Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.

BICKERTON, Alexander William


Scientist and eccentric.

A new biography of Bickerton, Alexander William appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Alexander William Bickerton, Canterbury College's first professor of chemistry, was born on 7 January 1842, at Alton in the county of Hampshire. His father was a builder's clerk, his mother a farmer's daughter. At the local grammar school he gave little promise of future distinction. After being employed, first in a railway workshop and, later, in an engineer's office, he set up a cabinet-making establishment, using machinery of his own invention. The enterprise failed, but before it finally did so Bickerton began to study science under one Moses Pullen, a teacher working for the Science and Art Department. This was the turning point in his career. He had already married Anne Phoebe Edwards when, in 1867, he won an exhibition at the School of Mines, his percentage of marks constituting a record. While attending lectures by Huxley and Tyndall, he organised and taught science classes for working men in Chelsea. Failure had overtaken previous attempts of the kind, but Bickerton, who believed that a science class should be made “as entertaining as a music hall and as sensational as a circus”, was soon addressing crowded lecture rooms. In 1870 he became science lecturer at the Hartley Institute, Southampton, but after three years he grew dissatisfied with conditions there and made it known that he was available for some other position. Offers of professorships came from Japan, Canada, and Central America, but on consideration he finally accepted the Chair of Chemistry at the new university college then in process of being established at Christchurch, New Zealand.

He took up his new duties in 1874 under anything but ideal conditions. There were no proper lecture rooms and very few students since no elementary science was taught in the secondary schools. To make up for this deficiency he gave lectures in elementary chemistry to school children, and evening lectures to adults. Results came steadily and his classes began to fill. As the years passed he became known as a teacher of exceptional ability, but at the same time his agitation for university reform made him powerful enemies on the Board of Governors of Canterbury College.

In 1878 he began to formulate his theory of partial impact, ascribing the sudden appearance of bright new stars followed by a rapid waning in brilliance to collisions between dark bodies moving through space which, having struck each other a glancing blow, would develop an intense degree of heat and create one or more new stars of exceptional though temporary brilliance. For a while the theory was hailed locally as an astronomical discovery of great significance, but when it was ignored by the scientific world Bickerton's disciples soon fell away, though he himself persisted in the conviction that before long his views would be universally accepted. During the last decade of the century when the attendance at his university classes began to diminish, he was blamed for wasting time over digressions concerning his theory, and complaint was made that, as a professed socialist who was also given to speaking disrespectfully of the church, he was no fit person to instruct the country's youth. In 1894 his enemies on the Board of Governors succeeded in appointing a committee to inquire into the management of his department but, still having powerful friends, Bickerton survived what was in fact an attempt to prepare the way for his dismissal.

A few years later he founded a “federative home” at Wainoni, near New Brighton, Christchurch, hoping to initiate a new form of society. At the same time, with typical lack of circumspection, he made several public statements critical of the institution of marriage. Not surprisingly, the rumour spread abroad that the principles of sexual morality were being ignored by the “federators”. Bickerton's flouting of all the conventions, social, religious, and political, played into the hands of his enemies on the board, who finally secured his dismissal in March 1902.

Not having proved a great success, the “federative home” was now wound up and turned into a pleasure park which provided a variety of novel and entertaining spectacles. Naval battles with real explosive, shipwrecks and rescues, were staged on an artificial lake at Wainoni. Thousands of visitors poured in every Sunday and at first the place paid well, but Bickerton was no business man and before long it was being run at a loss.

In 1908 new astronomical discoveries revived his hopes of getting the theory of partial impact accepted. For this he believed his presence in Europe to be essential. Mainly through the exertions of a Bickerton committee, formed at the Christchurch Trades Hall in 1910, funds were subscribed to meet the necessary expenses. He sailed for England and settled in London the same year, leaving Wainoni in the care of his wife and three other members of the family which consisted in all of five sons and two daughters.

Bickerton had hoped for valuable assistance from his most famous pupil, then Sir Ernest Rutherford, who thought partial impact to be “the only satisfactory theory of accounting for the remarkable phenomena observed at the time of the appearance of a new star”. But Rutherford, not being an astronomer, was in no position to give expert opinion, and Bickerton persistently neglected his advice to re-examine the theory of partial impact in detail and in the light of fresh knowledge come to hand since its conception. At this stage he appeared incapable of doing more than reiterate the generalisation in its original form. Partial impact, then, remained under a cloud although Bickerton did, while still living, gain recognition of a kind in that his theory began to be mentioned in authoritative works which discussed the various hypotheses advanced in explanation of the appearance of novae.

His wife having died in 1919, Bickerton, then aged 79, married Mary Wilkinson in 1920. He was the author of a number of books–The Romance of the Heavens, The Romance of the Earth, and The Perils of a Pioneer being among the titles. Though often on the verge of destitution he never lost heart or surrendered the conviction that one day he would be hailed as a second Kepler. Hatred and malice were foreign to his nature. He was endowed with the rare capacity of being able to see himself as a victim of persecution without harbouring the least ill will against his fancied persecutors.

Some months before his death in London on 21 January 1929, as an act of restitution he had been appointed Professor Emeritus of Canterbury College.

by Randall Mathews Burdon, M.C. (1896–1965), Author, Wellington.

  • A Short History of Canterbury College, Hight, James, Candy, Alice M. F. (1927)
  • The Life and Times of Sir Julius von Haast, von Haast, H. F. (1948)
  • Scholar-Errant, Burdon, R. M. (1956).

The Story




This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

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