Story: Woodhouse, Alice

Page 1 - Woodhouse, Alice

Woodhouse, Alice

1883–1977

Journalist, librarian, broadcaster, radio quiz contestant, writer

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

Alice Woodhouse was born in Dunedin on 14 December 1883, one of three children of Edith Bathgate and her husband, John Frederick Woodhouse, a solicitor. She began reading at the age of four and was educated at private schools for girls in Dunedin, where her developing interest in literature was especially nurtured. She was also encouraged by her father to extend her knowledge by referring to books or encyclopaedias for information.

From 1910 to 1919 she worked at the weekly Otago Witness as editor of the women’s page. In 1925, while with relatives in Wellington recuperating from an illness, she applied for a position at the Alexander Turnbull Library. The following year a vacancy occurred, and from December 1926 she became one of the staff of four, plus two housekeepers. She was employed in the reference and cataloguing section, putting into practical use her strong literary sense and formidable powers for orderliness and memorisation. In time, as the library expanded and its staff increased, she was appointed reference librarian and assistant chief librarian. From February 1943 until December 1944 she acted in the position of the chief librarian, C. R. H. Taylor, while he was absent on war service.

In 1946 she retired from the Turnbull Library, but on learning that the Russell Duncan collection of more than a thousand books and pamphlets of historical importance had been bequeathed to the Hawke’s Bay Art Gallery and Museum in Napier, she offered to catalogue the material. As honorary librarian she remained with the museum for 23 years, mostly working on the compilation of a local history collection. Although she relinquished this position in February 1971, she retained a practical interest as consultant librarian.

In the early 1940s some friends persuaded her to enter a recently introduced radio quiz programme, ‘Information Please’, on station 2ZB, Wellington. She won £1 and discovered that she had both a taste and a facility for answering general knowledge questions. When the radio ‘King of Quiz’ series was inaugurated in 1944, she won six weekly contests to qualify for the title ‘Queen of Quiz’, an honour that was to bring her nationwide prominence when she defended it over the 20-year life of the series. She was also chosen as one of a panel to represent New Zealand in a radio quiz contest between New Zealand and New South Wales. New Zealand won.

Until late 1975 Alice Woodhouse was a frequent guest panellist on the National Programme’s ‘Stump the Brains Trust’ radio series. When she decided to end her association with this at the age of 92 she was undoubtedly the oldest quiz panellist in New Zealand and probably in the world. Her skill in these question-and-answer programmes she traced to the meticulous early training she had received from her father, her exceptionally retentive memory, and her many years of work researching replies to reference enquiries at the Alexander Turnbull Library.

Throughout her life Alice Woodhouse maintained an active interest in many organisations. She was the first woman member of the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Institute of Public Administration as well as being on the executive of the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Library Association, a member of the national council and a vice president of the New Zealand Founders’ Society, and she served on the Hawke’s Bay regional committee of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust. She was also a frequent broadcaster of radio talks covering a wide variety of historical and literary topics, and her published written works include Very occasional verses (1927), British regiments in Napier, 1858–1867 (1970), The naming of Napier (1970), and articles in the Turnbull Library Record .

Alice Woodhouse never married, and died aged 93 on 7 October 1977 at Havelock North. By nature she was a solitary person, essentially private and self-effacing, yet she willingly shared her vast knowledge and invariably went to considerable lengths to help anyone who sought her assistance. She was known to have a ‘whimsical sense of humour’, a distinctive laugh, and a manner of speaking that, while sometimes abrupt, was always direct and to the point. The quiet but totally dedicated service she gave over many years to both the Alexander Turnbull and Hawke’s Bay Art Gallery and Museum libraries was immeasurable and undoubtedly contributed to the high esteem in which both institutions are held. To the New Zealand public generally, however, she is best remembered as radio’s ‘Queen of Quiz’.