A Life of J.C. Beaglehole: New Zealand scholar. Beaglehole, Tim. 2006

A Life of J.C. Beaglehole: New Zealand scholar. Beaglehole, Tim. 2006

Beaglehole, Tim. 
A Life of J.C. Beaglehole: New Zealand scholar
Victoria University Press. 
ISBN 0-86473-535-9.

Anyone who is interested in Captain Cook sooner or later comes across the name Beaglehole. It appears more than 500 times in the pages of Cook's Log.

Sometimes the name is used as though the reader knows who is meant and what he did. Sometimes the name is used as shorthand to a book or journals without any explanation about the man who produced them. Sometimes you get the initials J.C. Sometimes you get the title Dr. or Professor. Occasionally you get John Cawte. Rarely do you get his nationality or anything about his life that led to the Cook books that bear his name. Never have I seen an understanding of how he came to write so many words, and devote so much time to this Pacific explorer.

Tim Beaglehole, second son of John (as he is called throughout this book) has performed a great service to all Captain Cook fans by writing this fascinating and easily read biography of his father. As Tim says in the introduction, John "became known internationally as the editor and biographer of James Cook. The four massive volumes of the Journals of Captain James Cook on His Voyages of Discovery, published by the Hakluyt Society between 1955 and 1967, together with The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks published by the Public Library of New South Wales in 1962, displayed his superb gifts as an historian and editor... At the time of his death in 1971 he had nearly completed the final touches to The Life of Captain James Cook. It was published just over two years later and was widely recognised as a remarkable biography, crowning his work on Cook."

I wanted to know why it took six years between the appearance of the first and second volumes, and another six years before the third volume arrived. I also wanted to know why the fourth volume was not the proposed collection of essays on aspects of Cook's life and achievements. But, more importantly, I wanted to know how a New Zealander and not an Australian or a Briton had come to edit Cook's journals, and why he had waited until he was over 50 years old to start work.

Tim answers these questions, and many others, in a book of 14 chapters of which only two (11 and 12) are devoted to James Cook. So is it necessary to read the first ten? Yes, because they explain the progress of John's life that led to him being the best person to undertake the work involved and why he did not stick to his first idea about Cook's Endeavour journal: "The writing seemed plain enough. What indeed could be simpler than to have them typed out, and to print them as a plain text, on which anybody could work? They could be paper-bound and sell cheaply... Simple, straightforward; you see I was not going to worry about things like annotation - why annotate when the thing was so well known? - or textual introductions - why make difficulties unnecessarily? How naïve - how staggeringly naïve - I was."

During his life John wrote so many books, poems, articles, and letters that were published that a bibliography of 297 was compiled and published within a year of his death: John Cawte Beaglehole: a bibliography1. John also wrote many private letters. Tim quotes from them extensively because "the letters reveal the range of his interests, his wit and the sparkling and affectionate play of his mind. Not surprisingly, they were often carefully kept by their recipients."

The book begins with the derivation of the name Beaglehole "from bugel hal, meaning herdsman in the moors" in Cornwall, southwest England. Many of these Beagleholes became miners and some emigrated to Australia and New Zealand in the nineteenth century. John Cawte Beaglehole was born on 13 June 1901 in Wellington, when its population was about 50,000. He was the second son of Ernest who worked in accounts at a wholesale chemist. John's second name came from the second name of his maternal grandfather, who got it from his mother, Jane Cawte.

As a youngster he collected stamps of the world, attended the local Primitive Methodist Sunday School and aspired to be "a wholesale and retail bookseller". As a schoolboy he attended Mount Cook School and Wellington College. When he left his father wanted him to go to university but John wanted to be a bookseller. So they struck a bargain and John worked for Whitcombe and Tombs for a year, and then tried university for a year before making "a free choice". He enrolled at Victoria University College (VUC), part of the University of New Zealand, in 1919. He studied English, French and Latin, and then stayed for a second year, this time studying English, mental and moral philosophy and history. He loved history and stayed for a further two years studying it to complete a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree. Then stayed for another two years to become a Master of Arts (MA) in history. Most of the history covered was British and European with a little on New Zealand. Nearly fifty years later he recalled, "the dazzled awe with which he first laid eyes" on the collections of the Alexander Turnbull Library.

During these years he enjoyed many walking excursions as a member of the college Tramping Club, and through it he met Elsie Holmes and Averil Lysaght.

In 1924 he completed his MA and was appointed an assistant lecturer in history at VUC. The following year he was awarded a postgraduate travelling scholarship that would enable him "to go to London University to work for a PhD", together with free passage there and back. He left on 6 August 1926 and the ship arrived in London on 1 October. During the voyage the ship stayed at Sydney for 11 days, and John "visited the Mitchell Library and noted they had material relating to Cook's voyages." John wrote many letters home to his mother, his father, to Elsie and many others, with "hardly a letter among all those John wrote home that does not mention books - books read, books admired, books bought, books coveted but too expensive." Due to a mix-up it was "two months before his thesis subject was sorted out and John started work at the Public Record Office". He was soon also working in the British Museum.

He travelled widely in England, and also took holidays on the continent. As an art lover he was excited at seeing the real thing. Tim writes: "The painters John admired were largely those he already knew from books at home; what excited him was the brilliance of the originals compared with the reproductions he had grown up with." Elsie arrived in London in 1928. Originally, Averil Lysaght was going to accompany her, but in the end it was another banker's daughter, Kathleen McKay. With his two-year scholarship funds running out John applied for several jobs, but was offered none. He wrote "there are some reasons why I should be very glad to go back to N.Z.; but it looks at present as if I shall have to go wherever I can get a job."

The thesis was finished on 8 December 1928 except for a quotation he wanted from Edmund Burke, and he spent three days reading "all Burke through systematically" until he found it. Then it was typed, involving six people, before it could be submitted on 1 February 1929: 726 pages, 9 chapters, 1250 notes. After an oral examination he was awarded his doctorate later that year.

John was invited by JA Williamson, history master at Westminster School, whom he had met in London to write about Pacific exploration for a forthcoming series of books though, John wrote home, "not that I know anything about either the Pacific or exploration". He felt he needed a job. John and Elsie decided to get married but not have a formal engagement, and to wait until John had a job. They returned together to Wellington by ship arriving in September.

John continued to look for a job, and also "started reading about Pacific exploration at the Alexander Turnbull Library" for the book. He took a 12-month post as a Workers' Educational Association (WEA) tutor-organiser in Dunedin, which opened the way for marriage on 17 February 1930. The job entailed travelling the area by train so he could give his lectures. When they returned to Wellington they moved in with Elsie's parents, and John "finished his second chapter in Pacific exploration and wrote forty pages of an 'essay on N.Z. history' for a book of essays". He agreed to mark a thousand Matriculation history papers, as he looked for another job, and "such marking became a vital contribution to the family income in the years ahead". In February he became WEA tutor-organiser in Waikato, based in Hamilton, and the couple at last had a place of their own. In March "his salary was cut by 10 per cent... in response to the depression". In October 1931 their first son, John Robin Beaglehole, was born.

The course came to an end and John "got back to work on the Pacific with the aim of finishing the book over the summer". He won a poetry competition. In April 1932 he took on a temporary post at Auckland as assistant to a lecturer. He "found the teaching 'a dud business'" and soon got involved in "questions of civil liberties and academic freedom [that] was to have far-reaching effects on his subsequent career." Certainly, his temporary appointment was not extended after its initial year, and he returned to Wellington where his employment for the next three years he later described as "unemployed and odd jobs".

In March 1933 he was appointed to VUC whilst someone was ill. It lasted until July. Meantime Timothy Holmes Beaglehole was born. In July John's brother Ernest went to work with Peter Buck at the Bishop Museum, Hawai'i. John "revised and added to his 'little history' of New Zealand [which] was published as 'Youthful Nation: History of New Zealand' in sixteen fortnightly parts". He marked more papers for money, gave some lectures and ran some correspondence courses. In 1934 his book The Exploration of the Pacific2 was published in London. Tim notes, "the book was a history of the European exploration of the Pacific... the book represented a triumph of scholarly work on the published sources and of the historical imagination... Nearly a third of the book is given to the three chapters on Cook's three voyages. Some memorable phrases emerge: 'The study of Cook is the illumination of all discovery', 'He was the genius of the matter-of-fact'". The book was well received and led John to "propose to write the standard life" of Cook for which he tried to get financial support to "spend a year in Sydney working on the Cook material in the libraries there."

In 1934 John was appointed lecturer in history at VUC. Just before the new term began he and Elsie had a holiday that included a trip to Cook's Beach, Mercury Bay. Years later he remembered, "the whole bay, from the sea in to the hills, was empty and silent. And yet I felt something... it really was as if a veil had suddenly trembled, an invisible veil; and on the other side, just outside my vision, was a ship, and a boat rowing towards the shore... I almost, before I turned back, caught sight of the Endeavour: I almost heard the voices of eighteenth century sailors."

In 1936 his short essay on New Zealand history was published in London3. John and Elsie bought their first house, where they lived for the rest of their lives. Giles Cawte Beaglehole was born. John continued to work on a history of the University of New Zealand that was published in 19374 and described as reflecting "his matchless capacity for transforming a mountain of arid documents into readable prose".

In January 1938 John and Elsie went to Australia. In Sydney John visited "the Mitchell Library to look at Cook material (he was already corresponding with the Argonaut Press in London on a proposal that he should edit the journals for them)" and visited Cook's landing place at Kurnell. In Canberra he was "left alone in the strong-room with keys & Cook's own original Endeavour journal... & told to help myself, as it were."

In July John was appointed to carry out "historical research and to supervise the publication of material" in the Alexander Turnbull Library, which was under the Department of Internal Affairs. Effectively he became a "part-time public servant" and a government adviser on historical matters including, as a member of the National Historical Committee, preparations for the nation's centennial in 1940. He had been asked to write a history of New Zealand. And he was still a full-time lecturer.

In January 1939 the family had a summer holiday in Queen Charlotte Sound and John "got to see Ship Cove at last. The Cook monument on the foreshore... had not been as bad as he expected". By September he had finished the NZ history book, which was published in December5.

In January 1940 the summer holiday was in Hawke's Bay and John "did a bit of Cook looking around". As the centennial year drew to a close he agreed to begin "a twelve month's experiment" that lasted eleven years: an Historical Branch of a government department that would produce further historical publications. And it did. In 1945 he helped form the University of New Zealand Press and the Wellington Chamber Music Society.

In 1947 the Mitchell Library advertised for an editor to work on their papers of Joseph Banks, including his Endeavour journal. About 200 people applied, all of who were turned down. Instead, "they invited John to accept the position with a professorial salary." About a month later John heard indirectly "that the Hakluyt Society in London was proposing an edition of Cook's journals". John was asked to collaborate and in February 1948 he agreed to become the editor of the First Voyage. In May he was asked to also edit the Third Voyage, with JA Williamson being the editor of the Second Voyage. He spent much of the year completing a history of VUC for its jubilee celebrations in 1949. And then he was appointed Senior Research Fellow and Lecturer in Colonial History at VUC, ending his full-time career as a lecturer to and giving him time to devote to Cook.

In July 1949 John and Elsie sailed for England, staying in London with Averil Lysaght. He "met a number of the Hakluyt Society people and made a start on looking at Cook material". Elsie returned but John stayed working on Cook and Banks. He wrote to her "I am getting fonder & fonder of Capt Cook & grudge every hour spent away from him." He visited Whitby, "exploring the town and the museum and talking to the local historian." He met Rex Nan Kivell, the art dealer and collector, whose "remarkable collection of books, manuscripts, maps and historical and documentary art from the period of early European contact with New Zealand, Australia and Pacific" had been sent to Canberra for safekeeping during the war. John was able to see photographs of many items and consider which ones would be good to use to illustrate the Cook volumes.

In July 1950 John flew back to Wellington. By then he had "established a text of the journal" of the First Voyage... He had almost completed work on the text for the third voyage". He had also got to know RA Skelton, "a most admirable person, with whom I have got (almost) to swearing terms". He was the honorary secretary of the Hakluyt Society and Superintendent of the Map Room in the British Museum. There relationship was "enormously important to the success of the whole enterprise".

The trials and tribulations of John's work on the Cook and Banks volumes from 1950 until his death in 1971 are dealt with in great detail by Tim in the two chapters devoted to "The Scholar at Work". Too much for a review to do justice, as they cover "the immensity of the labour expended in the whole undertaking, from the tracking down of material in archives, libraries and private ownership in many parts of the world and the painstaking decisions about spelling and punctuation in eighteenth-century documents to the innumerable hours spent collating and checking texts against the originals or photocopies of the originals, in research for the introductions and explanatory notes, and an almost interminable process of proofreading and correcting."

The remaining chapters include a look at the private side of John's life. How the top of his desk "was always a mass of books, papers and letters waiting to be answered". His habit of "playing Bach preludes and fugues on the piano in the sitting room". How it was sometimes necessary for his family "to wait a little for John to appear when a meal was ready - 'Dad's just finishing a sentence'".

There is some mention of his involvement with the New Zealand Historic Places Trust, but insufficient for me. He was frequently called on to review masters' and doctoral theses, including one by Bernard Smith on art. He also supervised some students' research, including John Dunmore on French explorers. Even Tim finds it "difficult to grasp, let alone convey, the full extent of his activities".

In 1958 John was awarded Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) by Queen Elizabeth. In 1970 the Queen conferred on him the Order of Merit (OM). Only 24 people at any one time can be members. John was the second New Zealander. The following year he sat for his portrait by WA Sutton, commissioned by Victoria University (as VUC had become in 1962). John was "reluctant to lose the time" but liked the idea that "it is the first portrait in which the OM & a pipe have appeared together".

On 9 October 1971 John and Elsie went to see the New Zealand Opera Company perform Aida. He slept badly, and died of a heart attack in the morning.

Tim's biography of John Beaglehole is 559 pages, about three-quarters of the length of John's biography of James Cook (760 pages). They are both great books to read. That of James Cook is a familiar story, but with many surprising details. That of John Beaglehole is not at all familiar, and also has many surprising details. At the end my questions had been answered. But in addition I understood why John "was never quite convinced that his scholarship fully deserved the praise it received, always felt that his prose needed one more critical revision, never quite understood why his advice was sought so often and on such a range of matters"

Ian Boreham


  1. John Cawte Beaglehole: A Bibliography. Alexander Turnbull Library. 1972.
  2. Beaglehole, J. C. Exploration of the Pacific. A. & C. Black. 1934. 426pp.
  3. Beaglehole, J. C. New Zealand: a short history. Allen and Unwin. 1936. 164pp.
  4. Beaglehole, J. C. The University of New Zealand: an historical study. New Zealand Council for Educational Research. 1937. 442pp.
  5. Beaglehole, J. C. The Discovery of New Zealand. Department of Internal Affairs. 1939. 176 pp.
  6. Beaglehole, J. C. Victoria University College: an essay towards a history. New Zealand University Press. 1949. 330 pp.

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 43, volume 30, number 1 (2007).

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