A famous name hidden in the pages

Two visitors books from the UCSA archives

The Canterbury College Collection Survey project team has continued to add more fascinating artefacts from around the University to its database. While exploring the UCSA archives, the survey team found a historic book with the title “Students Club Visitors Book” embossed on the front. Visitors to the university, dating back to 1907, had signed their names and from where they had visited. Visitors were mostly from other Universities around New Zealand like Lincoln College (now Lincoln University) and Victoria University of Wellington. On the seventeenth page, however, a familiar name jumped out at us in unusual-looking block letters: “Helen Keller”.

Helen Keller’s distinctive signature

According to the details on the page, this Helen Keller visited Canterbury University College with one Polly Thomson on 9th August 1948. Following some quick research, we learned that the famous Helen Keller did indeed visit Christchurch in August of 1948 as part of her post-war tour of Australia and New Zealand. During the tour Miss Keller visited institutions to interact with the blind and deaf communities and offer messages of hope. As part of her tour she visited the Christchurch branch of the Blind and Low Vision New Zealand Institute on 30th July, and followed this by giving a public talk for staff and students at Canterbury University College a few days later on 9th August. Acting Rector at the time, Robin Allan, wrote to express his thanks the following day, noting that “Your wise words, and if I may be permitted to say so, the fine example of your courage will have an abiding effect on a group of students at a formative stage in their careers.”

Helen Keller (left) with her companion Polly Thomson (middle) in 1957.

It was an exciting discovery to find Miss Keller’s distinctive handwritten name across the page of the Visitors Book. Polly Thomson, whose name is written in the next entry, was Miss Keller’s close companion and, together with Miss Keller, visited over 35 countries on behalf of the American Foundation for the Overseas Blind. Finding Miss Keller and Miss Thomson’s names was another reminder for the survey team how valuable it can be to keep historical archives and material, as they can give us important clues to our history, while also providing moments of wonder.