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Illustrated Guide to Christchurch and Neighbourhood

The Philosophical Institute of Canterbury

page 97

The Philosophical Institute of Canterbury.

The origin and early history of this Society, a matter of considerable interest to many in this province, has been till recently enveloped in somewhat of a haze, owing to the unfortunate loss of the minutes of proceedings and other papers connected with the first few years of its existence. Fortunately, Dr. Von Haast, F.R.S., one of the promoters of the Institute, undertook a short time ago the task of compiling the history, which he read at the last Annual Meeting of the Institute, he then occupying the position of retiring President. In 1862, the two Institutions in Canterbury having an intellectual aim of a general character were the Colonists' Society in Lyttelton and the Mechanics' Institute in Christchurch, but as these Societies did not offer to their members any facilities to bring before the public the results of their own observations and researches, all of value in a country so very lately settled by Europeans, Dr. Yon Haast suggested to several of our leading citizens that a Society for purely scientific and literary purposes might be formed amongst us.

Warmly encouraged in this idea, he invited by circular, dated July 16, 1862, a small number of our prominent citizens to a preliminary meeting, to be held at the offices of the Geological Society in the Government Buildings, for the 24th July, to consider the project. The meeting took place on the day appointed, His Lordship the Bishop of Christchurch being in the chair. The proposal to found a scientific society under the name of the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury was received with great favour, and the motion to constitute it at once was adopted unanimously, and the necessary steps were taken to invite a number of the professional scientific members of our community to join in the undertaking. The first meeting was attended by the following gentlemen: The Right Rev. Lord Bishop of Christchurch, the Hon. Mr Justice Gresson, the Hon. W.S. Moorhouse, Messrs A.C. Barker, John Bealey, Samuel Bealey, Thomas Cass, Edward Dobson, William Donald, Julius Haast, John Hall, T.W. Maude, H.J. Tancred, W.T.L. Travers, Dr. Turnbull, and the Rev. J. Wilson.

Rules were at the same time drawn up, and the late John Bealey was appointed treasurer pro tempore; also a list was prepared, containing the names of about forty gentlemen, all living in the Province of Canterbury, to whom a circular was addressed.

The first regular meeting of the Philosophical Institute was held on Monday, September 1, 1862, in the office of the Geological Survey, over thirty members out of a roll of fifty page 98being present. The Right Rev. Dr. Harper, Bishop of Christchurch, presided, and Wm. Donald, Esq., R.M., acted as Secretary. The following gentlemen were unanimously elected officers for the coming year:—President, Julius Haast, Esq.; Vice-Presidents, Dr. Turnbull and E. Dobson, Esq.; Treasurer, J. Bealey, Esq.; Hon. Secretary, E.J.C. Stevens, Esq. From thirteen proposed members the following were elected members of the Council: A.C. Barker, Esq., S. Bealey, Esq., the Bishop of Christchurch, Mr. Justice Gresson, W.T.L. Travers, Esq., and Rev. J. Wilson. It was resolved to celebrate the foundation of the Society by a dinner on September 30, after which the newly elected President should deliver an inaugural address.

On October 2 of the same year, pursuing an old custom which has been for a number of years dispensed with, the foundation of the Society was celebrated by a dinner at the Royal Hotel, when about forty members were present, including His Honor the Superintendent (the late W.S. Moorhouse) and His Lordship the Bishop of Christchurch. After the usual loyal toasts, the President read an inaugural address, occupying an hour and a half in the delivery, in which the attempt was made to pass in review all that had been done in scientific research in New Zealand, to explain the aims of the Society, and to point out the various subjects of investigation to which it should direct its attention. Thus the first step was taken, at least in this island, to encourage scientific enquiry and to lay its results before a number of fellow workers, to have them discussed upon their merits. In fact, at that time the Philosophical Institute was the only Society in New Zealand attempting original research, because the older New Zealand Society in Wellington, though still in existence, had not met for years. The second meeting of the Institute took place on Monday, November 3, 1862, when a report prepared by Mr. E. J.C. Stevens, at the request of the Council, was read, "On the subject of thistles and their eradication," a question at that time of great importance to the Provinces. After some discussion, Messrs Stevens and Travers were requested to prepare for publication in the local papers an extended report on the subject based upon the one read. Mr. W.T.L. Travers read a paper on New Zealand flax (Phormium Tenax); its preparation and cultivation. A long discussion ensued, in which the President, Messrs J. and S. Bealey, Bray, Davie, Dobson, Travers, and Dr. Turnbull took part. Considering the importance of this subject, it was resolved that a more extended enquiry was desirable, and a committee of seven members of the Institute was appointed to consider the best means of making the New Zealand flax available for commercial purposes.

page 99

This was the last meeting of the year—the session, according to the adopted rules, closing in November. However, when the time for opening the new session in 1863 arrived, the President as well as some of the principal members, were absent from town, occupied with official work in the interior, so that the first meeting took place as late as July 4. This was well attended. Mr, G.A.E. Ross was elected Honorary Treasurer in place of Mr. John Bealey, the latter having left the Province on a visit to England. The Honorable H.J. Tancred was elected a member of the Council, instead of the Honorable the Superintendent, Mr. S. Bealey, who had been named Patron of the Institute. The President announced, and caused to be read, several important suggestive communications from men of high scientific attainments in Europe, showing the great interest that was being taken in the proceedings of the Institute, and urged upon the members to exert themselves to fulfil the expectations of the Mother Country. He also announced the death of Mr. W. Whitcombe, drowned near the mouth of the Teramakau, a distinguished member of the Institute, whose early death was deeply felt by all the members. A sub-committee was elected to select suitable rooms for the accommodation of the Institute, and to arrange with the Provincial Government for opening the Canterbury Museum.

The President (Dr. Haast) then vacated the chair, and read a paper on the habits of the kakapo, in which he embodied the observations made during his recent journey to the West Coast, via Haast Pass, on the anomalous inhabitant of our primeval forests. A lengthened discussion ensued, in which Dr. Turnbull, Mr. W.T.L. Travers, and others took part. No reports of further meetings appear in any of the newspapers, although two more were held. One of them took place on the third of August, at which Mr. E. Dobson read a paper on the construction of the Mt. Cenis and Lyttelton Tunnels. This paper was copiously illustrated, and contained a great deal of valuable information, at that time of especial interest to the members. A third meeting was held on September 4.

Some Council meetings were held during the session 1864, but the first and a numerously attended meeting was held on November 7, in the offices of the Provincial Geologist, Dr. Haast occupied the chair. The President then read a paper on the climate of the Pleitocene epoch of New Zealand, and treating of the great glacier period in New Zealand, and the causes of the extinction of the moa; and a lengthened discussion on the paper ensued, His Honor the Superintendent and other members taking part. A paper by Mr. W. Buller on the "Birds of New page 100Zealand" was read by the Secretary, in which the author reviewed the advance, made in the knowledge of our fauna since the publication of the synopsis of New Zealand birds by the late Mr. Jno. Edward Gray, in the Ibis, of July, 1862. Mr. Buller proposed to expunge several species, as not occurring in New Zealand, and to add others, of which the author offered a description.

Mr. Birch reported the discovery of a Moa's egg near Mr. Fyfer's estate, near the Kaikouras, and from the accompanying circumstances concluded that the race of these huge birds had been extinct for at least 250 years, whilst several members were of opinion that the extinction of the Moa was quite of a recent date. After some routine business had been transacted, the meeting broke up, highly gratified with the proceedings of the evening.

No reports of meetings in 1865 are to be found.

Several unsuccessful attempts were made during the first part of 1866 to have a regular meeting, but a Council meeting was held on October 9, when it was resolved that a general meeting of the Society should at once be called. This was done at the appointed time, but there was again no quorum. However, it was decided at a subsequent meeting of the Council a few days afterwards to have at least the annual dinner, to bring the members together. This took place on November 5, at the Clarendon Hotel, and was well attended. The President (Dr. Haast) occupied the chair, and was supported by His Honor the Superintendent on the right; and the President of the Executive Council on the left. Mr. C. Dobson occupied the vice-chair. He read a very able paper on the "Present State of Applied Science in the Canterbury Province."

No meetings of the Society are reported as haying taken place during 1867, although the attempt was made twice, but the Council met several times, and it was only on May 3, of next year (1868), that another general meeting was held; a new impetus having been given by the passing of the N.Z. Institute Act, 1867, by the Colonial Legislature, The present minute book was begun after the election of the Rev. Charles Fraser as Hon. Sec. at the meeting of June 17, 1868, when the Council requested the new Hon. Secretary, towards the end of the Session, to collect all memoranda having reference to the meetings of the Society, and to have them copied in a new minute book. Mr R. L. Holmes, who had previously acted as Secretary for a short time, had in the meantime left the Province.

Although there were always some funds at the Bank, they were scarcely sufficient to print any transactions, even if the necessary material in the form of papers had been brought page 101forward. The papers having been read had, therefore, either to be printed in the newspapers, or they had to be sent to Europe, to other societies, for publication; so that, after all, some useful work was accomplished. The total income of the Society to the end of March, 1863, was £120 7s. 1d., which, with the addition of some small sums for postages and incidental expenses, would show that about sixty members paid their subscription of £2 2s. During that year the sum of £16 7s. 6d. was paid for printing, so that a credit balance of £103 19s. 7d. remained to the Society. In 1863 £48 10s. was added to the credit, a sum doubtless made up by some of the original members paying their subscription of £2 2s., or some of the newly-elected members having paid their entrance fee of the same amount. No expenses were incurred, so that the sum total to its credit was £152 11s. 7d. Up to March 31, 1868, no other subscriptions were collected, and only a few small items for printing and incidentals were expended, so that on the 1st April, 1868, there was still a balance of £135 12s. 3d. to credit. In June of the same year the subscriptions began again to be paid regularly, the Society making a fresh start, and from that time has continued to prosper.