Most people know that parliament moved from Auckland to Wellington around 1865, so that South Island representatives would not have so far to travel. You might not know that because of that shift, New Zealand’s first ever national library was literally thrown into the sea.
In 1862 a temporary session of Parliament was to be held in Wellington. William Fox, the Chief Justice, members of the Ministry and “a great number of members of the General Assembly [i.e. Parliament] from Auckland”*, travelled by steamer from Auckland to Wellington, a voyage of a couple of days. With them was the entire national library, purchased the year before for a mere £200, in several cases.
After repairing some problems with the pumps and a water-filled compartment, their steamer White Swan left Auckland, taking the Eastern route. 18 miles south of Castle Point on the Wairarapa Coast it touched a reef. The brush was light, and its captain thought it was a log of wood, but a compartment began to fill with water.
In spite of heavy surf, and within five minutes, all the passengers and crew had made it to shore on boats, not far from the wreck of the steamer, which Captain Harper had intentionally run ashore, probably saving many lives. It must have been at this point that William Fox (1812-1893), Premier of New Zealand, is reported to have offered £150 to get the cases of documents and books out of the hold. The able bodied crew, from stewards to oilers and wipers, warmed to the task and this was done.
What occurred next was the first of many disposals of books that mark the sometimes deplorable history of the National Library of New Zealand. Fox ordered the men to float the cases ashore by throwing them into the sea. The forces of nature had other ideas, and the cases of precious books and papers sailed in the opposite direction. They were never seen again.
In years to come, this calamity came to serve guileful MPs. If it was not expedient to find a document as requested in the House, it was common to hear a parliamentarian say it must have been lost in the wreck of the White Swan.
A happy ending? This time, yes. After the disposal of New Zealand’s first library, the Library Committee managed to persuade Parliament to vote a massive £500 along with private bill fees to replace the lost books and expand the library. A long list of books worth £800 was ordered from England, by far the largest purchase up to that time. And British Treasury decided to donate many more volumes! so that books were arriving in New Zealand for months afterwards, until New Zealand could boast the legendary General Assembly Library of New Zealand, one of the finest libraries of the 19th century, which became part of the National Library in 1965.
So you might say, the National Library has a tradition of disastrous loss leading to generous replenishment.
Perhaps generosity is just around the corner for us, in 2021.
*Details are from Papers Past.
Research and written by Bill Direen