NZHA Beginnings

At a recent NZHA planning meeting, the origins of the Association seemed a mystery to several of us who attended, whereas Raewyn Dalziel was so knowledgable she referred to documentary evidence as she spoke. We asked Raewyn Dalziel to write something about how NZHA began. Her short essay takes us through the evolving process of conferencing and decision-making that led to the Association’s establishment in 1981. 

New Zealand Historians’ Conferences

The Association was formed at the business meeting of the New Zealand Historians’ Conference held at Victoria University in August 1981. It had been a long time in the making. In 1967, the year in which The New Zealand Journal of History was launched, a meeting of historians from the University Departments of History held in Palmerston North had resolved to form an Association. For some reason this did not happen, although the historians working in universities began holding regular conferences, in 1970 at Christchurch and in 1972 at Wellington, for instance.

The 1972 Conference

The notice announcing the May 1972 Wellington Conference was prematurely headed The New Zealand Historical Association. The conference was to start late on Sunday morning so that the Otago historians, who had graduation the day before, could make their way from the South. There was to be a dinner at Plimmer House if enough people were prepared to pay the cost of $10-$11 a head, but at the Student Union otherwise. (I recall we went to Plimmer House). Bill Oliver gave the big Sunday night lecture on ‘Local History’ and a newly appointed Michael Cullen from Otago spoke on ‘Social Investigations in Early Victorian Britain’, the subject of his PhD.

Key publications for New Zealand history

Although the 1972 conference had been billed as belonging to the NZHA, the minutes of the business meeting corrected this and it became once again the New Zealand Historians’ Conference. This meeting had some urgent business on key publications for New Zealand history. Mary Boyd brought up the possibility of resurrecting the Historical Atlas Project which had been planned in the 1930s to mark the 1940 centennial. The Historical Publications Branch of the Department of Internal Affairs had embarked on a new descriptive Atlas but this was no substitute for a full Historical Atlas. Eventually the big project was revived at the Historical Branch in 1988, resulting in the New Zealand Historical Atlas published in 1997. The proposal for a Dictionary of New Zealand Biography was also on the agenda. Keith Sinclair reported on his lack of success in procuring funding for the Dictionary. He had tried the Vice-Chancellors’ Committee and the University Grants Committee Research Grants Committee and had had discussions with Sir Alan Danks and Alistair McIntosh who were both interested. Further discussions were to take place. The Dictionary finally got off the ground in 1983 when Bill Oliver was appointed Editor.

The Beaglehole Lecture

The 1972 meeting also decided that the main lecture at future conferences would be called the J.C. Beaglehole Lecture. And Ian Catanach from Christchurch suggested that school teachers be invited to attend the conference, but his proposal ‘did not receive general support.’ Attitudes have changed since then. At the 1973 conference in Christchurch John Pocock delivered the Beaglehole Lecture on ‘British history: a plea for a new subject.’ This was subsequently published in The New Zealand Journal of History, picked up internationally and was widely influential as a think piece on British history. The conferences were wide-ranging, representing the discipline in New Zealand, rather than New Zealand history. In 1974 Marie Peters presented on ‘The Enigma of Pitt’, Jock Phillips on ‘Jane Addams’, Joe Airo-Farulla on ‘Society and Politics in Late Sixteenth-Century France’ and Tim Beaglehole on ‘The Indian Civil service’.

A proposal, a draft constitution, and an executive, 1979

The 1979 Conference was scheduled for Christchurch again. The Christchurch historians set up a small sub-committee to work on a proposal to form the long-awaited NZHA. They wrote ‘We believe that a New Zealand Historical Association could increase esprit de corps amongst historians in this country, achieve a certain pressure group status (important, we suspect in New Zealand) and (at the very least) ensure that regular conferences, of interest to reasonable numbers of academics and others, are held.’ The group foresaw ‘fairly close links’ with schools, teachers’ colleges, history teachers’ associations, archivists’ groups and local historical societies and wanted a ‘reasonably broadly-based association’. They proposed a regular newsletter and drafted a constitution.

That Conference elected an interim executive of Jim Gardner as President, Geoffrey Rice as Secretary and Chris Connolly as Treasurer. During the year they gathered together a committee consisting of people from across the Canterbury historical world. This committee met through 1980 and up to the 1981 conference in Wellington and proved to be very energetic. They sought and received a $500 setting-up grant from the Department of Internal Affairs. By August 1981 there were 254 members, including 90 school teachers, the largest single group, and 65 university and other tertiary teachers. A press release advised 24 metropolitan and provincial dailies of the formation of the Association and a few picked it up. In Auckland there was a brief flurry of concern from the local historical societies which saw the Association as a competitor to its Federation. In Christchurch the Association attracted 340 teachers, fourth-form students and their parents to a series of evenings called ‘The Great History Mystery’. In April 1981 a brochure promoting the study of history in schools, ‘Looking back to Look Ahead’, was published.

NZHA formed, 1981

All of this activity led to the ratification of the Association’s constitution at the Wellington conference in 1981 and the election of an Auckland-based executive with Keith Sinclair as President, Judith Bassett as Secretary and Marcia Stenson as Treasurer. The NZHA was underway.