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Story: Shaw, Henry

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Shaw, Henry


Accountant, bibliophile

This biography, written by Donald Kerr, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

It is to Henry Shaw that Auckland City Library owes the distinction of holding more incunabula (books printed before 1501) than any other library in New Zealand. Shaw also gave the library 16 medieval and early Renaissance manuscripts, which, combined with the medieval manuscripts in Sir George Grey's gift to the library, makes the collection the largest of such material in the country.

Born in Birmingham, England, on 5 September 1850, Henry Shaw arrived in New Zealand in 1859 with his parents, Frederic Shaw, a jeweller, and his wife, Charlotte Spittle. He had two brothers, Frederick and Charles James. Their first stop was Mangapai, Northland, but family dislike for the harsh conditions led to a quick move to Auckland.

Shaw was educated in Auckland, and was employed by a number of Auckland businesses. About 1876 he joined the firm of S. & J. R. Vaile; in the 1880s he was with McArthur, Shera and Company, a drapery warehouse; and in 1897 he was employed as secretary for the American Tobacco Company of New Zealand. By 1902 Shaw had commenced his own business as a commercial accountant. Actively involved in the profession, he was president of the New Zealand Accountants' and Auditors' Association from 1908 to 1910, a fellow of the New Zealand Society of Accountants, and was involved in the negotiations towards establishing the new bachelor of commerce degree in the University of New Zealand. He was made a life member of the society in 1922. Shaw was a member of the Auckland City Council from 1910 to 1912, during which time he served on the library committee and reorganised the book-keeping system at the town hall. He was also a life member of the Auckland Society of Arts and of the Leys Institute.

Shaw's activities as a book collector were noticed as early as 1884 when he imported a Breeches Bible (printed in 1560) into New Zealand, and was claimed to have already 'devoted many years of his life to the procuring of rare and curious works'. At one point during the 1880s, perhaps hurt by the economic depression, he established his own shop in the city from which he sold hundreds of volumes from his library. One of his major clients was fellow book-collector Sir George Grey.

The Auckland Free Public Library first received a gift of some 150 volumes from Shaw in May 1904. In 1908 his Guide to the principal manuscripts, early printed books, autograph letters, etc., contained in the Auckland Free Public Library was published, the fruit of his bibliographic and cataloguing work on the Grey collection. Shaw continued to donate books, and was appointed in 1913 as one of the two curators of the Grey collection (Edward Shillington, the recently retired librarian, was the other). By the time of his death in 1928 Shaw had given the library some 2,300 volumes. He also gave generously to the Auckland Museum, to the Leys Institute, and to the Roman Catholic diocesan archives. His brother Fred also gave his substantial book collection (including a number of incunabula) to the Auckland Public Library.

However, Henry Shaw was hardly an enterprising collector. He did not specialise in any particular subject or author, and collected in safe and established traditional areas. Shaw never travelled, and with few exceptions his purchases were obtained by correspondence and through catalogues sent to him by British book dealers. He had vision enough to secure books that he understood to be significant and desirable.

Highlights in his collection include Persian, Ethiopic and Arabic manuscripts; fine printing; illustrated materials; and the classics of English literature, with Robert Burns apparently Shaw's favourite poet. Books on artists and paintings tie in with Shaw's great interest in book illustration: there are many grangerised items and scrapbooks that Shaw himself constructed, and collections of book jackets and American advertising of the 1920s.

Shaw was a devoted bibliophile to whom books were a lifelong passion. He wrote, 'Any man, who is a real lover of books, is bound to spend a lot of time amongst his collections; he cannot help himself, he is drawn to them as with a magnet, and becomes as it were their slave'. Bald, bespectacled and unassuming, he loved to talk on any subject encountered in his wide reading. After his retirement in 1912 he spent much of his time in the library, working on his collection. He never married and for many years resided with his brother at Vermont Street, Ponsonby. About 1922 he moved to Wellington, where he died on 2 May 1928.

How to cite this page:

Donald Kerr. 'Shaw, Henry', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3s13/shaw-henry (accessed 29 May 2024)