Mixed fortunes

Turnbull's letters

In the second instalment of this short series exploring the letters of Turnbull Library benefactor, Alexander Turnbull is ensconced in the family home and business in Wellington, and his correspondence has become voluminous to the point where he employs a secretary... As you will see, he has much to write about.

Mr Kebbell and Alexander Turnbull, on board Turnbull's yacht Rona, ca 1896. Mr Kebbell and Alexander Turnbull, on board Turnbull's yacht Rona, ca 1896. Ref: 1/2-036181-F

The third volume of Turnbull’s letters covers the period between September 1896 and May 1898. Alex is in his late twenties, and lending his brother Robert a hand running family business interests, growing his collection of books and dealing with matters domestic, conspicuously the death of his parents. His mother Alexandrina was first to go, in November 1896 at the age of 69. Neither was family patriarch Walter Turnbull in the best of shape by this time, and according to Alex in a letter to his Uncle Robert:

Poor Papa does not realise the sad fact yet and I doubt whether he really will – ever.

Just five days after his mother’s death, Alex wrote to H. Evans Esq. in London to order a miniature portrait of her.

When the miniature is finished I want it mounted in gold with a border of small turquoises as a setting…
With regard to the personal appearance of my mother – the hair as the artists will see from the photos is black, the eyes dark brown, and the complexion clear pink and white. I do hope you will be able to send me out a faithful likeness and a beautiful one.

The letters give an impression of Alex as having a loving and caring relationship with his family and a heightened aesthetic sensibility; but they also show his clear head for business. He was forthright in correspondence concerning this, whether the matter was of consequence, or more trivial. In a letter to William Jones, Secretary of Federated Seamen’s Union in 1896, Turnbull deals crisply with the suggestion that seamen be given a wage increase.

I am in receipt of your favour dated 22nd instant asking whether my company are prepared to increase the wages of their seamen by £1 per month and stating that you “are conscious that for two years past there has been a very pronounced improvement in shipping business through Australasian colonies.”
I am not prepared to admit that there has been such an improvement as to warrant an increase in the wages of our seamen such as you indicate – if there has been any improvement at all, and I cannot recommend my company to grant you what ask.

Turnbull could be equally reproving over minor claims on his attention as in a letter to the Manager of Progress Mines of New Zealand in Reefton.

Dear Sir,
I herewith return you the certificates for my 200 shares in the above company. You have got my second name wrong – it should be H O R S B U R G H not Henry. I don’t know that it makes very much difference but it is as well to have it correct.

When not occupied with business correspondence and family matters, Turnbull had a number of recreational interests, particularly yachting and golf:

…Golf is in full swing now at our two clubs but I seldom play as yachting takes up most of my spare time and after business hours I generally jump on the bicycle and go for a ride before dinner. I hope you have taken to this fascinating machine.

The subject of cycling is taken up again in a letter to a Mr Elder:

Most of the bicycles to be seen in Wellington are of American make some of them very fine machines but I must say that for my own riding I prefer a substantial British article.

BSA bicycle, c. 1880s–1920s. Photograph by Steffano Webb. ATL ref: 1/1-004084-G BSA bicycle, c. 1880s–1920s. Photograph by Steffano Webb. Ref: 1/1-004084-G

It is clear from Alex’s letters to close friends and family that he was a conscientious and often engaging correspondent. Letters to his Uncle Robert often shine with lively detail, such as in this description of Richard Seddon.

If you ever meet him [Seddon] in London you will find him a very personal man with plenty of humour and strong common sense; he is by far the best of the Cabinet and if uneducated it says all the more for him to rise as high as he has: I fancy that he is getting tired of his party; he has accumulated a good deal of money lately rumour says and consequently is losing touch with his impecunious rag, tag and bobtail of a following.

Sadness again visited Elibank, the Turnbull family home when, in October 1897, Turnbull’s father Walter died. In a letter to a Mr Evans, Alex reports the event.

You will be sorry to hear that I have just lost my father: He died in his bed last Sunday numbering 74 years: I don’t know whether you knew him. He was a fine gentleman and I can remember having experienced nothing but kindness from him: It leaves a great blank in my life.

Grief notwithstanding, Alex Turnbull continued to collect, books primarily (of which he ordered 350 in March 1898 alone), but also Māori and Pacific artworks – including a carved house from Putaruru – and material relating to Australia. Pamphlets became a consuming interest:

any kind of pamphlet good, bad or indifferent would be acceptable so long as it relates to the colony.

He pursued the acquisition of key items for his Milton collection and here, in a letter to London bookseller Bernard Quaritch dated 27 October 1897, Turnbull asks:

Can you report to me a fine copy of the first edition of Paradise Lost [later purchased by Turnbull for £110] and any other Milton pamphlets. There must be some good examples in Lord Ashburnam’s library lately under the hammer.

Elibank (centre), the Turnbull family residence, 1868. Photograph by Daniel Mundy. ATL ref: 1/2-020099-F Elibank (centre), the Turnbull family residence, 1868. Photograph by Daniel Mundy. Ref: 1/2-020099-F [detail]

The letters of this period conclude with Alex a lonely figure at Elibank. Bereft over the loss of his parents, he had nonetheless worked diligently to settle the complex details of their joint estates, and had tried with out success to intervene in the relationship between his sister Sissy and Londoner, John Leigh Wood – but that is the subject of another story.

In a letter to his Uncle Robert, Turnbull reflects philosophically on his lot:

It will be a dull house without Walter [his nephew] & when he and his mother go I shall be alone because Sissy has promised to visit her friends the Rattrays in Dunedin. However I don’t mind being left by myself at all and as I grow older I seem more and more inclined to retire into my shell & busy myself with my work and my reading.

By Peter Ireland

Peter is Gallery and Exhibition Specialist at the National Library.

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Liane September 26th at 11:12AM

Love it! Charming to get personal sound bites from Alexander Turnbull mixed in with the other content. Creates a lovely sense of the man. Great photo of him in the yacht! Nice work.