Bill Oliver, 1925–2015

Historian and editor Bill Oliver, complete with pipe (pic: Massey University)

Historian and editor Bill Oliver, complete with pipe (pic: Massey University)

It’s sad to record the passing on 16 September of William Hosking Oliver, one of the pioneers of the teaching of New Zealand history in New Zealand universities, and the founding editor of the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (now part of Te Ara).

Bill was born in Feilding and attended school there and in Dannevirke. He was proud of his Cornish ancestors and his roots in middle New Zealand. He studied at Victoria University College in Wellington, where he came under the spell of History Professor Fred Wood. He went off to complete a doctorate at Oxford University (on British Millennialists) before returning to teach at Canterbury and Massey universities.
It was at Massey that Bill established the first course that focused on New Zealand history, and he published a pioneering history, The story of New Zealand (Faber and Faber), almost simultaneously with Keith Sinclair’s History of New Zealand
(Penguin). Sinclair’s book came to be reprinted many times, and Bill’s was not, possibly because of its more discursive and essayistic style, cast in elegant prose and avoiding the Great Men and Great Events school of historiography. It still reads beautifully.

Oliver and Sinclair were longtime colleagues and friends, both poets and essayists as well as historians of New Zealand. They mingled with other writers and artists in their youth, and fruitfully sparred with each other on DNZB committees.

In the early 1980s Bill Oliver took on the role of founding editor of a new dictionary of national biography for New Zealand. He was determined as ever to make this, usually the most nationalistic of historical monuments, as representative of the actual makeup of the country as possible. This was a difficult challenge, especially in the selection of biographies for inclusion in the first volume, which covered the years in which the islands were discovered by Europeans, the British colony founded and settlement begun. The historians and other interested parties whom Bill consulted and formed into working parties had definite views and firm ideas about who was to be ‘in’ and who was not. Bill’s democratic plan was to include many Māori and many more women than were usually encountered in such compilations. This didn’t leave as much room for the pale patriarchal people and many noses were put out of joint. Bill stuck to his principles and a unique and memorable collection of lives enriched New Zealand’s historiography.

Alongside this achievement was the publication of a parallel volume of Māori-language lives of Māori people. This bicultural initiative was another pioneering achievement, assisted and continued by Bill’s successor as general editor, Claudia Orange.

One of the distinguishing features of Bill’s editorship was his guiding hand in matters of structural editing and style. Staff were treated to Bill’s handwritten comments on their editing, in terms of the balance and structure of a life as well as in identifying detailed (in Bill’s hand, always ‘detailled’ – he never could spell that word) points of fact and nuances, drawing on his immense knowledge of New Zealand history and the primary sources of information. These comments were expressed in economic and graceful prose. (Bill’s editorial principles and practices have been outlined in a previous post to this blog).

Bill was awarded a CBE for this achievement, and the project was fortunate to have his ongoing interest and attention, as he continued to provide advice and detailled [sic!] commentary for all future volumes of the DNZB after his retirement.

I suspect that all who worked alongside Bill (not ‘for’ him – he seldom pulled rank) will count it among the most satisfying, stimulating and rewarding periods in their lives.

In recent years Bill’s activities have been compromised by ill health, though his mind and interest have remained active. Few people, and certainly not Bill himself, had anticipated he would live to such a ripe old age, but those who have had the pleasure of his company will cherish the memory of the gentle and wise man who was happy to discuss all manner of contemporary subjects, and also to share the details of a long and full life. He’d had to give up most of his ‘vices’ over the years, but his memories of them were animated and cheerful. Recently he told me about his time manpowered into the broadcasting service at the end of the Second World War, and chortled over the jazz records he ‘borrowed’ from the service and took home to enliven student parties. He’d been reading to me from Rachel Barrowman’s recent biography of Maurice Gee, enlivened by erudite and amusing commentary. I’m going to miss his quiet charm and wise conversation. Nice that he’s left an enduring legacy and a cohort of friends and colleagues to celebrate knowing him.

7 comments have been added so far

  1. Comment made by Caren Wilton || September 17th, 2015

    What a lovely tribute, Ross. I’m sorry I never met Bill or had the privilege of working alongside him. I’ve always greatly appreciated his insistence on including people of all stripes in the DNZB.

  2. Comment made by Neill Atkinson || September 17th, 2015

    Thanks Ross for this erudite and warm tribute. I started at the DNZB in 1990 around the time Bill was formally retiring as General Editor, although he continued to have a major influence as consulting editor in the decade that followed. I’ll always remember how kind and supportive he was to me and other young researchers; his calm, clear wisdom; elegant, economical writing style; and his belief that the DNZB should be a democratic, inclusive venture, both in its content and way of working.

  3. Comment made by Nancy || September 17th, 2015

    Thank you, Ross, for putting into words what will be felt by many people. Bill was an inspirational leader. I was one of those lucky enough to work with him on volume one of the DNZB and remember the warm, collegial atmosphere of those times, and the shared sense that we were creating something of great importance for New Zealand.

  4. Comment made by Geoff Rice || September 18th, 2015

    I was present at one of the meetings Bill held at Canterbury University to discuss who was in and who would be out of the first volume. Jim Gardner objected to the inclusion of the bushranger and brothel-keeper policeman Martin Cash, when his own pioneering North Canterbury grandmother had been excluded. I well remember Bill’s good-humoured but firm statement of his wish to make the DNZB an inclusive cross-section of colonial society, ‘warts and all’, and Jim’s dogged insistence on recognising the real nation-builders. In the end Bill compromised and included both of them.
    I am eternally grateful to Bill for his encouragement of my early work on the 1918 influenza epidemic in NZ, and for his wise guidance when I edited the second edition of the Oxford History of NZ. He was a genial mentor for a whole generation of young NZ historians.

  5. Comment made by Tom Brooking || October 2nd, 2015

    Thanks Ross for such a lovely tribute to my old Professor and long time mentor. Bill was a great teacher and supervisor as well as a wonderful, wise and erudite man. His initiative with the Dictionary was superb but his stimulus to research into New Zealand history at the post-graduate level must never be forgotten either. This was most obvious with the first Oxford History of New Zealand project which was a real privilege to work on, partly because he taught the younger contributors so much. I’m so glad he lived to see the NZHA create the W.H.Oliver prize for the best book in New Zealand history. He remains our most elegant stylist and was an epitome of the gentleman scholar in the very best way.Let’s hope that the wisdom he imparted as celebrated in several of the W. H. Oliver lectures is passed on to the next generation of New Zealand historians.

  6. Comment made by Gary Hawke || October 2nd, 2015

    The blog captures the spirit of Bill, but he would have inserted a ” detailed” correction. He taught at VUW between Canterbury and Massey, including, with Mary Boyd, a unit of N Z History I.

  7. Comment made by Peter Lineham || October 3rd, 2015

    Bill Oliver was my first Head of Department at Massey and when he went to the DNZB he recruited me to assemble a team for the religion working party, and thus he brought together a significant team of all the scholars in the field who provoked each other in selecting significant figures, and provoked Bill’s wry humour at our selections. Gentle, at times chaotic, elegant, very human in his foibles, very wise and profound in his analysis, he has shaped this and many other sub-fields in history by his use of the working parties of the Dictionary. I am deeply appreciative of his encouragement of my work.

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