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The Cyclopedia of New Zealand

The Cyclopedia of New Zealand was published in six volumes between 1897 and 1908 by the Cyclopedia Company Ltd. Each volume deals with a region of New Zealand and includes information on local towns and districts, government departments, individuals, businesses, clubs and societies. Biographical entries frequently include the subject's date and place of birth, the name of the ship by which immigrants arrived, spouse's name, and the number and gender of children born to a couple. Volume One, which covers the Wellington Provincial District, also includes a history of colonial government in New Zealand, with portraits of Governors, politicians and state officials.

The aim of The Cyclopedia, stated the publishers in the Preface to Volume One, was to “place on record plain facts regarding the settlement and progress of the Colony”. Notwithstanding this ideal, it is important to note that members of the public paid to feature in The Cyclopedia and supplied the compilers with their histories and personal details. The information they provided was as accurate as memory—and honesty—permitted. Not surprisingly, the portraits are invariably flattering: in the publishers' words, “the compilers have recognised the advisability of representing the various subjects of notice as they individually appeared to themselves and their friends, in their best and happiest moments, rather than as they might have appeared to their enemies, at their worst.” Similarly, many of the business entries are unashamedly promotional—business owners were, effectively, buying advertising for their products and services. Individuals who would not or could not pay the fee required to feature in The Cyclopedia are not included—there are few entries for women, Māori or non-European settlers for example.

Despite this bias, the six volumes provide a fascinating glimpse into life in colonial New Zealand around the turn of the century. The text is extensively illustrated with photographs of each province's towns and ‘picturesque scenes’ and many of those featured supplied photographs of themselves or their business premises. Indeed, writing in 1897, the publishers claimed that the The Cyclopedia was “the most voluminously illustrated work ever published in the Colony.” Technically, the Cyclopedia was a landmark printing venture. It was undertaken by the Wellington-based firm of McKee and Gamble who used the latest printing technology, such as the new half-tone processes for the reproduction of photographic images (see McKee entry in The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography).

The New Zealand Electronic Text Collection, in partnership with Wellington City Libraries and Colonial CD Books now presents a full-text, freely accessible edition of volumes one through six, of The Cyclopedia of New Zealand.

For tips on searching The Cyclopedia see Cyclopedia Search Tips.