Where Hamilton’s libraries began


Perry Rice records a special moment dear to the heart of all librarians and bibliophiles.

In February 1908 a wonderful event took place in Hamilton. In the day, when there was no television, no movies in theatres (well, yes there were, but not in Hamilton), no Kindles, no book exchanges, no world wide web, no DVD players, no cell phones and no tablets, there were books! Yes, books.

Oh, but books were expensive and few could afford them, let alone have their own private library. It had been thus since medieval times. It was still thus during the Renaissance and, despite the invention of the printing press and lead type, and the resurgence of classical fonts at the time, books have remained expensive for vast numbers in most societies. It was ever thus and will not improve this week.

Hence the organisational institutions (mechanics’ institutes, athenaeums, professional bodies, universities), the subscription societies and, eventually, the public libraries.

I’m biased. I admit that. I recall my first visit to the Dowling Street Children’s Library, a branch of the Dunedin Public Library, full of children’s books and even a couple of Thomas & Friends books. Oh yes, they were written and published way back in the early 1940s and I had some of my own. The library was to me what the cave was to Aladdin. I have never lost my enthusiasm for libraries – tertiary, public or my own.

My own collection of books, small though it is, is not pretentiously referred to as a library. It is in a separate room specifically furnished to accommodate books and one or two people in comfortable chairs so reading may be had in quietude and a reflective atmosphere. Not everyone can do this and even fewer people could have in Hamilton one hundred or more years ago. And here’s where that very wonderful thing happened: in 1908 the Carnegie library was opened by none other than the Prime Minister himself, Sir Joseph Ward.

Hamilton had been lucky enough to secure a grant from the Carnegie Foundation to build a new and much larger library. The paramount and, I suppose, absolute stipulation the industrial millionaire Andrew Carnegie made was that where his funds were granted to establish a public library, the library must be free. Indeed, out of view, on the lintel above the door and embossed in concrete plaster or stone, were the words ‘Free Public Library’. Hamilton people now had their first free library.

Ah, the photo. Yes, well chronologically Edwardian but sartorially very Victorian. We know the identity of only one of the party – the Prime Minister is in the pith helmet. Without proper research my guess is that a future Mayor, J R Fow, stands behind the lady on Ward’s right. Perhaps it is Mayor James Bond standing on the ground left of Ward, and then Bond’s wife seated on Ward’s left.

There are some decidedly interesting characters in this photo but look at the clothing: this is in February! Of course they had to dress for the occasion, but three-piece suits? I ask you – and a hat! Bowlers were the thing of servitude; they were for many years the dress uniform hat for police detectives. Homburgs were the stuff of princes. Did Bond think he was a prince? Boaters were the thing of summer and spring and so were parasols. The parasols here though have an uncanny resemblance to black umbrellas (except the one furled on the right).

Oh, yes, last thought – photos like this show, looking at the men’s hats, suit coats, collars and ties, and the ladies’ dresses, the incredibly difficult task facing photograph historians every day. Victorian? Edwardian? Just happens we know the date of this one and, as they say across the ditch, ‘too easy mate’.

Story: Perry Rice, Hamilton Central Libraries.Perry Rice

Email Perry here.

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3 thoughts on “Where Hamilton’s libraries began

  • January 13, 2018 at 8:16 am

    Happy New Year 2018.

    Came across this item while on holiday,and looking for some copy a contact wanted.

    When home again I will supply N8N with newspaper clippings about the story behind the push to get a Public OR Subscription library in Hamilton.

    Think you will all be surprised as too who had the library, that the well read of Hamilton went to, for the latstt in reading material.


  • January 20, 2018 at 9:52 am


    Promised research above completed.
    Have sent of a copy to former number8 email address. [2 MB]

    Not sure if it will be forwarded as I read there have been problems experienced with the forwarding of old Vodafone supported servers.

    If not recieved, you have my email, and you can contact me directly.


    Alan SHARP.

  • Pingback: When ‘even Hukanui’ had a library and Hamilton didn’t… - Number 8 Network

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