Category Archives: mitchell library

Auckland, Burns and A’ That

In preparing a talk for the recent Robert Burns’ anniversary, I learned a few things about my Scottish born grandparents.

(Burns’ anniversay 25 January, Wikipedia; Guardian 24 Jan 2014 on Burns and Scottish independence).

My mother’s parents were born in Scotland: John Barr (1887-1971, born Glasgow) and Jessie Barr (née MacPherson 1889-1979, born Perthshire) came to live in Auckland, New Zealand in 1913 and 1914 respectively.  For the rest of their lives they remained very enthusiastic about Auckland, its heritage and its development, while also remaining strongly attached to Scottish culture, heritage and literature.

John (aka, Jack) and Jessie both worked in libraries in Scotland.  Jack started working in the Mitchell Library, Glasgow at 13 or 14 years old. Abe Cunningham was also a cadet boy at the Mitchell Library at the same time.  He later moved to Auckland and worked as a cataloguer at Auckland Public Library.

This photo was taken in 1906, in Glasgow in front of a statue donated to Glasgow by John Stewart Kennedy:

barr statue glasgow 3 cropped

Abe Cunningham and John Barr:
The Munro-John Barr Album

John Barr was chief librarian at Auckland Public Library (1913-1952).

John Barr authored various published books, including a couple of histories of Auckland:

The city of Auckland, 1840–1920 (1922) – includes a Maori history of the Auckland Isthmus, by George Grahame

The Ports of Auckland, New Zealand: A History of the Discovery and Development of the Waitemata and Manukau Harbours (1926)

Both books are an accurate historical record and are of their time: they are presented from a European, male perspective, with the main focus on British colonisation, settlement, and municipal development of the area.

John and Jessie had three daughters:  Catriona MacPherson (aka Mac – eldest); Sheila MacPherson (my mother) and Margaret Jean (youngest).  This family photo was taken outside their house in Manukau Road, Auckland – next to the original Epsom Library, sometime around the late 1920s or 1930s.

barrs2 grayscale cropped

Daughters back row: Sheila, Catriona (Mac), Margaret

Both John and Jessie were very active in the Auckland St Andrew’s Society, and both gave many talks or lectures on Scottish topics.  Jack’s specialism was Robert Burns, and Jessie’s main literary interest was Robert Louis Stephenson.  She also gave lectures on Kipling and James Barrie, and was a founding member of the New Zealand Penwomen’s League.

In a review of a John Barr song-lecture, he is reported to have said that Burn’s ‘Scots Wha Hae’ was “one of the greatest poems of liberty ever penned.” (New Zealand Herald 5 Sept 1919. p. 10).

In his typed version* of his address for the 169th Burns’ Anniversary (1928), Jack outlined Burns’ importance: he restored national pride to Scotland at a time when it was needed; Burns provided songs and poems of a quality lacking in other Scots works at that time; Burns’ nationalism was not a narrow patriotism but his humanitarian, liberal and egalitarian values gained international support.

With respect to Burns’ support of “universal brotherhood”, Jack quoted these lines from ‘Scots Wha Hae’:

By oppression’s woes and pains!
By your sons in servile chains!
We will drain our dearest veins,
         But they shall be free!

Following this, he wrote:

That was its commencement, but it rose to the sublime heights of universal freedom in his hopes that there would come a time when

Man to man the world o’er                                                                                     Would brothers be for a’ that.

The last two lines are from Burns’ song and poem, ‘Is There for Honest Poverty’, commonly known as ‘A Man’s a Man for A’ That’.

For Burns, poverty is honest: a man’s character and self-respect are his true worth, and not social class or the trappings of wealth; the wealthy can disguise their true worth with fine clothes; honesty and goodness are worth more than aristocratic titles.

This video uses Ian F Benzie‘s version of ‘A Man’s A Man for A’ that’, and various images related to Burns and the content of the song.

*The typed copy of John Barr’s speech is in the Douglas Munro collection: Douglas is grandson of John and Jessie Barr and son of Catriona Munro (née Barr).

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Filed under Auckland, biography, glasgow, heritage, history, jessie barr (nee macpherson), john barr, library, mitchell library

Family history & changing times

Over the last year or so I have been looking into some of my family history.  It has revealed a few surprises, brought forward some mysteries, and opened new and intriguing lines of research.  As with every family history, it comprises a network of bloodlines, that overlap and intersect at specific moments of time, in diverse locations.  And, when tracing the routes through which these lines all led to my life, begun in New Zealand, I am intrigued by the vast changes in the course of individual lifetimes: changes in the economic contexts, social change, political struggles and technological capabilities

Two of my grandparents came from Scottish working class backgrounds: he the son of a tinsmith, and (when single) a mill worker; my grandmother the daughter of an engineer from a line of shoe makers.  There’s an intriguing photo of my grandfather and fellow cadet at the Mitchell Library cadet, in front of a statue in Glasgow, in Edwardian suits, in the first few years of the 20th century.

Mitchell Library c1911

Mitchell Library c1911, North St, Charing Cross area of Glasgow, on Virtual Mitchell Library

My grandparents married in a boat off Manly beach in Sydney, early 20th century, then came to Auckland for my grandfather to take up a job as Auckland City Chief Librarian, curator of the Art Gallery and Director of the Old Colonialist Museum.

Anglo-Irish great grandparents born during and/or just before the Irish potato famine near Enniskillen in County Fermanagh: families largely of teachers, lawyers, clergy, military men, and at least one owner of a heritage residential property.  Such families fared better during the famine than the poverty-stricken Catholics.  See for instance, this record of the Workhouse in Enniskillen:

Enniskillen1 workhouse 2003

Enniskillen – Workhouse building, 2003

My great grandparents married in Melbourne in 1869, then journeyed almost immediately to the Northern Kaipara, to start the New Zealand family lines Paparoa. [The Back Roads blog has an interesting record of the Paparoa Dairy Cooperative of 1895-1896]

Paparoa Settlers’ Annual Picnic and Group of Small Children, 1900.

– Image from Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19000727-6-4 [Auckland Weekly News 27 July 1900]

The Matakana mystery man: my great grandfather, James Sinclair, and his brother, were the eldest and youngest sons of a successful tobacco manufacturer in Newcastle on Tyne.  How did they come to be living in Matakana, Rodney at the beginning of the 20th century?

– Image from Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19021218-12-1. [Auckland Weekly News 18 December 1902]

At the headquarters of navigation: The S.S. Kotiti lying at Matakana Wharf, on the Matakana River, Auckland, 1909.

– Image from Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19091223-3-2 [Auckland Weekly News 23 December 1909]

Why do my great grandfather and his daughter appear to have become estranged? She doesn’t seem to have acknowledged his existence in Rodney, yet she had married my grandfather of Paparoa, in 1916, and lived there for the rest of her life. She seems to have grown up with the tobacco manufacturing family in Newcastle Upon Tyne before migrating to New Zealand in 1915.

Victorian Newcastle, images, The Guardian,2012

Victorian Newcastle, images, The Guardian,2012

James Sinclair had married the daughter of William Anthony Brignal, a newspaper manager, temperance campaigner and secretary for the Railway Men’s Mission. Born in Durham, he lived for a time in the Tyne and Wear area, but was most active in the Liverpool area where he lived the last period of his life, dying in 1895.  How political was he?  He worked for the radical Sunderland Daily Echo soon after it began publishing: it was set up to oppose the Conservative Party and was aligned with the Liberal Party.

 – Image belongs to Sunderland Daily Echo.

It actively campaigned on issues such as taxation and Home Rule for Ireland. He later worked for the moderately liberal Liverpool Daily Post. This was a significant period in the rise of the popular press.

All these life strands led to my immediate family that came into being soon after WWII. The prior lines in the New Zealand family branches included the following occupations: farmer, teacher, lawyer, librarian, accountant/manager, post office worker, telephone/telegraph operator, “gentleman” (Remittance Man?).

The various lines of my ancestry from the past couple of centuries, seem to have come from various parts of the north of England and Ireland, and from Scotland.  In earlier times, many would have lived in the border territories between Scotland and England.  They include a mix of people from the poorer and middle sections of society; largely protestant, but from various denominations and political positions.

NOTE: I have learned of these family lines from family statements and records; official birth death and marriage certificates; census and other records found on the online Ancestry Library; newspaper articles accessed via Papers Past, Trove, and the British Newspaper Archive and the New Zealand Herald on microfilm; cemetery records.

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Filed under enniskillen, glasgow, james sinclair, liverpool daily post, matakana, mitchell library, newcastle upon tyne, paparoa, politics, railway men's mission, sunderland daily echo, temperance, william anthony brignal