Sir George Grey Special Collections

346-A13113, Heritage Images. Portrait of Sir George Grey.About Sir George Grey

Information about the man who gifted us much of his private library collection, which now forms a significant part of the Sir George Grey Special Collections. 

Sir George Grey, (April 1812 – September 1898) was a soldier, explorer, Governor of South Australia, twice Governor of New Zealand, Governor of Cape Colony (South Africa), Premier of New Zealand and a writer.

Over the decades, Auckland has been fortunate in attracting a number of remarkable benefactors. However, pride of place must surely go to Sir George, whose many gifts to the city include the magnificent Roman Missal from 15th Century Besançon.

A man of wide intellectual interests, fascinated with languages but also knowledgeable about science, literature and history, Sir George amassed impressive collections of books. He relied heavily on shipboard deliveries from London booksellers to stock his shelves, although he was also a keen purchaser of local publications while living in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand.

His philanthropy began with the donation of books and artworks to the British Museum in the 1840s. On his departure from Cape Town in 1861 he gave more than 3500 volumes to the South African Public Library. He hinted several times in the 1870s that we would do something similar for Auckland once a free public library was established there.

The Auckland Mechanics Institute had provided a library service for its members (few of whom were actually mechanics) since 1842. By the late 1870s the Institute was in financial difficulty. Auckland City Council took over the library and opened its doors to the public in September 1880. Sir George watched from the sidelines for a couple of years. Then on 19 August 1882, while in Wellington on parliamentary business, he sent a telegram to Auckland stockbroker James Shera, reiterating his wish to give books and manuscripts to the city and asking Shera to ‘speak to the Mayor on the subject’.

Sir George gave a public lecture in June 1883 to explain the nature of his gift and he packed out Auckland’s grandest venue, the Theatre Royal with Auckland’s book enthusiasts.  Before the transfer of Grey’s book collection began from his home on Kawau Island, a handsome new building was erected on the corner of Wellesley Street and Coburg (now Kitchener) Street, to house the generous donation. Today this building is wholly occupied by the Auckland Art Gallery, but until 1971 it housed Auckland Public Library as well as the city’s art collection.

By the time of the 1887 opening, Sir George had donated about 8000 volumes – more than half of the library’s stock. Because he continued to give generously for the rest of his life, sending books to Auckland even after his return to England in 1894, the tally eventually reached 14,000. This does not include his personal correspondence, which amounts to more than 3000 letters.

Sir George’s gift was exceptional in quality as well as quantity.  He gave the library 34 medieval manuscripts (the earliest dating back to the twelfth century) and 36 incunabula (books printed before 1501), including works by such important early printers as Gunther Zainer, Aldus Manutius, Nicolaus Jenson and William Caxton. He donated first editions of Shakespeare, Blake and Wordsworth. There are letters to him from Charles Darwin and Florence Nightingale. Among the irreplaceable New Zealand items he bequeathed are one of only two known copies of Ko te katihama (the country’s first printed work), the original hand-written versions of both the words and music to ‘God defend New Zealand’ and manuscripts that he commissioned from Ngati Whatua leader Paora Tuahere, revered Arawa storyteller Te Rangikaheke and French eccentric Baron de Thierry.

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Continuing the legacy

By the turn of the 20th century Auckland had one of the finest libraries in the Southern Hemisphere. Later benefactors enhanced the richness. Pre-eminent among them were the Shaw brothers, Fred (1849-1927) and Henry (1850-1928).

In 1913, Henry was appointed joint curator of the Grey collection with recently retired chief librarian Edward Shillington. By this time, he was himself an unstinting library donor. By 1928 he had given about 2300 books to the library, including 16 medieval and early Renaissance manuscripts and 65 incunabula. Fred’s donations were also generous, amounting to approximately 1400 volumes. With the eight pre-1501 printed books that Fred presented, the library's tally of incunabula rose to 111, the largest number in any single New Zealand location.

Other donations contributed to the library collections, in 1924 the chief librarian John Barr  secured the gift of Whangarei pharmacist Frank Reed’s extraordinary collection of books and manuscripts relating to Alexandre Dumas père, author of Les trois mousquetaires and Le comte de Monte-Cristo. Over time, Reed gradually built up the most extensive Dumas collection outside France, including 500 first editions in French and English, 2000 sheets of original manuscripts and 51 typescript volumes of translations, letters, and bibliographies. Everything came to the library on Reed’s death in 1953.

Philanthropy is still alive in the 21st century. In recent years, Auckland architect John Stacpoole has given the library world-class collections concerning the novelist Anthony Powell and Irish history and literature.

Not all of the library’s treasures were donations, however. Some items, which were purchased in the normal way, have increased greatly in scarcity and value with passing years. Others were bought from catalogues, while still affordable, by astute librarians who recognised their lasting worth. There have been some noteworthy last-minute rescues from the jaws of destruction too. Were it not for speedy salvage operations by library staff the Mercury Theatre records and Herman Schmidt’s photographic negatives might have been lost forever.

Source: Real Gold: Treasures from Auckland City Libraries.

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