James Henry Pope was born at St Helier, Jersey, probably on 11 September 1837, the son of Jane Dacombe and her husband, James Pope, a confectioner. He was educated privately before he emigrated to Melbourne, Australia, with his parents about 1852.
Pope spent the next five or so years in the Victorian gold diggings, pursuing his studies at the same time. His scholastic efforts were rewarded with the highest attainable honours of the Victorian Denominational School Board. In 1858 he was appointed headmaster of a large primary school in Ballarat, a position he held until the end of 1863. On 22 December 1862, at Ballarat, he married Helen Grant Rattray in a Presbyterian service; they were to have 10 children: eight boys and two girls.
In 1864 Pope moved to Dunedin, New Zealand, to become an assistant master at the High School of Otago (later Otago Boys' High School). He was quickly respected for his breadth of knowledge, energy and teaching ability. He was large, untidy, apparently vague in manner, and considered to be unconventional in his methods, but he knew everything that went on in the classroom and kept strict order. He was an accomplished linguist, equally at home, it was said, in Greek, Latin, French and German, and well versed in Hebrew. He was an enthusiastic astronomer and botanist and an accomplished musician. Although unassuming, he had the confidence of his colleagues, and was acting rector of the school for several months in 1868–69. He transferred to the Otago Girls' High School in 1873, where the lady principal, Margaret Burn, regarded him as her right-hand man.
In mid 1876 Pope went back to Ballarat to be rector of Ballarat College, but his health broke down after a few months and he resigned and returned to Dunedin to recuperate. There was a staffing disruption at the Girls' High School in 1878 and as one of the steps to restore confidence in the school Pope was appointed deputy principal. He continued to be dogged by ill health, and retired at the end of the year, highly esteemed by staff and students alike.
At the request of John Hislop, secretary to the Department of Education, Pope spent three months in Taranaki in 1879 as an organising teacher. Hislop and the inspector general of schools, William Habens, were at the time considering how best to carry out the department's responsibilities for the native village schools transferred to it on 1 July 1879. To improve the efficiency of the 57 schools already operating, they decided to appoint a highly competent organising inspector of native schools to supervise the teachers, inspect their work, and examine pupils. With Pope's appointment to the position in January 1880, the department had its first opportunity to exert a direct influence on a branch of the national education system. His title was changed to inspector of native schools in 1885.
James Pope believed that Maori would have to become Europeanised and absorbed into the general population if the stark alternative of extermination were to be avoided. Without losing their better characteristics or becoming demoralised, Maori living in remote parts of the country were to be prepared for the crisis they would all pass through as they were confronted by considerable European communities and had to compete with them. The educational task of the native schools was to assist that process by helping Maori to help themselves. To win the co-operation of school committees and parents, and ensure the regular attendance of pupils, the teaching would have to be well organised, challenging and satisfying, and harsh discipline and corporal punishment not used.
Pope's first task was to draft the native school code which provided the policy guidelines under which he would exercise national leadership. The schools were conceived as village schools: through personal example, their teachers were to exercise a beneficial influence on adults as well as children. Where possible, married couples were appointed as master and sewing mistress. School buildings and residences were to be of as good a standard as those used for European children. For the time, the schools were generally well provided with text books, teaching equipment and reference books. They received selected English periodicals which were passed on to the adults after being used in class. School gardens, properly fenced, were developed as the model garden of each village. New species of trees and plants were regularly sent to the schools for planting in the school glebe.
Enrolment in native schools was not confined to Maori or part-Maori children, nor were these barred from enrolment in board schools. European children were also enrolled, but parents were to be advised that the educational needs of Maori pupils were to have priority. However, the clear political intention was to maintain separate native schools no longer than was necessary. Where it was judged that Maori pupils could be merged in a board school the native school was to close, and a few did. Pope well knew that Pakeha and Maori interests could conflict when the future of native schools was at issue. He knew, too, that Pakeha views were more likely than Maori to be heard where it mattered, and he was a quietly effective defender of Maori interests. When the closure of a native school was being considered, he stipulated, for the department, that no distinction of race should be allowed to prevent Maori children from getting educational facilities equal to those allowed Europeans.
During 24 formative years Pope was uniquely placed to influence developments in the native schools. In the department he ranked next to Hislop, Habens and later George Hogben, with all of whom he was on good terms. He spent most of each year in Maori villages and this gave him an unrivalled knowledge of how the work was proceeding. It also gave him maximum opportunity to disseminate, test and develop his own ideas on the practicalities of teaching in the native schools. His annual reports are impressive evidence of the formation of what became known as the native schools service. They documented the achievements and problems of each school, offered informed advice on school organisation and teaching methods, and made suggestions for developments of policy, many of which were adopted before he retired. The native schools service was Pope's creation.
James Pope became a fluent Maori speaker and one of the best-informed Pakeha of his time on Maori lore and traditions. He won the respect of tribal leaders throughout the country and conferred continually with them to establish schools, keep them in good running order, and ensure that children of school age attended them regularly. He was known in the villages as Te Popi and his name became the generic term for the colleagues who, in time, worked with him as native school inspectors. His visits to examine pupils were annual events in the life of villages and were usually conducted in the presence of adult members of the community who would crowd into the school rooms. Reweti Kohere never forgot Pope's visit to Te Araroa native school when he was a small boy. Apirana Ngata, Maui Pomare and Taare Parata were, with Kohere, among that remarkable group whose early schooling was in native schools and whose later education at Te Aute College and then university was directly influenced by Pope. Pope was present at the meeting at Te Aute in February 1897 which launched the Te Aute College Students' Association, also known as the Young Maori Party.
Under James Pope's stewardship teaching in the native schools gradually became systematic and efficient. Pupils were classified according to standards of achievement and examined annually. Successful teachers were encouraged by salary incentives, inefficient and unqualified ones were weeded out. By the turn of the century the number of schools had nearly doubled and pupil numbers had more than doubled; average school attendance was getting close to the average for board schools; standards required of Maori pupils were also getting close to those for board schools; and small but increasing numbers were passing standard six.
The key to success lay in Pope's insights into the way English should be taught to pupils for whom Maori was the language of everyday life outside the school. No one could have been better qualified to tackle what was a novel pedagogical issue in the British Empire at the time. Over the years, later assisted by H. B. Kirk, he devised methods for the teaching of English as a second language which anticipated the discoveries of linguists of the mid twentieth century.
Pope had a writer's itch, and a couple of his early literary efforts have survived. While in Dunedin he was a regular writer of leaders, articles, and astronomical notes for the Evening Star. Among other things he was an early advocate of cremation. He is best remembered for the reading primers he wrote for native-school pupils and for his reader on health and sanitation. Health for the Maori: a manual for use in native schools was translated into Maori as Te ora mo te Maori: he puka puka mo nga kura Maori so that its practical advice could be made more readily available to adult Maori. It was to have an impact greater than Pope could have anticipated. Beginning in 1891, the young Apirana Ngata, Reweti Kohere and others used it as a basis for their marae campaigns on health and sanitation. A generation later Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana gave it an important place in his missionary efforts.
Pope knew that the test of all official educational effort would be the extent to which Maori participated as citizens through the institutions of the Pakeha community. To inform older students of their civil rights and responsibilities he wrote The state: the rudiments of New Zealand sociology, for the use of beginners. Clearly written, it was used at Te Aute for senior pupils but would have been more suitable for undergraduates. It can claim to be the first published work of New Zealand sociology and for that reason has a status that has yet to be recognised.
Pope's last annual reports included a judicious review of Maori education since 1867 and a telling forecast of problems he saw emerging – problems which were not to receive the concerted attention of tribal leaders and educational administrators until the 1940s. He retired as chief inspector of native schools in December 1903. He began writing a history of the native schools movement and a book of Maori fables, but if these were completed they were not published. He enjoyed philosophical conversation and presided over a weekly symposium in his home in Brooklyn. But his health, always indifferent, had broken down. He died at Wellington on 3 August 1913 after a long illness. His body was cremated after a Presbyterian service. Helen Pope died at Wellington in 1927, aged 82.
All references to James Henry Pope mention his modesty, the breadth of his sympathies, the range of his interests and his considerable talents. He was, Reweti Kohere wrote, 'of a lovable nature and so perfectly transparent that he won your respect and confidence on your first meeting.' He was also one among a handful of men who shaped the direction of public education in this country and left a valued personal stamp on its ethos.