Monday, 7 September 2015

Hocken: Prince of Collectors, Donald Kerr

Hocken: Prince of Collectors
Donald Jackson Kerr
University of Otago Press, $60
Reviewed by Trevor Agnew

How Dr Hocken would have loved this book.

 My first encounter with what Thomas Morland Hocken called his ‘fascinating folly’ came nearly fifty years ago.  I was in historian Gordon Parsonson’s MA History class, when he led us deep into the stacks of the Hocken Library, then housed in its own wing of the Otago Museum. From the packed shelves, he took down marvellous volumes of historic journals, maps and letters, all with Hocken’s annotations in his distinctive handwriting. I was amazed that such a splendid collection of books had grown from one man’s dogged enthusiasm.  

After a brief career as ship’s surgeon on immigrant ships, Hocken settled into general practice in Dunedin in 1862.  His enthusiasm for New Zealand’s flora blossomed into a wide-ranging passion for New Zealand and Pacific history. Hocken spent his life locating and preserving historic documents, letters, books, newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, maps, pictures, carvings and artworks.

A lively lecturer and writer – today he would be a TV personality – Hocken declared himself “surprised that so many intelligent and educated persons should be comparatively ignorant of the history of their adopted country – a country of surpassing interest.” Hocken’s keen pursuit of documents earned him the title, “the Herodotus of New Zealand.” (His own daughter, Gladys, referred to the documents as “a whole load of old papers.”) Hocken tirelessly contacted the descendants of early missionaries, settlers, surveyors and explorers in his quest for journals, diaries and letters. He placed special importance on collecting Maori records, and even pioneered oral history, getting the Palmer brothers to reminisce about their sealing and whaling exploits.
In this marvellously clear account, Dr Donald Kerr, “the book historian” of Otago University, tells how Hocken built up his collection. Paradoxically Hocken left few records of his purchases and so Kerr has had to do some skilful literary detective work to find out when and from whom he got them.  Kerr has retraced every step of Hocken’s pursuit of documents, and his contacts with other collectors, as well as his visits to what Gladys called “rapidly dying identities awaiting his coming.” Cocky and persistent, Hocken achieved his greatest coup in obtaining some Church Missionary Society records, including Marsden’s New Zealand journals and letters.

Interestingly, Kerr is also able to give credit to Hocken’s talented wife, Bessie, who provided illustrations and photographs, as well as her transcription and translation work. At the end of his life, well aware of the value of his unique collection, Hocken bequeathed it “to the dominion” with free access to the public. As the Hocken Library, it became a powerhouse of historical research. In its new premises, it is now the jewel in the research crown of the University of Otago. Best of all, Professor Gordon Parsonson is still researching there to this day.

Trevor Agnew

This review first appeared in Your Weekend magazine, The Press (Christchurch, NZ) on 8 Aug 2015.

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