Page 1: Early life
Rowling, Wallace Edward
Teacher, army educator, politician, prime minister
This biography, written by John Henderson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2010.
Bill Rowling was born in Motueka in the Nelson district on 15 September 1927. He was the youngest of four children born to Arthur Rowling, an orchardist, and his wife, Agnes Rubina Davy. He was christened Wallace Edward, but his father called him Bill and the name stuck.
Bill Rowling attended the Lower Moutere Primary School and boarded at Nelson College for his secondary schooling. Education expanded his horizons and also provided him with a life away from horticulture. The orchard could only support one family, and was inherited by his brother.
The Rowling children grew up in an intensely political environment. Arthur Rowling was active in Labour Party politics and leading Labour figures were regular visitors to the Rowling home at Māriri, near Motueka. Radio broadcasts from Parliament supplied a political background to whatever else was going on in the house, while Hansard provided evening reading. The hardships of the depression years sharpened the urgency of the political debate.
This focus on politics had a lasting impact on Bill Rowling, although it seems to have had little influence on his older siblings. Bill was the youngest by eight years and often felt like an only child.
Teachers’ college and university
Rowling decided on a teaching career and enrolled at Christchurch Teachers’ College. He became the first of his extended family to gain a university degree when he graduated from Canterbury University College in 1949 with a BA in economics. In 1955 he completed an MA, also part-time, from Canterbury University. His thesis, on pipfruit marketing, drew on his practical experience of orchard work.
On 20 October 1951, Bill married fellow teacher Glen Elna Reeves in the Waverley Anglican Church. They were to have five children. They decided to live in Christchurch so Bill could further his university studies.
From 1949 to 1955, Bill supported his family through part-time work, which included university lecturing at Canterbury University. He also taught at schools in Canterbury, Nelson, New Plymouth and Northland, where in 1953 he joined the Māori Education Service.
Urge for travel
Rowling was restless and needed further challenges to absorb his energies. In 1947 he had applied to join Jayforce, the New Zealand component of the Allied force that occupied Japan following the Second World War, but was rejected on the grounds of age when the authorities discovered he had falsely claimed to be 18. His yearning to travel was satisfied in 1955 when he was awarded a Fulbright exchange scholarship to travel to the United States. The award allowed him to teach at a junior high school in Seattle and to travel widely.
On returning to New Zealand in 1956, he joined the Army Education Corps (AEC). His four years of service included a brief period in 1959 in Malaya where Commonwealth forces were fighting a communist insurgency. Rowling gained the rank of captain in 1961 and was promoted to assistant director of the AEC. He was made colonel commandant, the honorary head of the corps, late in 1977.