Hocken: Prince of Collectors, by Donald Kerr (Otago University Press, 2015), 424 pp., $60
The first thing one notices about Donald Kerr’s handsome new appreciation of Dunedin bibliophile Thomas Morland Hocken is its expanse: 300 pages of body text, followed by 100 closely printed pages of appendices, notes and bibliography. In Otago University Press’s previous excursion into this territory – The Fascinating Folly: Dr Hocken and his fellow collectors (1961) – Eric McCormick dealt not only with the doctor’s bookish fixations but also those of the country’s other two pre-eminent library donors, Sir George Grey and Alexander Turnbull (i.e. the entire ‘Holy Trinity’, to employ Kerr’s reverential phrase), in just 40 wryly worded pages. Where McCormick was content with a mandarin overview, however, Kerr probes steadily into the details of how Hocken chose, acquired and arranged his collection.
In his introduction Kerr apologises for the selective nature of his study. Considerations of space prevented him from providing data on each of the 5200 books, 2800 pamphlets and 650 manuscripts that Hocken bequeathed to the nation. In an ideal world, blessed with readers of unyielding stamina and publishers with limitless resources, Kerr would have furnished us, I am sure, with a multi-volume work.
Although he focuses more on the books than the man, Kerr has diligently sleuthed after whatever biographical facts can be retrieved. If Hocken’s CV is not, in the final analysis, particularly enthralling, one might ask how much external excitement, as opposed to intellectual adventure, a book-lover requires. The bibliophiles of my acquaintance generally prefer to be left in peace either to fossick in shops and libraries or to read.
Hocken had the good fortune to live a life unscathed by war, natural disaster or financial calamity. Born in a pleasant part of Lincolnshire towards the end of William IV’s reign, he studied medicine as a young man and became a ship’s surgeon aboard Melbourne-bound vessels of the White Star Line and the Great Western Steamship Company. At age 26, during the first heady years of the Otago gold rush, he migrated to Dunedin and established a prosperous practice in the heart of the city. Apart from brief trips to other parts of New Zealand, a return to England in 1882, an excursion to Fiji and Samoa in 1892 and a leisurely world tour that extended from August 1901 to July 1904, Dunedin was his home until his death from cancer of the oesophagus in May 1910.
In his capacity as a coroner, he was sometimes obliged to inspect unsightly corpses (the victims of fire, flood and so forth), but by and large his professional duties consisted of tending to the usual succession of wheezes, sneezes, aches and breakages. In his leisure hours he enjoyed dining and gossiping with his fellow citizens, for he was a sociable and inquisitive man, but even more than this he enjoyed acquiring and delving into books. The great majority of the thousands he amassed during his lifetime are connected, one way or another, with his favourite topic: the European settlement of New Zealand.
Hocken’s tireless loyalty to a single subject distinguishes him from Grey and Turnbull, who were far more promiscuous in their bibliophilic pursuits. Where they often relied on published catalogues and London dealers for their purchases, Hocken favoured a direct approach. He wrote to and frequently met in person the country’s eminent European pioneers and requested from them any books, manuscripts, maps and drawings that related to their exploits.
Timing played a big part in his success. By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when Hocken was at his most active as a collector, these pioneers were growing old and crotchety, with a tendency to feel overlooked or under-appreciated by upcoming generations. They were all too willing to talk to a well-mannered historical researcher like Hocken, who respected their achievements. It also helped that he was a doctor. By the 1870s, most of the survivors from the first wave of colonisation had something wrong with them and were grateful for medical advice. Grey, for instance, was beholden for a haemorrhoids remedy that Hocken prescribed.
It is instructive to compare the current work with Amassing Treasures for All Time, Kerr’s 2006 study of Grey’s behaviour as a collector. Both books employ much the same methodology, described by Kerr as ‘a bio-bibliographical approach’. Yet, because Grey was a far-ranging generalist and Hocken stuck to a narrow New Zealand-centred focus, the two tomes have very different flavours. In the new work, as piece by piece Kerr provides contextual information about the books that Hocken acquired and identifies the personalities in the doctor’s network of associates, the narrative gradually builds into a quirky, anecdotal history of colonial New Zealand up to the end of the Edwardian era. The historical sequence is delightfully jumbled, since the chronology that Kerr follows is not that of the nation’s development but of Hocken’s happenstance acquisitions.
By way of illustration, let me point to four consecutive paragraphs on page 230, where Kerr is describing a souvenir-hunting foray into Northland made by Hocken in 1905. The first paragraph discusses how Henry Tacy Kemp’s translation of Pilgrim’s Progress into Māori, published in 1854, was not the first attempt to render Bunyan’s laborious allegory into te reo. It was preceded, 18 years earlier, by a version composed by the missionary William Gilbert Puckey. But, alas, Puckey’s efforts were in vain, for his manuscript was lost by the easily distracted printer-preacher William Colenso. While we are still digesting this bad news, Kerr hits us, in the next paragraph, with a worse catastrophe: the demolition of the Anglican mission station at Paihia in the 1850s under the command of Reverend Robert Burrows, secretary of the Church Missionary Society, whom northern settlers nicknamed ‘Bob the Smasher’.
We barely have time to register this nineteenth-century antithesis to Bob the Builder before dashing off with Hocken, in the third paragraph, to have a word with the Reverend George Clarke’s daughter at Waimate, inspect ancient pā at Okaihau and Ohae and reconnect with hardy Scottish octogenarian John Webster at Opiriri. There is no time to catch our breath before darting to Whangarei, in the fourth paragraph, for an encounter with old identity Robert Mair, who met, in his youth, not only Hocken’s hero, Samuel Marsden, but also Antarctic explorer James Ross, botanist Joseph Hooker and Lady Franklin, wife of the doomed seeker of the Northwest Passage. The last-named, we learn, during a visit to the Bay of Islands in the early 1840s, ‘fell from her horse and had to be carried in a kauhoa or Maori litter’.
We might well sympathise with her. Kerr sets such a dizzying pace it is sometimes hard to stay on the saddle. A creative writing instructor would no doubt object that he introduces too many characters in too short a compass. Yet, for the historically minded, trying to keep up with our erudite author is good fun. Rather than a deterrent, Kerr’s profuse helter-skelter learnedness is his greatest strength. It is because he packs every page to overflowing, points to scores of intriguing possibilities for further research and regales us with dozens of entertaining asides that I believe Hocken: Prince of Collectors deserves a far wider readership than the small band of specialists who rejoice in tales of library-based philanthropy.
The book also fascinates through what it reveals about changing social attitudes between Hocken’s time and our own. The doctor, I would argue, was less secular but more sexist than most modern readers. Although he was the son of an anxiously God-fearing Methodist minister, Hocken became a staunch Anglican when he moved to Dunedin. He seems not to have been a particularly deep theological thinker, but his Christian faith was still an important part of his self-definition. He was appalled on meeting Francis Betts – a grandson of Samuel Marsden – in Wanganui in 1888 to discover that the man was a dissolute cynic without an ounce of his illustrious forebear’s evangelical fervour. Yet elsewhere in Kerr’s text we find Hocken responding with little more than medical curiosity to the allegation that another of his heroes, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, after abducting fifteen-year-old heiress Ellen Turner from her boarding school, refrained from raping her only because he was incapacitated by venereal disease. Surviving letters reveal that the doctor was an affectionate husband to his wife, Bessie. Yet when he was interviewed, late in life, by an admiring female reporter, he had no qualms about pretending to have learned the Dutch language specifically to translate Abel Tasman’s journals. In fact, it was Bessie, a gifted linguist, who was Tasman’s translator.
When in 1908 Hocken rescued the original Treaty of Waitangi parchment from a pile of mouldering, rat-chewed papers roughly stored in the basement of the government buildings, he unquestionably recognised the Treaty’s significance as one of the nation’s founding documents, but he probably saw this more in terms of establishing British law and order than of guaranteeing civil rights for Māori. Pinning down the doctor’s politics is not easy. He seems deliberately not to have sided too much with any faction lest it hamper his activities as a collector. In his dealings with early settlers he got along equally well with old rivals who could not abide one another. On Māori issues, however, I would locate him towards the more benign end of the racist spectrum – seldom actually hostile to Māori but inclined always to view them as mischievous child-like scallywags.
Few commentators on Hocken have been able to resist mentioning his diminutive size. Stuart Strachan, writing for the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993, gave the doctor’s height as ‘a mere five feet two inches’. Kerr whittles him down still further to ‘possibly 4 ft 8 in (142 cm) and certainly not 5 ft’. The prototype of Chris Knox’s ‘tall dwarves’, one might say. Kerr then goes on to speculate that ‘the small man syndrome’ might account, at least partly, for Hocken’s habitual pushiness and ‘extremely scrupulous determination to assert ownership’ of every item in his collection through the application of bookplates, stamps and signatures.
By temperament, however, Kerr inclines more to generosity than to debunking. Although aware of Hocken’s human failings, he draws continual attention to our indebtedness to the ‘wee doctor’. The overall result is a magnification of Hocken’s stature, not a belittlement. Hocken knew that not everything of consequence is recorded. That is why he sought to interview pioneers face-to-face, But he also grasped, at a crucial stage, how reliant history is on documentary evidence. Without Hocken’s assiduous and persistent gathering of the country’s artefacts, and his encouragement of others to do likewise, we would have a much poorer sense of where we have come from and who we are.
IAIN SHARP is an Auckland-based poet, writer, critic and librarian. His books include Heaphy (AUP), a biography of the nineteenth-century artist and explorer Charles Heaphy.