A small plaque underfoot by Wellington’s cenotaph is what remains of New Zealand’s first public library.
Unless you look down and take a second to read it, you won’t even know it’s there.
But in 1841, the Port Nicholson Exchange and Reading room took up residence in what was formerly Richard Barrett’s house on Charlotte St - now the corner of Molesworth St and Lambton Quay.
It was hardly a resounding success. It was badly located (most people lived closer to Te Aro) and its fee, £5 to join with an annual subscription of £2 - some $700 in today's money to join and $200 to subscribe - put it way out of the reach of most people.
Still it was a valiant effort - it’s initial offerings were mostly donations of books often from the very first settlers to Wellington.
When there were protests that the ‘working’ man could not afford it a competing exchange was set up in Te Aro.
The new Wellington Exchange did well but the Port Nicholson one failed to get its own members to pay up, let alone attract new interest and by 1842 it was closed.
New Zealand’s first public librarian was Dr Frederick Knox. Knox was born on April 3, 1794 (or 1791) in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was the ninth child of Robert Knox and Mary Knox (nee Scherer).
He was employed by his anatomist brother Robert (later discredited in a body-snatching scandal) as an assistant. He was licensed by the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in 1831 and had a small practice.
Dr Frederick Knox emigrated to Wellington, as the ship's surgeon on the New Zealand Company vessel Martha Ridgway arriving in Mar 1840, with his wife Margaret (nee Russell) and their then four children.
He had purchased a land entitlement (number 76), a section in Willis St but lived in Johnsonville initially and later in the Hutt.
He was appointed the librarian in 1841 with a princely salary of £75. His main interest was natural science and he was a member of the New Zealand Institute from 1867.
Between 1855-57 he served as a resident medical officer to the Karori Asylum. He also served as coroner in the Wellington district in Porirua from 1861.
He and Margaret had six children, one son and five daughters.
He died on August 5, 1873 aged 79 (or 83) and is buried in Bolton Street Cemetery in a public plot - although its location is unknown.