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Turnbull was a merchant and book collector. He was born in Wellington in 1868 but moved to London with his family in 1875. He returned permanently to New Zealand in his early 20s. In 1915 Turnbull House was built as his residence and as a place to store his large collection of books, maps and documents. Turnbull died after an operation on his sinuses on 28 June 1918. He is buried in Boulton Street Cemetery.