You wouldn’t expect to find New Zealand’s first library down an unassuming street in Tauranga. Nor would you expect it to contain a secret trapdoor, under which treasures (and people) could be hidden in the event of attack. Imagine yourself crammed into the 1.8-metre-deep oubliette, trying not to make a sound as invading enemies stomp across the floorboards inches above your head, tearing your precious books from their shelves.
Thankfully, the library was never actually attacked. It’s a tiny, wooden building on the edge of the Elms Mission Station, completed in 1839. The Elms, then known as Te Papa Mission Station, was established by the Reverend Alfred Brown, who was sent from England to educate the children of other New Zealand missionaries. Living at Te Papa was risky: the spot chosen for the mission station was prone to bouts of intertribal warfare.
Reverend Brown was keen to spread Christianity to the native tribesmen. He taught as many Māori as he could how to read and write, and about Western agriculture. (Or, as the European immigrants of the time no doubt saw it, how to be civilised and farm properly.) Our tour guide at the Elms was, however, proud to point out that Reverend Brown supposedly treated his Māori pupils as friends and fellow human beings, rather than as savages to be tamed.
It was Reverend Brown who built the library. He needed to keep his extensive book collection safe and dry. William Gisborne, a nineteenth century New Zealand politician and fellow English immigrant, described it in the following words:
“The room was surrounded with shelves, on which large volumes, heavy to carry, and I daresay, heavy to read, gloomily reposed, while, from among, above and below them long rows of tempting, rosy-cheeked apples, brightly reflecting the ruddy fire, shone in delightful contrast with their more sedate brethren.”
(This quote comes from the Elms Mission Station’s website.) As for the rest of the mission station, you can explore the garden by yourself for free, but if you want to enter any of the buildings, including the library, you’ll need to pay $5 for a tour. I found the tour a little awkward, as it was just me and my parents being talked at by an old lady who was obviously used to addressing tourists and children who have no knowledge of either English or New Zealand history.
The other buildings include an almost puritanically bare chapel, an old workshop, a fencible cottage – if you want to know what the hell fencible means, read my blog about Howick Historical Village – and, of course, the main house. I was delighted to discover that it had a games table, though it’s nowhere near as big as mine and Tim’s monstrosity. (Risk is one of our smallest, least complicated board games. We need a big table.)
Is it worth visiting? Yes, if you’re interested in the history of Tauranga. There aren’t any proper museums in Tauranga, (except Classic Flyers,) which is surprising. I mean my family moved to Tauranga when I was fifteen and it’s only just occurred to me that it doesn’t have a museum like most places… How odd. So, for now, the Elms Mission Station is the best we’ve got. Apparently, they’re planning to build a proper museum, to go with the city centre and harbourfront upgrade, so hopefully, in a few years…
Of course, if you’re a bibliophile you’ll no doubt already be planning a trip to the Elms Mission Station. While you’re there, check out my list of free things to do in Tauranga.