State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 47 & 48 1991


The La Trobe Rare Book Collection

‘The movement in Australian book collecting shows a gradual trend towards greater and greater specialization.’1
In viewing Australian book collecting as an increasingly specialized activity, Jonathan Wantrup, in his 1987 publication Australian Rare Books 1788–1900 (from which the above quotation is taken), further sought to advance the level of what he terms the ‘bibliographic precision’ available to the collector of Australian rare books. In doing so, Wantrup was following on from earlier and, in their own way, no less important publications such as Rodney Davidson's A Book Collector's Notes, Charles Barrett's Across the Years, and George Mackaness's The Art of Book Collecting in Australia; although the latter, in particular, while showing all the passions and enthusiasms of the collector, often lacked the sort of rigorous bibliographic standards applied to, say, the study of European rare books.
Australia was luckier than most national literatures in having much of the pioneering work done on its bibliography by one individual, and the massive project undertaken by John Ferguson Bibliography of Australia, published by Angus and Robertson in seven volumes between 1941 and 1969, remains the single most important reference tool for the study of Australian rare books.2 Others have done much to fill in the gaps: Morris Miller, Percival Serle, Marcie Muir, M. K. Beddie, just to cite a few. Equally important, however, in raising the standards of bibliographic description, have been the activities of antiquarian bookdealers, both Australian and overseas; their many published catalogues (such as that issued for the August 1988 Gaston Renard/Leonard Joel sale or the earlier Maggs catalogues on voyages and travels issued in 1927 and 1964) serve both as a significant reference source for the study of Australian rare books as well as an indicator of current and future market trends.
So what is an Australian rare book, or any rare book for that matter? John Carter, with tongue planted firmly in his cheek, cites, in his ABC for Book Collectors, Robert Taylor's ‘a book I want badly and can't find’.3 From the point of view of the La Trobe collection, however, a number of criteria come into play: date of publication, edition statement, fine production or binding, market value, notable illustrations or plates, variant copies, association copies, significant first editions, to name a few. Of course, in many cases, one or more of these criteria may be present The State Library of Victoria's Selection Policy for Australiana Rare Books rounds off this definition, for our purposes, in stating that the La Trobe Rare Book collection includes titles of which the content relates to Australia or, equally, titles that have been published in Australia, regardless of content.4
‘The La Trobe Rare Book Collection comprises one of the most complete holdings of early Australiana in the country.’
The La Trobe Rare Book collection consists of four separate but interrelated collections: the Currie collection, the Buesst collection, the Moir collection (dealt with elsewhere in mis issue) and the main collection. Before dealing with the latter, however, it might be useful to briefly outline the provenance and contents of the Currie and Buesst collections.
The Currie collection consists of approximately eight hundred books, primarily ninteenth-century material, and includes a fine collection of accounts of voyages and travels, including the official eight-volume set of Cook, Flinders’ narrative, as well as those of King and Grant.
More importantly are the numerous first edition accounts of the land explorers: Oxley, Leichhardt, Mitchell, Sum, Grey, Strzelecki, Warburton. An added feature of the Currie collection is that the majority of items in the collection can be found in their original state of issue, being in original boards, cloth or wrappers, with uncut pages, as distinct from so many State Library of Victoria books which were rebound in Library binding at the time of purchase. The collection itself was originally put together by Victorian pastoralist John Lang Currie (1818–1898) of Larra, near Camperdown, and was acquired by the State Library of Victoria in 1937.

Frontispiece to Sydney Parkinson's A journal of a voyage to the South Seas, in His Majesty's ship, the Endeavour, London, 1773

An annotated catalogue to the collection, published by Melville, Mullen and S lade in 1891, is also in the collection.
The Buesst collection of foreign language Australiana was presented to the State Library of Victoria by its then owner, Tristan Buesst, in 1974. It consists of some three hundred volumes, again primarily nineteenth-century material, although a sizable proportion of late eighteenth-century material is included. Buesst's small but highly select collection provides a valuable insight into the publishing history of Australiana outside the English speaking world. While including original editions of important French works by Labillardière, D'Entrecasteaux, Dumont D'Urville, and Péron, it is equally of significance for the many translations of English works into foreign languages. For instance, the collection includes a French edition of Parkinson and German editions of Flinders, Oxley and Mitchell; both languages being represented for the First Fleet journals of Phillip, Tench and White. A series of bibliographical notes compiled by Buesst (including his correspondence with John Ferguson), as well as a manuscript catalogue to the collection (again compiled by Buesst) were included with the donation.
In turning to the main La Trobe Rare Book collection, which consists of some 6,000 volumes, we are often asked which is the earliest book in the collection. This honour goes to Bishop Joseph Hall's Mundus Alter et Idem, printed in London in 1605 with a fictitious Frankfurt imprint, which purports to describe an imaginary Utopia set in Terra Australis Incognita. Hall's work is just one of many imaginary voyages to the South Land held in the La Trobe Rare Book collection — others, more often than not held in several different editions, include Foigny's A New Discovery of Terra Australis (London, 1693), Seriman's Viaggi di Enrico Wanton alle Terre Incognita Australis (Napoli, 1756) and Patlock's The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins (London, 1751).5
The earliest factual, as distinct from imaginary, printed account relating to Australia held in the collection is contained in the publication Descriptio ac Delineatio Geographica Detectionis, printed in Amsterdam in 1612, which includes a Latin edition of De Quiros's eighth memorial to the King of Spain announcing his discovery of what he believed to be the fifth continent, but which was later shown by Cook to be the New Hebrides. The Library's purchase of this work from London bookseller W. H. Robinson, for the sum of £67 10s, was reported in a brief article in the Argus newspaper of 22 September 1934. But perhaps of even greater significance, being the first English book on the subject, is the extremely rare 1617 first English translation, published in London, of the same De Quiros memorial Terra Australis Incognita, or A New Southerne Discoverie, which was acquired for the State Library of Victoria in 1910 from Bernard Quaritch in London at a cost of £57 10s.
Yet another important source of information on early Australia is Francisco Pelsaert's printed account of the wreck of the Dutch vessel Batavia off the western Australian coastline in 1629. Pelsaert, the captain of the ship, first published his account of the wreck and subsequent massacre of crew members, Ongiluckige Voyagie, Van't Schip Batavia, in Amsterdam in 1647; a copy of the 1648 edition of the work (the Library holds the 1647) sold at a Sotheby's auction in Melbourne in April 1990 for the sum of $100,000.
Early accounts of voyages and exploration are a particular strength of the La Trobe Rare Book collection. Included are the major compendiums of voyages to Australia and the South Seas, issued by De Brasses, Callander and Dalrymple, which were responsible for creating renewed interest in both Australia and the concept of a South Land. As well, a comprehensive range of publications, both official and unofficial, emanating from Cook's three voyages are held; amongst the latter is the rare variant of the 1784 London re-issue of Sydney Parkinson's A Journal of a Voyage to the South Seas by John Fothergill in which was bound in the four separately numbered pages described by Rodney Davidson as one of the rarest items of Australiana.6
All first edition accounts of the First Fleet are held — Phillip, Tench, Hunters, Collins and White (including colour issues of the Phillip and White); as are the major published accounts of French exploration to Australia and the South Seas in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries -Bougainville, La Pérouse, Baudin, Freycinet, Dupperey, Dumont D'Urville.
Shifting our focus to Victoria, the Library holds the earliest English accounts of exploration by Flinders, Grant and Tuckey. The Library's copy of Flinders’ Observations on the Coast of Van Diemens Land (London, 1801), which includes a description of the southern coast of New South Wales (i.e. Victoria), was purchased for £40 in 1934 and was the copy used for the Libraries Board of South Australia's 1965 facsimile.
Without doubt, however, what must be considered one of the most important and certainly one of the rarest items in the collection is the 1831 printing of William Eland's account of Hume and Hovell's overland expedition Journey of Discovery to Port Phillip. Wantrup described it as one of the fabled rarities of Australian book collecting.7 The Library is fortunate in having Dr. Eland's own copy which contains manuscript corrections to the Preface, later dropped from the 1837 edition.
The Library holds two copies of Arden's Latest Information with Regard to Australia Felix (Melbourne, 1840). This work was believed to be the first substantial item printed in Victoria until C. A. McCallum, a then junior librarian with the State Library of Victoria, was instructed during the 1920s to visit a house in a Melbourne suburb to inspect a private collection of books. McCallum recounts, in Charles Barrett's Across the years,8 how he reported back to his seniors that the collection was of little interest except for a volume containing a number of pamphlets — one of which turned out to be John Pascoe Fawkner's copy of the Articles and Rules for the Regulation of the Melbourne Union Benefit Society, a booklet of twenty-four pages, published in Melbourne in 1839 by Arden and Strode, and now considered the first printed item in the colony of Victoria (Arden's Latest Information tends now to be referred to as the first printed ‘book’). This rare Victorian pamphlet is now housed in the La Trobe Rare Book Collection.
A publication acquired in an even more bizarre set of circumstances than McCallum's chance discovery is the Library's copy of John William Lewin's Birds of New South Wales. In 1918 a copy was submitted to the Chief Librarian by a man whose children had been using it as a picture book. An account of this incident, recorded in The Book of the Public Library 1906–1931, states that ‘none of the Library staff had ever seen a copy, and a valuation was more or less guess-work. The would-be seller was so informed and, as the book was incomplete, was offered five pounds, which he gladly accepted’.9 It turned out that it was one of only twelve surviving copies of the 1813 Sydney edition of Lewin's work. This edition, the first natural history book published in the colony, is one of the most sought-after plate books amongst collectors of Australiana; a copy sold at the Gaston Renard/Leonard Joel August 1988 sale for $220,000 and, more recently, in June 1989, a copy at a Sotheby's auction in New York auction sold for the astounding sum of $525,550.
Perhaps even more notable than the Lewin are the natural history books of John Gould — the seven-volume (plus supplement) Birds of Australia (London, 1848), Monograph of the Macropodidae (London, 1841–1842), and the three-volume Mammals of Australia (London, 1863), all being held in the collection. Gould's Birds of Australia was among the 3,846 volumes contained in the State Library of Victoria when it first opened in 1856 and, at that time, was considered its most valuable possession, having been obtained at a cost of £140.10 A sale of a set at a Sotheby's auction in Melbourne in August 1989 realist $450,000. Beside the Lewin and Gould volumes, the La Trobe Rare Book collection houses numerous other books important for their plates, including works by Joseph Lycett, George French Angas, Nicholas Chevalier, Eugene Von Guérard, Augustus Earle, John Skinner Prout and S. T. Gill. Such publications, equally regarded for aesthetic as for historical reasons, provide us with valuable depictions of life in Australia in the nineteenth century.
A further criterion for inclusion within the collection are items whose the importance rests in their association with individuals of significance to Australian and, in particular, Victorian history. Included in the collection are books originally belonging to John Pascoe Fawkner, John Batman (a copy of Volume I of Homer's Odyssey in an 1802 edition translated by Pope), Robert Hoddle, the Hentys and Charles Joseph La Trobe. Perhaps one of the more interesting association items in the collection is the Library's copy of the first edition of
Marcus Clarke's His Natural Life, owned by J. J. Shillinglaw and used by him for his review of the novel when it first appeared in book form. The copy is inscribed by Clarke to Shillinglaw, ‘April 1874 / J. J. Shillinglaw from the author / Thank God’, and is extensively annotated throughout in Shillinglaw's hand.11
Beside the Clarke volumes, the collection contains many important first editions of works of literature. Without doubt, the original parts of the Tasmanian edition of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, published in Launceston in 1838, must be considered one of the rarest. More commonly known as The Van Diemen's Land Edition of the Pickwick papers, the publication was a printed edition of Dickens’ famous work and was issued by Henry Dowling in twenty-five weekly parts in coloured wrappers, after the original London edition. Only two nearly complete sets of the original parts are known and even odd parts are considered extremely rare; the State Library of Victoria's set includes eighteen of the twenty-five parts. Some other notable literary editions include Charles Tompson's Wild Notes from the Lyre of a Native Minstrel (Sydney, 1826), the first volume of poetry published by an Australian-born writer; Martin Boyd's first novel Love Gods (London: Constable, 1925), published under the pseudonym Martin Mills; a signed dedication copy of Katherine Susannah Prichards's first published work, a small volume of poetry entitled Clovelly Verses (London: McAllan, 1913); and the rare early book of Patrick White's poetry The Ploughman and Other Poems (Sydney: Beacon Press, 1953) published in an edition of three hundred copies prior to his first novel, Happy Valley (also included in the collection).
Any reference to fine press or printing held in the collection must surely take into account the work of John Kirtley who, along with Jack Lindsay, was responsible for the founding of the Fanfrolico Press. Numerous examples of Kirtley's work as a printer can be found in the collection, including what is generally considered his finest work — R. D. Fitzgerald's Heemskerck Shoals — produced in 1949 in an edition of eighty-five copies at Ferntree Gully under his own imprint, the Mountainside Press. Other fine presses represented in the collection include Sunnybrook Press (The Howes and their Press, Carboni's Eureka Stockade), the publications of the Australian Limited Editions Society, and the many Australian related publications of the Golden Cockerel Press; while a cursory list of fine presses currently acquired for the collection might include Sullivan's Cove, Blubber Head Press, St Marks Press, Wayzgoose Press and Brandywine Press.
Use of the La Trobe Rare Book collection could be said to be as varied as the many books which go to make up its number. It is used by scholars and bibliographers; illustrated material from the collection is used extensively by publishers; items are featured in State Library of Victoria exhibitions and are equally lent to other institutions for their exhibitions; items are used as the basis for facsimile reproductions; the Moir collection has been extensively consulted for research on early Australian crime fiction. Put simply, the La Trobe Rare Book collection comprises one of the most complete holdings of early Australiana in the country and, as such, is used in the broadest sense for any important scholarly research in the field.
Any article of this length can hope to allude only briefly to some of the more notable items in the collection. It might therefore be useful to conclude by listing several additions to the collection and in this way provide some indication of current policies and future directions: Lee's Pictorial Weekly Budget (1876–1877) was purchased at Sotheby's auction in April 1990. This was the only known surviving set of Richard Egan-Lee's Melbourne weekly, more commonly known as Police News, and was the set used for Michael Cannon's 1977 facsimile reproduction. The latest publication from Wayzgoose Press, a reprinting of a Charles Dickens text Bound for the Goldfields (Katoomba, N.S.W., 1900), provides a splendid example of the work of this fine press. Two handmade artists’ books, one each by Victorian artists Irene and Andrew Sibley (in editions of twenty-six and fifteen respectively), provide the first (but surely not the last) examples of this type of production to be included in the collection. Such purchases signal that the La Trobe Rare Book collection is a dynamic rather than a static collection, with one eye on the past and one on the future, increasingly aware that today's current reading matter may all too well be tomorrow's rare book.
Des Cowley


Jonathan Wantrup, Australian Rare Books 1788–1900. Hordern House, Potts Point, 1987, p.4.


Ferguson's Bibliography of Australia was republished in a seven-volume facsimile edition by the National Library of Australia between 1975–1977; a supplementary eighth volume entitled Bibliography of Australia: addenda 1784–1850 (Volumes I to IV) was first published by the National Library in 1986.


John Carter, ABC for Rare Book Collectors. 4th edn. London: Hart-Davis, 1966, p. 162.


State Library of Victoria. Selection Policy. Library Council of Victoria, Melbourne, 1986, p.44.


Readers interested in a broader overview of the Library's collection of such works are referred to Derrick Moor's essay “Imaginary voyages”printed in the La Trobe Library Journal, Vol. 11, No.41, Autumn 1988, pp. 8–14.


Rodney Davidson, A Book Collector's Notes, Cassell, North Melbourne, 1970, pp.55–56.


Wantrup, op. cit., p. 187.


Charles Barrett, Across the Years, Seward, Melbourne, 1948. p.31.


Armstrong, Edmund La Touche and Boys, Robert Douglas, The Book of the Public Library… 1906–1931, The Trustees, Melbourne, 1932, p.37.


Edmund Armstrong, The Book of the Public Library … 1856–1906, The Trustees, Melbourne, 1906, p.4.


Lurline Stuart published an article on Shillinglaw's annotations in the La Trobe Library Journal, Vol. 6, No. 23, April 1979, pp.45–53.