An extract from From Empire’s Servant to Global Citizen: A History of Massey University

<p>The college staff in 1928, pictured under the symbols of Empire — which many had served during the horror of the Great War — was young and fresh-faced. Only Len Scrivener (seated second from right), missing an arm, shows a visible scar.</p>

The college staff in 1928, pictured under the symbols of Empire — which many had served during the horror of the Great War — was young and fresh-faced. Only Len Scrivener (seated second from right), missing an arm, shows a visible scar.

Chapter 4

The College Finds its Feet

After such a long and troubled pre-history, the agricultural college opened with a burst of enthusiasm and energy that went well beyond the commitment to its grand building programme. An energetic and young staff had been assembled, and the new college and the associated Dairy Research Institute were anxious to justify the high expectations that had gone into their foundation. In the late 1920s the DSIR and Massey were both newly created; their staff were inspired by enthusiasm for the national and imperial responsibilities handed to them, while enduring with frustration the institutional frictions, limited resources and ill-defined responsibilities inherent in their recent foundation.

Fulfilling the grandiose hopes that New Zealand’s agriculture would be transformed by the combined work of the college and the DSIR was always going to be difficult. The college had a small staff, dedicated to teaching, and the Dairy Research Institute had only two other researchers to assist Riddet. Priorities needed to be established, and careful use of resources was required. Nonetheless, by the end of 1929 the staff had laid down an ambitious research programme, and had made valuable connections within the sector to ensure that it was based on industry need and had industry support. Curricula had been developed for the degree and diploma courses, and a small suite of short courses had been initiated. This was to meet the needs of farmers and industry workers, thirsty for new knowledge and skills, but little able to undertake more substantial study.

All of this activity would not come to a shuddering halt at the onset of the Depression, but it would be seriously checked. Reduced salaries, reduced staff numbers and reduced operating funding, even while student numbers increased, seriously undermined the college’s ability to meet the ambitious expectations that accompanied its founding. It was fortunate that through all of this there were no major fires, because so dire were the college finances that the fire insurance had been allowed to lapse.

The college was extremely lucky that there had been a few years’ grace before the exigencies of the Depression all but turned off the tap of any but subsistence funding. There were buildings on the farm, staff and students — all made possible by the enthusiasm of pre-Depression governments. From 1930, a coalition government of tired Liberals, led by the lacklustre and almost anti-intellectual George Forbes, joined to a Reform rump, faced a massive slump in overseas earnings and dramatic declines in government revenue. They had a single mantra for dealing with the global crisis: retrenchment. In November 1931 the college’s maintenance grant was cut from £15,000 to less than L9500. Salaries, like those of all in the state sector, were cut by 10 per cent and then by 10 per cent again. Staff who had come from overseas considered this a breach of their contracts, but no one was listening to their grumbling.

The science building may have been a grand statement of the college’s claim to permanence, but it was never quite finished in the 1930s. Parts of the building were poorly insulated, and much of the essential technical equipment to make it function as laboratories and teaching spaces was never completely supplied and installed. The library languished. It had a very small number of agricultural journals and a tiny number of books, barely adequate for teaching and not at all for research. There were simply no books to be had on New Zealand agriculture. Massey staff would begin to contribute to this literature, but until their material was written and published, students had little to guide them on the specialist nature of New Zealand’s agricultural industries.

At the height of the Depression in 1932, Fowlds wrote to Forbes directly, pleading on behalf of the college, only to be lectured that while the Prime Minister appreciated that Massey, like all the colleges, faced declining incomes, with reduced grants and student fees, the government faced the same problems, and ‘is consequentially compelled to reduce expenditure to essential requirements only’. Gordon Coates, who had played such an important role in financing the college before the Depression, was sidelined until 1933, when he began introducing more interventionist, even Keynesian-style, economic policies, beginning with devaluation and pre-dating the election of the First Labour Government. None of this had benefits for the college income until around 1937. The college even tried to get private sponsorship to subsidise salaries, but without success.

Peren was aware of the hardship experienced by both staff and students. When offered some cash for testing fleeces, he suggested that the work and the money should go to Miss Taylor, an Auckland student who had been working in one of the laboratories. What had not been completed before the Depression hit remained undone for years. On a trip to Ruakura, Fowlds managed to scrounge about a dozen knives and forks, three dozen spoons, five bedspreads, a gong and a set of carving knives. The sheets he was offered were, unfortunately, for double beds and he turned them down — there were limits to what young single men should be expected to endure.

The Depression economies cut screeds of relatively minor items off budgets; each in itself was not necessarily vital, but collectively they dramatically undermined the college’s ability to function effectively. Unlike other government institutions during the Depression, Massey’s roll continued to increase. A good working relationship between Peren and C. J. Reakes, the Secretary of Agriculture, allowed specific items to be picked over and reconsidered. The two men wrangled over student couches, saving L20 by substituting ‘Douglas chairs’ for Chesterfields. It was all very dispiriting. What appeared the indiscriminate hands of retrenchment cast a gloomy pall over the operations of the college — a despondency that contrasted starkly with the optimism and comparative largesse that had marked the college’s founding — and the enduring sense that everything was only half-finished.

There were some limited advantages of mass unemployment. When appointing a matron, the college received over 80 applications, but having no ability to interview only made matters more complicated. Peren recommended Charlotte Warburton, partly to avoid the need for interviews but also because he was convinced of her suitability for the job. She had experience at Flock House, the agricultural school established at Bulls for the sons of British seamen, and a good knowledge of Palmerston North. Above all, her family was well known and respected, and she could drive a car, a critical skill.

So much of the making do in the 1930s inevitably meant scrounging, seeking donations of books, equipment and services. The college took anything it could from companies and individuals to extend its meagre finances. Many companies were very willing to provide their wares, but inevitably sought endorsements, a practice the college effectively resisted. Breed societies donated stock to build up herds, and flocks of sheep and poultry. Prizes were contributed by a number of organisations for the dairy industry.

By 1937, the financial constraints that had restricted development during the Depression began to ease. The maintenance grant was increased to £17,300, and the college received a number of bequests. These included a £2000 Carnegie Corporation Library Grant, which enabled the purchase of much-needed books. A permanent librarian was appointed. By 1938 student numbers had increased to 383. There was a slight decline in student numbers and funding in 1939, to be followed by increases in 1940. But then the war hit the work of the college even harder than had the Depression.

An army staff training college was established on the campus, and Peren became commander of the squadron, the Manawatu Mounted Rifles (Mechanised). This territorial regiment soon absorbed much of the student body, and by 1942 the number of students had fallen to just 48, the smallest number ever. Teaching and research effectively ceased. Yet despite over a decade of gloom, the college had made remarkable progress in establishing a firm tradition of applied research and research-led teaching and outreach.

Laying the college’s foundation stone was one of the last acts of Governor-General Sir Charles Fergusson. The college was already looking forward to the arrival of his successor, Lord Bledisloe, an acknowledged expert on agriculture. Bledisloe was no stranger to agricultural colleges. Unlike almost every other member of the British aristocracy, he had been educated in one. Although a lawyer by profession, he had completed a diploma at the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester in 1896, and had a lifelong interest in agriculture. He was a parliamentary secretary for the Ministry of Food during the First World War, and for the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries from 1924 to 1928. Bledisloe was completely committed to the idea of scientific farming as a force for good in the Empire, and was the equivalent of Sir James Wilson in being involved in almost every British farmers’ organisation of the early twentieth century.

Bledisloe’s involvement with the Royal Agricultural College was inspired by more than just interest. The college had been built on family land, and its struggles to remain in existence had by the 1920s required significant subsidies from Bledisloe himself, who was chairman of its board. Not only would Bledisloe be interested in all aspects of farming, but his ministerial roles and his commitment also made him particularly concerned about the relationship between trade, imperial preference and the complementary needs of British and New Zealand agriculture and markets.

As Governor-General, Bledisloe operated far beyond the boundaries more usually associated with a constitutional figurehead. He wanted to influence agricultural policy, and he wanted to ensure that New Zealand’s economy thrived as part of an imperial club, based on imperial preferences, exchanges of scientific information and working cooperatively. One of his primary objectives was to promote a uniform quality of New Zealand produce into the British market.

Bledisloe anticipated that the British Empire Economic Conference, to be held in Ottawa in the middle of 1932, would adopt some form of imperial preference among the self-governing dominions. Making imperial preference work, in his view, depended on keeping the consumer happy — gleefully spreading New Zealand butter on the morning toast rather than yearning for a Danish alternative. For this, New Zealand needed systems for grading its exports to ensure that poor-quality primary products were eliminated and high standards maintained. Bledisloe wrote to Riddet following a lecture the latter had given to the Wellington Rotary Club, approving of the professor’s argument that New Zealand must eradicate products of an ‘indifferent quality’ from what it sent to Britain, but saying that he considered Riddet had been mistaken in underplaying the degree of competition in the British market between Danish and New Zealand butter. Uniformity and quality were the primary objectives for New Zealand science, for government and for the industry.

In April 1931 Bledisloe had had the satisfaction of opening Massey’s main science building. It was a grand political occasion, attended by the Prime Minister, George Forbes, who had done nothing to support the college and had in fact vehemently opposed its creation, and Gordon Coates, who had done a great deal. They were followed by a self-gratification of cabinet ministers, parliamentarians and the justly proud George Fowlds. Ever the political opportunist, Fowlds used the opening to call on Forbes to agree to fund temporary accommodation for students, so they wouldn’t have to walk and cycle across the bridge from town in all weathers — an unnecessary demonstration of their enthusiasm.

The day was grey and threatened rain. Bledisloe was protected by a large umbrella as he rode in an open car, surrounded by students in fancy dress and a parade of farm horses, equally outlandishly attired and evoking something of a medieval joust. But there was nothing extravagant about the luncheon, which evoked the cold heart of the Depression. Far from a celebration of agricultural abundance, the guests sat down to ham and cold mutton, a lettuce salad, tomatoes and beetroot, followed by bread, butter, cheese and jam. There was at least plenty of tea to wash it all down. Students in their fancy dress provided the only touch of colour; Peren had refused to hire bunting, although he was ashamed that there was no flagstaff for a Union Jack.