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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.


TURNBULL, Alexander Horsburgh


Bibliophile, and founder, Alexander Turnbull Library.

A new biography of Turnbull, Alexander Horsburgh appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Alexander Horsburgh Turnbull, son of Walter Turnbull (1823–97), was born in Wellington on 14 September 1868. His father was one of the originators of the general merchant firm of W. and G. Turnbull. Alexander was educated locally and, from 1882 to 1884, at Dulwich College, London. After leaving school he worked in his father's London office until 1892, interrupted by a short visit to New Zealand in 1886. Alexander's letters to his brother Robert show that much of this time in London was spent under considerable strain caring for his parents, particularly his father, who had become addicted to drink. In 1892 the family returned to New Zealand, Alexander apprehensive beforehand that his father would “keep all right on board ship”. Back in Wellington the family lived at “Elibank”, Bowen Street, and Alexander worked in the offices of W. and G. Turnbull, where “instead of being ordered about, I order, and I find that the latter is much the harder office to perform satisfactorily and wisely”. In 1897, after his father's death, he assumed full control of the firm until his retirement, owing to failing health, in 1917, when the firm was bought out by Wright Stephenson and Co.

Although Turnbull did not marry he led a busy social life, always wearing clothes specially tailored for him in England. He was active in a number of sports, particularly yachting. In 1892 he had built in Auckland a “5 rater” which he called the Rona. It was his interest in sailing that gave rise to Turnbull's only published work, a stilted, privately printed account of a cruise to Queen Charlotte Sound in 1902. His historical interest was reflected in the few notes he included on Captain Cook. He also contributed notes to the publication of a manuscript in his library dealing with Vancouver's discovery of Puget Sound and edited by E. S. Meany (Seattle, 1915). Although he published only the one slight work, Turnbull belonged to a number of learned societies. He was a fellow of the Linnean Society and of the Royal Geographical Society, honorary corresponding secretary of the Royal Colonial Institute, and a member of the New Zealand Institute and of the Polynesian Society. From 1900 to 1913 he was honorary vice-consular representative for Spain, in Wellington.

From the age of 17, Turnbull started to collect books. The inheritance of ample means both from his father's and, in 1901, from his uncle Robert's estates, enabled him to indulge this interest for the remainder of his life. He also built up good collections of Maori artefacts and coins; but books were his main delight, and in 1913 he donated the artefacts to the Dominion Museum to provide much-needed space in his home for the library. Three years later he moved out of the wooden “Elibank” to the nearby Victorian-Tudor brick building in Bowen Street which he had built, and which now, remodelled, still houses the Alexander Turnbull Library. In his will, Turnbull had bequeathed his “library” to the Crown and expressed the hope that it would form “the nucleus of a New Zealand National Collection”. A later Court action determined that “library” did not include the building. Consequently the Government bought the former residence.

The Library, now administered by the Department of Internal Affairs, retains its original character, but has trebled in size from the roughly 55,000 volumes and many maps, pictures, and manuscripts that it comprised on its founder's death. Turnbull's interests had been in the history and ethnology of his own country and its oceanic setting and in certain aspects of English literature and literary history. For convenience the Library is now divided into Pacific and non-Pacific collections, each with its own catalogue, and at present regrettably housed in widely separated buildings.

The Pacific section has as its foundation a comprehensive collection of early voyages. The great collected editions of Linschoten (1598), Hakluyt (1599–1600), De Bry (1590–1634) and others are notable. The printed accounts of practically every voyage of note since Magellan (1523) are to be found, together with many manuscript records. The earliest of these is a copy of the journal of Gallego, master pilot on Mendana's voyage of 1565, when he discovered the Solomon Islands. There is a fairly exhaustive gathering of printed literature relating to Captain James Cook, as well as his original manuscript log kept on board HMS Eagle, 1755-56. The presence of other manuscripts and of photocopies of many of the logs and journals relating to Captain Cook's voyages of discovery which are in libraries throughout the world, makes this a particularly strong section of the Library. There is also a fine collection of Antarctic expedition reports and manuscripts.

The Library today endeavours to cover exhaustively all aspects of the Pacific region, which is broadly defined as Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia. Special attention is paid to acquiring New Zealand material. The encircling continental lands–Australia, Asia, and the Americas–are, in general, covered only in those aspects that impinge on Pacific studies, although rather more attention is paid to Australia, Malaysia, and Indonesia. As well as printed works, increasing attention has been paid to the collection of manuscripts and, where the originals are not available, to photocopies of them. Thus the Library has on microfilm many series of documents from the Public Record Office and the Archives Nationales, Paris, as well as the relevant archives of the Church Missionary Society, London Missionary Society, and Methodist Missionary Society. Complementing these written and printed records is a collection of photographs of about 200,000 negatives and prints (especially strong in shipping), 5,000 maps, and 5,000 pictures and prints.

The non-Pacific collection is strongest in the field of English literature, with many first and rare editions of the major poets, novelists, and dramatists. Ranked among the finest in the world, the Milton collection is notable both for editions of Milton and for biographical and critical works. Good collections of seventeenth-century poetical miscellanies and of Dryden material are also to be found, along with fine sets of literary periodicals.

The development of the book and its precursors is a subject for collection. The study of paper, binding, illustration, and typography are well covered, and examples of fine printing range from such early notable presses as Aldus and Elzevir to the Nonesuch and Golden Cockerel.

Naval affairs and biography, folklore and witchcraft, Italian statecraft of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and early Scottish and Irish history form other good sections of this part of the library.

Alexander Turnbull died on 28 June 1918, and is buried in the Bolton Street Cemetery, Wellington.

by Michael Garnstone Hitchings, B.A., DIP.N.Z.L.S., Librarian, Hocken Library, Dunedin.

  • Papers, 1871-1946, Turnbull, A. H. (MSS), Alexander Turnbull Library
  • The Fascinating Folly, McCormick, E. H. (1961)
  • New Zealand Official Yearbook, 1918, “The Alexander Turnbull Library–a Brief Description”, Taylor, C. R. H.


Michael Garnstone Hitchings, B.A., DIP.N.Z.L.S., Librarian, Hocken Library, Dunedin.