State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 55 Autumn 1995


The Brief but Brilliant Career of Frederick Bennett, Antiquarian Bookseller

In the double number (51/52, 1993) of the La Trobe Library Journal devoted to the State Library of Victoria's collection of medieval manuscripts, Brian Rubber drew attention to the fact that it was launched at the very beginning of the twentieth century and not earlier. If one recalls the austere ambitions Redmond Barry formulated more than once for the Library's acquisition policies, this apparent anomaly need not startle us. Barry just did not foresee that Australians and Australian-resident scholars would want to work seriously on codicology, palaeography and the history of manuscript illumination. However, I do not want to dwell on this aspect of the Library's past, but rather to point out that Brian Rubber's assumption that the vendor of the manuscript acquired nearly a hundred years ago was a ‘London antiquarian bookseller’ is, although understandable, not correct. Having encountered the same bookseller's connection in 1901 with the then Public Library of Victoria in the course of research done more than a decade ago,1 I knew both that he was based in Melbourne and that his career was quite difficult to document. The present article, helped immeasurably by the purchase of two catalogues from Kenneth Hince, is a first, and by no means exhaustive, attempt to unravel the mystery.
Neither of the manuscripts bought from Bennett on 22 October 1901 and 1 April 1902 is of great significance. A sixteenth-century Antiphonal and a late fifteenth-century copy of St Jerome's Explanationes in Isaiam2 hardly rate alongside some of the splendid codices that came to the Library later. Indeed it could be argued that the substantial and original texts that Julius Caesar Scaliger wrote in his copy of the Problemata Aristotelis published as a folio by Jehan Petit in Paris in 1520 are much more important. Nonetheless it must be admitted that the learned world of the Northern Hemisphere does not seem to have taken much more notice of a paper in a European memorial volume than it did of an article Alexander Leeper contributed to The Argus in 1902 or of the exhibition arranged on the occasion of the third (and last) conference of the Library Association of Australasia in Melbourne in April 1902.3 But our subject is not the myopia of scholars — paradoxically even more obvious and limiting in the age of the Internet than ever before. Instead we have to look at Bennett's dealings with the Public Library of Victoria, at the nature of his business and — in a quite limited way — at the possible sources of supply he was using. To pursue this quest we can turn to the Library's stock books,4 to Sands & McDougall's Melbourne and Suburban Directory from the 1890s to the eve of the First World War and to two catalogues that illustrate the sorts of wares Bennett was carrying.
‘Bennett’, ‘Mr Bennett’ and ‘F. Bennett’ do not appear in the stock or accession book until 22 February 1901. Since the last direct purchase from him was made on 1 April 1902, it can be seen that his role as a supplier to the Library lasted for little more than a year. In that time he sold the Trustees a total of 52 items in 62 volumes for £78.3.0d.5

Plate 2: Incipit of Thomas Aquinas, Commentaria in omnes epistolas Sancti Pauli (Basel, 1495 — VSL copy).


Plate 3: Title-page of Problemata Aristotelis, Paris, Jehan Petit, 1520, folio, owned and annotated by Julius Caesar Scaliger (VSL copy).

These ranged from fifteenth-century manuscripts and printed books through the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries down to a few select works drawn with one exception — Henri Rochefort's De Nouméa en Europe — from the first half of the nineteenth. On the face of it the choice of titles, by Bennett himself and by the Library, has to be designated as pure eclecticism.
Apart from the two manuscripts there were three late incunabula: Thomas Aquinas, Commentaria in omnes epistolas Sancti Pauli, ed. Petrus Bergomensis, Basel, Michael Furter for Wolfgang Lachner, 1495;6 Homiliarius Doctorum, Basel, Nicolaus Kesler, 1498;7 Eusebius Caesariensis, Historia ecclesiastica [Latin translation by Rufinus] with Beda, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, Strassburg, [Georg Husner, 2nd press], 1500.8 As forerunners of the Sticht material obtained from A. H. Spencer in the 1920s, these too were signs of a change in collecting policy. The rest of what was bought from Bennett fitted into the Library's broad-ranging interest in literature, history, travel, topography and antiquities, all interpreted pretty liberally.9 One could see it as the confident buying of an institution well aware of a vocation to be ambitious in the humanities. That pretension had, it can be seen, survived the disastrous crash of the early 1890s and the consequent weakening of the Melbourne trade.
Where did Bennett fit into the commercial scene? Some hints can be found in the directories for the twenty years before the First World War. Bennett is, of course, a common name, and none of the F. Bennetts listed by Sands & McDougall between 1895 and 1899 can be clearly ide.jpgied as the Public Library's future supplier. However, in 1900 we find in the alphabetical section ‘Bennett, Fredk., curio dlr, 368 Chapel-st, S.Y.’. In the previous five years the shop in question had been first empty, then occupied

Plate 4: Title-page of Jean Barbault, Les plus beaux monuments de la Rome antique, Rome, Bouchard & Gravier, 1761, folio (VSL copy).

by four different businesses, two fancy goods dealers, a saddler and a bicycle company. It is hardly necessary to comment on what this tells us about the instability of an economically difficult decade or about a society in the throes of change.
Bennett's entry remained the same for 1901 and 1902. By 1903 he was recorded as having a second shop at 332 Chapel Street. He continued in both premises for the next two years, but in 1906 his alphabetical entry reads ‘BENNETT, FREDERICK, 332 Chapel-st, Prahran: dealer in antiques and works of art, furniture of all periods, bronzes, ivories, old china and silver. The largest establishment in Australia’. In 1908 he was at 429 Chapel Street, moving

Plate 5: Cover-title of Frederick Bennett's book catalogue, c. 1902 (Private collection, Melbourne).

towards St Kilda. From 1909 to 1911 he was back at the South Yarra end of the shopping strip, at 256 Chapel Street. Finally, in 1912 and 1913 he was listed at 11 Toorak Road, South Yarra. After that he seems to have disappeared; there are no entries for 1914 and 1915.
Such addresses seem quite normal to us now for the antiquarian trade. They were less usual in the late nineteenth century or even when Spencer came to establish ‘The Hill of Content’ in Bourke Street in the 1920s. Apart from the general questions of the commercial activities of Prahran and South Yarra in the early part of this century, there is clearly scope for a study of bookselling locations in Melbourne in the last century and a half.
But was Frederick Bennett a bookseller in any meaningful sense of the word? The cover-title of the only printed catalogue of which I am aware10 certainly proclaims this and asserts something like fifty years in the trade if we assume, as we must from the address given and then corrected by hand, that the text is possibly to be dated no earlier than 1902. The whole list occupies twelve pages, including the inside and outside of its yellow wrappers. The printer is ide.jpgied in the colophon (recto of lower wrapper) as ‘T. Urquhart, Printer, 21 Elizabeth-st, Melb.’. The verso of the lower wrapper more accurately describes the nature of the business: ‘FREDERICK BENNETT, Antiquarian Bookseller. Dealer in PRINTS, PICTURES, WORKS OF ART, ANTIQUE SILVER, OLD CHINA and PORCELAIN, ENAMELS, IVORIES, BRONZES, COINS, NATIVE WEAPONS, CURIOS of every description.’ However, the shop's concern with books is given considerable emphasis. Inside the upper wrapper we find ‘On Sale: RARE BOOKS unobtainable elsewhere: Unique examples of Early Printing, Books in Black Letter, Ancient Manuscripts, Monastic Illumanations [sic], Old English Literature, Scarce Tracts, Broadsides, Etc. Also, Rare Prints and Etchings, 16th and 17th Century Engravings, Copper Plates and Woodcuts, Works of the Early Masters Rembrandt, Sadeler, Visscher, Etc. Choice examples of the Bartolozzi School Etc., Etc. Superb Collections of Australian and South Sea Island Weapons and Ethnological Specimens.' Just above the colophon is the claim ‘Constant additions to stock, from private sources, of BOOKS, PRINTS, AUTOGRAPHS, and other items of interest to Australian Collectors.’
As for the nine-page unnumbered but alphabetical list that makes up the bulk of the catalogue, it does indeed contain a respectable collection of Australiana. The high spots include Anson, Angas,
Barrington, Bligh, Bougainville, Broinowski. ‘COOK'S Three Voyages, grand set, original issue in eight quarto vols., with the folio atlas of plates, in fine condition, 4to, 1773–84’, Collins, Cunningham, Earle, Eyre, Barton Field, Flinders, Freycinet, S. T. Gill, Grey, Harris, Heylyn, Hunter, King, Labillardière, J. D. Lang, Leichhardt, Mudie, Mueller, La Pérouse, Phillip, Strzelecki, Sturt, Vancouver, Wentworth and Wilson. Curiously, however, this was a quite open-ended exercise. On the one hand the list ends with the words ‘AND MANY OTHERS’. On the other it begins with the indication ‘PRICES ON APPLICATION’, which — in this generalised form — raises some questions about Bennett's professional confidence. Certainly his experiences with the Public Library of Victoria suggest that he was able

Plate 6: Cover-title of Gemmell, Tuckett & Co.'s catalogue for the auction of Frederick Bennett's books in October 1902 (Private collection Melbourne).

to negotiate sales. The present copy of the catalogue has some manuscript annotations, mostly ticks and crosses, but five prices are marked: 15/- for ‘Garryowen’, Chronicles of Early Melbourne, 2/6 for Mrs Meredith's Notes and Sketches of New South Wales, 2/6 for Samuel Mossman's Narrative of the Shipwreck of the ‘Admella’, 24/- for Mudie's Felonry of New South Wales, 2/6 for T. B. Murray's Pitcairn. All in all it could be considered an auspicious new beginning, a term that has to be used because of the claim made for the firm's longevity.
Yet, as the cover-title of Gemmell, Tuckett & Co.'s auction catalogue11 for 3 October 1902 shows clearly, Bennett very quickly abandoned antiquarian bookselling. We are not told why, in a fairly peremptory preface:
The Collection of Early Australian Works catalogued under lots 1 to 156 represents the entire balance of the stock of Mr. Fredk. Bennett, the well-known Antiquary, of Chapel Street, Prahran, and is for absolute sale, as he is entirely relinquishing this branch of his business.
Many of the books are of considerable rarity, some having been collected by Mr. Bennett, senior, in the early 50's; they are mostly very choice examples of the works mentioned, and are worth the attention of collectors.
Thus, although we can note that the sale realized £107.1.9d in all,12 that quite a number of items were passed in, and that there was considerable overlap in contents with the catalogue previously discussed, the interesting point is the explicit link with W. B. or William B. Bennett.13 At once the meaning of half a century in business becomes clear, as does the way in which the basic collection was put together.
It is not necessary to believe what Bennett senior says about the sources of his 1863 catalogue too literally. As a member of

Plate 7: First page of W. B. Bennett catalogue of 1863 (VSL copy).

the Goid-Rush generation of Melbourne booksellers (and one who seems to have disappeared by the early 1870s) he was well placed to take advantage of the rich market for books in the leading city in the Australian colonies.14 The fact, for example, that the copy of Eliseo Calenzio's Opuscula (Rome, 1503) sold by Frederick Bennett to the Public Library of Victoria on 18 February 1902 has a Samuel Parr provenance is not inconsistent with its having been consigned to Melbourne in the 1840s or 1850s by Edward Lumley.
Ultimately more detailed research is needed — on the Bennett family, on the origins of all the books sold by them to the Public Library, on ‘T. H. Thomas, Esq.’, whose two manuscripts (lots 188 and 196) were also passed in at the October 1902 auction, and on much else besides. How strong a market for antiquarian books was Melbourne in the early 1900s compared with Sydney? For answers to these and other questions that are not without relevance to our book world of the 1990s, the rich archives of the State Library have much to offer, as do those few booksellers' and auctioneers' catalogues that have survived out of the hundreds and thousands printed in our nineteenth-century cities and towns.15
Wallace Kirsop


See Wallace Kirsop, ‘Sur un manuscrit oublié de Jules-César Scaliger’ in Mélanges sur la littérature de la Renaissance à la mémoire de V.—L. Saulnier, Librairie Droz, Geneva, 1984, pp. 123–130.


They are described as numbers 200 and 201 in K.V. Sinclair's Descriptive Catalogue of Medieval and Renaissance Western Manuscripts in Australia, Sydney University Press, Sydney, 1969, pp. 323–326.


See the article cited in note 1, especially p. 125.


My thanks are due to Jill Wilson and her staff for access to the records that were held for many years in the old loft of the Acquisitions Department and that have now gone to La Trobe Manuscripts.


The relevant accession numbers are 135867, 135868, 135869, 135870, 135871, 135872, 136251–3, 136254, 136255, 136256, 136257, 136258, 136259, 136260, 136261, 136262, 136263, 136264, 136281–3, 136445, 136843, 136844, 136845, 136846, 137374, 137391–2, 137393, 137463–6, 137467–8, 137469, 137470, 137602, 138475, 138476, 138477–8, 138479, 138480, 138481, 138482, 138483, 139049, 139050, 139051, 139350, 139455, 139718, 140047, 140059, 141538. 141539, 141540, 143179.


This is no. 284 in A. B. Foxcroft's compilation Catalogue of Fifteenth Century Books and Fragments in the Public Library of Victoria, Trustees of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1936, and no. 461 in H. G. Kaplan, comp., A First Census of Incunabula in Australia and New Zealand, Trustees of the Public Library of New South Wales, Sydney, 1966.


Foxcroft no. 281 and Kaplan no. 265.


Foxcroft no. 44 and Kaplan no. 206.


The title-page (illustrated) of Jean Barbault's Les plus beaux monuments de la Rome ancienne of 1761, bought on 19 September 1901 for 17/6d, gives a fair idea of what Bennett had available.


The late Rollo Hammet let me see his copy in the 1970s. The one illustrated was formerly in the collection of Kenneth Hince.


Formerly in the collection of Kenneth Hince.


Prices are systematically marked throughout.


Listed at ‘123, Little Collins-street, east’ in a directory of 1858 and at ‘154 Bourke street east’ by 1868.


See Wallace Kirsop, Books for Colonial Readers — the Nineteenth-Century Australian Experience, Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand, Melbourne, 1995. passim.


I am much indebted to Brian Rubber for his help in bringing together suitable illustrations of material in the Rare Book Collection of the State Library.