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Some Interesting Occurrences in Early Auckland: City and Provinces

Chapter 15 — Cultural Institutions

Chapter 15
Cultural Institutions.

No city in New Zealand has benefited by private donations to anything like the extent that Auckland has. This, I think, is due to the natural beauty and pleasant climate of the place, leading its citizens to love and worship it. And they were not alone. When Kipling came to New Zealand he changed his practice of describing the official capital of each colony, and said of Auckland, our natural capital,

“Last, loneliest, loveliest, exquisite, apart”, and he was not far wrong!

Among our cultural institutions the Institute & Museum is the greatest. This was started in 1852 in a small building on the north side of Grafton Road near the Symonds Street end. In 1867 the Auckland Philosophical Society was formed, and, after some intermediate changes, the present name was adopted. In November 1869 the Government presented the site of the old post office in Princes Street, near to Shortland Street, and on it a building was erected by public subscription at a cost of £3,400. This was opened in May 1876. In 1884 an adjoining property, on which stood the Provincial Hotel, was bought, and in 1892 a building erected thereon wherein was lodged the great Maori war canoe. In November 1929 the present War Memorial Museum, nearly the whole cost of which, together with furnishings and exhibits, had been raised by public subscription from time to time, was opened by the Governor–General, Sir Charles Fergusson.

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The Society of Arts is not so old as the Museum but has attained quite a respectable age, having originated in 1870, only a year after my advent. It holds an annual exhibition of several hundred pictures, besides some smaller shows. Sculpture and the ceramic art are also within its scope. It has had many skilful and widely–known members — for instance C. F. Goldie, E. W. Payton, Frank and Walter Wright, Charles Blomfield and others. About 1906 I was elected president, but resigned at the end of 1908 when I disappeared into the Pumice Country in my great endeavour to make the wilderness blossom like the rose—though this form of art was not within the Society' activities!

In 1901 the well–known solicitor, Mr. E. A. Mackechnie, died, leaving his estate to his widow, Charlotte Henrietta. This good lady passed away in the following year, leaving, among other bequests, £2,500 to the Society of Arts, subject to a condition that it was to be spent in building a home for the Society and its exhibitions on a site to be provided by the Society. The executive committee argued that as it had taken them more than ten years to save less than £200, and as any suitable site would cost not less than £1,000, the case was hopeless and they would decline the bequest. I then interposed very strongly, saying I would raise the money. Having got an excellent site in Cobourg Street, right opposite the Public Art Gallery, under firm offer for £1,000, I persuaded the Mayor, Sir Edwin Mitchelson, to call a public meeting. I attended with £10 10s. in my pocket, and a subscription list in my hand. Many well–known and well–to–do citizens attended, and shed tears at the prospect of losing this handsome bequest. I rose to remark that what was wanted was not sobs, but money. I proceeded to the Chairman' table, and headed the subscription list with my £10 10s. I then attacked the audience individually, and averaged about £5 per head from them. Within a fortnight, I had the £1,000.

The Choral Society was a strong influence in the early days, holding their regular concerts in the building which it erected at the corner of Symonds and Alfred Streets, and now used by the University College. The Duke of Edinburgh (not the present Duke) once played the violin at one of its concerts, and Judge Fenton lent his Strad for the great occasion. According to popular report the ownership of that Strad was afterwards in permanent dispute. In providing music for dances a Mr. Sam. Adams used to have a large business; and in the higher branches Mr. Martin Swallow was a well–known teacher. No mention of the Choral Society would be complete without reference to the great page 35 services rendered to it by Sir Henry Brett. He also made many gifts to the city, including the great organ in the Town Hall.

The Public Library was opened by the Mayor, Mr. A. E. T. Devore, on the 26th January 1887, with a stock of 6,000 volumes, mostly derived from the Provincial Council Library. By the time of the opening of the new building the number of volumes had increased to 15,000, due chiefly to gifts by Sir George Grey, and also by Messrs. J. T. Mackelvie, E. A. Mackechnie, Frederick and Henry Shaw, E. Earle Vaile, and a money gift of £12,150 from the estate of Edward Costley. Our Library now occupies an outstanding position among municipal libraries.

The Art Gallery was opened on 17th February 1888, and contains one of the best collections of New Zealand Art, besides many good examples of British and Continental Art. It claims to be the premier collection of works of art in New Zealand, largely due to the benefactions of Mr. Mackelvie.

Though the Old Colonists' Museum was not established till 1916, because of its special functions it is deserving of mention here. It was opened by the Mayor, Sir James Gunson, and is full of exhibits interesting to those studying the past of Auckland City and North Auckland.