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How millionaire book collector Alexander Turnbull fell from grace

Trappings of privilege: Alexander Turnbull, far right, relaxing in the billiard room at the family home with brother Robert, left, and lawyer EF Hadfield. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

In 1901, wealthy Wellingtonian Alexander Turnbull, founder of New Zealand’s greatest private library, enjoyed an idyllic Christmas cruise in the Marlborough Sounds on his yacht Iorangi. Within a few years, he spiralled into depression and cocaine addiction. What went wrong? 

He’s the handsome devil  with the waxed moustaches who died a century ago. Alexander Turnbull, the millionaire bookman whose 55,000 volumes made a library, has been the toast of Wellington in 2018. There’s been a “Smart Alex” writing contest, a memorial walk, an iced cake as big as a shelf of encyclopedias …

Turnbull’s name still rings out across the capital. His three-storey brick residence and library, with its fancy window lintels and gable parapets, is a striking presence on Bowen St. Yet he was dead at age 49, a bankrupt wretch with a legal cocaine habit that poisoned him.

His ruinous, gargantuan drug consumption, estimated at 3g of powder daily, would be a tragic conclusion to a glittering, distinguished and very sporty life.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

But it’s hard to feel too sorry for Turnbull, the dashing moneybags with the silk drawers and monogrammed hankies, whose string of custom-built yachts kept whisking him away from “the beastly, narrow-minded Wellingtonians”.

It started with Rona. In 1893, 25-year-old Turnbull commissioned this stunning kauri-hulled racing cutter from legendary Devonport-based boatbuilder Robert Logan. He and a handpicked crew immediately took out first prize in the Auckland Regatta, before winning the Wellington Regatta in 1895. But, by 1901, he wanted a bigger, faster boat.

The yachting life was an obsession. There’s a story of Turnbull wandering along Lambton Quay, lost in thought. A passing acquaintance, falling into step, asked if he was composing a poem. “Good lord, no!” the famous bookworm replied. He was merely deciding who to take on his next weekend cruise.

A 1909 portrait by Robert Stewart Clouston. Image/ATL/1/2-002853

This love of sailing inspired his first and only known published work, a dreamy and evocative account of a summer voyage to Queen Charlotte Sound in the summer of 1902. He funded a limited print run, on stiff-cream paper with a brown-speckled cover that became another rare and expensive volume in the fabled collection.

It was Christmas Eve 1901 when skipper Turnbull and some old Rona hands climbed aboard the brand-new Iorangi at the Wellington wharf and prepared to sail across Cook Strait. The sleek 15m Logan boat, its racing sails imported from England, had just set him back $120,000 in today’s money.

Money was never a problem for Turnbull. Born in Wellington in 1868, he’d spent his formative years in England with his large family. After returning home in 1892, he settled somewhat uneasily in the sleepy Victorian capital, a partner in W&G Turnbull, his father’s successful firm of general merchants.

He enjoyed the many privileges of elite European society, even as the democratising Liberals upended the power of the propertied classes. Not surprisingly, Turnbull scorned Premier Dick Seddon’s impecunious rag, tag and bobtail of a following”.

Alexander Turnbull (right) and crew at Oxley’s Hotel in Picton on New Year’s Eve, 1901. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

At 33, the time of his Sounds cruise, Turnbull was the man about town, enjoying leisurely, sunburnt weekends tearing around the harbour and handing out prizes as commodore of the Port Nicholson Yacht Club. By day, he cycled through bustling city streets to his office above a Customhouse Quay warehouse.

Turnbull’s birthplace was booming, and this continued into the 1920s. The capital stood confident, supreme, even opulent, as the country’s commercial, financial, administrative and, indeed, actual crossroads – a hub for coastal and overseas shipping and for interisland and main-trunk train travel.

Iorangi left Wellington wharf at 8pm sharp and headed to sea in most unusual conditions: barely a puff of the notorious Wellington wind. Turnbull’s party, all male, included Grafton “Bot” Bothamley, a future Clerk of Parliament (chief executive), Bert Stirling, who would cook, and three others. Was it a gay cruise? The gay community has long claimed him, and it appears he was homosexual by inclination, if not deed. Chris Brickell’s 2008 book Mates and Lovers: A History of Gay New Zealand points to Turnbull’s horror “when two fortune tellers prophesised his imminent betrothal, and noted his relief when ‘they added by consolation’ that he would ‘very shortly be a widower after that’”.
Queen Charlotte Sound. Photo/Getty Images

That may be so. But recreational yachting expeditions to offshore islands and other favoured spots on the cusp of the 20th century tended to be an all-male domain. Women wisely spurned the spartan and cramped conditions, non-existent privacy and primitive sanitation (bucket for a toilet), restricting their involvement to day tripping.

Turnbull’s account begins as the boat headed for Cook Strait: “There was a full moon, and the night was all that could be desired except for the want of wind. When abreast of the Black Rock, the SS Mararoa passed us, bound South, with pleasure-seekers, brilliantly lit up from stem to stern, and looking very majestic as she curtseyed to the long swell rolling through the Narrows.”

But Christmas Day 1901 dawned without wind, meaning Iorangi had no chance of reaching the perilously narrow Tory Channel entrance to Queen Charlotte Sound by 8am when the tide was due to start running out.

“Alas! We were fated never to win that goal; the breeze died and left a clock calm, an oily heaving sea, and us in the grip of the tide. All hands had breakfasted by 5am, so anxious were they to observe the magnificent sunrise.”

Sunbathing on the Iorangi. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

Instead, they spent the day stuck in Cook Strait, seeking the top entrance to the Sound around Cape Koamaru. “For the moment we despaired of Tory Channel, and turned for the main entrance, the tide helping us, so that at noon we were abreast The Brothers, the yacht heaving and wallowing on the uneasy sea, the flaming sun scorching us.”

Hopes of unwrapping presents and pulling crackers in one of the calm bays inside Tory Channel were fading fast. Bert Stirling nonetheless managed to conjure up a Yuletide feast in the cramped quarters below: “We discovered to our huge delight that Bert could cook! Roast turkey, green peas, potatoes, plum pudding – all out to perfection and done to a turn.”

The wind returned late in the afternoon. “For some time, we had been drifting back towards Tory Channel, but it was no good … near 5pm, and a nice SE breeze springing up, we made again for the main entrance, and were soon bowling along with a flowing sheet … steering outside the jagged White Rocks, we were soon inside the Sound … coming to an anchor in Ten-Acre Bay – a small bay inside the larger one – at 1.30 on Boxing Day morning.”

The dawn chorus blighted any chance of a sleep in. Birdsong filled the salty air as the sun rose over the bay, inspiring Turnbull to quote William Blake: “The imaginative ones on waking this morning at 6 o’clock thought they must be in Paradise, the chorus of tuis ‘piping songs of pleasant glee’ was so entrancing, and the morning sun made everything so fresh and bright.”

The Iorangi crew visit East Bay. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

“Bot” then caught breakfast: “Bothamley – always energetic – rose with the lark, or rather, tui, and taking the dinghy and lines soon had a number of rock cod sprawling in the boat. We all went ashore for a bathe before breakfast … were soon glad to hear the breakfast hail, and to hurry aboard and sit down to an excellent repast, consisting principally of sweet, fresh rock cod.”

Turnbull and his companions knew the Sound as hallowed waters. Iorangi was sailing in the wake of Captain James Cook, who visited in Endeavour, in 1770. Tōtarunui, the place Cook named Queen Charlotte Sound, and Ship Cove (Meretoto) in particular, became a favoured base for the explorer’s successive voyages, offering good timber, water and fishing.

The men of Iorangi were also familiar with the edited version of Cook’s Journals, published by naval hydrographer William Wharton in 1893. Turnbull acquired the original logs and journals from each voyage, and a host of other rare Cook material as part of his relentless commitment to collecting ocean voyages and naval history.

Then came a pilgrimage. After breakfast, the Iorangi sailed to Ship Cove, passing Motuara Island, where Cook hoisted the Union Jack on January 31, 1770, claiming British sovereignty over the South Island. Already a historic reserve when Turnbull and crew sailed these waters, Ship Cove remains popular with local boaties and cruise ships alike.

“We were soon ashore, as all were anxious to view the spot where Cook careened Endeavour and lived for some time. No trace now remains of his visit. The post he set up has long since rotted, or been destroyed, and the garden he planted has vanished, but everywhere the wild mint grew luxuriantly, and the peach and cherry trees were evidence of the whalers who, in the colony’s early history, settled along the Sound.”

Endeavour Inlet. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

Bot seems to have produced a camera, taking photos with what Turnbull called “that sublime indifference to light and that reckless intrepidity only to be found among tyros at the game”. What’s striking about his snaps from this Edwardian interlude is how relaxed all seem, whether perched on the stones at East Bay, sprawled on the deck in grubby clobber or supping in a Picton hotel.

He then writes of a sequence of idyllic days at anchor – fishing, bathing and feasting on new potatoes, seasoned with Cook’s wild mint. There were board games: “… we played skittles on the cabin floor; we played cribbage and we played Ping-Pong with a tennis ball and our hands …”

He tells of a visit to Endeavour Inlet, where locals had pointed out a cherry orchard: “We speedily had the dingy out-board making for the indicated spot, with billies and other receptacles on board, and once landed, willing hands rapidly loaded the boat with delicious fruit.”

The crew even willingly awoke for a second dawn chorus. “We’d been told bellbirds had almost entirely disappeared from the mainland, so this morning at 4am, Bothamley awoke and roused us to listen to them. The birds were singing beautifully, a throbbing, tolling song.”

Then it was time to sail Iorangi to the bright lights of Picton for New Year’s Eve festivities. Old Rona hands got nostalgic as they spotted the boat, under new ownership, tied up at the wharf. “We strained our eyes to catch a first glimpse of Rona. We were like bridegrooms going to meet their brides.”

Then, as now, New Year’s Eve was a popular event on the social calendar, drawing great, noisy crowds keen to drink up large and make merry.

“We all dressed for town … we landed and marched to Oxley’s Hotel, where drinks were ordered, varying from ‘A pint of gin, Miss’, to ‘A drop of cherry brandy in a spoon, please’. This being New Year’s Eve, there were a great number of visitors to Picton, and considerable noise, one gentleman assisting it by firing off a rifle every few minutes, to the great consternation of some of us. The New Year was seen in with the usual ‘din’ and then we returned to Iorangi.”

Regatta Day, the highlight of New Year’s Day in Picton, also brought a visit from the Hon Charlie Mills, local MP and a minister in Seddon’s Cabinet. The amiable Mills was a keen fellow yachtsman, who’d once described his youth as “a kind of half seafaring or nearly amphibious life on the coast and in the Sounds”.

Turnbull captures the scene by Picton Wharf: “Crowds of people were pouring in … as the morning wore on, the scene became very animated, the wharf fluttering with ladies’ dresses, and smart little open boats carrying enormous canvas darting hither and thither on the water. We beat up the harbour for a short distance, passing the two big excursion steamers from Wellington, returning in time to land our visitors for lunch.”

Turnbull at the helm of his first racing yacht Rona. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

The crew of the Iorangi went to bed early, ready for a 3.30am start for the return home. Lack of wind saw a slow drift down the sound, through Tory Channel, and out into wild Cook Strait.

“… We met a big sea rolling in, also a fresh breeze from the SE. We stood at once away to Terawhiti, expecting the tide to sweep us to the southward but we were disappointed in this. We sailed through part of Sinclair Head Rip, not liking it one bit, and picked up our moorings at 8.30pm.

“So ended a very pleasant cruise, unhappily all too short. We had perfect weather, but, except on the last day, not enough wind. All were pleasant companions, and this skipper reports no insubordination unless Bothamley’s refusal to eat a raw onion while the yacht was dancing in Sinclair Head Rip can be so called.”

Would Turnbull ever again know such a memorable, companionable summer? It seems not. Increasingly, he’d compare his life in the far-flung colonial capital to an “artichoke in a back garden”.

By his late thirties, he’d grown depressed, his interest in yachting palling. No longer did he seek the coveted role as Commodore. “The club is in the hands of fair rotters and I don’t care to be prominent in it at all,” he confided in a letter to Bot.

Close to his parents and siblings, Turnbull struggled with a succession of deaths and friend and family relocations. Nor was he much interested in tiresome day-to-day business affairs, retiring in his early forties as the family firm was sold amid continuing financial difficulties. He began to drink the whisky that hastened his father’s death, mixing it with cocaine powder prescribed for his sinuses.

Brother Robert’s departure from the family home they shared didn’t help. There’s an atmospheric photo of the two sitting back in the billiard room, the wall festooned in artefacts and curios. Never bookish, the extroverted Robert was once heard to accuse his brother of being interested only in “dead and gone affairs”.

The view from the bowsprit. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

Turnbull’s last significant activity was planning, building and moving in to his lavish wood-panelled private library in Bowen St. It was the largest in New Zealand. He continued to collect, erratically, and, by May 1916, he was personally in debt to the tune of £10,000, today more than $1 million.

All seemed to be unravelling. There are stories that in his final year, as the end of World War I neared, books, many in unopened parcels, were piled around the library, including across Turnbull’s bed. His health, meanwhile, collapsed as he faced a series of operations associated with the nostrils.

And it was here in the Revivalist-style brick building with the Tuscan columns that a stricken, whey-faced Turnbull opened the door in January 1918 to prominent Times journalist GE Morrison. The Australian later penned an incendiary diary entry of his visit to the library:

“Beautifully kept by a horrible looking recluse of about 40 who is the worst of drug takers. Archdeacon Herbert Williams, his greatest friend, tells me that he has at times consumed £5 of cocaine per week. It seems incredible. Charged up to the firm, this was an excuse not unnaturally leading to the retirement from business of this drug fiend. Turnbull is an ill favoured, evil smelling man who takes no exercise but lives on drugs and gives up all his time to the hobby of collecting books on NZ and secondarily on English literature.”

Six months later, Alexander Turnbull was dead, after yet another operation on his collapsing nose. Archdeacon Williams presided over the massive funeral, flags fluttering at half mast over the capital, and Bot was among the mourners. One obituary was subtitled “A National Loss”.

A century on, it might appear that Turnbull’s gorgeous little book and a sheaf of faded snaps are all that remain of those long, luminous days in Queen Charlotte Sound in the summer of 1902.

Yet his custom yachts, too, live on. Tied up at Chaffers’ Marina in Wellington, Rona is one of the oldest yachts in local waters and our oldest continuously registered vessel. She even boasts her own Wikipedia page.

And sleek Iorangi, rebuilt with a modern rig, still sails the Waitematā. A decade ago, she took second place overall in the Lindauer Classic Yacht Regatta.

‘A horrible looking recluse’

Whisky and a 60-a-day cocaine habit sent the dashing businessman to an early grave.

Turnbull’s fatal dalliance with cocaine remained unknown for half a century. But during research on a commissioned biography by Eric McCormick, scholars were stunned to find a reference to Turnbull as a “drug fiend” and a “horrible looking recluse” in another recently published work.

Times journalist GE Morrison’s devastating diary record of his 1918 meeting with Turnbull appeared in a biography of Morrison by Cyril Pearl. In those pre-internet days, the Turnbull reference was slow to surface.

Library files show an urgent letter, dated November 21, 1967, from Turnbull Library boss Austin Graham Bagnall to McCormick: “A note in haste … a book published two months ago allegedly has a reference to Morrison’s meeting with Turnbull, with whom he was not impressed.”

Supporting evidence then emerged from an unlikely source. Gillian Ryan, a staffer at the Turnbull Library (still based in the original brick building in the late 1960s), had long regaled colleagues with her father-in-law’s tales of wild cocaine consumption by their most eminent and utterly respectable founder.

It appeared a doctor first prescribed doses of “Naso-pharyngeal” powders to the great man in 1916, at the rate of one dose a day. Over time, Turnbull increased this to 60, buying them through his firm and getting staff to deliver to Bowen St. “Each contained one-twentieth of a gram of cocaine; 60 would be 3g, which would be a satisfactory dose for an addict,” literary scholar Margaret Scott wrote in 1968. One day in 1917, Ryan’s father-in-law, Cornelius Ryan, the head of Wright Stephenson (which had bought out W&G Turnbull), confronted Turnbull at home, telling him the firm would no longer supply him with the drug. He’d thrown them out in a rage.

Above all, the disclosures, however reputationally shocking, had a ring of truth. The Morrison paragraph appeared in full in McCormick’s commissioned 1974 biography. The files show one scholar commenting, “… it makes sense of so much that was vaguely mysterious … we’ve talked about the strange pallid rigidity of the man – quite inconsistent with his outstanding talent as a book collector.”

This article was first published in the December 22, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.