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Reading in colonial Australia: the 2011 John Alexander Ferguson memorial lecture.

I was delighted by the invitation to deliver this year's John Alexander Ferguson Memorial Lecture, and honoured to be following in the footsteps of such an eminent scholar, and good friend, as Wallace Kirsop, to name only the most recent of the nine distinguished lecturers who have preceded me. My interest in colonial literary culture began in 1966 when, after having accepted a marriage proposal rather than a scholarship to go to England to study Restoration Drama, I embarked on a PhD examining what was being published and read in Australia before 1850. Early in my research, I was fortunate to attend an inspiring lecture given to the Friends of Fisher Library by Wallace Kirsop and later published as The Australian Book Trade: Prospects for a History (1969). The publisher was Walter Stone, another pioneer of Australian book history, and another who helped to develop my interest in the area. All of us, of course, were following in the tracks already blazed by Sir John Ferguson as a book collector and bibliographer. Needless to say, volumes I to IV of his great Bibliography of Australia were regularly consulted during my thesis years, although I had to wait until the facsimile edition appeared a decade or so later to acquire a copy of my own.

The colonial period in Australia, whose printed record has been so carefully described for us by Ferguson, was a time of immense international change in the publishing industry. Continued improvements in printing and associated technologies enabled an increased production of cheaper and cheaper books, newspapers and magazines. A novel that earlier in the century might have cost one guinea could by the 1840s, for example, be purchased for a shilling or two. These changes were accompanied and assisted by an equally marked increase in adult literacy, helped by the Industrial Revolution, the move of population to the cities and the associated emphasis on the need for mass education. By 1901 almost all members of the white adult population of Australia could read.

What was being read in colonial Australia? Most books, of course, came from Great Britain. By the 1840s they were readily obtainable in the main cities but were still in short supply in outlying areas until well into the 20th century. The most-read book would have been the Bible, although by 1901 fiction had long outstripped history, biography and travels as the favourite form of recreational reading. To read Australian authors was mainly to read their work in local newspapers and magazines rather than in books. To flesh out some of these generalizations, I will be looking in turn at reading in the first decades after settlement, worries about the reading of fiction, reading of newspapers and periodicals, and the practice of reading aloud.

Reading before 1830

How many of those who arrived in New South Wales on the First Fleet were able to read and write? Clearly the colonial administrators, the officers, the doctors and clergy could. What about the convicts, soldiers and sailors? Evidence of literacy rates in Britain at the time would suggest that more than half of them could read to some degree. (1) Their children were to do even better. In 1790, a school was started in Sydney by a convict couple, Isabella and William Richardson. William later enlisted in the New South Wales Army Corps, and the school received support from his commanding officer, Major Grose, acting Governor of the colony from the end of 1792.

The first generation to be born and educated in Sydney achieved a higher rate of literacy than those born elsewhere, perhaps because the ready availability of convict labour allowed colonial children to stay longer at school. A survey of marriage registers kept in and around Sydney between 1804 and 1814 shows that 55 per cent of men and 24 per cent of women born outside the colony could sign their names as against 63 per cent of men and 44 per cent of women born in the colony. (2) By 182124 the number of persons signing the register had, for those born in the colony, risen to 86 per cent for men and 75 per cent for women. Since it was the practice at the time to teach reading before writing, it is assumed that a number of those who did not sign the register would still have been able to read. (3)

Those who were able to read would, as most of us still do today, have been reading for both utilitarian and recreational purposes. Most of the books the first settlers brought with them were of the utilitarian type, although the prospect of the long voyage and the vast distance between their new home and any bookshop encouraged some to bring recreational reading matter as well. For many years, books remained in short supply in the new colony. The educated convict John Grant, for example, wrote to his mother and sister from Parramatta in January 1805 that, 'Books are very valuable here, and any friend who would scrape together a few in a Box for me, I would make a collection of Insects for him in return.' (4)

The distinction between the two types of reading, plus the need to have books for recreation as well as business, can clearly be seen in a letter sent in 1820 by the 19-year-old George Allen to his brother in England. Allen was training to be a solicitor, so asked his brother to send him some law books, 'as they will be very useful and indeed essential to me in my profession'. He went on, however, to ask for other books as well:
   If you are comfortably situated in life and can spare the money
   (not else) I should have no objection to you sending the Books a
   list of which I have enclosed and marked No. 2. If you can't spare
   the Money for all and can for some, do the best you can for me as
   this place is not like London for amusements, here we have neither
   society nor places of amusement, there is not [a] library here to
   spend a few hours in; my only employment after the business of the
   day is to retire to my own room (for I am the only one of the
   family now left in Sydney) and read my books of which I am sorry to
   say I have but a slender stock. I am particularly fond of reading,
   to me it is the greatest of amusements and therefore a good Library
   would be a treasure--and such a one as could not be purchased in
   this colony at any price. (5)

Allen, who was to establish one of the most famous of Sydney's legal firms, clearly maintained his love of reading, becoming a foundation member of the Australian Subscription Library in 1826. (6)

Unfortunately, the two lists of books Allen sent to his brother are no longer extant. We do, however, have some idea of the books owned, and presumably read, by educated men of his class from catalogues of private libraries, usually drawn up when they were being advertised for sale. According to a list made in 1800, for example, the library of the surgeon and explorer George Bass consisted of around 100 volumes. There were, as one would expect, works on medicine and science, as well as on law, history, travels, and theology. At a time when the classical authors formed so significant a part of a gentleman's education there were also volumes of Horace, Virgil and Homer. In addition to magazines and dictionaries, there were many of the standard English authors found in nearly all gentlemen's libraries of this period, such as Bacon's Essays, Dryden's Works and Gay's Poems. But the only works of fiction were translations of Cervantes' Don Quixote (1605) and of a French picaresque novel much read in the 18th century though generally forgotten now, Le Sage's Gil Bias (1715-35). (7)

A few decades later, another famous Australian explorer displayed a decidedly stronger taste for fiction, indicating the shift towards novels as the main form of recreational reading which began in this period, although still deplored by many. When John Oxley's library was sold by auction in Sydney in August 1828 about half of the 330 or so lots listed in the catalogue were works of fiction. They included such recent publications as Sir Walter Scott's Tales of the Crusaders (1825), the American novelist Fenimore Cooper's The Prairie (1827), as well as Gothic thrillers like Anne Radcliffe's Gaston de Blondeville (1826) and Mary Shelley's early science fiction tale Last Man (1826). Oxley clearly was a regular purchaser of the latest English books, a surviving statement of account with the Sydney merchants Berry and Wollstonecraft showing that he spent nearly 41 [pounds sterling] on books and periodicals in November 1821 and a further 7 [pounds sterling] 13s in November 1822. (8)

Another indication of the growing taste for fiction comes from advertisements in early Sydney and Hobart newspapers for the return of missing books. Before 1820 these were far more numerous than advertisements of books for sale, indicating that books were indeed a scarce commodity in this period, as George Allen had claimed. On 17 July 1803, the wealthy emancipist Simeon Lord advertised in the Sydney Gazette for the return of his copy of Clara Reeve's popular Gothic novel The Old English Baron (1777). (9) In the next issue of the Gazette, readers were advised that 'The Old English Baron, advertised in our last, returned to his quarters on Monday; and we understand his presence was admitted as an apology for his absconding without leave of absence.' (10)

Later advertisers seem not to have been so lucky. Again, most of the missing books were novels and other types of recreational reading, with John Harris, in November 1803, asking for the return of volumes of the literary periodical The Bee, claimed to be the only set in the colony, as well as the first volume of Alexander Pope's translation of Homer. (11) Some volumes of Pope's Works and Smollett's verse satire The History and Adventures of an Atom (1769) were among the missing books advertised for twice in 1804, along with this appeal to their borrowers' better nature: 'As it is obvious to every intelligent mind that Sets of these valuable works are rendered incomplete by the detention of any of the volumes, and the Cause of Literature essentially hindered thereby, it is hoped that after this Public Requisition they will be forthcoming.' (12)

Andrew Thompson, a settler at the Hawkesbury River, made a similarly gentlemanly plea a few months later. He had many missing books, including two volumes of The Spectator, Milton's Paradise Lost, Sterne's Works, and three volumes of Burns' Works as well as two volumes of the Newgate Calendar. (13) There were many editions of this highly popular collection of criminal biographies, two of the later ones being listed by Sir John Ferguson, who notes of the one published in 1824-28 that 'the trials of a large number of persons sentenced to transportation are recorded', including many who came to Australia. (14) Thompson's edition must, however, have been the earlier one published in London in three volumes in 1774-78.

Another owner of this work was the prominent emancipist, Isaac Nichols, who advertised in July 1808 for the missing first volume of his set 'in good binding, gilt, and lettered; with a coat of arms on the inside of the cover, the motto, Dominie dirige nos'. (15) By April 1810, however, all three volumes of Nichols' Newgate Calendar were missing and he was losing patience: 'If not restored the person in whose possession either may be hereafter found will be prosecuted.' (16) Others resorted to offering rewards for the return of their books. In 1805, George Howe, editor of the Sydney Gazette, requesting the return of the first volume of his edition of Shakespeare, said he would 'pay any reasonable reward that may be required; as will also be the case to any person who will give information that may recover it, as this very valuable work is rendered incomplete'. (17)

While few advertisements for lost or borrowed books appeared in Sydney after 1814, they remained plentiful in the newer settlement of Hobart, testimony to the continuing scarcity of books there. In December 1821, the owner of some very recent publications which had gone missing, including Sir Walter Scott's novel Ivanhoe (1820), Lady Morgan's Florance Macarthy. A National Irish Tale (1819) and Felix McDonough's The Hermit in London; or, Sketches of English Manners (1821), also threatened 'Recourse to legal Proceedings' if they were not returned. (18) Another very telling testimony to the popularity of Scott's fiction appeared in May 1823:
   Lost, a few days ago, the Novel of 'Ivanhoe', in 3 vols. boards;
   also, in January last, a pocket Bible, in 1 vol. bound in blue
   Morocco.--A Reward of 3 Dollars is hereby offered for Ivanhoe, and
   2 Dollars for the Bible, upon delivering of the same to the
   Printer. (19)

A few weeks later, the owner of a missing volume of Byron's Works offered an even more generous reward of one guinea for its return. (20)

As these last advertisements suggest, among literary authors, Scott, Byron and Shakespeare were by far the most popular at this period and, at least in terms of number of volumes advertised for sale, they remained so until the 1850s. (21) While Byron was often seen as too radical to be safely read by young women, and the works of 18th century novelists like Richardson, Fielding, Smollett and Sterne were increasingly being condemned as crude and immodest, Scott's combination of history and fiction, and avoidance of sexual references, helped to make the novel respectable. When Sydney gentlemen, including George Allen, assembled together in 1826 to form the Australian Subscription Library, and sent their first book order to London, the only novels included were by Scott.(22)

Working-class readers

As the less wealthy members of Australian colonial society did not own significant collections of books and were not allowed to join the early subscription libraries, we know much less about their reading habits. Initial attempts to encourage reading by convicts naturally focused on the Bible and other religious texts. The 4262 volumes of books sent with the Rev Johnson on the First Fleet, courtesy of the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, included some spelling books but chiefly consisted of prayer books, psalters, testaments, Bibles and hundreds of tracts with such pithy titles such as Plain Exhortations to Prisoners, Cautions to Swearers, Dissuasions from Stealing, Exercises against Lying and An Exhortation to Chastity. These were issued to prisoners and others at the chaplain's discretion. (23)

Clergymen continued to play an active role in early attempts to form lending libraries. The Rev Samuel Marsden in his 'Proposals for Inst[it]uting a Lending Library for the General benefit of the Inhabitants of New South Wales' argued in 1808 that what the colonists needed was:
   ... a Public Library to consist of books carefully selected and
   confined to particular subjects which subjects it is obvious from
   the nature of the Colony should be Divinity and Morals, History,
   Voyages and Travels, Agriculture in all its branches, Mineralogy
   and Practical Mechanics. (24)

Clearly, what Marsden had in mind was a library of mainly utilitarian works, which would help the colonists succeed in their pioneering pursuits while at the same time assisting them to overcome the perceived moral disadvantages of a convict society. Of the 226 volumes he eventually assembled, through appeals in Britain's Evangelical Magazine and his own purchases, about half were works classed as 'Divinity', with 'Agriculture', 27 volumes, and 'History', 18, being the next largest categories. (25)

This was anything but a public library, however, since Marsden chose not only the books but their readers. In March 1814, a 'Free Settler' wrote to the Sydney Gazette asking about the library he had learnt of before leaving England, 'consisting not only of a variety of useful School Books, but also of a large collection of Bibles, Prayer Books, Religious Tracts, Histories, Geographies, Travels, Voyages, Biographies, etc'. (26) After the Gazette had published several other letters on this matter, Marsden himself wrote to the paper, saying that the collection was not a public library, but books were lent to 'Settlers, Soldiers, and Prisoners, at my discretion'. (27) When questioned further on this matter by Commissioner Bigge in 1821, he claimed that not enough money had been raised to establish the library in Sydney on the scale originally planned so he had built a room for the books at his home in Parramatta, where 'gentlemen and others' could read and borrow them. (28)

Methodist missionaries, given their doctrinal emphasis on reading and writing as aids to individual salvation, were especially active in attempts to supply useful and uplifting reading material to early colonists. They were responsible for publishing the first Australian magazine in 1821 and also for establishing the first public, in the sense of being open to all, though not free, library in 1826. In 1822 Wesleyan missionaries the Reverends Horton and Turner had offered to act as agents for the supply of books (other than those of a 'seditious or irreligious tendency') to the people of Hobart: 'Through this channel heads of families may advantageously furnish themselves with good Family Bibles, and other Works proper for a Domestic Library; and Schoolmasters with suitable Books of Instruction for their Pupils.' (29) Four years later, the books in Hobart's Wesleyan Library had a similar emphasis on morality and religion, with 'publications that are either frivolous in their composition, or pernicious in their tendency ... entirely excluded'. Subscriptions were 10 shillings a year in cash or books, though books 'on the plainest and most important subjects of doctrinal and practical Religion' were supplied without charge. (30)


Despite the support given to the Wesleyan Library by Governor Arthur, himself a Methodist, it clearly did not fulfill all the reading needs of those in Hobart excluded from the more exclusive Hobart Town Book Society. On 20 March 1827 a general meeting was held to establish the Hobart Town Mechanics' Institute. Among the resolutions passed at this meeting was one to establish a library, with 'donation of Books ... urged upon the Gentlemen present, many of whom promised to contribute'. (31) For, while the original idea for the institute may have come from actual mechanics, 'gentlemen' were and remained very prominent on its committee. Like the earlier libraries established largely through donations, the initial collection was far from ideal, although books were also soon ordered from England.

By the time the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts was established in 1833, the one in Hobart had more or less ceased to function, although it was revived later in the 1830s. By March 1834, the Sydney Herald was able to report that the Mechanics' School of Arts had opened its library and reading room: 'Upwards of five hundred volumes already adorn its shelves, consisting of works on science, history and general literature, chiefly contributed by the liberal donations and loans of members and friends.' (32) A year later, another journalist was urging gentlemen to make further donations, suggesting that many of them had large collections of books which 'in this busy Colony [are] mere food for the worms':
   We trust that the regard for literature which these persons have
   evinced as collectors, will lead them to aspire to the more
   honorable distinction of becoming patrons, and that they will
   remove from their dusty shelves works, of which they only peruse
   the titles impressed on the backs, and lay them open to the
   enquiring mechanic, who can find time to dive into their contents.

By now, however, mechanics, like most others in the community, were showing a decided preference for fiction. Not that there were all that many mechanics among the School of Arts membership; according to the Sydney Monitor, 'not more than a score of Members ... fall under the denomination of Mechanics.' (34) While the committee could do little about this, something true of all such institutes, whether in Britain or Australia, it was at pains in its annual report for 1836 to defend the number of literary works, especially recent novels, in its library:
   Some of these, at first thought, may not appear exactly suited for
   the Library of a School of Arts; but it ought to be remembered,
   that a taste for reading has to be formed before works of a more
   philosophical character will be relished or appreciated, and that
   if any book is likely to accomplish this more speedily than
   another, it is the works of Scott--containing, as they do, a vast
   fund of historical information, mixed up, in an agreeable shape,
   with the manners and customs of different periods. (35)

This more liberal approach seems to have been successful since, according to a report in the Australian, by 1839 so many books were being borrowed from the School of Arts library that an additional librarian had to be employed to cope with the demand. (36)

By 1901 hundreds of mechanics' institutes had been established throughout Australia and, although never as successful in attracting working-class readers as had originally been hoped, they did cater to the reading needs of many thousands throughout the country. In Victoria alone, nearly 700 were established during the 19th century. (37) And in the 1890s the institute at Shepparton was being heavily used by writer Joseph Furphy as be worked on his magnum opus, the novel Such is Life (1903). (38)

The debate about fiction

By the 1830s the growing demand for fiction was beginning to be felt in other quarters besides the mechanics' institutes. The Hobart Town Book Society, although like Sydney's Australian Subscription Library established in 1826 to cater for the colonial elite, was much less exclusive when it came to its books. Members wanted to read the latest and most popular English publications, many of which were novels, rather than more standard works, which many may have already owned.

In 1831, when the Book Society had got itself into debt through its attempts to open a reading room, some members proposed a sell-off of the stock of books. Among those who objected was James Ross, editor of the Hobart Town Courier. In a long article, he claimed that 'many of the more instructive and standard works' in the Book Society's library had not yet been read by the majority of members. He also defended members against the charge that their literary tastes were too 'frivolous', pointing out that they were reading as recreation after the 'toil of a long day in some official, public or private arduous occupation'. Particularly interesting is his very unusual defence of the value of reading fiction, since he argued that reading recent English novels was almost a patriotic duty on the part of colonists:
   The force of genius that is now devoted to works of a lighter
   character, to novels and other lively pictures of English life,
   must render the perusal of such productions to an inhabitant of a
   remote, isolated comer of the world like Van Diemen's Land,
   especially interesting and profitable, tending as it must do to
   keep alive in no small degree that amor patriae, that attachment to
   our mother country and that familiarity with the manners and relish
   for the habits of our countrymen which is at all times so
   desirable. (39)

Despite this and much other evidence that it was not only women who read fiction, the assumption in most debates on the issue was that fiction was particularly tempting to the supposed weaker sex. In November 1833, the Sydney auctioneer Samuel Lyons advertised an unusual event, the sale of a lady's library. While no specific titles were listed, it was said to consist of 'upwards of six hundred volumes, chiefly standard Works, by the most esteemed ancient and modern authors, forming altogether a collection of English Literature rarely to be met with out of Europe'. (40) Yet any discussion of reading by women assumed that they read nothing but fiction. In 1839, the Australasian Chronicle published 'The Novel Reader', the first of many poems criticising women for wasting too much time reading novels. (41) And in an essay on 'Novels and Novel Reading' published in his weekly magazine the Literary News in 1838, William a'Beckett, while defending novel reading as an occasional recreation, had this to say about women readers:
   Woman ... all impulse and imagination herself, she flies to that
   which makes her a thousand times more so, till she half sighs to
   become the heroine she has been weeping over. What a wretch would
   she think you if you were to stop her in the midst of 'Ivanhoe' or
   the 'Scottish Chiefs', to bid her listen to a page of the Spectator
   or Rambler! (42)

A recent detailed study by Keith Adkins of the community library established in 1847 at Evandale, near Launceston in Tasmania, again indicates the popularity of novels with both men and women. The Evandale Subscription Library was one of many community libraries established in Tasmanian country towns from 1834 onwards, but stands out for the completeness of its records, including of works borrowed, at least until 1861, the period covered by Adkins. Although the Rev Robert Russell, the Presbyterian minister at Evandale, took the lead in establishing its library, there was never any attempt to ban fiction.

As with many early libraries, donations were relied on initially; just over a quarter of these were categorised as 'Magazines, Essays, and Letters', while a further 17 per cent were works of fiction and poetry. (43) Russell himself had donated Bulwer Lytton's novel Devereux (1829) and was one of the most consistent borrowers from the library, although his taste in reading differed from the library average in that he borrowed more biographies and fewer novels. Even so, as he was not married, the novels he did borrow were presumably those he intended to read himself. As well as several titles by Scott, they included Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre (1847), Jane Austen's Emma (1816), Charles Dickens' Bleak House (1853) and The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), and five of the six books most frequently borrowed from the library: W. H. Maxwell's The Bivouac; or, Stories of the Peninsular War (1837), Samuel Lover's Rory O'More: A National Tale (1837), R. P. Ward's Tremaine, or The Man of Refinement (1825), and Bulwer Lytton's The Disowned (1829) and Zanoni (1842). The sixth was Samuel Warren's very popular Ten Thousand a Year (1839). Adkins suggests that Russell may have read this novel before the library was established, as he and Warren had been contemporaries at the University of Edinburgh. (44)

Overall, 48 of the 50 most-borrowed titles in the Evandale library were novels. (45) Many British periodicals, both in bound volumes and in parts, were also held in the library and, while borrowings of individual numbers were not recorded, nearly 10 per cent of loans from the library were of bound volumes of periodicals, especially general ones such as Chambers' Edinburgh Journal, Bentley's Miscellany and Chambers' Miscellany. (46)

Reading of newspapers and periodicals

The rise of a mass reading public during the 18th and early 19th century, together with the development of cheaper forms of printing, led to a vast expansion in periodical publication. By their very nature, newspapers and magazines encouraged the type of miscellaneous reading that moved rapidly from one topic to another, condemned by some as promiscuous. Their rapid growth is therefore one of the clearest signs of the move from intensive to extensive reading which marked this period. Cheaper monthly and weekly magazines also featured short stories and serialised fiction in addition to the essays and reviews published in the earlier quarterly magazines.

In colonial Australia, newspapers were the most eagerly read local publications, with newspapers from England, Scotland or Ireland also being avidly consumed. Imported magazines were even more popular, making it difficult for most local magazines to succeed. In the first 50 or so years, the major British quarterlies, the Quarterly, Westminster, and Edinburgh Reviews, were read by members of the elite who wished to maintain contact with current ideas. From the 1840s, pride of place was given to the new illustrated magazines, especially the Illustrated London News and Punch, and monthlies like Blackwood's Magazine and Bentley's Miscellany.

Most colonial libraries included bound volumes of English periodicals and these were regularly advertised by booksellers. Before the advent of public libraries in the various colonies, attempts were made to establish reading rooms to cater for the demand for foreign newspapers and magazines. Newspapers, in particular, were of great professional interest to many local businessmen and merchants. All later public libraries had reading rooms with local and imported newspapers and magazines being in great demand.

In 1861, for example, the Hobart Mechanics' Institute advertised its facilities in the leading local paper, the Mercury. (47) Over a third of the advertisement was given over to a list of the magazines and newspapers regularly received by the institute for its reading room, including most of the major British journals of the period. Significantly, the only Australian magazines featured were Melbourne Punch and a couple of technological ones, although many others were being published by this time. Likewise, the list of newspapers was heavily weighted towards ones from London and Hobart, with nothing at all from the more outlying colonies of Western Australia and Queensland.

In his Literature in New South Wales (1866), G. B. Barton included details of the monthly circulation in the colony of various British periodicals. The older quarterlies had the smallest circulation, 40 copies for the Edinburgh Review and 46 for the Quarterly Review, reflecting their appeal to the more elite, educated reader. At the opposite pole were magazines that specialised in fiction, such as Good Words with a circulation of 1750 copies, the London Journal with 1500 and the Family Herald with 900. (48) None of these, interestingly, was purchased for the Hobart Mechanics' Institute reading room, reflecting the continuing distrust of fiction by the institutes, even though novels now had to be included in their libraries to attract subscribers. The most popular London newspapers, Home News, with a circulation of 1500 copies per month, and the Illustrated London News, with 1320 copies, were however to be found in the Hobart Institute and no doubt in most others throughout Australia. As Barton noted, 'Punch and the Illustrated London News are read by everyone.' (49)

Of course, by the 1860s local newspapers would have formed a major part of the reading done by colonists. Barton records that The Sydney Morning Herald had a circulation of 8450 copies each weekday, as well as 11,500 subscribers to its weekly edition, the Sydney Mail. In addition, another Sydney daily, the Empire, claimed a circulation of just over 4000 copies of each issue, while the Roman Catholic weekly the Freeman's Journal sold about 1600 copies. A country newspaper, the Maitland Mercury, which appeared three times a week, was said to sell about 3000 copies of each issue. Among magazines, the Illustrated Sydney News averaged sales of about 8500 copies per month and Sydney Punch no more than 1000. Melbourne's Australian Journal, a close imitation of the Family Herald and like it specialising in fiction, averaged around 5500 copies per week, of which 1750 were said to circulate in New South Wales. (50)

Many of those reading British periodicals in Australia, especially if living in remote areas where mail services were infrequent, purchased bound volumes rather than individual copies. T. Willmett, a leading Townsville bookseller and stationer, also published the Cooktown Almanac, Northern Queensland Directory and Miners' and Settlers' Companion for 1876, which included many pages of advertisements for his own stock. One page was devoted to 'Serial Publications, Yearly and Half-Yearly Volumes' that could be ordered 'at a small advance on the published prices'. (51) Of the 64 titles listed, only one was an Australian publication, the New South Wales Medical Gazette. A number of other medical journals, such as the Lancet, also appeared on the list, but generally it was directed at those in search of more recreational reading.

Given the supposed ubiquity of Punch and the London Illustrated News, it is interesting that neither appears on this list. Perhaps they were so popular, and so topical, that readers ordered individual copies rather than waiting for the bound half-yearly volumes. Or perhaps they were not as popular with those living on what was then very much the colonial frontier as they were with readers in the more settled districts. It is notable that many of the other magazines purchased by the Hobart Town Mechanics' Institute are also absent. None of the quarterlies is listed, and among more general magazines one finds only All the Year Round, Chambers' Journal, Leisure Hour, Cornhill Magazine, Macmillan's Magazine and Temple Bar. There were, however, plenty of the more popular journals mentioned by Barton, such as the Family Herald and the London Journal, as well as magazines directed at women and children, such as the Young Ladies' Journal, Little Folks and the Infant's Magazine.

An advertisement from a later Queensland almanac, the Western Champion Almanac and Yearbook for 1890, which circulated in the central west of the colony, shows that newspapers and periodicals continued to be among the most sought-after types of reading matter. John K. Duncan of Barcaldine described himself as a news agent as well as bookseller and stationer and stressed that he could supply 'All the principal Australian Newspapers', as well as 'English, Scotch, Irish and American papers'. (52) This appears to indicate a shift in demand away from overseas to local papers, which has a parallel in the increasing circulation of the Sydney Bulletin by this time. Among Duncan's other highlighted offerings were 'Novels, Novelettes, Periodicals, British and Australian Poets', again indicating a growing interest in local material, and this even before the phenomenal success of Banjo Paterson's The Man from Snowy River, published by Angus & Robertson in 1894.

Reading aloud

While the rise of extensive reading, especially of fiction, encouraged the practice of silent, individual reading, reading aloud remained popular throughout the 19th century. Those worried about the excessive reading of fiction by women and young people were particularly keen to encourage the domestic practice of reading aloud. A father reading aloud to his family in the evening formed an ideal Victorian domestic scene: he could monitor what was being consumed by his wife, sons and daughters; they had the advantage of his company and attention.

Mothers, of course, could be just as censorious as fathers if the need arose. The young Annabella Innes, for example, noted in her journal that, during some months of isolated life in 1840, spent at the family property near Bathurst after her father's death, she 'read greedily such books as we possessed, chiefly the Waverley Novels, which then and always fascinated me. I read most of them aloud as well as to myself.' Her mother did not, however, allow her to read Shakespeare. (53) In contrast, as we know from the diary kept by her teenage son William, in 1848 another widow, Anna Maria Bunn, thought nothing of reading 'The Borgias', from volume I of Alexandre Dumas's eight-volume collection Celebrated Crimes (1839-41), aloud to members of her family. (54) This reminds us that individual readers have always been free to set their own rules about what should be read, ignoring the more restrictive norms of their times.

Among women, reading aloud was often encouraged as an alternative to idle gossip as they sewed or carried out other more sedentary household jobs. In 1843 the Innes family moved to Port Macquarie in northern New South Wales to live with Annabella's uncle. She recorded in December 1844 that, 'One of the party reads aloud while the others work. Our book is The Old Curiosity Shop. We are deeply interested in Little Nell, and enjoy it doubly when my aunt reads.' (55) Dickens remained a favourite, with Annabella noting in August 1847 that, 'Mr Smith has been reading aloud to us every evening from after tea till ten o'clock, and has finished Martin Chuzzlewit. It is just the book for reading aloud, and he reads very well. I think even the author would say he has done it justice.' (56)

Reading, both aloud and silently, was also encouraged among bush workers as a more profitable alternative to gambling and yarning. Again, of course, there was some concern about what was read, with many commentators deploring a fondness for the Newgate Calendar and other works of that type. So, in 'A Nipping Super. An

Original Bush Story, by a Bushman', serialised in the Geelong Advertiser in July 1848, the narrator is forced to spend the night in a stockman's hut, where he discovers that the only book is a life of the 'celebrated thief' Jack Sheppard. He advises the men to borrow other books from their master, mentioning in particular that 'improving' work Chambers' Information for the People. (57)

A year earlier the same paper had published an article on 'Bush Libraries', recommending that employers help their men to acquire books since 'that which will exclude a pack of cards from the bushman's hut and keep the pipe from continually adhering to his lips--which will set him thinking and help to strengthen his moral character, must tend to make him a better servant'. (58) The diary kept by Alexander Finlay while at the Victorian goldfields in 1852 shows that reading aloud was also practised among groups of men there. On 6 August, he noted that, 'Three parties have joined to read books which the storekeeper adjoining lets out at one shilling per vol. The "reader" Mr Buscombe is exempted from subscription. We have read one entitled "Fanny the Milliner", by Charles Rowcroft Esq.' (59)

The second half of the century saw the rise of the penny reading, so called because audiences paid a penny admission to hear readings from popular authors. In Australia, they had forerunners in the literary lectures given at mechanics' institutes in Hobart and Sydney during the 1830s and '40s, which were often little more than an excuse to read long passages from the work of popular writers like Robert Burns. While Charles Dickens never managed to tour Australia, as he had Britain and America, plenty of others were willing to step into the gap, with Dickens' novels taken up just as readily in these more public forums as in domestic ones.

Penny readings were particularly popular in Victoria between 1865 and 1870, usually organised by bodies such as mechanics' institutes to raise funds, and held in town halls and other similar venues. Programs consisted of readings from well-known authors, interspersed with musical performances and entertaining lectures. As with the earlier lectures at mechanics' institutes, however, the readings were criticised for an overemphasis on amusement at the expense of education. In 1866, B. S. Nayler published a pamphlet entitled Penny readings; both What they now Are, Unfortunately, in Melbourne and its Vicinity, and What they Ought to Be--, namely, Institutions for Elevating the Unlettered-masses. In it, he complained:
   But (alas) not One of the Penny Readings I have attended in
   Melbourne or its vicinity, seemed to have the remotest
   approximation towards informing the head or amending the heart; the
   best that I can say of the best of them, is--there was plenty of
   noise, abundance of merriment, and lots of fun, accompanied with
   deafening applause, long-continued clapping of hands, and execrable
   whistlings! (60)

Some philanthropic souls also gave gratis readings to inmates of hospitals and prisons. The Melbourne man of letters James Smith, for example, noted in his journal that in November 1863 he had been to Pentridge Jail and had read passages from Dickens' David Copperfield to some 400 prisoners:
   I felt that I never read so well nor succeeded more completely in
   carrying the audience with me. It was interesting to watch the
   effect of the pathetic passage descriptive of Mrs Copperfield's
   funeral on that congregation of felons. The most profound silence
   reigned--broken only by the 'sniffing' of the attentive listeners.
   Numbers dropped their heads, & were touched with a sympathetic
   grief, & at the end there was a general blowing of noses & clearing
   of throats. The humorous passages they appeared to enjoy hugely.

While some in Smith's audience were probably illiterate, the main function of communal readings such as his in the minds of the penal authorities would have been as cheap entertainment combined with a controlled use of fiction as a means of moral reformation. Smith testifies here to the continuing strong belief in the humanising value of literature in his description of the effects of the 'pathetic passage' on his presumably hard-boiled audience.

By 1901, then, universal literacy had been established in Australia, although for many reading would have been largely confined to religious texts, newspapers and magazines. By now the newspapers read were mainly local ones, as were many of the magazines, such as Melbourne Punch, the Australian Journal and, of course, the Bulletin. Most books read in Australia still came from elsewhere, especially from Britain, although works published in Australia were becoming more popular. So the heroine of Miles Franklin's My Brilliant Career (1901) is delighted to find copies of the poems of Henry Kendall and Adam Lindsay Gordon, as well as George du Maurier's bestselling English novel Trilby (1894), on the bookshelves at her grandmother's station. (62) By this time, Australian poets, especially Gordon, had readers as far apart socially and geographically as the stockmen of North Queensland and the literary ladies of Sydney and Hobart. (63) Indeed, one of my grandfathers, born near Adelaide in 1891, was christened Lindsay Gordon Ellis in the poet's honour.

That it was Australian poetry rather than fiction which first caught the popular imagination is a sign of the extent to which the culture of 19th century Australia was still a strongly oral one. By the end of the century, near universal literacy meant that adults no longer had any real need for reading aloud. But this remained a popular pastime both within and outside the family circle. At a time when the cinema was in its infancy, and radio, television and the internet still far in the future, reading of books, newspapers and periodicals, supplemented by lectures and discussion, was the main way in which adult Australians could learn about what was happening in the world, what had happened in the past, and what was happening in their own country.


(1) See Alan Atkinson, The Europeans in Australia, vol. 1, Melbourne, 1997, p. 123; Bethia Penglaise, ' 1788: That Illiterate "Freight of Misery"?', Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol. 75 Pt 2, October 1989, pp. 101-07.

(2) Atkinson, Europeans in Australia, p. 143; John F. Cleverley, The First Generation: School and Society in Early Australia, Sydney, 1971, pp. 23-24.

(3) Cleverley, The First Generation, p. 134.

(4) See Yvonne Cramer, This Beauteous, Wicked Place: Letters and Journals of John Grant, Gentleman Convict, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 2000, p. 84.

(5) George Allen, Letter to his brother, 15 February 1820, in 'George Allen Papers, 1816-1875', Mitchell Library MLMSS 477.

(6) See list of members in Rules and Regulations for the conduct of the Australian Subscription Library and Reading Room, Sydney, 1825; John Alexander Ferguson, Bibliography of Australia, Vol. I, Sydney, 1941, p. 1060.

(7) See John Earnshaw, 'An Excursion into Vague Realms of Australiana. What Happened to Surgeon Bass's Library?', Biblionews, 3, 1969, pp. 14-17.

(8) The only extant copy of the catalogue and the statement of account can be found in Norton Smith and Co, 'Papers of the Oxley family, 1810-1871', Mitchell Library, MLMSS A5322.

(9) Sydney Gazette (SG), 17 July 1803, p. 1.

(10) SG, 24 July 1803, p. 3.

(11) SG, 20 November 1803, p. 1.

(12) SG, 30 September 1804, p. 4; 7 October 1804, p. 3.

(13) SG, 16 December 1804, p. 1.

(14) Ferguson, Bibliography of Australia, vol. I, pp. 363-64.

(15) SG, 31 July 1808, p. 1.

(16) SG, 28 April 1810, p. 1.

(17) SG, 13 October 1805, p. 2.

(18) Hobart Town Gazette (HTG), 8 December 1821, p. 1S.

(19) HTG, 10 May 1823, p. 1.

(20) HTG, 7 June 1823, p. IS.

(21) See Elizabeth Webby, 'Literature and the Reading Public in Australia, 1788-1849', unpublished PhD thesis, University of Sydney, 1971, IV, p. 5.

(22) See 'Catalogue of Books belonging to the Library' in Rules and Regulations for the conduct of the Australian Subscription Library and Reading Room, Sydney, 1828, pp. 9-14 (Ferguson, I, 1173).

(23) See Atkinson, Europeans in Australia, p. 176; Neil K. Macintosh, Richard Johnson, Chaplain to the Colony of New South Wales, Sydney, 1978, pp. 105-06.

(24) Samuel Marsden, quoted in G. D. Richardson, The Colony's Quest for a National Library, Sydney, [nd], p. 6.

(25) Marsden's '1st Sydney Library. Catalogue of Books for the Lending Library of New South Wales' is reproduced in Dawn Troy, 'Libraries and Book Collectors in the Colony of New South Wales prior to the establishment of the Australian Subscription Library in 1826', 1966, Mitchell Library MLMSS 1729.

(26) SG, 5 March 1814, p. 2.

(27) SG, 26 March 1814, p. 2.

(28) See Troy, 'Libraries and Book Collectors', p. 7.

(29) HTG, 5 October 1822, p. 1S.

(30) Observations on the establishment of the Wesleyan Library, at Hobart Town, Van Diemen's Land, Hobart, 1826, p. 8 (Ferguson, I, 1098a).

(31) Tasmanian, 22 March 1827, p. 3.

(32) Sydney Herald, 6 March 1834, p. 3.

(33) Alfred, 10 February 1835, p. 3.

(34) Sydney Monitor, 7 February 1835, p. 2.

(35) Annual Report of the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts for the Year 1836, Sydney, 1837, p. 12.

(36) Australian, 7 February 1839, p. 4.

(37) Pam Baragwanath, If the Walls Could Speak: A Social History of the Mechanics' Institutes of Victoria, Windsor, Victoria, 2000, p. 34.

(38) John Barnes, The Order of Things: A Life of Joseph Furphy, Melbourne, 1990, p. 172.

(39) Hobart Town Courier, 8 October 1831, pp. 2-3.

(40) Sydney Herald, 7 November 1833, p. 4.

(41) Australasian Chronicle, 8 October 1839, p. 2.

(42) 'Novels and Novel Reading', Literary News, 27 January 1838, p. 237.

(43) Keith Adkins, Reading in Colonial Tasmania. The Early Years of the Evandale Subscription Library, Melbourne, 2010, p. 199.

(44) Adkins, Evandale, pp.155-56.

(45) Adkins, Evandale, p. 113.

(46) Adkins, Evandale, p. 126.

(47) Mercury, 19 April 1861, p. 3.

(48) G. B. Barton, Literature in New South Wales, Sydney, 1866, p. 9.

(49) Barton, Literature in New South Wales, p. 7.

(50) Barton, Literature in New South Wales, pp. 27-28, 47, 50, 66-67, 88.

(51) Cooktown Almanac, North Queensland Directory and Miners' and Settlers' Companion for 1876, Townsville, 1876, p. 109.

(52) Western Champion Almanac and Yearbook, Barcaldine, Queensland, 1890, p. 50.

(53) Morton Herman (ed), Annabella Boswell's Journal, Sydney, 1965, p. 37.

(54) John William Bunkle Bunn, 'Journal kept at Woden Station, Queanbeyan, March 1845-June 1848', entry for 14 April 1848, Mitchell Library MLMSS 871.

(55) Herman, Annabella Boswell's Journal, pp. 110-11.

(56) Herman, Annabella Boswell's Journal, p. 145.

(57) Geelong Advertiser, 1 July 1848, p. 1.

(58) Geelong Advertiser, 27 August 1847, p. 4.

(59) 'Diary of Alexander Finlay concerning his trip to the Victorian Goldfields, 6 May-31 October 1852', Archives Office of Tasmania, NS56/1/1.

(60) B. S. Nayler, Penny readings; both What they now Are, Unfortunately, in Melbourne and its Vicinity, and What they Ought to Be-, namely, Institutions for Elevating the Unlettered-masses, Melbourne, 1866[?], p. 4.

(61) James Smith, 'The Year 1863', ed Lurline Stuart, Meanjin, vol. 37, no. 4, 1978, pp. 431-2, journal entry for 12 November 1863.

(62) Miles Franklin, My Brilliant Career, Sydney, 2004, p. 61.

(63) See Elizabeth Webby, 'Not Reading the Nation: Australian Readers of the 1890s', Australian Literary Studies, 22:3, 2006, pp. 310, 314.
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Author:Webby, Elizabeth
Publication:Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society
Article Type:Lecture
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Date:Dec 1, 2011
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