George von Zedlitz arrives in Wellington

22 March 1902

Painting of George von Zedlitz by Christopher Perkins, 1933 (Adam Art Gallery, VUW.1933.1V)

Victoria College’s first professor of modern languages joined the fledgling institution’s four foundation professors. Despite a less than ringing endorsement from New Zealand’s London-based Agent-General William Pember Reeves – ‘You are the best of a poor lot’ – the urbane intellectual was an immediate success as a lecturer and enriched Wellington’s cultural life.

Just before Britain entered the First World War, von Zedlitz compounded his misfortune in having a German father by offering his services to Germany in a non-combatant capacity. He was an easy target as anti-German sentiment grew. In October 1915 Parliament passed an Alien Enemy Teachers Act to force Victoria to sack him. The government stymied attempts to reappoint him to his chair after the war.

To make ends meet, he founded the University Tutorial School. He was also active in the egalitarian Workers’ Educational Association. Victoria made him professor emeritus when he turned 65, and he also served for five years on the Senate of the University of New Zealand. In the 1970s Victoria University’s new von Zedlitz building was named in his honour.

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