At this website, we’re very sad to hear of the death of historian Tim Beaglehole, in July 2015. Tim and his father J.C. Beaglehole were both involved with Old St Paul’s, and Tim had his moving funeral at the church recently. His death brings to mind the work that his father did to save the church in the 1960s, which Tim wrote about in his biography of his father A Life of J.C. Beaglehole: New Zealand Scholar (2006).

Even earlier than that, in the 1930s, J.C. Beaglehole fought a different battle, this time with one of Old St Paul’s clergymen, Canon Percival James, in defence of his university, Victoria University of Wellington (then known as Victoria University College, pictured above in 1930).

Known internationally for his work on Captain James Cook, J.C. Beaglehole is also a well-known name around Victoria. Although Beaglehole was to work for the history department for over 30 years, he found it difficult to secure a position early in his career – largely for his reputation as a radical and possible communist.

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The 1930s were a tough time for New Zealanders. In the midst of Depression, political tensions, frustration and public anxiety was widespread. The divide between young radical students and older right-wing authorities was widening and Victoria University was thrust into the debate.

Conservative citizens saw Victoria University as an immoral institution fostering Bolshevism. Canon Percival James of St Paul’s was one of those that expressed his concern for the well-being of the students of Victoria. Writing to the editor of the Evening Post, he stated:

‘The opinion is widely held, whether it is justified or not, that when young students enter that college, their religious faith, their moral ideals, and even their sentiments of loyalty to King and country are powerfully assailed.’

j.c. beaglehole
John Cawte Beaglehole, 1929

J.C. Beaglehole, none too impressed by the insult to the university, responded with his own piece for the Evening Post:

‘I put it to Canon James not as a churchman, not as a moralist, but as one with a consuming passion for sound learning, that a university is not a primary or a religious school, or even a school of loyalty to King and country, but a microcosm of the world.’

This public debate would not end there and would haunt Beaglehole in the oncoming years. When the position of chair in history opened up at Victoria, Beaglehole seemed to be the man for the job. However, Professor of Modern Languages, von Zedlitz, said to him ‘The Council is much more concerned about what Canon P. James or the Welfare League might possibly say than anything else’. The Council did in fact ignore the selection committee’s recommendations of Beaglehole, and gave the job to someone else.

It is not surprising that J.C. Beaglehole would later write that Canon James was: ‘a rather foolish person with an ecclesiastical talent for overstatement’.

Canon Percival James
Canon Percival James

Yet, both men were only voicing their strong convictions and it was not entirely Canon James’ fault that the position was not given to Beaglehole. Earlier incidents at Auckland University had resulted in many believing that Beaglehole was a dangerous young man.  Tim Beaglehole states in his biography that ‘However one explains the decision, it was a very low point in Victoria’s history.’

J C Beaglehole has a brass memorial in the church that he helped to save, which states:

‘Historian and Citizen in whom the past was always present as a living force. E kore te tin tangata e ngaro i roto I te tokomaha’.

Images: Victoria College of University of New Zealand, 1930, Crown Studios Ltd, Ref: 1/1-033021-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, John Cawte Beaglehole. S P Andrew Ltd :Portrait negatives. Ref: 1/1-018598-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. Canon James, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington

Sources: Tim Beaglehole, A Life of J.C. Beaglehole: New Zealand Scholar. Wellington, 2006. Barrowman, Rachel. Victoria University of Wellington 1899-1999: A History. Wellington, 1999. Tim Beaglehole, (ed.), ‘I think I am Becoming a New Zealander’: Letters of J.C. Beaglehole. Wellington, 2013. ‘Budding Bolshevism’ Evening Post, 18 July 1933, p3.