Charles Joseph Rae – South Island Pioneer

H (Bert) Roth

In 1943 the veteran socialist radical Arthur Rae died and Norm Jeffery, his colleague in the breakaway Pastoral Workers Industrial Union in the 1930s intended to write a biographical portrait for the New South Wales Trades and Labor Council. This does not seem to have been accomplished but Jeffery did manage to establish communications with a New Zealand labour historian, Bert Roth, who had written a brief manuscript about Arthur Rae’s father, Charles Joseph Rae. Originally published in New Zealand Libraries, vol 22, August 1959, pp 129-132, Mr Roth has kindly consented to its re-publication in Hummer.

The first Mechanics’ Institutes were founded in Britain in 1823. Three years later, there were more than a hundred of them and, by 1851, their numbers neared the 700 mark in Britain and had spread throughout the world. J.W. Hudson, in his History of Adult Education (London 1851) noted the extraordinary development of these people’s seminaries in the remote regions of the earth, and expressed his pride that “the humble temple of knowledge rears its head adjacent to the abode of the New Zealander and the Sandwich Islander”.

In New Zealand as elsewhere, the Mechanics’ Institutes were frequently the forerunners of our public libraries and there is some interest in tracing the career of a man who helped to introduce the movement into this country, and who was prominently associated with three Mechanics Institutes in the South Island.

Charles Joseph Rae arrived in Christchurch late in 1851. He was the thirty-one years old. A painter by trade, Rae had taken an active part in the Chartist agitation in London in t he early forties, “Many a night.after a day of toil”, he recalled later, “have I passed with committees of advanced thinkers of that time, conning over and discussing plans to better our conditions.”

After the defeat of the Chartists, Rae joined the Royal Navy, where he rose to the modest rank of master-at-arms. Back in London in 18:50 he found “but little change in the social and political prospects of the masses”, and decided to emigrate to New Zealand, there “to assist in the founding of a young nation”.

Soon after his arrival in Christchurch Rae sent a letter the Lyttelton Times. He had remarked “with sincere regret”, he wrote, “the absence of those means for social intercourse which bind man to man, and of those amusements which tend to make the individual cheerful and virtuous and society happy would we not, he asked, “get up a Working Mens Literary and scientific institution, where working men and their wives, and their families might meet to enjoy

The feast of reason
And the flow of soul

He would be happy to join with any reader in forming a Mechanics Institute “having had some experience in those matters”. And he added: “I have a few books which I shall be happy to lend and give for the commencement of a Library.”

Rae’s letter was published on 20th march, 1852. It quickly found response, for on 10th May there appeared an advertisement for a public meeting the following day to form a Christchurch Colonists Society. The signatories of the advertisement were eleven citizens, among them, besides Rae, E.J. Wakefield and H.J.Tancred. The meeting, at the White Hart Inn, was attended by more than 120 people. It was decided to form a society similar to the Lyttelton Colonists. Society directed by J.R. Godley, and a committee was elected for this purpose.

The main object of the new society was to be the discussion of matters of public interest, but there were also plans for a library and newspaper room. The rules were to be patterned on those of the Lyttelton society which admitted to membership male inhabitant. over 16 years of age on advance payment of a subscription of ls,6d, per’ quarter. Members were allowed to introduce “gratuitously” the female members of their family and children above ten years of age. They could use the library and news room for an additional payment of 6s per year and by paying 14s.0d. per year, they could even take books home.

Rae’s original proposal for a mainly educational and social Mechanics’ Institute had thus led to the formation of what was primarily a political organisation, and there were influential people in Christchurch who did not approve this development. On 3rd July, twelve local citizens signed another advertisement calling a public meeting, this time to form a society of an exclusively literary and scientific character, to be called the Christchurch Athenaeum.

The reasons for this step may be judged from a letter by J.S. Wortley which appeared in the Lyttelton Times of 10th July, “I understand the chief objection is”, wrote Mr Wortley, “that the Colonists’ Society, with few exceptions,’ is composed chiefly of the people and working classes, and therefore, as I have heard in Christchurch, takes a democratic and republican, or Chartist tendency. Now for the sake of argument I will grant this, and say that it is principally composed of the working classes and operatives, that there are very few of what is termed the higher classes who have anything to do with it, and that the majority of the committee are not of quite so high a standing in the society of Christchurch as the gentlemen who promote the Athenaeum.”

After referring to Rae, who had been elected to the committee of the Colonists. Society and who had made a speech at the meeting which “first gave the alarm to the staunch Tories and Conservatives”, Mr Wortley reminded his fellow citizens that they must on coming out here, be ready to give up many of the exclusive notions that we have been brought up in, in England”.

Christchurch was too small then to support two rival societies and before long both the Athenaeum and the Colonists’ Society faded out of existence seven years later, Rae returned to the attack. In the Lyttelton Times of 25th May 1859, he inserted an advertisement calling public meeting “to take into consideratiDn the best means of establishing a Mechanics Institutes. The meeting was held on the following day in the Oddfellows’ Hall. It was well attended, subscribers were enrolled, “and a committee was elected, with Rae as secretary. In August, the official opening took place, in temporary premises in the Town Hall, and a librarian was appointed.

The first annual report, in July 1860, mentioned 112 subscribers and a stock of 168 books. Besides running the library, the Institute had conducted lectures and classes in elementary school subjects such as writing and arithmetic. Rae handed over his office of secretary that year, but he remained a member of the committee until his resignation in February 1861. The Mechanics’ Institute, later renamed the Literary Institute, struggled on until 1873 when it transferred its property to the new Canterbury Public Library.

Rae had by that time left Christchurch. The jury list of 1852 shows him as a labourer, residing at Papanui Road. He later moved to Heathcote Valley and he worked on the construction of the Lyttelton Tunnel, but 1n 1864 the lure of the Wakamarina gold discoveries took him to Marlborough. He failed to make his fortune at the diggings and went to the Grove where he again formed a Mechanic’s Institute.

A fire at the sawmill where he was employed caused Rae to move to Blenheim. Here he worked first at his trade of painter and paperhanger and later as a land and estate agent, insurance agent, and debt collector. He wrote frequently for the Marlborough Express and he struck up a friendship with the editor of the Express, Samuel Johnson.

Blenheim already had a Literary Institute but it was in the doldrums at the time of Rae’s arrival. In January 1869 Rae was elected secretary, and with Johnson’s help he was able to infuse new life into the Institute. A.M. Hale, in a series of articles in the Marlborough Express in May-June 1958, has given full details of Rae’s and Johnson’s work. “Blenheim”, he wrote,. “never had two like them. They were public spirited and generous to a fault.”

Rae remained secretary of the Literary Institute for eight years. During this time he founded a museum at Blenheim, helped to form a Men’s Debating Society and in 1877-78, also served on the Blenheim Borough Council.

In 1980, Rae returned to Christchurch. H.G. Ell, who came to know him well in the eighties, described him as “a man well advanced in years wearing a short white beard. He was lame, but brimful of energy. He poured letters unceasingly into the columns of the daily papers advocating reforms and attacking those who resisted them. For some little time he conducted a Radical paper called The Age”.

To Christchurch Rae was active in the Free Thought Association and in the Working Men’s Political Association whom he represented at the Trades and Labour Congress in Dunedin in 1885. In the latter year there was a Russian War scare and the Government took advantage of Rae’s naval experience and put him in charge of the military stores at Lyttelton.

In 1889, Rae became president of the Christchurch Knights of Labour and branch secretary of the new Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants. He was nominated for Parliament in the 1890 elections but he stood down to avoid a split in the Liberals. The new Liberal Government, according to a newspaper report decided to recognise his services by offering him his seat in the Legislative Council but failing health and increasing age prevented the appointment.

Late in 1892, Rae left Christchurch for Otahuhu to live with his son, a well-known horse trainer. Another son, Arthur, had in 1890, been elected to the New South Wales Parliament on the Labour ticket and later became a Senator in the Commonwealth Parliament. From Otahuhu, Rae contributed occasionally to the Auckland press. He died in February 1894, at the age of 73.

The Auckland Star, in an obituary notice, referred to Rae as “one of the most prominent and staunch Liberals of New Zealand”, while the New Zealand Times commented that he was “a man rare in these times, in as much as he had the courage of his opinions. His honesty of purpose and fearlessness of his advocacy, together with his courtesy to his opponents were a good example, the memory of which will make for good in the country he loved so well.”