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John Joseph Woods and “God Defend New Zealand”


John Joseph Woods (1849–1934) was a New Zealand teacher and songwriter, who is best known for winning a competition to set “God Defend New Zealand,” a poem by Thomas Bracken, to music, thus composing the tune to what later became New Zealand’s national anthem.  Woods was born in the then British colony of Van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania, Australia, in 1849 into an Irish family with fourteen other children, seven boys and seven girls. His father was a soldier.  After teaching in Tasmania for nine years, he migrated to New Zealand as a young man and worked for a time in Nelson, Christchurch, Dunedin and Invercargill. Eight years teaching in New Zealand led to a position as the head teacher of St Patrick’s School in Lawrence, Otago, and he moved there from Invercargill in 1874.  Woods was known as a good musician. He was choirmaster of the local Catholic church, and could play twelve different instruments, though he was best known for his skill on the violin.   While in Lawrence, Woods taught alongside an Irish widow called Harriet Conway (née Plunket) who already had two sons. They were married in September 1874 and had four children together, three sons and a daughter named Mary.  Singing a solo at his own wedding, Woods established that he was also a competent singer.

One night in the winter of June of 1876, Woods read about a competition in the Saturday Advertiser to compose music for the poem “God Defend New Zealand,” written in the 1870s by Irish-born, Victorian-raised immigrant Thomas Bracken of Dunedin.  According to tradition, he usually met the coach that delivered the news in the main street of Lawrence to pick up his paper. It was already 9 p.m., but he went straight to his piano and in that one sitting composed the tune for what later became the national anthem. In a later letter to A.H. Reed, he explained that the words inspired him so much he had to write music for them. He entered his composition under the nom de plume of “Orpheus”. The Advertiser sent it off with the eleven other submissions to Melbourne, where judging by three prominent Melbourne musicians had been arranged by George Musgrove. In October 1876, it was announced that the three independent judges unanimously agreed that Woods’ composition was the clear winner. The prize was ten guineas. The song was first performed at the Queen’s Theatre, Princes Street, Dunedin, on Christmas Day, 1876.

The rules of the competition meant that the submission’s copyright would belong exclusively to the Saturday Advertiser, which gave the manuscript to the Dunedin-based Charles Begg and Co to publish, but a nine-month delay in sending it to a publisher was followed by two months of waiting for publication. The end result was a shoddy edition with only one verse, which was rejected by the Advertiser. When promises of reprint failed to materialize, the Advertiser was forced to hand the copyright back over to Woods. He immediately organized publication by Hopwood and Crew in London, with Bracken’s blessing.   Bracken had not originally intended for his poem to assume the status of national anthem, and it was Woods who had consistently used the word “anthem” where Bracken referred to it as “hymn.”

In 1877, Woods stopped teaching and was appointed the county clerk for the Tuapeka County Council. He was known for working 13-hour days and keeping accounts of such standard that he was accepted as a fellow of the Registered Accountants of New Zealand.  Serving in this role, he also gained a reputation as an authority on county law, sought out by the council and clerks of other regions. Being a choirmaster, Woods’ focus in composing the melody for “God Defend New Zealand” was to make it simple and easy for children to sing. This proved to aid its success when the Premier George Grey visited Lawrence on March 11, 1878, and was welcomed by six hundred local schoolchildren singing what was by then beginning to be labelled as the “national anthem”.  Grey was very taken by the music and immediately sent a telegram to Bracken congratulating him.  A Māori version of “God Defend New Zealand” (Māori: “Aotearoa”, lit. ‘New Zealand’) was produced in 1878 by Thomas Henry Smith of Auckland, a judge in the Native Land Court, on request of Premier George Edward Grey. A copy of the Māori lyrics, using Aotearoa for its title, was printed in Otago newspapers in October 1878.  The English and Māori lyrics have slightly different meanings.

Woods was deeply involved in the affairs of the town. He was a member of many local clubs and societies. When he was made an Honorary Freeman of New Zealand, he was commended for his “efficiency, integrity and devotion to duty.”  He was also known as an expert on cultivating daffodils, of which his collection was the largest in the area. In 1884, Woods was elected first president of the local choral society.  He also organized the decoration of council office buildings to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897.  In 1897, Premier Richard Seddon presented a copy of words and music of “God Defend New Zealand” to Queen Victoria.  In 1902, Woods built a house of brick and wood on the corner of Lismore and Lancaster Streets which was his residence until he died.  Woods served as county clerk for 55 years until illness forced him to retire in 1932, aged 83.  He died in 1934 at the age of 85.

God Defend New Zealand became increasingly popular during the late 19th century and early 20th century, and in 1940 the New Zealand government bought the copyright and made it New Zealand’s ‘national hymn’ in time for that year’s centennial celebrations.   It was used at the British Empire Games from 1950 onward, but God Save the Queen” was New Zealand’s sole national anthem until the 1970s.     However, over the years the popularity of “God Defend New Zealand” continued to increase, and it was first used at the Olympics during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.  Following the performance at the Munich games, a campaign began to have the song adopted as the national anthem.  In May 1973 a remit to change the New Zealand flag, declare a New Zealand republic, and change the national anthem was voted down by the Labour Party at their national conference. In 1976 Garth Henry Latta from Dunedin presented a petition to Parliament asking “God Defend New Zealand” to be made the national anthem. With the permission of Queen Elizabeth II, it was gazetted as the country’s second national anthem on November 21, 1977, on equal standing with “God Save the Queen.”

Legally the two two national anthems of New Zealand, “God Save the Queen” and “God Defend New Zealand,” equal status, but “God Defend New Zealand” is more commonly used. An alternative official arrangement for massed singing by Maxwell Fernie was announced by the Minister of Internal Affairs, Allan Highet on May 31, 1979.  Woods’s original score was written in the key of A-flat major (concert pitch) and was better suited for solo and choral singing; Fernie’s arrangement changed the key down a semitone to G major. Until the 1990s, only the first verse of the English version was commonly sung. A public debate emerged after only the first Māori verse was sung at the 1999 Rugby World Cup match against England.  Since the late 1990s, the usual practice when performed in public is to perform the first verse of the national anthem twice, first in Māori and then in English.

The Ministry for Culture and Heritage has responsibility for the national anthems.  Their guidelines in the Gazette notice for choosing which anthem should be used on any occasion advise that “God Save the Queen” would be appropriate at any occasion where the Queen, a member of the royal family, or the Governor-General, when within New Zealand, is officially present or when loyalty to the Crown is to be stressed; while “God Defend New Zealand” would be appropriate whenever the national identity of New Zealand is to be stressed, even in association with a toast to Elizabeth II as Queen of New Zealand.  The copyright on the English lyrics for “God Defend New Zealand” expired from the end of the year that was 50 years after the death of the author (Bracken), that is, from January 1, 1949. The rights to the musical score passed into the public domain in the 1980s.

The following work by John Joseph Wood is contained in my collection:

God Defend New Zealand (New Zealand)

One thought on “John Joseph Woods and “God Defend New Zealand”

  1. This is really useful information, Thank you for providing this info about John Joseph Woods.
    [* *]

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