Some 30 years after the first legislative steps were taken to provide for university education in New Zealand, Premier Richard Seddon agrees to support the introduction of the Victoria College Bill, which passes into law on 22 December 1897.
“The chief protagonist was Robert Stout, sometime lawyer, chief justice, premier, member of the university Senate and legendary debater, who has thus been accorded the title of ‘founder’ of Victoria College” (Barrowman; 1911; p13).
Stout’s vision, as early as 1887, is benevolent. “You will have men working in the day—clerks in offices perhaps, perhaps mechanics—going to evening classes, and thereby obtaining a university education.” Some suggest it is a ‘poor man’s college’, after the larger grants of land provided to Auckland, Canterbury, and Otago. But, after three decades of debate and two unsuccessful Bills, Stout is finally successful.
Seddon, who was previously unsupportive, returns from celebrating Queen Victoria’s 60th Jubilee in London and decides, almost on a whim, that the establishment of a university college in Wellington would be a fitting way for the colony to mark the Queen’s jubilee year.
The first order of business is to appoint the foundation professors. Thomas Easterfield, Hugh Mackenzie, Richard Maclaurin, and John Rankine Brown arrive from the United Kingdom in early 1899. However, the small matter of where to teach is not yet settled, so rooms are rented at Wellington Girls’ High School in Thorndon and the Technical School building in Victoria Street.
Victoria College opens for lectures on 17 April 1899 with 115 students enrolling for classes. In line with Stout’s vision to educate working people, classes are held in the early evening. Students are quick to call a meeting to organise themselves, and on 16 May the Victoria College Students’ Society is created. The Debating Society is one of the first University clubs formed, and the subject of its first debate is ‘that any system of control of the drink traffic is inimical to the highest development of civilisation’. To ensure independence, exam papers are sent by sea for marking in England, until one year the boat sinks, taking with it the precious cargo of student hope, sweat, and fears.
2022—From Pipitea to outer space
One hundred and twenty-five years after being signed into law, Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington is now one of the largest employers in Wellington, with about 3,000 staff serving more than 22,000 students in 2022.
Far from being crammed into small borrowed rooms, the University has three campuses across the city—from Kelburn to Pipitea to Te Aro, with a number of other facilities such as the Wellington University Coastal Ecology Laboratory in Island Bay and the Miramar Creative Centre. Significant developments ahead are the Living Pā on Kelburn Parade and the National Music Centre in Te Ngākau Civic Square.
As well as its physical spaces, the University connects to the city with its focus on being a global–civic university and by contributing to the creative capital. Staff, students, and alumni are high achievers in practice and scholarship beyond the boundaries of the campuses into the thinking, life, and future of Aotearoa New Zealand and the wider world.
The history written through the timeline is drawn heavily from Victoria University of Wellington 1899–1999 A History by Rachel Barrowman (Te Herenga Waka University Press, 1999).
Many early images of university life have been supplied by Tapuaka—Heritage & Archive Collections, Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington Library, and Image Services. Thank you to the Alexander Turnbull Library for permission to use photos from its collection.
Note: The information contained here is a narrative summary of the history of the whenua for display purposes only.