When New Zealand's warrior governor Sir George Grey turned 74, Auckland City knew how to write a fancy birthday card.

And now as a birthday gift for Auckland's anniversary long weekend - and to the world - the city's public library has put the nearly 300-page "card", really a large book and also a kind of census, online.

The book - called an illuminated address - can be searched page by page on the library's new Kura Heritage Collections Online, which brings together various databases of historical material.

And the signatures and related information from the address have been painstakingly transcribed into computer text, providing a useful resource for family-tree researchers and academic historians.

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A page from the 1886 illuminated address given to Sir George Grey to mark his 74th birthday.
A page from the 1886 illuminated address given to Sir George Grey to mark his 74th birthday.

Grey, who lived from 1812 to 1898, was twice Governor of New Zealand - presiding during the wars in Northland, Taranaki and Waikato - as well as serving terms as Premier of the colony and Superintendent of the Auckland Province.

When he turned 74 in 1886, he was the MP for East Auckland.

Sir George Grey, twice Governor of New Zealand and once Premier, was thanked by the people of Auckland in an illuminated address to mark his 74th birthday.
Sir George Grey, twice Governor of New Zealand and once Premier, was thanked by the people of Auckland in an illuminated address to mark his 74th birthday.

The Mayor of Auckland at the time, William Waddel, instigated the illuminated address, which involved hiring a draughtsman/architect to write the front pages of the document in a colourful, decorative, medieval style.

The address describes what a fine, upstanding fellow Grey was.

Part of it says: "For the past 40 years your name has been identified with the history of this country, and we feel that your remarkable and distinguished career and your disinterested public services suggest some special recognition on this occasion.

"All parties gladly acknowledge the pure sense of public duty by which you have been animated, and that your actions have been prompted by a desire to secure the happiness and welfare of all classes of the people."

A plain-text version was printed at the top of pages that were sent around Auckland for people to sign and the completed pages were bound into a book. People were also asked to write the date they arrived in New Zealand. Separate pages were circulated in Māori communities and people there were asked to name their village rather than their date of arrival.

A ceremony to present the address to Grey was held on April 14, 1886, his birthday, at Fuller's Opera House at the corner of Wellesley and Elliot Sts.

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The address was presented to Sir George Grey on his 74th birthday, at Fuller's Opera House on the corner of Wellesley and Elliott Sts, Auckland. Photo / James Richardson, Auckland Libraries.
The address was presented to Sir George Grey on his 74th birthday, at Fuller's Opera House on the corner of Wellesley and Elliott Sts, Auckland. Photo / James Richardson, Auckland Libraries.

A senior curator of the library's archives and manuscripts, Dr Natasha Barrett, said illuminated addresses were popular for a century from about 1850. Grey received hundreds of them in his lifetime.

A team leader of the library's digitisation of content, Timothy Barnett, said people who signed Grey's 74th birthday address provided a variety of information about themselves and often not in line with the instructions at the top of the pages.

Some put their occupation and some wrote "native born" or "colonial" to indicate they were born in New Zealand. Although the style varied from page to page, some signatories seemed to be guided by those who signed just before them.

John Harrison described himself as "native", probably meaning Māori. Wiri Haria (the handwritten spelling is uncertain) dotted in ditto marks, indicating he too was Māori. Next came John Sherlock, who wrote "native", then crossed it out, replaced it with "colonist", perhaps to denote both his Pākehā ethnicity and that he was New Zealand-born.