The Children's Library of Upper Riccarton

A Grand Opening

To the delight of getting a brand new purpose built building was added news of the official opening. It was announced that the Sir John McKenzie Memorial Children's Library was to be opened by the highest office holder in the land, the Governor-General Viscount Lord Cobham G.C.MG. It was exciting news for the women of the committee, and for Riccarton Rotary, and not only because of the status and recognition it accorded their efforts. Despite his distinctively aristocratic manner - the last of the "grandee aristocrats" one journalist called him - Lord Cobham, only one year into his posting, had established himself as probably the most popular Governor General in New Zealand's history. Although every inch an Englishman he has several past connections to New Zealand. He was a great grandson of Lord Lyttelton, one of the financial backers of the Canterbury settlement, whose family name was given to the local port. Hagley Park drew its name from the Cobham's stately home in Worcestershire, Hagley Hall. Lord Cobham was popular for his relative youth, his love of the outdoors and for his sporting prowess (he had been vice-captain of the English cricket team that toured New Zealand in 1935/36). But it was his remarkable speaking ability that created the real connection. So popular were Lord Cobham's New Zealand speeches that when they were reproduced in a book form the book sold an astounding 50,000 copies. Lord and Lady Cobham also had a large family - Lord Cobham, himself, jokingly referred to his family as being of "almost Old Testament proportions" - eight children.

Needless to say every effort was made by each of the women involved with the children's library to look their Sunday best, complete with the obligatory white cotton gloves and hat that were the fashion in that era. Curtsies were practised in case they were needed. Presumably tying the opening in with other Vice-Regal duties, the official opening was made on the day before Show Day, Canterbury's provincial holiday and part of the busiest week of the year in the province, with major race meetings and an Agricultural and Pastoral show bringing "country to town".

Dressed in the high fashion of the day! - the women committee members await the arrival of the Governor General for the official Opening of the new library.Dressed in the high fashion of the day! -
the women committee members await the arrival of the Governor General for the official opening of the new library.

Thursday 14th November 1958 turned out to be a fairly hot day, - almost too hot to be wearing suits and finery. About two hundred people were in attendance, with stacker chairs spread across the lawns of the adjoining pensioner cottage complex and a flag bedecked podium beside the library. Air Force Harvard planes from nearby Wigram air base droned overhead, practising their maneuvers. The Vice-Regal Rolls Royce drove up with its pennants fluttering and the Royal New Zealand Air Force Band delivered a stirring march tune. Speakers included Roy McKenzie [later Sir Roy] son of the library's late benefactor, the President of Riccarton Rotary (Mr Dick Harrington) and Lord Cobham.

Roy McKenzie's speech suggested a sensitivity to the difficulties faced by the mothers involved, tackling such a large project as starting a library while trying to raise families and be supportive to husbands. He paid tribute to his own mother and the part she had played in her husband's career. Sir John McKenzie was "not always an easy man to live with" Roy McKenzie told the crowd. Sir John, he said, was himself Rotarian for 32 years, who felt "that it was everyone's duty to provide for those less able to afford education and professional training". "Sir John did not believe in memorials and the like unless they served a useful purpose. He considered the best means of benefiting the community was to place within its reach the ladders upon which the aspiring can rise, and he carried this out in practice."

Lord Cobham, humorously eyeing the large number of children present, remarked "I feel a great proportion of my audience consists of juvenile delinquents, so I will be brief."

"Books were the gateway to all knowledge and the greater part of wisdom." he said, "From the empty head springs the naughty tongue… I consider myself at my age an expert on juvenile delinquents." [the term had a more humorous connotation in that era].

The Sir John McKenzie Children’s Library immediately after it was opened. The Sir John McKenzie Children’s Library immediately after it was opened.

As one not unacquainted with the nursery and its problems said Lord Cobham he wondered how the ladies' committee intended to preserve the books on the shelves. He could remember his father's real and stern displeasure when he found thirteen volumes of Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" being used as a [toy] railway embankment."

It was reported "The president of the Riccarton Rotary Club, Dick Harrington then presented Lord and Lady Cobham with copies of large, illustrated editions of "Alice in Wonderland" and "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" for their twin daughters Sarah and Lucy, now nearly five years old. "But undoubtably the most pleasing moment for the Riccarton Rotary members and, even more so, the women committee members present was the comment made by Lord Cobham as he stepped through the door, 'This is how a children's library should look'". All it seems felt a great sigh of satisfaction.

Next page