St Albans Community Centre 1867-2021

The St Albans Community Centre has its origins as far back as the 1860s when a group of citizens, of what was then known as Knightstown, were already conscious of the need for cultural activity and a meeting place for such activity.

Adult education was available from the earliest days of European settlement. Mechanics’ Institutes (founded in Britain in the early 1820s as education establishments for skilled working men) were open in Auckland, Nelson and Wellington by 1842.
These offered a broad range of classes and lectures, as well as libraries and reading rooms.

The first Mechanics’ Institute in Christchurch (precursor to the Canterbury Public Library) was opened in 1859, to offer intellectual stimulation for all sectors of the community. A separate area was set aside for the ladies.

The libraries were the most popular part of the institutes, so by the 1860s most had stopped offering courses. This led to the emergence of Mutual Improvement Societies – groups of working class men who met to improve their learning through conversation, reading and lectures.

These societies epitomised the early Victorian creed of self-help.

The Mutual Improvement Association
On 24 May 1867, after much discussion and preliminary canvassing, a meeting took place at Mr David Lewis’s home in Springfield Road “to form a Mutual Improvement Association”.

Dr Augustus Florance was elected president with Messrs William Moor, coachbuilder, and John St Quentin, painter/signwriter, vice presidents. The secretary was to be Mr John Dixey, a carpenter, and the librarian, Mr Charles Duggan, who was a painter.

Twelve committee men were elected with five to be a quorum. They were Messrs James Burberry, shoemaker; William Butler, bricklayer; Robert Butterfield, shingler; Frederick Cumberworth, teacher; Robert Cutler, farmer; Thomas Lewis, gunsmith; Daniel Pine, printer; Henry Price, carpenter; Joseph Rowbothom, storeman; William Sidney Smith, printer; and David Lewis and John Watson, whose occupations are unknown.

Having formed a society, members needed a place of operations. The conveyancing of a piece of  land in High Street, Knightstown, (now Dover Street, St Albans) on 18  August 1867 from William Moor to the appointed trustees, Rev John Aldred and Messrs George Gould and Charles Robert Blakiston, “gentlemen on trust”, provided a site for the proposed association building. Garrick & Cowlishaw acted as solicitors for the transaction.

This parcel of land was described as “10 perches part of RS 311”. The present address of this would be 28 Dover Street. The site is now occupied by Dover Courts.

From the early 1860s there were numerous tea meetings and lectures to raise money for the building fund. In September 1867, with the building well underway, Dr Florance chaired a meeting to adopt a constitution.

It contained all the usual clauses including, “all loud talking, swearing or profane language, practical joking, smoking or drunkenness are strictly forbidden,” likewise “political or religious controversy”.

Annual membership fees were set at 2/6d (two shillings and sixpence, 25 cents) for men and 1/- (one shilling, 10 cents) for youths.

Women were excluded from membership.

The premises were insured for £100 ($200), and opened on 28 October 1867, with another tea meeting and inaugural address. The St Albans Mutual  Improvement  Association now had a headquarters.
Mr William Reeves, part-owner and editor of the Lyttelton Times gave the inaugural address entitled: “Self-culture: the unfolding and expanding of these capabilities which God has implanted within us.”

The Library Takes Shape
By October 1874, there were 436 books in the library and issues for the year totalled 1431. A large increase in membership produced a profit of £5.4.7d.

Enlargement of the room was essential. A request to the provincial government was only partly successful as it produced only £50 rather than the £300 asked for, but this was added to the building fund.

The hall reopened on 17 May 1875.

In May 1885, the words ‘Public Library’ were added to the title to reflect the importance of this activity.

In 1894 the committee decided to rebuild the front portion of the premises.

In 1901 there was a further extension of the hall.

The building played an important role in the lives of the people of the district. It functioned as a Community Centre, hosting meetings of the Band of Hope, Templars, Druids, Mormons, Railway League, Salvation Army, St Albans Political Association, Lodge, Drum and Fife Band as well as classes in dancing, gymnastics and elocution.

St Albans and Christchurch City Unite
When the St Albans Borough amalgamated with the City of Christchurch on 1 April 1903, the facility became better appreciated and the city council subsidised the running of the hall. In 1904 this subsidy was £25.

Further amenities were added to the hall. A stage was built and a billiard table purchased. Cards, fencing and chess were further activities enjoyed by residents.

On 7 March 1904, Christchurch City Council changed the names of many streets in Christchurch. High Street in St Albans became Dover Street and Crescent Road became North Crescent Road and then, in 1909, Trafalgar Street.

During the Great War, 1914-18, many young men were overseas on active service and it fell to the older generation to maintain the Society. Those who helped included Walter Pearce, James Lorimer, Charles Earwaker, George Allan, and Sir Ernest Andrews, who later became mayor of Christchurch.

By 1917 the old buildings were not fit for purpose and in need of replacement.

The city council offered to build a new brick building on a site in Colombo Street North. The proposed site was very swampy with several springs, but the land was drained and the springs capped.

St Albans Public Library
The foundation stone was laid on the site on Saturday 31 July 1920 in a ceremony conducted by the Mayor of the City, Dr Henry Thacker MP.

There was a large gathering of locals and Cr John W Beanland, Deputy Mayor, presided by virtue of his office as president of the library committee.

Mr George Bull, the builder of the library presented Dr Thacker with an inscribed silver trowel with which to lay the stone.

On 28 May 1921, the Mayor, Dr Thacker, accompanied by other civic dignitaries, opened the new building, renamed the St Albans Public Library.

Resource Centre Established
By 1997, with membership falling and usage declining, time had arrived to rationalise suburban voluntary libraries, and the St Albans Public Library became one of three victims.

The library did not meet the criteria set by the review committee for remaining in use and closed on 29 November 1997 after 130 years of service to the community.

A group of residents lobbied the council to retain the building.

The Christchurch City Council agreed to a proposal from the St Albans Residents Association (SARA) to turn the vacant premises into the St Albans Community Resource Centre.

Following alterations to the kitchen and toilet area, and the replacement of rotten flooring, Mayor-elect, Garry Moore reopened the building as the St Albans Community Resource Centre on 18 October 1998.

Serving as a focal point for the area, it remained a living, working memorial to the foresightedness of St Albans pioneers.

The Christchurch Earthquakes
In July 2009 and again in June 2010 the city council included in its Long-Term Council Community Plan an amount of $3.5 million for extensions to the St Albans Community Centre. The council was seeking feedback on the design of an additional building to supplement the centre and cope with increasing demand when the first Christchurch earthquake struck on 4 September 2010, dealing a mortal blow to the brick building.

Well beyond repair, the building was demolished on 20 July 2011, but some items were salvaged for possible reuse in any future rebuild.

When the centre was demolished, a time-capsule was removed from behind the foundation stone.

The presence of this was recorded in press reports of the time so it provided great interest when it was recovered and, with due ceremony, opened in 2018 to reveal the contents.

Copies of both the Lyttelton Times and Christchurch Press from 1920 and a handwritten history of the Mutual Improvement Association (see  Appendix) were enclosed within a small sealed brown bottle.

All were enclosed in a wooden case especially made by timber merchants Hardie & Thompson.

Over its lifetime the facility has been called many names. These include:
Mutual Improvement Hall, The Hall, The Library, Reading Room, Public Library, Knightstown Institute, Knightstown Library, Mechanics Institute, St Albans Resource Centre and now the St Albans Community Centre.

Document found in time capsule (written 31 July 1920)
Below is the transcription of the document included in the time capsule deposited behind the foundation stone of the original building at 1047 Colombo Street.
The original spelling and set out has been retained.

This Library was foundered on May 24th 1867, as a result of a public meeting held in the house of Mr David Lewis and was then described and known as the St Albans Mutual Improvement Association, the object of such Society being recorded in the minutes “the mutual mental improvement of its members”.

Classes for special studies of various subjects being formed, lectures on current topics, readings and discussions were also a part of the means devised for the advancement of culture and general knowledge.

The names of the first committee and officers of the Society were as follows.

President; Doctor Augustus Florence; Vice Presidents; Mr William Moor, & Mr St Quentin. Secretary; Mr J Dixey; Librarian; Mr C Duggan

Committee; Messrs J  Berberry Watson, D. Pine, H. Price, Cumberworth, Smith, W. Butler, Rowbothom, D. Lewis, R. Butterfield, R. Cutler, Thos Lewis.

A plot of land part of rural section No. 311, situate in what is now known as Dover Street St Albans Christchurch was given by Mr William Moor for a building, being conveyed by him to two Trustees namely The Reverend John Aldred & Mr Geo Gould.

The necessary buildings were forthwith erected and were duly opened to the public residing in St Albans on October 28th, 1867.

Now after a period of fifty-three years the old premises being too small has rendered necessary the erection of a new and more suitable building on this site.

The present officers of the Society are;
President; Mr J W Beanland
Vice President; Mr R J Ecroyd
Honorary Secretary; Mr H E Powell
Honorary Treasurer; Mr J Jowsey
Librarian; Mr A Knight
Auditors; Mr C Pritchard, Mr S Knight
Committee; Messrs D J Hathaway, W Hamilton, W Pearce, B Moore, J Lorimer, W Thomson.
Honorary Vice Presidents; His Worship the Mayor of Christ
Church Doctor H T J Thacker MP, L M Isitt MP, A Williams, E H Andrews, George Capper, Joseph Hamlet, William Moor.