Story: Rutherford, James
University professor, historian
This biography was written by R. C. J. Stone and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998
James Rutherford was born in Dunston, near Newcastle upon Tyne, England, on 27 January 1906, the son of Sarah Alice Gladstone and her husband, Ralph Archibald Rutherford, a railway clerk. An able son of parents in modest circumstances, James had his schooling entirely in the Tyneside: remnants of a Geordie accent gave his voice a distinctive intonation for the rest of his life. After undertaking a successful academic course at the Blyth County Secondary School, he went to the University of Durham where he gained a first-class MA in history. A two-year postgraduate scholarship at the University of Michigan then resulted in the award of a PhD for a study into the late nineteenth century federal movement in South Africa.
On his return to England in 1928 he took up the post of assistant lecturer in history at University College, Southampton. On 11 August 1932 at South Stoneham, Southampton, he married Rose Mann, a schoolteacher and daughter of a university colleague. They were to have four children.
With the precipitate enforced departure from Auckland University College of Professor J. P. Grossmann in late 1932, the College Council advertised the vacant chair in history. Rutherford applied, although he was only 27, had a mere four years’ teaching experience, and lacked publications. He was successful, but his appointment caused a stir. Two outstanding local candidates were passed over: W. T. G. Airey, the resident lecturer, who had effectively run the department since Grossmann left; and J. C. Beaglehole, who was subsequently acclaimed as New Zealand’s greatest research historian of the twentieth century. It seems that Rutherford’s unlikely selection can best be explained by two considerations. First, the then deeply conservative Auckland University College Council considered the two local candidates to be dangerous radicals. Second, the council was in the grip of an unshakeable but quite unsubstantiated belief that British-educated academics were invariably superior to their antipodean counterparts.
In 1934 Rutherford took over the history department, purportedly as a new broom. He was physically impressive, tall, very slim and fair. With Airey as his deputy he was to dominate history at the university for 30 years. Although these two men were absolutely unlike in personality and lecturing styles, and poles apart philosophically and politically, to the end they coexisted peacefully, albeit in a state of armed truce. As Rutherford’s successor, Keith Sinclair, later pointed out, paradoxically each complemented the other. Whereas Rutherford’s well-organised and lucid lectures, delivered in a mellifluous voice, satisfied the younger students, Airey’s philosophical subtleties and discernment of historical patterns stimulated the seniors, especially the more able.
Rutherford’s effectiveness, however, was limited by his personality. Temperamentally shy and insecure, he compensated by presenting a forbidding front. He was, moreover, dogmatically conservative on all social, educational and political issues, while his explosive temper made him fearsome when provoked by the opposition of those junior in years or status. For instance, when students, conducting a rag during a graduation ceremony in the town hall in 1940, released a duck which placed itself beside Rutherford while he was speaking, he ‘tore up his notes and angrily flung himself back in his seat'. In his latter years he was forced by insurgent members of the history department to moderate his autocratic ways.
During the Second World War, Rutherford served in the army for two years, one of which he spent in the Pacific as an intelligence officer attached to the 3rd New Zealand Division. On his posting to the reserve in October 1943, Captain Rutherford returned to university teaching.
Given the heavy teaching load borne by all academics in this era, Rutherford’s research record in his chosen field of nineteenth century New Zealand history was entirely creditable. He produced a substantial number of short publications, but his great work was his 260,000-word Sir George Grey. Though outdated in some of its interpretations, this biography is still widely used as a precise and indispensable source for the period 1845–68.
Rutherford had a wide range of interests outside the university. For relaxation he resorted to bridge-playing and the Officers’ Club. He was a member of the Dorian Singers and a long-serving member of the St John’s College trust board and its sub-committee which governed King’s College before 1960.
In later years he suffered from hypertension and a distressing skin complaint. Yet his death when it came on 11 April 1963 at Auckland after a bout of pneumonia was sudden. He was survived by his wife, Rose, three sons and a daughter. His passing represented the end of the old order of history teaching at the University of Auckland.