Turnbull Centenary 2018-2020 Essay

AIM: To create new knowledge about Alexander Turnbull, and to publicise his legacy during the anniversary years 2018-2020.

The Friends of the Turnbull Library (FoTL) is now calling for Expressions of Interest in submitting an essay on any aspect of the life and/or collecting role of Alexander Horsburgh Turnbull, who donated his personal collection of about 55,000 books and other items relating to New Zealand and the Pacific Islands to the nation in 1918. This generous bequest became the nucleus of the Alexander Turnbull Library, an internationally renowned research library which opened its doors to the public in 1920.

At the discretion of the Friends of Turnbull Library, the expressions of interest will be assessed and entrants will be advised of the terms and conditions. The original concept of an essay competition may be modified to provide research funding to one or more selected entrants.


  • We expect the final essay(s) will achieve a high academic level of accessible scholarship, providing a new perspective on the life and achievements of Alexander Turnbull.
  • Entries may be non-fiction or creative writing.
  • By entering the competition entrants agree to FoTL terms and conditions regarding subsequent publication of your essay and FoTL publicity requirements.
  • The awarding of research funding will be decided by a panel selected by FoTL and the decision of the judges is final. No correspondence will be entered into.
  • Open to anyone (no age limit).
  • Word length: is expected not to exceed 5000 words.


Up to $15,000 to be allocated or shared at the complete discretion of the Friends of Turnbull Library.

DEADLINES: Expressions of interest (research proposals) must be received by Friday 29 June 2018.

Following confirmation of the acceptance of a research proposal, essays must be received by FoTL on or before 1 September 2019. Results announced 15 November 2019.  Successful entries may be published in Turnbull Library Record in 2020.


Alexander Turnbull (1868-1918) was born in Wellington, the sixth of seven children, and was educated in Wellington and then in England. As a young man Alex joined the family’s prosperous “general commission business”, involving importing, shipping and insurance, occupying two warehouses and an office on Customhouse Quay. His growing passion for collecting books began when he was 17, and quickly focussed on anything published in or about New Zealand. At times he was buying about 700 books per year, and his interests widened to include all the “South Sea Islands” of the Pacific. When he died, shortly before his fiftieth birthday, he had amassed about 55,000 books, along with drawings, prints, paintings, maps and manuscripts; and this was the collection he gifted to the nation to form “the nucleus of a New Zealand National Collection”. It was welcomed as “the most generous bequest to the people of New Zealand ever made by a New Zealander.”

E.H. McCormick’s excellent 1974 biography of Alexander Turnbull is meticulously researched and rich with archival detail, but there are various dimensions of this driven and generous man which might produce a fascinating essay. Turnbull’s first racing yacht, the narrow and beautiful gaff rigged cutter Rona, is moored at Chaffers Marina. Turnbull’s history as a sportsman and sailor has been documented by his own account of sailing in Queen Charlotte Sound. What is Turnbull’s history as a sailor? Before he became a dedicated book hound Turnbull was a laddish man about town – what kind of person was he? He came from a close family but his relationship with his sisters, especially the younger one Sissy, seems to have been a bit puritanical – what was he like as a brother and son? Why did Turnbull himself never marry and is the obvious explanation the right one? What was he like as a businessman and how did the business support the ferocious bookbuying? Towards the end of his life Turnbull succumbed to drug addiction, about which McCormick is clear but discreet. What was the incidence of drug use in Wellington at this time and how would Turnbull have acquired his supplies? Who were his close friends?

An essay on these, or any other aspects of this remarkable but essentially private man would add to our knowledge and understanding of Turnbull’s life and passions.

Further information about Alex and the Alexander Turnbull Library is on www.turnbullfriends.org

Enquiries and Expressions of Interest to: fergiehill@xtra.co.nz

Preserving the past to enlighten the future

The Friends of the Turnbull Library Inc

PO Box 12186, Thorndon, Wellington 6144, New Zealand


The Friends of the Turnbull Library is pleased to announce an essay competition with prizes totalling $15,000 to celebrate the anniversaries of the generous bequest of Alexander Horsburgh Turnbull’s library to the nation in 2018, and the subsequent opening of the Alexander Turnbull Library in 2020.

We are now inviting expressions of interest in submitting an essay on any aspect of Alexander Turnbull’s life and/or his role as a collector.

Essays should be between 3,000–5,000 words in length, and must not have been previously published. We expect they will have a scholarly underpinning and be written in a lively and accessible manner for an informed but not specialist readership.

Turnbull’s personal collection, of some 55,000 books and other items relating to New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, formed the basis of the Turnbull Library which has subsequently grown steadily to become the internationally renowned research library it is today, serving all those with interests in the fields of historical, literary, cultural and genealogical studies.

The Friends of the Turnbull Library is an incorporated society established in 1939. The essay competition assists our aims to promote public interest in the Alexander Turnbull Library, and to encourage research and use of Library materials to create new knowledge.

The deadline for expressions of interest in entering the essay competition is 29 June 2018. Subsequent completed essays must be submitted (by email or by post) by 1 September 2019.

Enquiries and Expressions of Interest should be emailed to editor@turnbullfriends.org.nz or fergiehill@xtra.co.nz