Kenneth Cumberland – One of New Zealand’s Most Influential Geographers Dies

18 April 2011

Professor Kenneth Cumberland (CBE, FRSNZ), the inaugural Head of the Department of Geography (1946-1978) at The University of Auckland (formerly the Auckland University College), has died at the age of 97.

Kenneth Cumberland, recipient of the CBE for his services to geography, was the first geographer to be elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand.  He was Vice President of the International Geographical Union, founding editor of the New Zealand Geographer (1945-54) and presenter of the television series Landmarks.

Kenneth Cumberland arrived in New Zealand from England in 1938, after completing his undergraduate years at the University of Nottingham and his Masters at the University of London. He was initially appointed to the Canterbury University College as a lecturer.  In 1946 he moved to Auckland to take up a position as Senior Lecturer in Charge of Geography at the Auckland University College (now The University of Auckland) when the College established a  Geography Department in response to a growing demand for geography secondary teachers and the success of the subject at Canterbury.

His early years in the department are revealed in his memoirs…

”Throughout 1946, I ran the new department alone, teaching both the physical basis of geography and the cultural elements as well as the practical course of mapwork. I had transferred to Auckland the editorial office and the responsibilities of editing the New Zealand Geographer. And with 200 students, I was kept pretty busy. What at the time was the largest first-year class in the college gave me ammunition with which to argue for extra staff, and for an assurance that I would be authorized to extend the teaching of geography through all undergraduate stages.”

Professor Cumberland’s research and writing focused on big geographic questions in the context of national development. His book Soil Erosion in New Zealand: a geographic reconnaissance which was published in 1944, was a major contribution as it challenged land management practices and called for, as a matter of urgency, a programme of soil conservation designed on a regional basis.

Kenneth Cumberland is credited with having played a significant role in popularising geography both in schools and with the public. He and his colleagues wrote numerous resources for teachers. These publications formed the foundation for teaching in New Zealand’s fifth form syllabus for some 20 years. He also authored the Whitcombe’s Atlas of Geography for New Zealand and Australian Schools in 1942. Thirteen editions were made of the atlas between 1942 and 1957.

Professor Cumberland is most widely known for the 10-part television series Landmarks which he wrote and presented.  This looked at New Zealand history through landscape, particularly the impact of human settlement and technology ( It was shown on Television New Zealand in 1981 and was awarded the Feltex Award for Best Documentary in 1982. This series made Kenneth Cumberland a household name.

Professor Cumberland had a strong belief in the influential role that geographers should have in society, and he carried this through to public life as an elected member of local and regional governments, including chairing the Auckland regional planning committee.

Professor Kenneth Cumberland retired in 1978 to his Te Kuiti farm. He will be remembered as one of New Zealand’s most influential geographers.


Cumberland, K (2007) Kenneth B. Cumberland: A memoir, New Zealand Geographer, 63: 62-68

Moran W (2000), Exceptionalism in the antipodes, Progress in Human Geography 24(3): 429-438