Charles John Reader, 1803-1885

Charles Reader was an early Christchurch librarian. He was appointed to run the Christchurch Mechanics’ Institute, which was a forerunner to the Canterbury Public Library.

Early life

Charles was born in 1803 in Spitalfields, London. The son of Charles and Mary Ann (nee Collis) Reader, he was christened on 18 December at St.Botolph's, Bishopgate. Charles Reader senior was a bookseller for Longmans Green. The younger Charles and his brother Thomas grew up to work for their father in the shop. Thomas later took over his father's role in Longmans. On 24 January 1850 Charles married Harriet Howes in the Old Church, St Pancras. She was nearly 20 years his junior.

Coming to Canterbury

Charles Reader arrived in Canterbury in August, 1851 on board the Dominion. He worked as a carpenter on the boat in order to obtain the free passage available to tradesmen.

Involvement in the Mechanic's Institute

Reader had been a founder member of the London Mechanics’ Institute in 1823 and was actively involved in its affairs while he lived in London. In his will, he left his son, Charles, a silver snuff box which had been presented to him by the Institute. He quickly developed similar interests in Christchurch, undertaking an investigation in 1853 into the cases of poor labourers who were induced to emigrate to New Zealand under the false promise that their passages would be paid. He also joined the Lyttelton Colonists’ Society as one of its earliest members. He pursued a number of occupations, including that of carpenter, in the 1850s, during which period his three sons and one daughter were also born.

Appointment to the Mechanics' Institute

The year before his appointment as librarian, the Mechanics’ Institute had purchased two sections on Cambridge Terrace at a cost of £262. Plans for its new building were drawn up by Samuel Farr and the tender was let to Balcke and Broward. The building was opened in October 1863, with the newspaper reading room open from 8am until 10pm, and circulation services available from 10am-4pm and again from 6-9pm in the evenings. Reader was the only staff member, although apparently his daughter, Emily (born 1854) sometimes assisted him when she became old enough. The new building cost £1485, and, despite a government grant, this development left the Institute burdened with heavy debts, which would continue to plague the organisation throughout Reader’s tenure as librarian.

During the 1860s, the library and the reading room became the principal focus of the Institute’s work although lectures and evening classes were still held from time to time, and debating and chess clubs were added in 1869. Reader prepared a catalogue in 1864 (“very ill-arranged”1, and the book stock grew slowly, from 1500 books in 1864 to nearly double that number in 1873. This change of focus was reflected in the name change which took place in 1868, when the Mechanics’ Institute became the Christchurch Literary Institute. As the Lyttelton Times had pointed out as early as 1862, it was “supported not by mechanics only, but by representatives of every profession, and every class in the community…”2. In 1867, the newspaper suggested that only 19 mechanics belonged to the Institute, the other 149 subscribers belonging to other classes3.

Financial Struggles for the Institute

The number of subscribers fluctuated wildly, from 435 in 1864, to only 140 in 1870. Many subscribers paid quarterly and often let their subscriptions lapse in one or more quarters of the year, so that income barely met the expenses of running the Institute. In a bid to attract more support, a series of popular entertainments was organised to raise funds, new books and magazines were ordered, and a new entrance way, chairs, a writing table, a smoking room and a meeting room, and gas lighting were installed. An area was set aside for the exclusive use of lady visitors from 10am-5pm each day. The book shelves were reorganised for ease of access so that borrowers could select their own books, and Reader updated the catalogue. He made his own contribution to cost saving by accepting a 25% cut in his salary, and by moving out of the upstairs apartment in the library, where he and his family had lived since his appointment, so it could be rented out.

Canterbury University College takes over

These measures had some effect, with subscriber numbers doubling, but the financial difficulties remained. In 1872, after 14 years of endless struggle, the Institute’s trustees agreed to negotiate with the board of Canterbury University College for the transfer of responsibility to that organisation. The Canterbury Public Library Act (1873) empowered them convey the assets of the Institute to the Provincial Superintendent for the purposes of establishing a public library; by a deed of transfer on 15 December 1873, the Superintendent gave control of the library to Canterbury College. On 1 February 1874, the library reopened, with the reading room free to all, but the lending collection still available only to subscribers. Reader remained as librarian, and was thus the first Canterbury public librarian.

Reader resigned as librarian in 1876 “on account of his extreme age” and bought 4 and a half acres in Fendalton. Until his death on 13 December 1885, he worked in partnership with his son, Charles, and his son-in-law, Thomas Wright, who operated as booksellers, printers and bookbinders. Charles Reader is buried in the cemetery of St. Peter’s Church, Upper Riccarton.


  1. 1. Lyttelton Times, 24 September 1868
  2. 2. Lyttelton Times, 2 August 1862
  3. 3. Lyttelton Times, 15 August 1867


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