Scandal and rivalry in libraries of old

Hamilton's first library
OPEN FOR BUSINESS: This splendid photo marks the opening of the Carnegie Library in Hamilton. Photo: Perry Rice, Hamilton Central Libraries.


Inspired by Perry Rice’s N8N article on the origins of Hamilton’s libraries, local historian Alan Sharp looks into the earliest days of libraries around the region. He uncovers a history that includes local rivalries, bureaucratic bungling, a fire, and more than a touch of scandal.

WHILE ON HOLIDAY I received a request for information that I knew could be easily answered by linking to an article published on N8N. When looking through its history pages for the article I wanted, I came upon Perry Rice’s item about the new 1908 home for the Hamilton Library. And in doing so I had a chuckle, as I was aware from previous research that in 1884 Hamiltonians were reported as feeling ashamed that even little Hukanui (Gordonton) had a public library, while they did not.

Looking up Papers Past , I found that the libraries arrived with the Militia, and then the pioneer settlers, but all the libraries that came before the Woodlands/Hukanui library experienced difficulties. Here is a summary of the earliest libraries in the central Waikato.


1865: Alexandra and Garrison [Pirongia]
Provincial funds were provided to supply a building and a £600 founding stock of books, but for a period the building was used as a home by the Adjutant and his family, with the books in storage. Then the library was opened and joined by a Debating Society. By 1874 there is press mention of the Alexandra Library, being a circulating library, with over 1,000 volumes in stock.

1866: Cambridge
By May the Cambridge Amateur Dramatic Club was holding performances to raise funds for a Cambridge Library. However when Corporal Francis was sent on a leave pass to Auckland, entrusted with raised funds to buy books, he instead spent it on “Dames de la lune” and was charged with embezzlement, upon his return. Two years later, with nothing to show by way of a library, there were accusations that the hotel keepers were doing well. When it was finally up and running, there were issues with the library building being cold, and out of the way. It appears that it took Cambridge some ten years to establish a library, that appealed to a growing number of subscribers. In 1872 the separately run reading room was wound up, and the periodicals and furniture were acquired by the library committee. By 1878 an immigrant cottage, granted to the committee, was re-located to alongside the Post Office, and with resident librarian, and reading room, the library committee was finally able to report growing patronage.

1872: Ngaruawahia
Fundraisers were held in May, and a library was opened in October. The appointed librarian was employed to open the library on a Wednesday between 12:30 and 1:30 pm, and on Saturday from 7 to 8pm. This led to misunderstandings as to when books could be exchanged, as often the librarian was out and about in the bush three miles distant, earning his income. By 1878 the library had been rehomed at the store of Messrs Davies and Friar. About this time there were references to ‘cliques’ forming over the vexing question of whether the proposed new public hall should also have provision for a public library. Public meetings called by the Library Committee were not being supported, and were postponed, or cancelled, due to lack of a quorum.

1874: Hamilton
I found surprisingly little in the press about the formation of, or fund raising for, a Hamilton Public Library. There is a report that in April 1874 a fire spread through several Hamilton buildings, but that the contents of the Bank of New Zealand, the Hamilton Library and the reading room were saved. In June 1876 the Waikato Times reports: “It says little for the literary states of the people of Hamilton that the excellent library provided by the Provincial Government, should have been so neglected. Since the fire which destroyed the reading-room, the books have been buried in the Court-house, stored away like so much disused lumber.”

The Times goes on to report that the Library Secretary was accused of fraud over issues surrounding the storage of the books. In July 1876 the paper commented that the questions surrounding a suitable building to house a public library were still not addressed, and that the former library stocks were still in storage, in the basement of the court-house. It hoped that the trustees would convene a public meeting, to address the issues.

In December 1877 and through into the New Year, the TC Hammond business enterprise started an advertising campaign for its dispensing Chemist, consultant Doctor’s rooms, Mercantile supplies, Sewing Machines and General Stationers, plus a Circulating Library of over 1,000 volumes and periodicals. This appears, by the content of the ads, to have been a wholly business enterprise rather than a public library.

It was April 1884 before public agitation saw a renewed drive to re-establish a public library and reading room in Hamilton. According to the Waikato Times: “Mr T. G. Sandes seconded the motion with great pleasure, and his principal reason for doing so was that he, like the proposer, wished to see a library established in Hamilton. He thought they had reason to feel ashamed of themselves when they considered that every other settlement in the Waikato, even Hukanui, had its public library, and they were without one Yet they looked upon Hamilton as a leading centre of population.”

In July the Hamilton Borough Council Mayor started up an establishment fund, and in December 1885 the first annual general meeting was held.



Woodlands historic homestead
Woodlands Historic Homestead – site of one of our earliest libraries. Photo: Woodlands


1883: Hukanui
In July there are reports of the young men of Hukanui and Woodlands organising a series of fundraisers, and reporting that the library was very much appreciated and a great boon, where they had so little other amusement. In 1884 an AGM for the Hukanui Public Library was advertised. In March it was reported that “The Hukanui Library, which has now been established a couple of years, seems to be in flourishing condition…” It went on to report that some 350 well-selected volumes were in hand.

Following the sale of the Eureka block, the Waikato Land Assn moved their headquarters to the newly established Woodlands Estate homestead and support facilities, at Hukanui (1880 – 1902). As large development contracts were being let to contractors, who were in turn seasonally employing hundreds of mainly single men, a need was seen to provide recreational facilities including a library and a public hall. At the time a trip to Hamilton by horse took two hours. These local facilities were also supported by those pioneering families who were determined to make a go of their militia farm allotment grants.

2018 Historic Hamilton calendar


…and for those who enjoy things historic – the 2018 Historic Hamilton NZ Calendar can be yours for just $6.  Featuring photos from the collections of Hamilton City Libraries, these can be picked up at any branch.


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Number 8 Network - a community website for the rural areas northeast of Hamilton, NZ, is run by Gordonton journalist/editor Annette Taylor.

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