August institution found its lofty home

21:49, Aug 22 2014
Small beginnings: Victoria University Vice-Chancellor Professor Grant Guilford with the foundation stone laid for the university in 1904.

The trowel was silver with an ivory handle, the mallet was made from the wood of forest giant the black maire.

Even the builders' level was made of silver when the foundation stone of Victoria College - now Victoria University of Wellington - was laid with ceremonial pomp, 110 years ago next week.

It was all very august for the university in what was then considered a "crass commercial town . . . with little interest in the higher things of the mind".

Victoria now boasts about 21,000 students from all corners of the globe, spread across seven faculties in four main campuses.

Professor Grant Guilford, the Vice-Chancellor today, has his office in the Hunter Building, the original university building, where the foundation stone was laid in 1904.

It is now dwarfed by the university's other buildings, which stretch along the hillside behind it overlooking the city.


It is a far cry from the university's early days.

Before the foundation stone was laid on August 27, 1904, in the new Wellington suburb of what was then called "Kelburne", the university had no home.

It had been founded in 1897 to mark Queen Victoria's 60th Jubilee but, as the Crown's history website says, "the founding professors and early students had to make do with rented rooms at the Girls' High School in Pipitea St and the Technical School in Victoria St".

In 1901, a wealthy Wairarapa sheep farmer, Charles Pharazyn, offered to donate 1000 for the university to be built on Kelburne Park Reserve.

The Evening Post was there for the laying of the foundation stone off Salamanca Rd, as were many of Wellington's turn-of-the-century notables.

There was Governor Lord William Plunket and Lady Plunket "in the presence of a large number of ladies and gentlemen interested in the cause of higher education", the paper recorded.

A few hundred metres away, the Wellington cable car was already two years old, rattling up and down the hill much as it does today.

"Floating over the staging upon which the proceedings took place were a large number of flags lent by the Public Works Department . . . The trowel which was used by His Excellency [Lord Plunket] to lay the stone was of silver, with an ivory handle . . . His Lordship also used a silver level and a black maire mallet with ivory handle."

That Wellington secured a university at all was considered a minor miracle.

In her book celebrating the university's 100th birthday, Rachel Barrowman described the university's haphazard birth.

As far back as 1870, Premier William Fox commented on Otago's established university, saying, "We may have, hereafter, others of the same class established in Auckland, in Canterbury, and even in Wellington - if poor Wellington should ever rise to such a height of propriety as to entitle it to have a university of its own, or even rise beyond mere elementary teaching".

The idea would bubble away for years. Robert Stout, who is regarded as the "founder" of the college, introduced a bill to Parliament in 1886 for a "college" in Wellington.

His bill was defeated but the idea did not die and he would try again in 1894.

Detractors would argue that a university in Wellington was "extravagant, outrageous", Barrowman wrote.

Masterton, Nelson, Picton, and Blenheim were all put forward as better sites.

Perversely, while arguing Masterton should win the race, the local MP argued: "Some of the rankest duffers I have met . . . are undergraduates."

According to Barrowman, Wellington got the go-ahead on "something of a whim".

Liberal Premier Richard Seddon returned from Queen Victoria's 60th Jubilee with an honorary law doctorate from Cambridge University.

"In a humour of academic romanticism, he decided that the establishment of a university college in Wellington would be a fitting way for the colony to mark the Queen's Jubilee year."

The bill passed, albeit with some debate, Barrowman wrote.

"Wellington was [regarded as] a crass commercial town, once poor and now grown wealthy, with little interest in the higher things of the mind."

But on December 22, 1897, an act was passed in Parliament and Victoria came into being, albeit with no actual building to call its own.

A newly appointed council in 1898 set out to find a base. The Mt Cook jail, with its 13 acres, was considered, as was 10 acres from Wellington College. A ministerial residence in Tinakori Rd was offered as a temporary measure.

Then Pharazyn, the cable car investor, came up with the Kelburn solution. Allegations the money was to help the new cable car out were "absurd misconstructions of my motives", he would claim.

On March 30, 1906, Lord Plunket returned to the site to open the new building.

"The building is conspicuously situated on the heights above Salamanca-road and Kelburne- parade, and the view from the grounds is one of the most commanding and picturesque in the city," The Evening Post reported.

The Dominion Post