Geoffrey Michael William Hodgkins, known as Michael, was born in Dunedin on 1 May 1902, the only child of Jane (Jean) Moore Dalgliesh and her husband, William John Parker Hodgkins, an accountant with the Bank of New South Wales. He was a nephew of the artist Frances Hodgkins. In 1904 his father became bank manager in Ashburton, where the bank house’s lovely garden was perhaps the source of Michael’s lifelong devotion to plants and trees. By 1911 William Hodgkins was manager of the bank in Masterton and from 1913 to 1918 he was manager in Tamworth, New South Wales. He was then transferred to Invercargill.
Michael was sent to Nelson College, but ran away from the initiation ceremonies, turning up later at Hanmer Springs. His parents would attribute his subsequent eccentricities to the trauma of this experience. During 1919–20 he attended Southland Boys’ High School and later moved north when his father became manager at Auckland in 1924. Michael enrolled for a BSc at Auckland University College in 1926; he failed all his papers and left after a year, possibly as the result of a nervous breakdown. In 1931 he enrolled in law and passed one subject.
Hodgkins was employed for a while as a clerk, but, fascinated by nature from an early age, he began working in plant nurseries; he named native plants and bamboos for the Isaachsen family, who developed a bamboo nursery at Oratia. When his parents retired to Tauranga in 1937 he followed soon after and worked in private gardens, including The Elms mission station.
Specimens held by the Auckland Institute and Museum and the DSIR’s Botany Division herbarium in Christchurch show that Hodgkins collaborated closely over a long period with these institutions and with Canterbury Agricultural College. He identified plants for the Department of Agriculture, assisted the police to identify the first Cannabis sativa plants in the Tauranga area and had a good knowledge of New Zealand orchids. As well as writing newspaper articles on botany, he gave radio talks in his ‘mild patient and cultivated voice’.
Hodgkins never married. From about 1948, his parents having died, he lived in a hut, without electricity or running water, by a salt marsh in Otumoetai; he took with him the paintings by his aunt that he had inherited from his father. Unwashed, clad in ragged clothes, with unkempt shoulder-length hair, ‘sun-blackened skin’ and piercing blue eyes, he walked great distances in search of botanical specimens, once going to the top of the Kaimai range to see a flower bud open as the sun rose. He said he did not like treading on plants and that he could hear weeds scream as they were pulled out. A beachcomber, he gave finds to friends, although some – such as the rare, rotting head of a Rays bream – were perhaps unwelcome. From his peculiar gait he was dubbed ‘Springheel Jack’. When children taunted him with the name, he shook his fist at them, calling them ‘spawn of the devil’ and other colourful expressions from an extensive repertoire of invective.
In 1951, years after first observing Hodgkins in the Auckland Public Library, Frank Sargeson based the character Matthew on him in his autobiographical essay ‘Up onto the roof and down again’. Sargeson wrote that Matthew ‘has a wonderful dignity’ and ‘his descriptions have a clear visual quality, and the word beautiful keeps on being introduced’. Hodgkins also provided inspiration for a different character: Ian Mune’s tramp, Rotten Fred, in the 1977 book and television film The Mad Dog Gang meets Rotten Fred & Ratsguts. Mune’s portrayal of Hodgkins provoked an outcry from a group of Michael’s friends in Tauranga, who asserted that he was not a tramp and ‘to many of those who were privileged to call him their friend, he was courtly, generous and humble’.
Local teachers, aware of Hodgkins’s immense knowledge of nature, encouraged him to visit their schools so that children could ask him questions. They also used him in lessons to foster a tolerance of eccentrics. Seated under a tree in the playground with his black Aberdeen terrier, Angus, Hodgkins held children spellbound with the tales he told of natural history.
Michael Hodgkins died in his hut about 27 October 1965. He had been a colourful figure in Tauranga, and had enriched the lives of many people by generously sharing his extensive knowledge of New Zealand plant and marine life.