Page 1: Biography
Pitcaithly, Ngata Prosser
This biography, written by Gay Simpkin, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Born on 26 September 1906 in Waimate, South Canterbury, Ngata Prosser Pitcaithly was the son of Edith Mabel Hildyard and her husband, George Pitcaithly, rector of Waimate District High School and later a senior inspector of primary schools. His Tasmanian-born mother liked the melodious sound of the Maori language and gave her children Maori names. In 1917 the family moved to Remuera, and George Pitcaithly bought land at Omapere in Northland. While accompanying his father on regular visits there Ngata learnt to speak Maori with playmates; later, when he became a teacher, he also learnt to read and write the language.
Known as Bill or ‘Pit’, he was educated at Waimate and Remuera primary schools, Auckland Grammar School and Nelson College, and then commenced teaching at Nelson Boys’ School in 1924 as a pupil-teacher. He entered Dunedin Training College in 1925, and was selected for a specialist third year in the teaching of science in secondary schools. In 1928 he took up a position at Auckland Grammar School, teaching there until 1932, when he moved to Rotorua High School. The following year he graduated from Auckland University College with an MA in chemistry and was elected an associate of the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry (he was elected a fellow in 1981). His MA thesis, on the distribution of copper in the karaka tree, led to research into ‘bush sickness’ (caused by soil deficiencies) for the Cawthron Institute, under the direction of Theodore Rigg. On 28 December 1933, at Hunterville, Pitcaithly married Reena Cameron Bruce Simpson; they were to have two sons and a daughter.
At Rotorua High School Pitcaithly developed a new course in agriculture, and, more importantly, found practical expression for his interest in Maori education. A form of bilingual teaching was introduced for Maori pupils to help them overcome difficulties with English. Pitcaithly worked with William Evans, the senior English teacher, to teach Maori grammar before each English grammar lesson. With the help of a senior Maori student, he translated into Maori all the English examples Evans used in class. Pitcaithly also taught Maori as an optional subject during lunch hour, under the supervision of Apirana Ngata, who set and marked the weekly tests from Wellington.
The war interrupted Pitcaithly’s teaching career at Dannevirke High School, where he had moved in 1936. He was attached to the New Zealand Temporary Staff on covert duties in 1943 and later became second in command of the Security Intelligence Bureau. He retired as a captain, and was awarded the Efficiency Decoration with clasp.
Apirana Ngata supported Pitcaithly’s appointment as foundation principal of Northland College, Kaikohe, which opened in 1947. The experiment of a co-educational school offering academic, technical and agricultural education to Maori and Pakeha children throughout Northland was watched closely by the prime minister, Peter Fraser. Pitcaithly set about creating a genuinely bicultural school by involving Maori parents, visiting each marae associated with the college to build closer relationships. His knowledge of Maori language, customs, aspirations and history was vital in gaining the support of the Maori community.
Maori students boarding at the college remember Pitcaithly as a charismatic figure, uncompromising in his demands that they measure up to European standards, but also sensitive to their different background and customs. He encouraged them to demonstrate self-discipline, integrity and consideration for others, while standing firm in their Maoriness. E. B. Corbett, the minister of Maori affairs, commended Pitcaithly in 1955 on the achievements of the school ‘in the unique position of moulding our two races in one body of New Zealanders’. The secretary for Maori affairs, T. T. Ropiha, described him as ‘a remarkable figure in the field of Maori education’.
Pitcaithly developed a college farm, assisted by a council made up of local farmers. It expanded from 40 acres in 1947 to 600 in 1951, and became a modern operation with a cowshed and piggeries. In making college land available as a grasslands research station to the DSIR, Pitcaithly also displayed his acute business sense and tenacity in utilising educational resources to maximum advantage, for which he earned the nickname ‘Bottomless Pit’.
He also helped form a girls’ cadet company at Northland College. Women staff acted as officers, drilling and parading girls with their own NCOs. When the New Zealand Army declined to give official approval, the college declared that inspecting officers would have to inspect the girls’ units or the invitation to inspect the boys’ units would be withdrawn. The army capitulated. Pitcaithly’s most notorious contribution to girls’ education, however, came in 1952 when he insisted that parents should still chaperone their teenaged daughters, provoking a national debate .
By the time Pitcaithly became foundation principal of Selwyn College, Auckland, in 1956, his traditionalist, authoritarian style was seen as increasingly outdated. He continued to wear mortar board and gown to assemblies, and was remembered by the younger staff as a rather austere figure, aloof from the everyday affairs of the school. Nevertheless, he continued to work tirelessly for the college’s Maori students from Orakei.
When Pitcaithly retired at the end of 1965 he numbered such public figures as Keith Holyoake and Robert Muldoon as personal friends. He continued to write features about education for the New Zealand Herald until 1977, and was promotions and publicity officer for the Auckland Festival Society from 1967 to 1975. His wife, Reena, died in 1984. Ngata Pitcaithly died on 28 April 1991 in Auckland, survived by a son and a daughter.
A colourful and imposing figure, Ngata Pitcaithly was a pioneer in many aspects of secondary education. His outstanding contribution was to Maori education, but he also made significant contributions to the equality of the sexes in co-education, the teaching of chemistry and the introduction of agricultural studies in secondary schools.