inaugurated. John Rankine Brown proposed the house motto: Ex contubernio robur, Strength comes from living together. Weir proceeded to acquire the reputation that is only to be expected of a residential male student hostel: for bawdry, debauchery, illicit drinking (alcohol was first allowed, at the annual house dinner, in 1950), the most offensive capping antics and an excessive devotion to rugby – as well as a fine academic record. Stimulating it no doubt was. Whether it was refining, and Weir fostered the true college spirit – was ‘the real voice, centre and leader of the Varsity’ – is another matter.38page 88
Nor did it fully meet the demand for hostel accommodation. Although a second, smaller Victoria House was opened (further north on The Terrace) in 1938, a survey taken the following year indicated that the two establishments, Victoria and Weir, were catering to only half the demand: 76 respondents were living in hostels, but 78 more would have liked to.39 A joint Students' Association–Council committee was established, for the college believed it was losing students because of the accommodation problem. The lack of hostels and competition for private lodgings from teachers' college students and public servants were identified as the cause. An approach to the minister was rebuffed, however, and a proposal that the college lease nearby houses apparently not pursued. An attempt to purchase Antrim House in Boulcott Street for a women's hostel also failed, as did a hopeful suggestion that the government pay up the subsidy on the Weir bequest as a jubilee-year gesture.
Capping, rather than public lectures or conversazione, represented the college's closest encounter with the city. ‘Diploma Day’ was held in late June until the 1920s, then (after the change from two to three terms) in May, the mid-winter timing evidently due to the wait for exam results which were shipped from England. The formal graduation ceremony in the Town Hall in the afternoon was followed by the students' carnival and dance, while the undergraduates had a supper in the college gym. From 1910 the day began with the midday procession of graduands and students from the college via Courtenay Place to Post Office Square in Customhouse Quay.
The tradition of ‘procesh’ was already established by Canterbury and Auckland students, who had themselves copied it from the University of Sydney. The graduation ceremony too was essentially the same at Victoria as it was at the other New Zealand colleges and at universities overseas (‘capping’ is a Scottish term). In its structure and spatial arrangement, it has been observed, the capping ceremony ‘bears a close resemblance to … both a Royal investiture in England and a head-hunting ritual in Borneo’.40 Organised disruption by the undergraduates was an integral part of the occasion. Heckling, chanting (the soft Scottish burr of John Rankine Brown was easily drowned out by a vigorous rendition of ‘John Brown's Body’), mass rustling of newspapers, musical instruments, page 89 car horns, even, on one occasion, a dead chicken were employed. While the women graduates received bouquets from flower girls after receiving their degrees, the men were presented with bunches of ‘cauliflowers and other products of the garden’.41 These undergraduate antics produced periodic threats from the chancellor to abandon the proceedings, and it was after one particularly trying experience in 1913 that the conduct of the ceremony was handed over from the University of New Zealand to the colleges.42 A suggestion made in 1923 to shorten the formal proceedings and leave the hall to the students to stage their own mock ceremony afterwards rather missed the point. When the event was moved, as an experiment, to the smaller venue of the college library in 1927, Spike vigorously protested at the undergraduates' exclusion. None was held at all the following year.
‘Pleas … sometimes received by newspapers for the suppression of the college students’ annual extravaganza,' commented the Evening Post in 1938, were unlikely to succeed ‘so long as the “extrav.” does not exceed the bounds of commonly-accepted decency’.44 It was procesh that was more likely to do so. Like Extrav, procesh was a popular spectacle: crowds lined the streets to watch the students' floats go past and filled Post Office Square to hear satirical speeches. The essential elements of the procession were topical satire, drunkenness, transvestism, the exchange of missiles with onlookers (from flour bombs to sausage strings), and displays on sexual and scatological themes. In 1921 a young spectator received a broken collar bone, the college Council three letters of complaint and a bill for damages from the Grand Hotel. Procession was banned by the Professorial Board in 1923 and 1924; one student was suspended in 1925 for his impersonation of the governor-general; it was banned again in 1927 and 1928, and revived on a page 91 guarantee from the Students' Association executive of good behaviour. In 1931 it was the executive who reprimanded the students responsible for an unauthorised float which, it conceded to the Professorial Board, was ‘in bad taste’. The commissioner of police embargoed the event in the early 1930s, but after a brief reappearance it was banned again, indefinitely, by the Professorial Board in 1936, and the Haeremai Club fined £5. A float based on the advertising slogan for a brand of petrol, ‘Flat out on Ethyl’ – ‘a piece of blatant and pointless vulgarity’, the Dominion opined – caused a public outcry. (The Dominion, however, counselled self-government and the cultivation of good manners by the students rather than punishment.)45 Student morals were giving particular cause for alarm this year, it seems. After Victoria had hosted the 1936 Easter Tournament, the Professorial Board reaffirmed its ban on alcohol at student dances and appointed a ‘commissionaire’ (or proctor) to patrol the campus after such functions, ‘and pay particular attention to what goes on in motor-cars parked in the college grounds’.46
In a sober article on this subject in Spike in 1937 the relationship between ‘Town and gown’, city and college, was described as ‘almost a tradition of mutual resentment’, for which fault was found on both sides: in the intolerance of the town and the impertinence of the students. The writer looked back to the von Zedlitz affair of 1915, but referred particularly to the 1930s, a decade when the normal ‘frivolity and moral turpitude of students’ was compounded by a heightened
In the early 1930s the conviction that the nation's university and teachers' colleges had become breeding grounds of sedition gripped the popular imagination, or at least the imagination of those who read the popular press. Truth discovered ‘Hotbeds of Revolution’, ‘sneers, jeers, bellicose blasphemies, red rantings and sex-saturated sophistries’.48 Student publications were censored at each of the university colleges, more often for moral than political transgressions. Beaglehole lost his job and a professorship. Academic freedom seemed a fragile thing.
The scene had been rehearsed in Wellington a decade earlier. In 1921 a young teachers' college student named Hedwig (Hetty) Weitzel, a founding member of the New Zealand Communist Party, and a graduate the previous year of Victoria, was convicted of selling seditious literature to an undercover policeman. A number of teachers' college and some university students (mostly law students) attended the court, and some contributed towards a collection to pay her fine. An inquiry was held, Weitzel was suspended from the college and barred from teaching, and the minister of education (C.J. Parr) then turned his attention to seeking out revolutionary influences at Victoria, about which he aired his suspicions in a public statement. ‘Victoria College sadly needs purging of a Red Revolutionary and Disloyalist Section,’ the New Zealand Free Lance reported.49 On the Professorial Board the professors of physics (Marsden) and commerce (Murphy) put a motion denying Weitzel use of the college letter rack.
At the behest of the minister of education the Council launched an inquiry, which was conducted by its chairman, Phineas Levi, after the minister declined an invitation to participate. He concluded that there was no evidence that Weitzel had acquired her political views at the college, nor had she disseminated them. She had not been a member of the Debating Society or the Free Discussions Club, whose activities over the last six years he had surveyed. Debates on political subjects (‘That only Socialism will solve the problems of poverty and social and industrial unrest’, or ‘That it is the People's Duty to uphold the cause of the conscientious objector’) ‘appear to have been carried on in a decorous fashion’, while the Free Discussions Club had discussed mostly moral, social and religious topics, which ranged from ‘The historicity of Jesus’ and ‘Eugenics’ to ‘Imperialism’ and ‘The part of Women in Modern Progress’. The Council accepted his report and its affirmation that the students should be free to conduct and to choose the subjects of their own debates. The development of radical tendencies among a minority of student minds, he even went so far as to say, was not only not harmful, but proof of the intellectual vitality of the institution.50
The governor-general was not so easily reassured, and declined to accept his customary role as patron of the Debating Society in 1922; the vice-regal patronage was not reinstated until 1925. Regardless, in these years the society flourished, with a series of popular, controversial debates which attracted the occasional alarmed attention of members of Parliament – visitors crowded the gymnasium, and a separate visitors' ballot was instituted – and were crowned by a visit from the Oxford Union team in 1925. Meanwhile, the Free Discussions Club invited the page 93 likes of Harry Holland, Walter Nash and Elsdon Best to their smaller but no less lively meetings. An attempt by conservative members of the student body in 1925 to publicly discredit the Debating Society failed – although it went on to suffer a decline from more natural causes at the end of the 1920s.
A decade after the Weitzel affair, another inquiry was held into the extra-curricular political and intellectual activities of Victoria's students. But now the principle and practice of freedom of speech, the freedom to inquire and to criticise, were more complicated matters. In 1932 the Professorial Board informed the Free Discussions Club that persons ‘who are known to advocate physical violence as a means of changing the social order’ should not be invited to address student clubs, and the Council decreed that outside speakers must be vetted in advance by the Board (a condition that was not removed until 1946).51 This was only the prelude to the commotion of the following year. In April the Debating Society, following the example of the Oxford Union, passed the motion ‘that this House will not fight for King and Country’. In May Student appeared, a poorly cyclostyled, militantly left-wing fortnightly review issued by the Free Discussions Club, which renounced its earlier incarnation as ‘a place devoted to the polite discussion of such daring topics as Humanism, Psycho-Analysis and Sex’ and declared its commitment to ‘militant organisation’.52 The editor, Bart Fortune, was a struggling arts student who left university soon after this for health and financial reasons and ‘to get down to working class level’.53 After two numbers Student was banned by the Students' Association executive. When the club defiantly issued a third, it was disaffiliated from the Association and the editor (Gordon Watson) reprimanded by the Professorial Board.
Then came the banning of Spike. When the 1933 issue appeared in September, in the midst of these flurries, ‘strong exception’ to certain articles was taken by a member of the Council, Justice Ostler (who, it might be noted, had been one of the founding editors of the magazine in 1902).55 The magazine was withdrawn on the direction of the Professorial Board and later reissued with three offending items removed. Two (unsigned) were deemed to be ‘capable of a seditious interpretation’.56 The other was a trenchant attack on the teaching of law in the university. Entitled ‘Untwisted teaching’, it began with the observation, ‘It is surely in witless jest that Victoria was once called “The Law College”’, and proceeded to condemn the law faculty as out of touch with modern, sociological approaches to the subject.57 Professor Adamson was not amused. The author of the article and editor of Spike, I.D. Campbell – a future professor of law and deputy vice-chancellor of the university – persuaded the Board that he was unaware of any seditious implications in the first two items and (disingenuously) that he had intended his critique to refer to the university generally and not to Victoria's law faculty especially, but they were suppressed nevertheless.58
As this tense decade proceeded and war approached, student life at Victoria continued to register the political currents of the world outside. Although the Free Discussions Club died in 1937 (at one of its last, memorable meetings the German consul walked out of a discussion of ‘Germany under Hitler’ before an audience of 130), the Debating Society became increasingly political and the Student Christian Movement (successor of the Christian Union) nurtured a lively left-wing fringe. A Labour Club, founded in 1934, inaugurated the VUC No More War Movement (stimulated by a lecture by A.D. Monro of the Chemistry Department on modern chemical warfare). Yet, when the New Zealand University Students' Association conducted a ‘Peace or War?’ ballot in 1935, the local press was pleased to be able to report the result ‘remarkable in so far as it clearly demonstrates the fact that the true opinions of Victoria College as a whole are not those that are thrust before the public by certain sections of the students themselves page 95 and by the outsiders who believe that the University is a hotbed of Socialism. Only 22.1 per cent. of the voters believe that the overthrow of Capitalism offers hope of permanent peace’; a ‘large majority’ (65.4%) professed more confidence in ‘the general acceptance of Christian doctrines as explained in the Sermon on the Mount’.59
Spike had become an annual in 1931 and, the controversy of 1933 notwithstanding, more a literary than a critical review. It was complemented now by Smad, which was launched in August 1930 and published at first six times a year, its name an acronym of the college motto, its aim to be ‘a University publication, devoted to the everyday life that we all know’.60 In 1935 Smad evolved into a weekly newspaper, and briefly assumed a more critical and outward-looking editorial policy, but by 1937 it had returned, fatally, to its more humble original purpose of reporting purely college news. It was superseded in 1938 by Salient, a paper which more accurately expressed the intellectual temper of its time, and endured. Salient aimed to be sharper than Spike: not a ‘free lance’ but ‘the swift satiric point/To smart the sluggard mind awake’.61 The ‘spirit of the times demanded that any suggestion of Olympic grandeur or academic isolation from the affairs of the world should be dropped and should be replaced by a policy which aims firstly to link the University more closely to the realities of the world’, declared the founding editor, A.H. (Bonk) Scotney, true to the Popular Front spirit of the late 1930s. In contrast to its predecessor, it would ‘comment upon rather than report in narrative style the activities of the College Clubs’.62Salient continued through the 1940s to be energetically, but not humourlessly, anti-fascist and left-wing: in 1947 a prize was offered ‘to anybody submitting for the next issue an article which does not include the letter “f” (or “F”), as this letter on our typewriter has had it’.63page 96
Other expressions of Popular Front ideology appeared at Victoria University College in the late 1930s. Mass Observation, for example, a proto-social science research movement founded in Britain, had its adherents in a short-lived Group Observation Fellowship of New Zealand in 1939. This was the initiative of a lecturer in zoology, C.E. Palmer, and a philosophy graduate, A.G. Bagnall (a disappointed candidate for the lectureship given to L.G. Hearnshaw in 1938, and later Alexander Turnbull chief librarian).64 Extravaganzas also developed a more biting political edge in these years, notably those which came from the pen of Ron Meek, a law and economics student and dedicated Marxist (later a distinguished political economist at Glasgow and Leicester), who was responsible for most and the best of the main Extrav items between 1936 and 1946, as well as memorable Tramping Club songs.65 His satirical takes on the Labour government and national and international affairs featured such easily recognisable characters as Mickey the Super Savage, Stanley Sausage and Oliver Mash, the Bobadolf (Tomorrow magazine's caricature of Robert Semple), Jonnalio, Scrimguerilla and, closer to home, Dr Weevilbole. The normal rules applied: capping was licensed disrespect, even if the author's laboured programme notes suggested his more serious political purpose. But occasionally offence was taken. A scene in 1939's The Vikings, in which Nev, ‘an ancient British merchant’, offered to sell Hit a length of red, white and blue cloth, provoked ‘certain reactions of a hysterical or even pathological jingoism expressed in a certain quarter’: some members of the audiences walked out, and ‘the attorney general put up a hell of a stink about the whole thing’.66 In 1941 the original script (by John McCreary) of a show featuring page 97 John A. Lee as Jonnalio in an adaptation of Pinocchio and The Ascent of F6 was withdrawn by the Students' Association executive on legal advice that it would breach wartime emergency regulations. A replacement was hastily prepared. Even the college Dramatic Society ventured beyond its standard repertory fare. There was a celebrated production of Clifford Odets' anti-fascist play Till the Day I Die, a staple of 1930s left theatre, in 1937; the following year there was ‘an evening devoted to Spain’ with a screening of Defence of Madrid and an address by W.B. Sutch. A wartime performance of Where's That Bomb? was interrupted by an air-raid warning.
In 1941 the Students' Association issued a manifesto (strikingly produced for it by the Caxton Press) declaring its commitment to the common struggle for democracy, and distancing itself from its earlier pacifist tendencies and its popular repute. ‘A spectre is haunting New Zealand,’ it began, ‘– the spectre of the University Red. He is unpatriotic and addicted to foreign philosophies; his attitude to political and social problems is irresponsible and immature; he is defeatist and unwilling to defend his country against aggression.’ It concluded with the resolution, ratified by a special general meeting: ‘we, the students of Victoria College University [sic], deplore the slanders which have from time to time been brought against us, and pledge ourselves to maintain those principles of freedom for which British, Soviet, and allied youth are giving their lives.’67 In 1941 it was easier to be on the left and on side with respectable opinion.
Student concerns were not all political. In the 1940s the Students' Association concerned itself with the salaries of demonstrators, with curricula reform and faculty committees, with restoration of the gymnasium and fundraising for a new one, and with an innovative student health scheme. In 1943 a general meeting of the Association voted in favour of a medical scheme, and with the approval of the Council a trial was conducted the following year. Voluntary examinations, in which 331 students (about a third) participated, were carried out during the winter term. The medical examiner judged it a successful experiment in preventive medicine. About 80% of the students showed average or excellent health; others were given advice, or directed to their general practitioner or a specialist for treatment. (‘The women in general were of a higher physical standard than the men’, with the exception of the incidence of thyroid enlargement. Other observations included the ‘large number of students who had had “nervous symptoms”’, clearly due to the ‘high tension of University life’, and 45 cases of flat feet.)68 The students voted overwhelmingly in favour of a compulsory scheme, and a joint student/Council committee was appointed to investigate. Other university colleges expressed interest, and the Council offered up to £300 and the Students' Association to increase its fee to contribute its share of the cost. All was abandoned, however, when it was discovered that the Council could not legally spend its money for this purpose. A student health scheme was not to be established at Victoria for another 20 years.page 98
The college, it has been said, was a more serious place after the war, partly perhaps because of the high proportion of older, ex-servicemen students (who also gave a temporary boost to college sport). But capping was still capping. In 1946 Froggy de la Mare was moved to complain about ‘grossly indecent’ material in Cappicade, the capping magazine; the next year the Professorial Board declared Cappicade ‘unworthy of the College’ and insisted that all student publications bear the name of the Students' Association and not just Victoria University College.69 The late 1940s also saw a series of highly publicised incidents which revived, in a time of growing Cold War paranoia, the spectre of the university red. A Socialist Club, formed in 1946 ‘for the purpose of uniting all politically conscious students in their advance to Socialism’, laid claim to Victoria's radical tradition and introduced a new means of its expression: the demonstration. There was an unauthorised march against the Dutch presence in Indonesia in 1947 – a permit had not been obtained from the City Council, but the students were acquitted in court and the Council's by-law declared ultra vires – and equally controversial anti-conscription marches in 1948 and 1949. The former was also the year of the so-called Gottwald telegram incident – although it was hardly an incident at all – which involved a telegram (which was never sent) congratulating Klement Gottwald on the triumph of Czechoslovakian ‘democracy’ following the communists' coup. It had been a flippant motion passed by the Students' Association executive, but resulted in the dismissal of the executive and a vituperative anti-left campaign by a conservative element that had already attempted, unsuccessfully, to have the Socialist Club disaffiliated.
Victoria also flew its political colours on the national student stage: it passed the reddest resolutions at the national students' association's biannual councils, and founded the Curious Cove Congress. At this annual talkfest-cum-summer camp, held at a former Second World War convalescent camp in Queen Charlotte Sound (the first in 1949 organised by Victoria Students' Association president Harry Dowrick), like-minded students and university staff and invited public figures debated the important topics of the day. Resolutions passed at Congress were not normally ratified by the NZUSA Council. (After the second Congress, Otago delegates to Easter Council had the timing changed to February so that it would not be so dominated by ‘Arts students from Vic- page 99 toria’.)70 By the end of the decade the dominance of the left as the organised political voice of Victoria's students was challenged by the establishment of the Charter Society late in 1948, and the brief appearance of its journal, Charta – but this was to be a passing phenomenon, gone by 1952.71
However accurate a description Picken's ‘happy and well-bred family’ might have been of college life in its early years, it was clearly not so now. Size alone was the major factor. Spike had worried periodically about the disappearance of the ‘corporate whole’; anticipated, in 1909, the sad day when ‘students will be split into groups according to their sympathies and faculties’. It lamented that year that only a fourth of the students attended the occasional social functions organised by the Students' Association ‘to bring students together’, ‘and it is ever the same fourth’.72 Victoria's roll in 1909 was around 400. In Beaglehole's view, this was the ideal number to make a ‘college’.
The political organisation of student affairs became more complex as their numbers grew. The democratic election of an executive at the annual general meeting became problematic when students numbered several hundred. In 1931 a system involving a college of electors, with voting by clubs rather than individuals, was accepted by the executive but rejected by the larger student body after a series of stormy meetings. The system, it was particularly noted, would have severely disadvantaged women students – giving them three votes to the men's 31. Instead a general ballot over several days was instituted. First-year students, however, were not enfranchised until 1946, which was a year of sustained controversy in Association affairs. Even more so was 1948, the year of the Gottwald telegram, in which four general meetings were held and four executives elected.
And there was the rest of the student body, uninvolved, perhaps uninterested, in these goings-on. In 1931 Smad enjoyed a circulation of 500; the students numbered 800. In 1948 Salient had a circulation of 800 while the college roll was 2400.73 Neither the readers nor the non-readers were likely to have described themselves as a cosy band of ‘wayfarers together’.