John and Jessie Barr in Auckland: Scots Wha Hae

As posted earlier on Heritage et AL (see the post on 14th April), John Barr (Chief Librarian at Auckland Public Library 1913-1952) and his wife Jessie came to live in Auckland in the early 20th century. Like many immigrants they remained attached to their home country, Scotland, while also becoming increasingly engaged with the history, life and culture of their new home in Auckland. They were very active members of the Auckland St Andrews Society.

As secretary of the St Andrews Society in 1919, John Barr took care of many of the arrangements for the installation of J.M. Mennie’s gift to Auckland of a Robert Burns statue (ref: Auckland Star, 03 May 1919, p.11). The statue was installed and unveiled in Auckland Domain in 1921 (ref: New Zealand Herald, 5 November 1921, p. 8).

Ref: Frederick George Radcliffe, statue of Burns, Auckland Domain, c. 1921, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 35-R142
Jessie performed in the St Andrews Society production of “Bunty Pulls the Strings” in 1928. The play was written by a Scot - it depicted Scottish life 60 years previously, and had “humour and heart”. It was performed for 4 nights at the Auckland Town Hall Concert Chamber (ref: Auckland Star, 21 July 1928, p.22;  Auckland Star, 13 July 1928, p.3).

Ref: Photographer unknown, Jessie Barr in “Bunty Pulls the Strings”, St Andrews Society, 1928, Munro-John Barr Album (private family album)
Jessie gave many lectures, including some for the St Andrews Society, the Workers’ Education Association and the Penwomen’s League, the latter of which she was a founding member. She gave lectures on Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, James Barrie and spoke on the inequities of the Matrimonial Property Act. According to her eldest daughter, Catriona Munro (née Barr), Jessie was an ardent campaigner on behalf of deserted wives (ref: Douglas Munro Collection: Douglas is one of Catriona’s sons and a grandson of Jessie and John Barr).

John Barr gave many lectures on Robert Burns, and is reported to have stated that Robert Burns’ ‘Scots Wha Hae’ was “one of the greatest poems of liberty ever penned.” (ref: New Zealand Herald, 5 Sept 1919, p.10)  Barr gave a short address at the Auckland St Andrews Society’s 1928 Burns anniversary celebration (ref: Auckland Star, 25 January 1928, p. 5).

Ref: Leaflet promoting the Auckland St Andrews' Society Burns Anniversary, 1928, Sir George Grey Collections, Auckland Libraries, NZMS 894 

In this speech, Barr states that Burns restored national pride to Scotland at a time when it was needed; provided songs and poems of a quality lacking in other Scots works at that time. He also championed humanitarian, liberal and egalitarian values for all people (ref: typed copy in the Douglas Munro Collection).

Barr’s speech reinforces the universality of these ideals with a quote from Burns’ poem ‘Is There for Honest Poverty’, often referred to as ‘A Man’s a Man for A’ That’. Barr looks forward to a future when:

“Man to man the world oe’r
Would brothers be for a’ that”.

Barr sums up Burns’ significance with reference to:

“…. the universal love in which the memory of the ploughman – poet of Scotland is esteemed by Scotsmen and by all those who love their fellow man.”

Keen to find out more? Check out these resources from Auckland Libraries collections:
Author: Carolyn Skelton, West and North Auckland Research Centres