NSF Special Collections


The Natal Society Foundation's Special Collections Library comprises three collections of books, photographs, documents and maps bequeathed to the Society since 1851:

  • A large Africana Collection which includes many books, pamphlets, maps and photographs of early colonial Natal featuring both prominent personalities such as Bishop Colenso and Theophilus Shepstone as well as the life and fortunes of the Zulu, Indian and settler inhabitants of the former colony.
  • The very large O'Brien Collection of Victorian literature (novels, poetry, plays), natural history, ethnography, geography, history, social studies, and religion.
  • The smaller Hattersley Collection of early 20th Century Nataliana, history, politics and general literature.

When the Natal Society Library was transferred to the Pietermaritzburg (Msunduzi) municipality in 2004, the Natal Society moved its bequeathed Special Collections Library to the Alan Paton Centre and Struggle Archives at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. There the books, on loan to the Centre, have been re-catalogued, curated, restored (where necessary), and made available for consultation by students and researchers from South Africa and overseas. The more than 14 000 books in the three collections occupy some 375 metres of shelving in four rooms at the Centre. The Special Collections Library is of particular value to researchers as it is one of Africa's larger Victorian literature collections and contains many rare items.


Front view of NSF Library

The Alan Paton Centre & Struggle Archives where the Natal Society Foundation Special Collections Library has been housed on loan since 2004.



W J O'Brien Dr William John O'Brien (1860-1959) was known as the "Grand Old Man of Maritzburg" because he did so much for the city and the financial development of South Africa during his 99 years. Born in Rosecrea, Country Tipperary, Ireland in 1860, he came to Natal in 1878 at the age of 18. He became an accountant and auditor and was also a conveyancer.

Successful businessman
A shrewd businessman and investor, he extended his business interests to the Reef where he was involved with the financing and management of gold mines and helped establish the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. He became a close friend of the founder of Anglo American and De Beers, Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, and sat on the board of Anglo American and seven other gold mining companies.

Influential politician
He entered politics at the age of 37 when he stood successfully for the Pietermaritzburg City Council in 1897, becoming Mayor in 1903 and 1904. He entered national Parliament at the age of 69 in 1929 and remained there for 10 years until, at the age of 79, he became a member of the Union Senate in 1939. He retired from the Senate at the age of 88 in 1948. A self-educated humanitarian with wide interests ranging from sociology to natural history, he became a friend of another parliamentary amateur botanist, General Jan Smuts, with whom he spent many happy hours walking and studying plants on Table Mountain when they were not busy with parliamentary duties.

Committed community worker
A member of the Natal Society from 1879 until his death in 1959, he served as president of the Society from 1903 to 1905. He also played an instrumental role in the establishment of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, serving as president of the Council of its fore-runner, the Natal University College, from its inception in 1914 until 1953 when it became the University of Natal. He was instrumental in obtaining a grant of 53 acres of land on which the Pietermaritzburg Campus of the University stands today. The William O'Brien Men's Residence (affectionately known as "WOB") was named after him. He also played a key role in building up the old Grey's Hospital, serving on its Board for 52 years. He stressed that "the hospital was primarily instituted for the treatment of the sick poor equally without respect to colour".

Dr O'Brien was also chairman of the Pietermaritzburg Botanical Society for 17 years, and chairman of the Girls' Collegiate School for many years. He was made a Freeman of Pietermaritzburg City in 1945, and was awarded an honorary Doctor of Philosophy by the University he helped establish.

The very large personal library he built up, reflecting his many and varied interests, was bequeathed to the Natal Society on his death at the age of 99 in 1959.


NSF Library interior


NSF Library interior

The NSF Special Collections Library is regularly consulted by academic researchers as a valuable resource of Victoriana and Africana books, photographs, pamphlets and maps.











A F HattersleyProfessor Alan Frederick Hattersley (1893-1976) was born in Leeds, England, in 1893. He studied History at Cambridge and on completing his degree was invited to come out to South Africa and lecture in history at the new Natal University College (NUC) in 1916. The University was then in its infancy with only ten members of staff and 36 students.

Leading academic historian
In 1923 he became the University's first Professor of History and Political Science. He went on to become Natal's leading historian, authoring many books and papers on the history of the Province and South Africa. Among the 23 books he wrote were: More Annals of Natal, Later Annals of Natal, Portrait of a Colony, The Natalians, The British Settlement of Natal and The Illustrated Social History of South Africa.

A committed member of the Natal Society
He joined the Natal Society almost immediately on his arrival from Britain and was elected to the Natal Society Council in 1926. He served as president of the Society from 1930 to 1933, and as vice-president from 1954 till 1969, when he resigned due to ill health.

In 1917, the Natal Society Library had a staff of only two, Miss Annie Hopkins and her assistant. Book selection was done by a committee of four academics, Professor Hattersley being responsible for the selection of books on history and politics.

Pioneer scouter
Unable to serve in World War One because of ill-health, Prof. Hattersley nonetheless put a great deal of effort into preparing the youth for post-war civic involvement. He was one of the founders of the Boy Scouts in Natal, and the scouting movement elected him a Meritorious Commissioner for South Africa.

His contribution to history studies and community work was recognised in 1972 when his name was inscribed in the Civic Honours Register, and he was made a Freeman of the City of Pietermaritzburg.

On his death in 1976 he bequeathed his British Parliamentary Papers, Natal Almanacs, Colonial papers and Blue Books to the Natal University Library in Pietermaritzburg, and the rest of his library to the Natal Society. The Natal Society's Special Collections Library continues to maintain his bequest as a separate collection in accordance with his wishes.


If you would like to make use of the Natal Society Special Collections please make arrangements with the Alan Paton Centre & Struggle Archives.


Contact details

Nazim Gani
Manuscript Librarian

Alan Paton Centre & Struggle Archives
Pietermaritzburg Campus
University of KwaZulu-Natal
Private Bag X01, Scottsville, 3209, KZN, RSA
Tel: +27 (0)33 260 5926  Fax: +27 (0)33 260 6143
Fax2 e-mail: +27 (0)866 103 803


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