State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 66 Spring 2000


Library Profile
John Holroyd, Bookman

With The the death of John Holroyd on 28 August 2000 at the age of 89 the State Library of Victoria has lost one of its most devoted Friends. He was a member from its inception of the Friends of the La Trobe Library, now incorporated in the State Library of Victoria Foundation, which began in 1966, serving on the Committee for many years and holding the office of Secretary from 1978-1983. In 1996, he was made an Honorary Life Member in acknowledgement of his great contribution to the work of the association in fund-raising and attracting donations of historical material to the Library. He himself made many donations of important books and, in 1987, his renowned Australian book labels collection became part of the Library's holdings.
John Percy Holroyd was a bookman all his long life. Born at Moonee Ponds in Victoria on 26 May 1911, he was only 17 when he began his impressive career in bookselling, starting work in 1928 as an office and messenger boy in the educational department of Robertson & Mullens in Melbourne. His father had arranged for his rather shy son to meet an acquaintance, Captain Peters, who was then manager of the bookshop. At the interview, Peters made it very clear that ‘you need a good memory for this job’. He was given the position on the spot, and his phenomenal memory stood him in good stead throughout his life.
John was trained in the book trade by such legendary veterans as Leonard Slade, who had begun with Samuel Mullen in 1875, and Gerald Pendlebury, who started with Robertson in 1876. John often recalled his mentors:
I used to ask them about bookselling in the early days, because they had trained under booksellers who had started in the 1870s, they themselves having been taught by men who began as boys in the 1820s and 30s, and so on.
With that twinkle in the eye and gentle laugh so typical of John, he would continue: ‘You know, you could actually go back to Caxton, or even Shakespeare, from Robertson and Mullens!’
John stayed at Robertson and Mullens until 1940 when he began three and a half years’ of service with the Army in New Guinea. After the war, he managed the Methodist Book Depot in Melbourne for 16 years. He then travelled in Europe and North America before returning to Angus & Robertson which, by then, had taken over Robertson & Mullens. He was appointed to manage Swain's Bookshop, the rarebooks department of Angus & Robertson in Sydney, where he remained for five years until he retired in 1978 and returned to Melbourne.
John made many friends among his customers during his long career, and he delighted in recalling their reading tastes. The gifted artist, Sybil Craig, with the wonderful long red hair so admired by Rupert Bunny in his acclaimed portrait of her,
would visit Robertson & Mullens every fortnight with her mother who was an inveterate collector of beautiful books, in particular, the very best in art books. Rupert Bunny himself was another whom John came to know through selling books.

Illustrations on page 55: Top: An early book label of Robertson and Mullens.

In reminiscent vein John would recall how Sir Keith Murdoch came in search of a book or two which would help the young Rupert improve his game of chess. The master of understatement, John's opinion of the global tactician was that ‘Of course, Rupert's now playing chess the world over!’
Throughout his career and in retirement, John's great research interest was the documentation of the history of bookselling in Australia. In 1968, his book, George Robertson of Melbourne 1825-1898 Pioneer Bookseller & Publisher, was published by Robertson & Mullens, and in 1980, he edited The Early Australian Booksellers for the Australian Booksellers’ Association. He contributed numerous scholarly articles to the Australian Dictionary of Biography on people connected with the book trade, such as Samuel Mullen, George Robertson and Margaret Bird, and on others in different walks of life, including Frank Thring Senior, theatrical entrepreneur, Percy Barnett, author & book plate authority, and the printers George and William Anderson. As well, over the years, John delivered papers on various aspects of publishing and bookselling history to literary and historical associations.

Bottom: John Holroyd at the exhibition of the Holroyd Collection of Book Labels of Australia, Queen's Hall, State Library of Victoria, 1987.

In his bookselling career of 51 years John Holroyd spent more time in secondhand and rare books — his ‘first love’, as he once said — than in any other department. He was the elder statesman of the antiquarian book trade in Victoria, and the high regard in which he was held by his colleagues was recognised by the awarding of an Honorary Life Membership of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of Australian and New Zealand in 1988.
Not only a bookseller but a book collector, John was a foundation member of the Book Collectors’ Society of Australia; a member of the Committee from 1967-1996, serving as Secretary 1968-1973; President 1981-1983 and again from 1985-1986. His own book collecting focused mainly on publishing history and interesting editions of Australiana. These were given to the State Library in 1997. In retirement he began collecting bookseller's labels, and when he donated the collection to the State Library in 1987 it contained 2070 specimens, dating from 1845 to the present.
Always generous with his knowledge and time when dealing with researchers, academics and others needing advice on matters related to the book trade and to nineteenth-century Victorian history in general, John Holroyd made a greater contribution to cultural life in Victoria than a mere list of his publications would suggest. An Order of Australia Medal in 1997 went some way towards acknowledging this contribution.
Another and most appropriate honour came very near the end of his life, with the decision of the History of the Book Editorial Committee in December 1999 to dedicate the first volume of the History to him. ‘He would have been remembered without this’, writes Wallace Kirsop in HOBA Newsletter no.6, ‘but HOBA wanted to recognize a gentle and generous man, who not only left a valuable collection put together with skill and discrimination to the State Library of Victoria, but who was also tireless in the advice and help he gave to others working in the field.’
A gentle man, knowledgeable and generous, with that incredible encyclopaedic memory, John Holroyd will be remembered by so many not only as a Friend of the State Library but as a friend of all booklovers.
Dianne Reilly
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