Page 1: Early life and education
Lange, David Russell
Lawyer, politician, prime minister
This biography, written by Barry Gustafson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2010.
David Lange was born in Ōtāhuhu, Auckland, on 4 August 1942. A fourth-generation New Zealander, he was the son of Eric Roy Lange, a medical practitioner, and his wife, Phoebe Fysh Reid. The family lived in Ōtāhuhu. David’s father was of German descent and the family name was pronounced with two syllables, in an approximation of the original German (‘Long-ee’). David was to have great respect and affection for his father but an ambivalent relationship with his mother.
School and church
David was the oldest of four children. He was educated at Fairburn Road Primary School, Ōtara Intermediate School and Ōtāhuhu College. His parents were active Methodists and David regularly attended church services, Sunday school and Bible class. He also sang in the Friendly Road radio programme’s ‘Merrymakers’ choir on Friday nights and belonged to the Boys’ Brigade. As a schoolboy, Lange ‘found that verbal assurance was compensation for physical incompetence’1. He believed the survival skills he learned at secondary school lasted him all of his life.
After leaving Ōtāhuhu College, Lange enrolled at the University of Auckland and worked several vacations at the Westfield meat-freezing works. After a year as a full-time student, he went part-time and became a law clerk, first at the State Advances Corporation and then for the law firm Haigh, Charters and Carthy. He graduated LLB in 1965 and was admitted to the bar the following year.
Marriage and family
From June 1967, David Lange travelled overseas for two years. He visited Australia, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Thailand and India before he arrived in England. In London he worked as an accounts clerk and attended Kingsway Methodist Hall. There he met Naomi Joy Crampton, who worked in the West London mission. They married on 3 August 1968 at Barnaby Gate Methodist Church in Newark, Nottinghamshire, and returned to New Zealand via Munich, Innsbruck, Rome, Delhi and Singapore shortly afterwards. After a stillborn baby in 1969, David and Naomi had three more children.
Lange took over a law practice at Kaikohe for a short time but moved back to Auckland at the end of 1969. He enrolled again at the University of Auckland where he was also employed for a year as a tutor. In 1970 he gained an LLM with first-class honours specialising in criminal law and medico-legal issues. His interest in the latter grew at least partly out of the trauma he experienced as a young boy when his father defended himself successfully in court against charges of indecent assault brought by a female patient.
In 1971 Lange took over Allan Nixon’s law practice in Victoria Street East, central Auckland, later moving to Kitchener Street nearer the Auckland Magistrate’s Court. He became a criminal defence counsel at that court, well-known for his very effective pleas in mitigation. A contemporary noted that Lange and Nixon had in common ‘outsized consciences and intellects, a devotion to seeking a just and good society, the inability to take themselves over seriously, and an intense concern with their clients, and very little idea of how to make money out of them.’2
Although Lange’s mother was conservative, his father supported the Labour Party and from childhood David shared his preference. He joined the party in 1963 but was not particularly active until 1974 when, at the invitation of his cousin Michael Bassett, he became a Labour candidate for the Auckland City Council. The following year he stood, again unsuccessfully, for Parliament as Labour candidate in the National Party stronghold of Hobson.