Story: Petersen, George Conrad

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Petersen, George Conrad

1900–1978

Lawyer, consul, local politician, historian

This biography was written by Jim Lundy and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

George Conrad Petersen was born in Mauriceville West, near Eketahuna, on 19 June 1900, to Danish parents Jens Peter Petersen and his wife, Anna Katrine Nielsen. They developed a small farm and Jens was a founding director of the Mauriceville Dairy Company. He also worked on building the Rimutaka railway. George went to Mauriceville West School and won a scholarship to Masterton District High School. When he matriculated in 1916 he joined his family, now living in Palmerston North, and was articled to Edward Orr Hurley. He qualified as a barrister and solicitor in 1924. On 27 December 1926, in Masterton, he married his former classmate Elizabeth Stella Osberta Cairns, a schoolteacher, with whose family he had boarded while at school. They were to have two daughters and one son. That same year he bought the law practice, and later went into partnership with Harold Sivyer and Charles Hubbard.

From childhood Petersen was fascinated by the story of the settlement of New Zealand and he was very proud of the contribution of the Scandinavian people. Throughout his career he assisted new Danish immigrants, and made arrangements for their naturalisation. During the Second World War he frequently acted for the Danish government. He was also a very active member of the New Zealand Anglo-Danish Society in Palmerston North. The members performed at local functions to raise money for the Danish underground and for food parcels. For this work he was awarded the King Christian X Freedom Medal in 1946 and in 1948 was made Danish vice consul; in 1966 he was appointed to the personal title and rank of Danish consul. When the Danish Galathea Deep Sea Expedition visited New Zealand in 1951 and early 1952, Petersen acted as an honorary liaison officer. Subsequently, in 1956, he was awarded the Galathea medal. In 1958 he was made a Knight (or Ridder) of the Order of Dannebrog and this was raised to first class in 1968.

Petersen was a Lutheran but became a Presbyterian after he married and was a strong supporter of the church throughout his life. In the 1940s he played a leading part in the rebuilding of St Andrews Presbyterian Church. For 15 years he was its session clerk, and he helped produce two short histories of the church. He was also a Freemason. In Palmerston North he was secretary of the WEA for 10 years, chairman of the library committee and a city councillor from 1947 to 1950. In 1952 he received the W. G. Black Memorial Award for his contribution to the cultural development of his city. From June 1949 to June 1950 he was a vice president of the New Zealand Library Association.

At an early age Petersen began collecting books and papers on New Zealand, in particular material on William Colenso. When he discovered that A. G. Bagnall was also working on Colenso, the two co-operated in the writing of a biography, which was published in 1948. Petersen’s book Forest homes (1956), largely based on the stories he heard as a boy and interviews with settlers, described the Scandinavian settlement of the district. His other publications included The pioneering days of Palmerston North (1952), The Mair family (with J. C. Andersen, 1956), D. G. Monrad (1965), and an edition of G. F. Angas’s Portraits of the New Zealand Maori painted in 1844 (with S. M. Mead, 1972). He was editor of the seventh to the tenth editions of Who’s who in New Zealand. For his major work, Palmerston North: a centennial history (1973), he was awarded the J. M. Sherrard Award for regional history. He translated Danish material into English, notably Danish songs. In 1964 he was awarded a LittD by Massey University for his contribution to historical scholarship. Some of Petersen’s collected papers were lodged with the Alexander Turnbull Library and the Palmerston North Public Library.

A tall man, Petersen is remembered particularly for his friendliness and his loping walk. He enjoyed tramping, fishing and shooting, and was for 10 years president of the Rangiwahia Ski Club. His first wife, Stella, died in 1963. He married her sister, Coyla Samuella May Foote (née Cairns) in Palmerston North on 4 September 1965. She died in 1974. George Petersen died in Palmerston North on 25 October 1978, survived by the children of his first marriage.