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Liberty Belle 5

Liberty Belle 5

By Deborah Coddington

As you know, I’m at Wolfson College, one of the very new colleges in Cambridge, compared with the centuries-old Peterhouse, St John’s, Queens’ (yes – the apostrophe’s in the right place; there were two queens), King’s, Gonville & Caius (pronounced Keys). In the annual league tables of British universities published yesterday, Cambridge came first in rankings of excellence – ahead of Oxford.

Wolfson was founded in 1965 as University College but changed its name in 1972 when the Wolfson Foundation gave a huge grant for buildings and development. Who is this Wolfson, whose name I see connected with other colleges at Cambridge, with Oxford, and with hospitals’ research?

Sir Isaac Wolfson (1887-1991) was ‘a Jewish boy from the Gorbals’, the son of a penniless immigrant from Russia who settled in Glasgow and set up business as a cabinet maker. Isaac made his money through his successful mail order business, GUS (Great Universal Stores). In 1955 he established the Wolfson Foundation for the ‘advancement of health, education and youth activities’.

His son, Lord Wolfson of Marylebone, is the current chairman and the Foundation’s three goals are to create excellence, to act as a catalyst, and to support promising but under-funded projects. Today the Wolfson Foundation has an annual income of £38 million pounds, annual investments of £685 million, it employs just six – that’s right, six – people and the administration costs are only .13 of its total expenditure.

Put this in perspective. This Foundation invests roughly the same amount as the NZ government spends on welfare, but how many people are employed in the various welfare bureaucracies? And what would be the administration costs? Well, let’s not go there, it’s Friday, after all. But you get my drift. Cut out the middle man and we might see welfare make a difference, instead of lock people into poverty.


Not long after I arrived here I received an email from a friend in Auckland, who told me her father, also a Jewish immigrant, was good friends with Isaac Wolfson in Glasgow when they were small boys. As she said, “What he, and my father and mother and so many of those who distinguished themselves in useful careers had in common, was being born to poor, recently immigrant foreign parents, who held firm to certain values, principles and practices which provided a pathway for their children.”

These people were dirt poor – far worse off than the worst beneficiary in New Zealand today. So why do we keep making up excuses for beneficiaries when their children aren’t fed properly, don’t go to school, get pregnant as teenagers, abandon their pregnant girlfriends, steal, rape and kill? Why do reporters in the daily newspapers constantly let parents off the hook, without asking the hard questions? When the Herald did a story on a solo mother in south Auckland with six children – youngest a few months old - who couldn’t pay the power bill and had cold water, why wasn’t she asked why she kept on having children if she couldn’t afford to look after them? Why wasn’t she asked who she thought would pay for their upkeep?

Paul Holmes asked that question once of an 18-year-old solo mother on his programme and she was shocked. Well, as P.J. O’Rourke says, ‘if I can’t be part of the fun in creating these children, why should I have to support them?’

My point is that poor people are not automatically bad parents. My father was the son of immigrants to New Zealand who first settled in Raurimu where Granddad helped build the spiral before becoming a policeman. My parents’ disposable income when they had a young family would be nowhere near the income and help today’s married beneficiaries receive, but my parents brought us up with those same “firm values, principles and practices which provided a pathway for their children.”

I take heart from the immigrants who continue to settle in New Zealand. Like 18-year-old Irene Klymchuk from Hamilton, who last week won – out of very stiff competition – the annual $200,000 Douglas Myers scholarship to study at Gonville & Caius at Cambridge. This young woman came to New Zealand from the Ukraine with her parents six years ago, unable to speak any English. Now she’s as excited as a Labrador puppy – and so she should be – as she anticipates packing to study in the best university in Britain. She said she wondered why students in New Zealand complain about tertiary fees; “In my country you can’t even go to university.”

Here’s another nice story about Wolfson College, philanthropy, and happy endings. The library and concert hall here are called the Lee Seng Tee library and hall. Mr Lee’s daughter was at Wolfson, and one evening was sitting at dinner telling her companion about her father’s struggle to export pineapples from Singapore. It seems the pineapples kept rotting in the ship’s hold. Her companion just happened to be an expert in fruit preservation and solved the problem. Mr Lee went on to make buckets of money and gave much of it back to Wolfson to build a beautiful library building, a hall, and peaceful garden, across which I look every time I write to you.

Yours in liberty,

Deborah Coddington

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