The poet Thomas Bracken (1841-98) was born in the small settlement of Clonee in County Meath, Ireland. Orphaned young, he was sent to Australia to live with an uncle who farmed at Moonee Ponds, near Melbourne. He was initially apprenticed to a pharmacist but later worked as a station hand and shearer. His first volume of verse appeared in 1867, and there was a steady output from his pen until his final years.
After moving to Dunedin in 1869, Bracken concentrated on journalism as his main source of income. In 1875 he helped to establish a weekly newspaper, the Saturday Advertiser, which he also edited. In the edition of 1 July 1876 he published a five-stanza poem of his own composition titled ‘National Hymn’ and announced a contest with a prize of ten guineas for the person who composed the best air to accompany his words. The judges were trio of reputable Melbourne-based German-born musicians: Herr Zelman, Herr Siede and Herr Zeplin. They unanimously chose by an entry submitted by John Joseph Woods, head teacher at St Patrick’s Catholic School in the town of Lawrence, ninety-six kilometres north of Dunedin.
Born in Tasmania, Woods was a versatile musician who could play several instruments and also served as choirmaster of Lawrence’s Catholic church. In later life he described how he arrived at his melody to the publisher A. H. Reed: ‘On reading the beautiful and appealing words, I immediately felt like one inspired...I set to work instanter and never left my seat ’til the music was finished late on in the night.’
God defend New Zealand was first performed in public at Dunedin’s Queens Theatre on Christmas Day, 1876, sung by the Lydia Howard Burlesque and Opera Bouffe Troupe, backed by the Dunedin Royal Artillery Band. Although it proved popular with the general citizenry from the outset, official recognition was a long time coming. It was not until 1977 that the New Zealand government granted the song equal status with God save the Queen as a national anthem.
Not everyone has responded as enthusiastically to Bracken’s words as Woods did. There has been much puzzlement over the years about the reference to ‘Pacific’s triple star’ in the first stanza. Competing explanations of this phrase are explored in Max Cryer’s 2004 book about the anthem Hear our voices we entreat. According to one entertaining hypothesis, Bracken was alluding to the three-star label on Speights beer bottles. Although the poet is known to have been fond (perhaps even a little too fond) of this Dunedin product, which was first brewed in 1876, the label in question did not appear until the 1920s.
When Sir George Grey visited Lawrence, as Premier of the country, in March 1878, a large gathering of local school children sang God defend New Zealand to him, with Woods conducting. Deeply moved, he asked the composer for the original music to add to his collection of New Zealand artifacts. He later wrote to Bracken requesting the original manuscript of the words. Both are now in the Library’s safekeeping.
The God defend New Zealand original score and lyrics were inscripted on UNESCO's Memory of the World register in New Zealand, recognising their significance and value to New Zealand Aotearoa's cultural heritage.
Related resources: Hear our voices, we entreat : the extraordinary story of New Zealand's national anthems by Max Cryer.