State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 58 Spring 1996


George Mercer

Two Recent Acquisitions

One of the great strengths of the Australian Manuscripts Collection is its holding of original material relating to the early European settlement of Victoria. Many of these collections have been held in the Library for some years, reflecting an early recognition of the importance of this material. For example, John Batman's journal, which contains the famous statement about the future site of Melbourne being the place for a village was donated to the Library by the Hon. C.J. Ham, Mayor of Melbourne, in 1881. During the last few years, however, the Library has been fortunate to acquire two important collections of manuscripts that relate to the European settlement of the Port Phillip district in the 1830s. Both of these collections have subsequently been identified as associated with George Mercer, one of the members of the Port Phillip Association.
George Mercer (1772–1853), a Scottish merchant, never visited Australia. His Australian investments were managed for him by Charles Swanston, the Tasmanian merchant, who persuaded him to become a partner in the Port Phillip Association. Subsequently, as the only member of the Association who was permanently resident in Britain, Mercer acted on its behalf during the unsuccessful negotiations with the British government, regarding the land which John Batman had claimed to have purchased from the Aborigines.1
In 1992, the historian and regular library user Rex Harcourt drew the Library's attention to a group of privately owned documents that related to the activities of the Port Phillip Association. After contacting the owner of this material, Library staff were able to inspect the collection. Subsequently, with financial assistance from the Victorian Government, the Library successfully negotiated its purchase. The collection comprises three of the Association's legal documents:
A copy of the Geelong deed of purchase, dated 6 June 1835, by which John Batman claimed to have purchased land in the Geelong district. Two deeds were drawn up, one covering the Melbourne area and the other Geelong, each in three copies. The Library already held copies of both the Geelong and Melbourne deeds, but these are both dated 7 June 1835. The new copy of the Geelong deed would therefore appear to be one of the original pair.2
An agreement, dated 29 June 1835, between Batman, Bannister, Simpson, Gellibrand, and others, giving George Mercer authority to negotiate with the British Government in relation to the purchase of land in the Melbourne and Geelong districts, as specified in the Melbourne and Geelong deeds. Attached to that document is an indenture formally establishing the Port Phillip Association and identifying the entitlements and responsibilities of each of the members of the Port Phillip Association.
An indenture, dated 30 June 1835, between Batman, Swanston, Simpson, and Gellibrand making provision for the illness or death of Batman, before the proper conveyancing of the land at Port Phillip had been carried out.
While all of these documents are of considerable importance, it is arguable that the
second item is the most significant. The indenture which created the Port Phillip Association was signed by all its members with the exception of Mercer, for whom Swanston signed as proxy. The document is reproduced here on p.4. Amongst the conditions outlined in the indenture, the members of the Association agreed:
That each of the said parties shall and will, at his own expense, well and truely deliver at Port Philip, to the said J. Batman … within six months from the date hereof, five hundred good and improved breeding ewes, and five hundred more within twelve months from the date hereof; that all overseers, servants, and others requisite for carrying on the said establishment at Port Philip shall be hired by the said J. Batman or the said J.H. Wedge … That the tracts of land shall be with all convenient speed properly surveyed and charted …
That all expenses to be incurred by the said John Batman during the said term, which shall be for the benefit of the general concern, shall be repaid according to the proportions aforesaid.
That during the period aforesaid no liquor of any description shall be landed on the settlement for sale or distribution amongst the servants, excepting only wine for family use or medicinal purposes.
That the management and arrangement with the natives of every description, and also the distribution of tribute, shall be vested solely in the said J. Batman.
That all servants shall be of good character, and if possible be married men …
That the actual expense of surveying the lands, and all expenses of procuring the grant or confirmation by the Crown … shall be borne and paid … in the proportions aforesaid.3
Until the acquisition of this document by the Library, its text had only been known from a rare printed leaflet, Copy indenture made by John Batman, Charles Swanston, and others for defining the objects of the parties who propose to establish a settlement on the territories of Geelong and Dutigalla.4 Sir John Ferguson has identified it as one of a group of documents which were printed in order to keep Association members informed of the actions taken on their behalf.5
Initially it had been thought that the collection might originally have been the property of Joseph Tice Gellibrand, who was the Association's solicitor, and had drawn up the documents.6 However, further research has suggested that the original owner of the documents was almost certainly George Mercer, and has also drawn attention to the Library's earlier pursuit of these documents, something which had been lost sight of by the 1990s.
The link with Mercer is confirmed in a rare pamphlet entitled George Mercer, Esq., deceased. Attested copies of the muniments of title to the estates of the trustees of George Mercer, Esq7 This appears to have been published in 1856, and is described by Ferguson as “privately printed in a very small number for conveyancing purposes as evidence of title and is very rare”.8 The pamphlet was printed in Geelong, and comprises transcripts of a number of documents connected with the Port Phillip Association. The text of the pamphlet makes it clear that at the time of printing the documents were held by Martyr, Taylor and Buckland, a firm of Geelong solicitors.
The establishment of the Australian Manuscripts Collection, as it is presently constituted, was associated with the opening of the La Trobe Library in 1965. It is therefore easy to forget that archival material has been collected by the State Library since the 19th century. In fact, a search of the Australian Manuscripts Collection catalogue revealed that the existence of this group of documents had been known to the Library from at least 1901. At the turn of the century

Indenture 29 June 1835. (MS 13130, MC. 7Dr 1. Port Phillip Association. La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria).

the documents were still in Geelong, held by Harwood and Pincott, the successor to Martyr, Taylor and Buckland. An internal Library memorandum dated 16 October 1901, and now part of the Australian Manuscripts Collection, noted that:
Messrs Harwood & Pincott, Solicitors, Yarra St, Geelong, lent the originals (or attested copies) of these deeds to the (Library) Trustees for perusal. They also lent two of the original deeds, which were photographed by order of the Trustees.9
Hand written and typed copies of the documents had been added to the Library's collection in October 1901.10
The existence of the Geelong deed, if not the other documents, was known to Isaac Selby, who referred to it in his Old pioneer's memorial history of Melbourne, which was published in 1924.11
Subsequently the “Deeds”, as they were called, were offered for sale in 1933 through A.H. Spencer, antiquarian bookseller of the Hill of Content in Collins Street. Fortunately Spencer's papers are preserved in the Australian Manuscripts Collection, and they tell us that in January 1933, David Griffiths, a partner at Harwood and Pincott, had written:
Dear Mr Spencer,
We are again being asked to sell the Batman Deeds, in view of the Melbourne Centenary, I suppose.
I find a note of yours of 18th June 1929 wherein you ask me to let you know if we decide to part with the Deeds.
Nothing definite as to selling has been decided upon but in a discussion over the matter it was felt that the Deeds should ultimately find a home in the Melbourne Public Library.
I do not remember whether it was a Sydney buyer or you who stated that if the Deeds were sold to your buyer the purchaser would undertake to ultimately give them to the Public Library. Could you enlighten me? I tried to get a price for each deed but if they sell it will be both Deeds and the price will be 5000 pounds.12
Spencer's reply noted that he would visit Griffiths shortly, and anxiously requested that “I shall feel obliged if you will not discuss the matter with anybody else”.13
Spencer offered both the Geelong and
Melbourne deeds to W.H. Ifould, Principal Librarian and Secretary at the Public Library of New South Wales. However, he received a crisp response from Ifould on 2 May, advising “very definitely” that the Library Trustees would not approve the purchase of the deeds for 5500 pounds.14
Griffiths had given Spencer until early June of that year to sell the documents. But as Spencer was unable to do so, they were returned to Harwood and Pincott. It was not until 1965 that further reference to the documents occurs, with the sale to Dame Mabel Brookes of the copy of the Melbourne Deed (which forms the companion to the Geelong Deed that the Library has now acquired).15 The balance of the collection remained in Geelong. Subsequently Dame Mabel's copy of the Melbourne Deed was passed in at her Australiana auction, and today is in the custody of the National Museum of Australia.
So the acquisition of the balance of this group of documents by the State Library of Victoria in 1992 brought to a close a period of at least 90 years, during which their final disposition had been pursued by a number of interested parties.
Our second acquisition of material relating to George Mercer occurred in late 1993, when the Library was contacted by an English philatelic dealer, offering a collection that was described as “a small archive from Tasmania and Port Phillip District dating from around 1836–1848”.16 The collection was quickly identified as incoming correspondence addressed to George Mercer, apparently having come from a lawyer's office in Edinburgh, which suffered a flood. The two boxes of letters acquired by the Library were not damaged, but presumably other Mercer papers which might have filled in gaps in our knowledge have now been lost. But for the flood, it can be assumed that a larger body of correspondence would probably still survive, unknown and undisturbed.
The collection comprises a total of about 250 letters, dating from the mid 18th century through to the 1840s. As well as letters from Australia, it contains incoming mail to Mercer from India, Canada and Britain, providing an overview of the wide range of commercial activities which he conducted. The collection includes letters to Mercer from his son G.D. Mercer, Charles Swanston, John Helder Wedge, Thomas Learmonth and Joseph Tice Gellibrand. Unfortunately the letters from Mercer's fellow Port Phillip Association members all date from 1836, and therefore do not provide a contemporary account of the events associated with either Batman's visit to Port Phillip in 1835, or the creation of the Association. The earliest surviving letters from Swanston acknowledge that the Association was unlikely to be successful in persuading the New South Wales Executive Council to recognize the Association's claims. On 26 November 1836 Swanston wrote to Mercer:
Since leaving [Sydney] I have had no accounts from Mr Gellibrand or Mr Simpson. I am therefore ignorant of the reply of the Govt. … but I conclude it will be refusing our request … Having nothing to hope from the Sydney Government we have now to look to your further exertions with the Colonial Office … Since I came back Colonel Snodgrass who administers the Govt. here and is a member of the Sydney Executive Council has told me that he had given his opinion before leaving Sydney that the Colonial Secys. instructions should be observed liberally and that this Colonial Government should give each member a few grants of 5000 acres. It was unfortunate for us that he was absent from Sydney when we were there.17
In the event the final Government offer to the Association was considerably less generous.
The letters also emphasize the difficulty
experienced by Mercer, and other British investors in managing commercial activities from such a distance, and with such uncertain communication. Mercer's son arrived at Hobart in 1838 and wrote to his father:
I saw Mr Swanston, I like him very well. We have not been able to have any conversation with him on your affairs, except as far as regards the estates on this island. His account of them is very satisfactory, but the P.P. company, is what I am very anxious to learn about as I know, that anything connected with it is of more interest to you, than details of the farms etc. on this Island. I have not yet found out what share you have in the Association nor what money has been advanced on your account towards it as the books having never been submitted to D. Fisher's inspection as according to the agreement on the formation of the Company, they ought to have been …18
Mercer's correspondence, which was acquired with the generous assistance of the Friends of the State Library, complements the Library's other holdings of Port Phillip material, including a collection acquired by the Library in 1982, again with Government support. That earlier acquisition had come from the estate of Sir William Crowther, a prominent Tasmanian collector.
The way in which these collections were acquired provides two examples of how collecting institutions, such as the Library's Australian Manuscripts Collection, continue to collect archival material to support scholarly research. In some cases the existence of material is known, and will be pursued over a period of many years. On the other hand, previously unknown collections will sometimes come on to the market quite unexpectedly, and require a prompt response if they are to be acquired and made available for the Victorian community.
Jock Murphy
Manuscripts Librarian


Australian dictionary of biography, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1967, vol. 2, pp.223–224.


Rex Harcourt, “The Batman treaties”, Victorian historical journal, vol. 62, nos 3 & 4, Dec. 1991/March 1992, p.88.


MS 13130. Port Phillip Association. Documents relating to the European settlement of Melbourne and Geelong, 1835. MC 7, Dr 1.


MS 10258. Port Phillip Association. Papers of the Geelong and Dutigalla Association, 1835–1836. MS Safe.


J.A. Ferguson, Bibliography of Australia, Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1941–1969, vol. II, p.218. Ferguson 2005.


Harcourt, op. cit., p.91.


MS 7726. George Mercer, Esq., deceased: attested copies of the muniments of title to the estates of the trustees of George Mercer, Esq., deceased, situate in the Parish of Gheringhap, in the County of Grant, in the Colony of Victoria, Geelong, Paterson [1856]. Box 975/3(e) (original); Box 653 (photocopy).


Ferguson, op. cit., vol. VI, p.651. Ferguson 12496.


H4277. John Batman. Correspondence between the Public Library … and Messrs. Harwood and Pincott. Box 113/7.


H4101. John Batman. Copies of deeds and covenants. Box 113/4.


Isaac Selby, Old pioneer's memorial history of Melbourne, Melbourne, Old Pioneers Memorial Fund, 1924, p.37.


PA 96/158. A.H. Spencer papers.




MS 12361. A.H. Spencer papers. Box 3164/3.


M.B. Brookes, Riders of time, Melbourne, Macmillan, 1967, pp.59–64.


An increasing number of valuable manuscripts seem to be passing through the hands of philatelic dealers. This trend raises the risk that collections will be valued purely in terms of their stamps or postal markings, and increases the likelihood that documents will be dispersed. Recently the Library has been fortunate to acquire a group of letters written by Hanmer and Sarah Bunbury, contemporaries and friends of Georgiana McCrae, that were also at risk in the same way.


MS 13166. Mercer letters. Box 3827/4.


Ibid. Box 3827/1.