Story: Sutcliffe, Herbert

Page 1 - Biography

Sutcliffe, Herbert

1886–1971

Psychologist, health advocate and teacher

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

Herbert Sutcliffe was born in Louth, Lincolnshire, England, on 19 October 1886, the son of Elizabeth Easter Allen and her husband, John James Sutcliffe, an engineer. A lifelong love of singing came from involvement in the local cathedral choir. He worked as a telegraph engineer before migrating to Australia, apparently to work on new telegraph cable projects. On 5 June 1915, at Brunswick, Melbourne, he married Hilda Gertrude Wilson; they were to have two children.

Fascinated by the psychology of Freud, Adler, and particularly Jung, Sutcliffe joined the Australian Psychological Society, editing its magazine and acting as president from 1925 to 1930. By 1931 he had apparently gained a doctorate in psychology. He introduced the society to Jungian ideas on the importance of incorporating a metaphysical element in personal counselling.

Sutcliffe lectured on healthy living on behalf of Radiant Health Clubs and also edited the Radiant Health Messenger , which had an international readership. Through this magazine he came to the notice of the United States-based International New Thought Alliance (INTA), an umbrella group of those following alternative spirituality or liberal Christian paths, and was invited to their 1931 conference in Cleveland, Ohio. After being well received at the conference, Sutcliffe studied for his doctorate in divinity at an INTA-affiliated Divine Science Church in New York State.

Throughout this time Sutcliffe was developing the philosophy that he was to teach in his Schools of Radiant Living. He argued that people are threefold beings, comprising body, mind and spirit. Successful psychoanalysis must consider the relationship between mind and soul. Health and happiness can be achieved by changing diet, physical habits, attitudes and spiritual awareness. The first Sutcliffe School of Radiant Living was founded in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1931. During the next two decades he set up 36 schools: 24 in the United States, Canada, Hong Kong and Australia, and 12 in New Zealand.

Sutcliffe first visited New Zealand in 1938. Lecture tours by alternative health advocates found a ready audience in New Zealand, and by that year there was a Radiant Theatre in Christchurch, apparently financed by the businessman Thomas Edmonds. The rising sun symbol used by Edmonds’s company was popular with such movements, and was also used by Sutcliffe. One of New Zealand’s first Schools of Radiant Living was founded in Auckland in 1938, with Gertrude Hillary as secretary. Her son Edmund was briefly Sutcliffe’s assistant and also trained as a Radiant Living teacher.

By 1942 Sutcliffe had made Havelock North, with its history of alternative spirituality and pleasant climate, his home and the international headquarters of the movement. He bought the large Quaker-built house Swarthmoor and renamed it Peloha (for Peace, Love and Harmony). For the next four decades it hosted summer schools, conferences and Easter observances, and also functioned as a commercial health retreat. Hilda Sutcliffe died in Australia in 1944, and on 25 February 1955 Herbert married his secretary, Phyllis Evelyn Farley, at Hastings.

Radiant Living thrived in New Zealand from the 1940s to the 1960s. Many schools built or purchased their own premises, and annual banquets, often attended by mayors, MPs and other dignitaries, were held to celebrate the founding of each school. Nutrition took a prominent place in Sutcliffe’s teachings. To remove toxins from the body and mind, the Elimination Diet was commonly prescribed for a variety of ailments. The diet, based on food-combining and a high intake of fresh fruit, vegetables and their juices, predates much later mainstream dietary advice. Correct breathing, exercises to improve eyesight, and singing and music were also encouraged. All were an embodiment of the philosophy that by following ‘laws of nature’ ailments could be cured and quality of life improved.

Herbert Sutcliffe, usually dressed in a white suit, was a charismatic platform speaker, even known to turn cartwheels on stage in his 60s. For formal occasions at Peloha he wore a Masonic-style royal blue gown. He taught that dark colours had negative associations and encouraged members to bring colour into their lives. He gave personal consultations to thousands of people, pioneered the use of wire recordings, offered postal courses and ran a mail-order business in herbs and vitamins. He was also interested in homoeopathy, vitamin therapy and motivational sports psychology.

Sutcliffe died at Havelock North on 27 October 1971, survived by Phyllis and the children of his first marriage. Phyllis ran Peloha until her death in 1981, and it was sold in the late 1980s to Weleda, a manufacturer of herbal remedies. A large endowment was made to Victoria University of Wellington to establish the Herbert Sutcliffe scholarships in 1989. Other educational institutions, such as the Hohepa homes, also benefited.

Sutcliffe was sometimes authoritarian and overbearing, but even those who fell out with him respected his teachings. In 1998 one of his earliest texts, How to re-make your life (1931), was republished by a Californian ‘new age’ group. Although no formal schools remain, the holistic teachings of Herbert Sutcliffe are still followed by many in New Zealand and overseas.