follow on twitter

lloyd godman news

Mythology of Place - Homage to James K Baxter - © 1993-94 - Lloyd Godman - Lawrence Jones

introductions - the three worlds of James K Baxter

James K. Baxter and His Family

Lawerence Jones

Although best known for the writings and social witness of the younger son, James K, Baxter, the Baxter family  made many and varied contributions to the little community of Brighton and to the wider Otago and New Zealand communities.  Archibald McColl Learmond Baxter (1881-1970) was born 13 December 1881 in his grandfather McColl's sod cottage on a farm  in the Brighton district.  On both sides of his family he was related to early Scottish highlander settlers in the area,  His paternal grandfather, John Baxter, first arrived in Otago from Rothesay in 1861, while his maternal grandfather, Archibald McColl, arrived from Ballachulish in 1859.  His father, also John, married Mary McColl in 1879.  There were six other male sons from the marriage and one daughter.  Archibald as a young man worked in Central Otago as rabbiter and ploughman until he got a small farm on Scroggs Hill.

He was a successful farmer and a community leader, but his life was disrupted by World War I.  He was, as  a convinced and outspoken socialist and pacifist,  conscientiously opposed to conscription, leading to his arrest, along with that of his five unmarried brothers, early in 1917 for non-compliance.  He and his brothers Jack and Sandy, after brief imprisonment in Wellington, were sent against their wills on a troopship to England in an attempt to force them to comply with the military.  He consistently refused military orders but was forcibly sent to France and then Belgium, where he was subjected to the cruelty of No. 1 Field Punishment, then sent to the front to be exposed to artillery fire, and finally confined to a mental hospital to try to force compliance.  He stuck to his beliefs, however, and was  sent home late in 1918.  These experiences are movingly and simply described in his autobiographical We Will Not Cease, first published in 1939.   On his return to Otago Archibald worked as a rabbiter and causal labourer. 
In 1920 Archibald met Millicent Amiel Brown (1888-1984), daughter of John Macmillan Brown, foundation Professor of English and Classics at Canterbury University College, and of Helen Connon Brown, the first woman honours graduate from a British Empire university and Principal of Christchurch Girls' High School.  Born in Christchurch 8 January 1888, Millicent  lost her mother when she was fifteen, was zealously pushed by her father to a university education at  the University of Sydney  and Newnham College, Cambridge.  After her return to New Zealand she lived with her father in Christchurch and, in 1920, in Dunedin, acting as his hostess and sometime teaching assistant.   Millicent and Archibald were married, against her father's wishes, in Dunedin on 2 February 1921.  Late in that year Archibald bought a small farm at Kuri Bush, where they lived until 1931.  The first son, Terence John, was born in Dunedin 23 May 1922, followed by the birth of James Keir, also in Dunedin, 29 June 1926.  For health reasons Archibald sold the farm in 1931 and bought a house in Brighton.  He retired from farming but did casual labour, the family's income being augmented in 1935 by an annuity to Millicent after the death of her father.  In Brighton Archibald and Millicent were both active in community affairs and in the peace movement, while Terence and James had the kind of seaside upbringing described in James's poems.  In 1935 the family shifted to Wanganui, where both boys attended Friends' School.  In 1937 they all went to England, where the boys attended Sibford School and Archibald wrote We Will  Not  Cease.  The family returned to New Zealand in late 1938 and took up residence in Brighton again.  James attended Friends' School again and then Kings High  School in Dunedin, while Terence went to work in Dunedin.  Terence, like his father, was a conscientious objector to war, and in 1941 was sentenced to Defaulter's Detention for the duration of the war for refusing military service.  James, who had been a precocious writer of poetry, began to receive publication in 1944 when he attended the University of Otago, and in early 1945 his first book, Beyond the  Palisade, appeared.  Immediately he was recognised as New Zealand's leading younger poet.

Photograph Lloyd Godman 1971

Following the War,  Terence and James moved out to form their own families.  Terence married Lenore Bond on 22 August 1947 in Dunedin and settled into a life of worker and family man.  They had three children, Kenneth, Katherine, and Helen.  James, to his mother's distress, dropped out of university and did various casual labouring jobs, taking advantage of  what bohemian life Dunedin could offer.  Late in 1947 he went to Christchurch, where he attended Canterbury University College intermittently and published in 1948 his second volume, Blow, Wind of Fruitfulness.  On 9 December 1948 in Napier he married Jacqueline Sturm, whom he had first met when she was a student at the University of Otago.  The couple settled in Wellington from late 1948 to 1965.  In those years their two children, Hilary and John, were born, and James consolidated his position as poet with such books as The Fallen House (1953), Howrah Bridge and other poems (1958), and Pig Island Letters (1966) and also wrote works of literary criticism and several plays.  In these years he radically changed his life style, joining Alcoholics Anonymous and the Catholic Church,  finishing a university degree at Victoria University College and a teacher training course at Wellington Teachers College, and working as a teacher, an editor at School Publications, and later as a postman.  In 1966 and 1967 he returned with his family to Dunedin as Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago and remained in  1968 to work in the Catholic Education Office. 

james K Baxter

Photograph Lloyd Godman 1971

During these Dunedin years he wrote much poetry and also a substantial group of plays that were produced by Patric Carey at the Globe Theatre.  From 1969 his life took another sharp turn as he felt called to leave his family and make a radical social witness as an advocate of voluntary poverty and communal living based on his interpretation of the spiritual aspects of Maori communal life.  First in Auckland, then at the little settlement of Jerusalem on the Wanganui River, briefly in Wellington, and then again at Jerusalem he gathered  open communities for social drop-outs,  and became a controversial national figure. Finally, exhausted and in ill health, he went to Auckland, where he died 22 October 1972.  Jersualem Sonnets (1970), Jerusalem Daybook (1971), and Autumn Testament (1972) were the main books from this final period.  His Collected Poems appeared posthumously in 1980, and the Collected Plays in 1982. 
     During these postwar years, Archibald and Millicent remained together in Brighton in a life of active retirement.  Both were accepted into the Catholic Church in 1965.  Upon Archibald's death in August 1970, Millicent  shifted into a small house in Dunedin, where she remained involved  with the Church and peace organisations and other social concerns, independent but looked after by Terence and by her friends, until her death on 3 July 1984.

   Frank McKay, The Life of James  K. Baxter (Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1990)
   Millicent Baxter, The Memoirs of Millicent Baxter (Whatmongo Bay: Cape Catley, 1981)

James K Baxter at Impulse 71
Photograph Lloyd Godman 1971

In the year before Baxter's death I had the chance to meet him once in person at  the Catholic Administration centre where we spoke briefly and then when he spoke at  Impulse 71 at the town hall in Dunedin. It was also at  this time when I became  interested in photography.  Somehow in my archive  of images from this period  this image survived

Lloyd Godman