Page 1: Biography
Peren, Geoffrey Sylvester
Soldier, agricultural scientist, university professor, agricultural college principal
This biography, written by Roger Peren, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
Geoffrey Sylvester Peren was born at Streatham, Surrey, England, on 30 November 1892, the son of Ethel Mary Fleming and her husband, Robert Henry Peren. His father came from a farming background but after attending the University of Cambridge had become an insurance broker in London. Peren grew up at Streatham and at Beckenham nearby, and from an early age took an interest in nature. He was sent to Clare House, a preparatory school at Beckenham. At 14 he was keen to join the Royal Navy but family finances would not permit it. Given a choice between the merchant marine and farming in Canada, he chose Canada.
Peren went first to a small mixed farm near Aylmer, in southern Ontario, but after two years moved to British Columbia, where he worked as a teamster on two big properties on the shores of Lake Okanagan and gained some experience of orcharding. He then won a scholarship to the Ontario Agricultural College at Guelph (a part of the University of Toronto), and in 1911 commenced the four-year course for bachelor of science in agriculture.
Peren graduated in 1915, then enlisted in the Canadian Field Artillery. In September 1915 he was commissioned in the Royal Field Artillery, and after a brief training period was posted to the 14th Division at Ypres (Ieper). He served for three years in France with the 14th Divisional Artillery Group, including 15 months as intelligence officer on the headquarters staff, and also acted as liaison officer with the Royal Air Force. He was awarded the Croix de guerre, with silver star, and was mentioned in dispatches. Peren was demobilised as a staff lieutenant, first class. During the first battle of the Somme he was recommended for the Military Cross.
From June 1919 he was briefly an assistant at the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries research station at East Malling, Kent, and then a MAF inspector. From March 1920 to April 1924 he was a lecturer at the University of Bristol's agricultural and horticultural research station at Long Ashton. On 4 April 1923 at Weston-super-Mare Peren married Violet Essex Surman. The following year he applied successfully for the new chair of agriculture at Victoria University College, New Zealand. The Perens arrived in Wellington in June 1924. Apart from a visit to Britain, the United States and Canada in 1949–50, Geoffrey was to spend the rest of his life here.
Since early in the century many had argued that the North Island needed an agricultural training institution, but there had been bitter debate about the appropriate style and scope, and the best location. Peren travelled widely, weighing up potential sites. He played a leading role in the complex negotiations that led to the purchase of land near Palmerston North and ultimately to the passing of the Massey Agricultural College Act 1927. He and William Riddet, professor of agriculture at Auckland University College, formed a close association in setting up the new college. In July 1927 Peren was appointed acting principal.
Eighty-four students were enrolled in 1928, but it was not until 1931 that the main building was completed. In that year Peren visited research stations in Australia, and in the 1930s contacts were established with institutions in Britain and America. Great emphasis was put on the need to research the actual problems faced by farmers, and to ensure that results were made available promptly. By 1938 the college had earned the respect of farmers in New Zealand and researchers overseas.
Peren foresaw the likelihood of war in the late 1930s, and in 1938 formed a troop of the Manawatu Mounted Rifles from staff and students of the college. From August 1940 he commanded the Manawatu Mounted Rifles, and as New Zealand mobilised he commanded first the 2nd Infantry Brigade Group, and then the 4th New Zealand Division, with the rank of brigadier. He was noted for his capacity for leadership and administrative skills. Not until 1953 was he formally posted to the retired list; from 1954 to 1957 he was colonel commandant of the 2nd Armoured Regiment. Peren was instrumental also in securing the establishment of the New Zealand Staff College and its location at Massey, in November 1941.
The war over, the college faced a much brighter future. The student roll increased rapidly. Courses were designed for ex-servicemen; qualifications in horticultural and, later, veterinary science were introduced; and female students were encouraged. In 1947 Peren visited Fiji, Samoa and the Cook Islands with the idea that Massey should take an interest in tropical agriculture and contribute to development in the South Pacific. This was one occasion, however, when he was not able to carry the council with him.
Nevertheless, the college continued to widen its range and to enhance its reputation. From the 1950s, students arrived from Asian countries, and staff members took part in research and aid projects in Asia. Peren had a clear idea of what he wanted to achieve and great determination. Again and again he introduced new projects and he was generally persuasive in his dealings with the council, government departments and senior politicians.
Peren took a major part in the development of the Cheviot–Romney cross-breed of sheep, ultimately called the Perendale, which was specifically adapted to the poorer North Island hill country. He developed fleece testing and maintained a close interest in experiments on, for example, nutrition in sheep. He was one of the first to foresee the potential for aerial top-dressing in New Zealand. When he retired in 1958, Massey Agricultural College was a respected educational and research institution, set in grounds of exceptional beauty; Peren himself had been largely responsible for the landscaping. It is a measure of his achievement that only a few years later, in 1964, it could readily make the transition to a full-scale university.
Peren had been appointed a CBE in 1953, and a KBE in 1959. When in 1977 Massey University awarded him an honorary DSc the public orator noted his 'imagination and drive; unremitting attention to detail; standards which were nothing short of the best'; and 'an artist's sensitivity to a fine effect'.
After his retirement he moved in to Palmerston North. He remained much involved in promoting the Perendale breed. From 1960 to 1965 he was regional commissioner for civil defence, with responsibility for the southern half of the North Island. In 1968, during a brief visit to Japan he quickly focused on the need to tailor New Zealand's exports to the demands of that market. Both in England and in New Zealand Peren had collaborated on writing scientific papers and he wrote extensively for the Perendale Sheep Society until shortly before his death at Palmerston North on 19 July 1980. He was survived by his wife, son and daughter. Lady Peren died in 1982.
Geoffrey Peren was at heart a traditionalist, a countryman who believed one should understand the ways of birds, animals and the weather, and who happily devoted his energies, his skills and his sense of style to improving the quality of life in what when he first arrived was still in many respects a pioneering society. He saw himself as applying science and experience to the opportunities and problems of a developing land, and leading others to take the same approach. By doing so he helped to lay the foundations of a major educational institution.