Obituary: Jim Milburn, internationally successful teacher and publisher

Jim Milburn: educator and publisher; b July 24, 1924; d December 29, 2021.

Jim Milburn, a teacher fondly remembered for his love of books and spoken word, has died aged 97. An influential publisher, books and the value of education were at the heart of everything he did.

In 1957 Milburn, along with Hugh and Beverley Price, and his wife Barbara, founded the Price Milburn publishing house. The business has become an international success, helping generations of children learn to read and love books.

A 2005 interview with Jim and Barbara, who was also a teacher, summarized his philosophy of education.

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Barbara described how her Hutt Intermediate students wrote to their favorite author, with some choosing Roald Dahl.

She was surprised to receive a letter saying that Dahl was far too busy to waste time answering the children. Jim responded by saying he was also a publisher and the kids were potential buyers and deserved a response. He received an apologetic response and the children received a detailed response.

“Dear children, far across the sea,

How kind of you to write to me.

I like to read the things you say

When you’re miles and miles away.

Young people, and I think I’m right,

Are more pleasant when they are out of sight.

Retired teachers and publishers Jim and Barbara Milburn with their pet bulldog, Piggie, in 2002. Both shared a love of reading.

Kent Blechynden / Stuff

Retired teachers and publishers Jim and Barbara Milburn with their pet bulldog, Piggie, in 2002. Both shared a love of reading.

Jim, then in his 80s and a happy computer user, told the interviewer that the best way for children to develop a large vocabulary was to read books.

“If you work on a machine, you get a limited vocabulary. Children may end up with a very strong technical vocabulary, but not be able to express ideas and emotions.

A letter he was very proud of came from a girl he had taught at Maidstone Intermediate. He remembers walking into a class where children were supposed to read silently.

A 12-year-old girl scribbled and told him she didn’t like to read. He invited her to join the group of libraries he ran as a discussion forum for books and lent her a copy of Tom’s Midnight Gardenthrough Philippa Pearce.

Milburn's college friend Hugh Price helped him found the Price Milburn publishing company.  (File photo)

Maarten Holl / Stuff

Milburn’s college friend Hugh Price helped him found the Price Milburn publishing company. (File photo)

When she then went to school in the South Island, she sent a letter thanking Milburn for encouraging her to read.

“Nobody here seems to care, you just get a book and you’re supposed to read it and nobody asks how it was.”

Along with returning the book, she sent in her old school uniform, asking Milburn to sell it and use the proceeds to purchase books for the school library.

James Dalton Milburn, QSM, was the manager of Raroa and Maidstone Intermediates and the Avalon School, as well as assistant manager of Silverstream.

One of his first pupils at Maidstone was Nick Barnett, who was to become deputy editor at Things.

In 2011, he wrote to Chief of the Superior Hutt fondly recalling the impact Milburn had on him as a student.

Jim Milburn was an influential and highly regarded teacher.

Provided/Provided

Jim Milburn was an influential and highly regarded teacher.

“We had book-related quizzes; we joined and regularly ordered at a book club; our teachers read us good books; and the library was the physical heart of the school.

Milburn, he recalls, encouraged him to read everything from lord of the flies to the Tintin and Asterix books.

“It’s only now, 40 years later, that I realize how important and lasting this kind of commitment from teachers can be.

Milburn was born to Thomas and Ada in 1924. His parents, who had emigrated from Manchester in 1912, settled in Petone, and he lived there until his marriage to Barbara in 1955.

Although his family was not wealthy, there was always reading material in his home, often borrowed from the Petone Working Men’s Club library. As a child, he read avidly, whether it was comic books, boys’ annuals, or children’s classics like Alice in Wonderland.

Beverley Price, who wrote as Beverley Randell, with some of her children's books.  (File photo)

Ross Giblin / Stuff

Beverley Price, who wrote as Beverley Randell, with some of her children’s books. (File photo)

His childhood was happy, but he didn’t enjoy Hutt Valley High School. Later he told friends that “secondary school was horrible – a miserable time”. Small in stature, he felt he didn’t fit in at a school where being in the first XV was all that mattered.

It may have been there that he acquired the aversion to bullies that would characterize his teaching career.

After leaving school at 17, he took a job with the Inland Revenue Department, and it was only by accident that he became a teacher. A young colleague applied to the teacher training college and he hoped to impress her by applying as well.

The war, however, interfered with his plans, and he spent three years in the Air Force, part of it in the Pacific, before returning to teachers’ college in 1946. At Victoria College, where he was a champion debater, he completed an MA.

His teaching career got off to the worst possible start at Hutt Central. After taking a professional development course, he found that his classroom was empty. When he asked the headmaster where his pupils were, he was told that they now had a “real teacher” and that Milburn should consider himself the school gardener.

He was to become a highly respected headmaster, much loved by his former students.

However, it is at Price Milburn editions that he will be best remembered. The business grew out of a book she wrote on public speaking in 1957, but for which he could not find a publisher. Price, a college friend, offered to help, and Price Milburn was born.

It became one of New Zealand’s most successful publishing houses, supporting authors such as James K Baxter, Bruce Mason and Roger Hall.

But with Beverley Price writing children’s books, under the name Beverley Randell, she increasingly focused on educational books, encouraging children to read.

Their list of learning to read and storybooks had over 400 titles, all edited or written by Randell, with sales running into the millions.

While the Prices handled the editing and production of the business, the Milburns handled sales and distribution from the garage of their Silverstream home.

During all those busy years, Milburn worked as a full-time teacher, lecturer at a teachers college, school inspector, and school principal.

Murray Gadd, who taught with Milburn and is now an education consultant, says his impact on the education scene in Wellington has been immense.

Jim and Barbara Milburn played key roles in the Price Milburn publishing house.

Provided/Provided

Jim and Barbara Milburn played key roles in the Price Milburn publishing house.

“He was beloved by those of us who taught under him and was widely recognized as the senior headmaster of the Wellington region with an intimidating intellect and quick wit.”

Books, he said, were at the heart of everything he did. “One of the reasons Jim enjoyed teaching so much was that it allowed him to indulge his love of books and reading by inspiring others to read and write as he loved to do.”

Although his obituary describes him as an “extraordinary publisher,” Beverley Price says his greatest achievement has been as an educator. He had an extraordinary passion for books and a desire to inspire children to share his love for writing and speaking. –

Sources: Nick Barnett, Murray Gadd, Melda Townsley, Simon Ryder-Lewis, Susan Price and Beverley Price.