Page 1: Biography
Peek, Charles Edward
Teacher, child welfare administrator, billiards player
This biography, written by Dugald J. McDonald, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Charles Edward Peek was born at Picton, Marlborough, on 13 April 1904, the eldest of five children of Annie May Lange and her husband, Charles Peek, a storeman. He attended Picton School and Marlborough High School, where he excelled at all sports and was dux. From 1922 to 1923 he went to Teachers’ Training College, Wellington, and the following year was appointed to a sole-charge position at Mangles Valley School, near Murchison. He moved to Waituna West School, near Feilding, in 1927.
On 27 December 1927, at Masterton, Peek married schoolteacher Lilian Johanna Polson, and in 1931 they went, as head and assistant teacher respectively, to remote Taharoa Native School (near Kawhia), which had between 50 and 60 pupils. In 1934 they moved to similar positions at Huiarau Native School, near Ruatahuna. After Lilian’s death in February 1935, when their only child was five years old, Peek returned to Wellington district, where his daughter was cared for by her maternal grandparents. There he taught at Miramar Central, Petone Central, and Kelburn Normal schools. He married Betty Collie at Petone on 25 February 1939.
Peek was a successful teacher, and after personal vetting by the Department of Education directorate and its minister, Peter Fraser, he was urged by them to take up his first Child Welfare Branch appointment as manager of the Boys’ Training Farm, Weraroa, at Levin. With the onset of the Second World War a few months after his posting in 1939, his mandate to reform this troubled, prison-like institution for adolescent males took a significant turn when Weraroa was commandeered for the war effort by the Royal New Zealand Air Force. Shifted at short notice into temporary accommodation spread across Levin and Hokio beach, his normally recalcitrant wards were co-opted by Peek into the shared adventure of building a new residential facility on the Central Development Farm block (later known as Kohitere). He attributed to that novelty the fact that in the first 18 months not a single youth absconded, contrary to the pattern under the former repressive regime.
Peek’s good record there, and the shortage of personnel under wartime austerity, led in 1942 to his additional appointment as district child welfare officer in Palmerston North. The following year he added a third role as inspector at head office, Wellington, a cause for some humour in his memoirs as he related having to receive and approve his own memoranda in those three positions. He was appointed superintendent of child welfare in 1946, having acted in that capacity from the time of J. R. McClune’s retirement in December 1945. A life-time interest in billiards came to fruition in 1947 when he won the New Zealand Amateur Billiards Championships.
The longest serving of the four superintendents during the existence of the Child Welfare Branch (later Division) from 1926 to 1972, Peek’s junior service was relatively short. The administrative accountability he worked under was cumbersome and required considerable diplomacy. As a division of the Department of Education, it answered to the director general but, in effect, Child Welfare was a semi-autonomous enterprise and in most matters except funding became even more so during his tenure. To add to the confusion, from 1947 ministerial responsibility was split between the ministers of education and child welfare.
Post-war affluence created new social problems; the emergence of a youth culture and its associated phenomenon of juvenile delinquency called for new and extended responses from the state agency charged with the well-being of children and young persons. The Report of the Special Committee on Moral Delinquency in Children and Adolescents of 1954 (the Mazengarb Report) brought extra pressure for the division to be proactive. During Peek’s tenure, district offices increased from 15 in 1946 to 29 in 1964. His initiation at the Boys’ Training Farm left him with a firm belief in the potential for rehabilitation through residential treatment, and in addition to larger purpose-built centres he devised and developed a network of Family Homes, where foster parents who were paid boarding rates cared for youngsters in division-owned suburban houses. He was a strong proponent of in-service training for field and residential staff, and from 1950 supported full-pay bursaries for his officers to attend the new school of social science at Victoria University College. The award in 1958 of a United Nations technical assistance fellowship took him on visits to Europe, the United States, Canada and Hawaii to study services for children and families.
Known as ‘Charlie’, bespectacled, well-built, and a little portly in his later years, Peek related easily to people although his intimates described him as a basically shy person who shrank from the limelight. He kept a close but respectful hand on all aspects of the division’s work; for example, until 1960 he personally interviewed all applicants for permanent positions, however junior. With a reputation for fairness, he could take tough action when required. His informal style engendered a camaraderie among his officers through his belief that child welfare work was important and rewarding, and made a difference in the lives of deprived and troubled children. He was made a companion of the Imperial Service Order in 1963, and retired as superintendent in 1964.
Peek’s second wife, Betty, died in 1968. On 18 August 1973 at Wellington he married Aileen Bulmer, a former colleague. He died in Wellington on 21 December 1988, and was survived by Aileen and his daughter.