State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 80 Spring 2007


Marjorie Tipping
A Circle of Learning: Personal Memories

Leone Mills, photographer. Mr. and Mrs. Tipping [at the opening of the La Trobe Library]. 1965. Gelatin silver photograph. H27976. La Trobe Picture Collection.


From The time I was a child I would anxiously await my mother's return from the city after visiting the Athenaeum Library or Robertson and Mullens. The latest books — from England, of course — were available in their lending libraries. Before plastic bags it was customary to hold books together (you were allowed up to four at a time) with a leather luggage strap which I could not undo quickly enough.
While still at school I treasured the idea of becoming a writer — or perhaps a librarian because that was one of the few professions to which a woman might aspire. Even so, few women had the chance to succeed a man until Patricia Reynolds became the La Trobe Librarian in 1964.
Pat and I were fellow-students at the University of Melbourne where many students frequented not only the University Library but also the friendly Rowden White Browsing Library, the Ewing Art Gallery and the Union Theatre, all housed in the new Union House. We thought of the Union House as a mini-cradle-of-civilisation for our Melbourne town. The new and first Vice-Chancellor, Dr Priestley, provided the Browsing Library with every issue of Penguin and Pelican books as they arrived from England in increasing numbers and sold in Australia for ninepence each. These included a wide range of the arts, literature and music books, which influenced Zelman Cowen and myself to form the very popular University Fine Arts Society.
It seemed natural for many of us that we should enjoy the privileges of the extracurricular activities on offer. I wrote a regular literary column for Farrago as ‘Elia’ (what conceit!), the student newspaper which E. W (Bill) Tipping, my husband-to-be, was editing; Zelman Cowen contributed an art column. Manning Clark nominated me to follow him as secretary of the Literature Club, and then I followed Helen Palmer, becoming co-editor with David Pitt, whose father was the Chief Librarian of the Public Library, of Melbourne University Magazine. At Presbyterian Ladies College I had followed Helen as editor of our school magazine, Patchwork. These had been the beginnings of my many years of editing work of Australian origin.


Late in 1952 I made a New Year resolution after old friend Ian McLaren urged me to apply for a reader's ticket at our Public Library. What a shock it was to discover that the only area set aside to peruse Australian manuscripts consisted of two long desks in the catalogue room with about eight chairs on which to sit. Another shock was when I discovered I was the only woman who appeared there as a fairly regular reader.
I already knew Mr McCallum, then Chief Librarian, and John Feely, an assistant who always encouraged those who hoped to write Australian history. I had also met Geoff Blainey and Alan Shaw, who was a contemporary of mine at the University of Melbourne and who frequented the Library before he left for Sydney. I occasionally met a shy young man who was eagerly perusing similar papers on Ballarat to those I had ordered. (My maternal grandfather John Paterson, a second cousin of ‘Banjo’ Paterson, was born on the Eureka field on 28 October 1854.) Some time prior to the centenary of the Eureka uprising I discovered that the young man whom I had only known as Geoff was not as shy as I had believed. His name was Geoffrey Serle.

‘His name was Geoffrey Serle.’ Photograph courtesy Jessie Serle.

Even before that some of us had discovered a number of common views about the need for schools and universities to include Australian history in their teaching curricula. Manning Clark, whom I had known since he was a small boy in knickerbockers, and Alan Shaw were, like Geoff Serle, postgraduates all of Oxford, while I was still trying to finish my first degree from Melbourne, delayed during the war. I did have a certificate to show that I was a research scholar and student at Harvard, 1951–52, when I had accompanied my husband who held the Nieman Fellowship. But I saw no reason why I should not associate with men of such scholarship, even with the disadvantage, in those days, of being a woman.
As it eventuated, Geoff and I became good friends. We were both appalled with the lack of knowledge of Victorian history and the different and confusing interpretations of historical method. He was very receptive of new ideas and I wrote him a lengthy dissertation
on what I believed we could achieve in the education of Australians. I based my argument on what I had learned when attending the Harvard classes of Professor Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (‘Social and intellectual history of the United States’) and numerous lectures delivered by equally erudite persons. In reply Geoff wrote that he was ‘more than ever grateful to you than I can say for your immensely valuable letter’. I also lent him my detailed notes taken at Schlesinger's lectures, which Geoff said had given him encouragement to enlighten Australians of their own cultural history.
Ian McLaren had also urged me to join the Royal Historical Society of Victoria which had an extensive collection of valuable books and manuscripts. It had also produced a good journal since 1911, The Victorian Historical Magazine. The RHSV was then temporarily housed in the Library's Palmer Hall, and much of its valuable collection had been in storage for years. After a period in the doldrums the Society was beginning to expand with an increasing membership, including a few women. Ian was then an Independent M.L.A., and had co-opted Tom Ramsay who had become a very active President and nominated me as the first woman Council member. I would later be the first woman President and Fellow. Geoff Blainey was the first of the young historians to become Council members, to be followed by Geoff Serle and later Alan Shaw on his return from Sydney to become Professor of History at Monash university in 1965. We also co-opted Ken Horn, then State Librarian, and Pat Reynolds, La Trobe Librarian, as Council members of the RHSV, which strengthened the co-operation between the two bodies most concerned with Victorian history. The State Library was very happy to receive a number of items relating to early Victorian history that had been in the Society's collection. Their removal upset those senior citizens who had faithfully preserved them. However, as they were actually State archival material, our scholarly members rightly believed they should be held in perpetuity in the repository to which they correctly and legally belonged.
My own mind had become very receptive to the past achievements of our Public Library. But how much did the general public know about it, or appreciate it? While the Museum and Art Gallery shared part of the building many knew it as no more than a stable for the remains of Phar Lap or a hideaway for a Madonna attributed to Van Eyck. But to those who knew it, the great dome, in all its majesty, and the beckoning aisles of its main reading room seemed to represent symbols of ‘the circle of learning’ that has served savants throughout the ages.
The spirit of Sir Redmond Barry, as represented by his statue, also beckons one into our Library today. Barry himself would surely approve that this Library and the Baillieu Library at the University of Melbourne (founded on the same day in 1854 with Barry presiding) would, within the space of a few days in 1965, formalise associations of ‘Friends’ to assist the two libraries.


But who were these ‘Friends’ and what would be their aims? And what their status? Their common interest would be in the acquisition of rare books and manuscripts of a scholarly interest (the Baillieu Library) and similar collections with an accent on Victorian material in the newly created La Trobe Library.
I found myself for some time on both foundation committees, probably as ‘the token woman’. I was also under no delusions as to my probable usefulness as the wife of Bill Tipping, who had been a good friend to libraries and other worthy causes.
I was also able to persuade my good friend Margaret Carnegie, when she was able to spend more time in Melbourne away from Holbrook, to become a Council member for the RHSV and later to join the committee of the Friends of the La Trobe Library. Her natural joie de vivre (which she attributed to some distant Irish streak in her ancestry) was not only a refreshing addition to both organizations but also of great benefit through her contributions, both financial and in kind. Her enthusiasm and warm-heartedness were such that those whom she badgered found it difficult to refuse her requests.
There was a long delay in consolidating our ideas. My 1965 diary records something of the development of our proposals for assisting libraries with some voluntary help. John Feely's sudden death on 5 June that year (before the La Trobe Library was officially opened) was a great shock to those whom he had helped in their research. He had thought that there was an urgent need to extend the Library's Australian collection before any more important items were lost or forgotten. I wrote that I hoped there would be some memorial to honour his work, and that ‘perhaps the new Exhibition Hall should be named the John Feely Exhibition Hall […] he was largely responsible for gathering together many of the objects and manuscripts and books which the Library will ultimately house there’. My husband and I had for years been guiding him and Phil Garrett to private collections that we knew existed.
The launch of the Friends of the La Trobe Library ultimately took place on 16 November 1966, soon after the launch of the Friends of the Baillieu Library. I had personally had some knowledge as a member of such groups while living in the United States in 1951–52. When I tried to introduce this appellation ‘Friends’ in Melbourne among my University women friends I was astonished by the reaction. Lady Latham, wife of the Chancellor, and Lady Paton, wife of the Vice-Chancellor — both distinguished Melbourne University graduates — had taken the lead in co-opting eager and willing women graduates to serve voluntarily as members of the fund-raising committees for the postwar building projects at the University. Most of these women were dubious about using the name ‘Friends’ because they thought it would be misleading; some actually thought it undesirable because it might be mistaken as indicating a Quaker or a Communist society!
Soon after my return from the United States Lady Paton had asked me to join her executive of women volunteers as an adviser on public relations. After a while I became organising chairman of several functions, including the week-long Book Carnival in Melba

Barrett Reid and J.A. Feely on La Trobe Library opening day, March 1965. Gelatin silver photograph. H41329. La Trobe Picture Collection.

Hall in 1955 and the week-long Australiana Festival in Wilson Hall in 1959. In these particular activities my wonderful body of women worked together with librarians from the Colin McCallum era. Pat Reynolds, John Feely and Phil Garrett gave special help. It was a formidable group. We began to realise that we were Friends of a sort, but we did not accept the name at the University until preliminary discussions at a meeting about support for the Baillieu Library called by the Patons on 7 September 1966. Members had at last accepted my suggestion (at Alice Paton's urging) that ‘Friends of the Baillieu Library’ would be a fitting name for the organization. I was immediately elected to another committee, after having reminded the more academic members that as early as Socrates and Plato ‘Friends’ was used in serious dialogue.
Months passed after the two groups were inaugurated before they had their constitutions ratified. One common factor in the delay was the belief of the University Council and the Library Board that constitutions for such bodies were unnecessary. Sir John
Barry, then a Puisne Judge of the Supreme Court, was instrumental in convincing both bodies of which he was to be a patron, that it was essential. He provided sets of rules that would be the basis for a constitution, and called on my husband who, having a knowledge of constitutional law from his student days, advised that it should be reasonably simple for the purpose for which it would apply. In the case of the Friends of the La Trobe Library, the legal officer for the RHSV, Eric Rundle, presented a draft when he became a member of the interim committee.


In April 1968 the Friends published the first number of the La Trobe Library Journal (which became The La Trobe Journal in 1998). In celebrating the forty years of continuous publication, we celebrate not only the fact of the journal itself but the camaraderie that has existed between the many volunteers and the Library staff since the Friends of the La Trobe Library had its birth.
From our earliest discussions we believed that the purpose of a journal published by the Friends would be to inform friends, subscribers and scholars of the treasures already in our Library. We hoped, of course, that it would encourage more gifts, especially of manuscripts and other rare material. We expected articles would present facts rather than personal opinions, and would avoid political and religious bias because there were already other avenues in which individuals could deal with contentious issues. We considered that the reputation of a journal such as we envisaged would depend upon its integrity in relationship to those values, without fear or favour. We also expected that the style of the articles would be worthy of the Library's own increasingly excellent reputation. Verification of statements in the form of notes was essential for most contributions. A certain latitude might be granted in the case of memoirs, oral history or interviews with recognized scholars or authorities.
Geoff Serle and I had discussed at length who should edit the Journal. We were both heavily committed to other work: Geoff to the Australian Dictionary of Biography and editorship of Historical Studies, while I was researching several biographies for the A. D. B., editing the first Meanjin index for Clem Christesen, and was involved in other projects, including research for a British Lion Co. film script on Burke and Wills. Geoff almost persuaded me to undertake the editorship, but Fate took a hand when my husband was appointed to open a bureau in Washington for the Herald. There was some delay, however, in my departure, and I did not leave before the first issue of the Journal appeared in April 1968. In the meantime Geoff had succumbed, and would edit the Journal with his usual dedication, as well as continuing his work as honorary secretary of the Friends for several years.
I had promised to help when I could, which meant some proof-reading at short notice. I did write an article for the first issue based on research for a book on Ludwig
Becker which the Library had commissioned me to write. It was on the origins of the known portraits of William Buckley, including the oil portrait attributed to Becker (an attribution later verified). It was the first gift which the Friends had acquired through a generous donation from the Ian Potter Foundation. Ten years later I had a further article, ‘Becker's Portraits of Billy and Jemmy (Tilki)’, about sketches in the Library of two Aboriginal boys.
We had expected to stay in Washington for at least three years. There were many farewell parties and treasured letters of goodwill and bon voyage. I still have the letter sent by Tristan Buesst from Amesbury House, to which the Buessts had moved from their delightful old home in Torresdale Road where they gave many parties. He wrote: ‘If you are leaving Melbourne with regrets, as you say, I can assure you that my regrets at your leaving us will be keener still. Our committee will not be the same without you.’ Another letter came from Ken Horn, then State Librarian, thanking me for gifts of ‘most welcome additions to the collection’, and expressing ‘a very real appreciation of your generous support since the La Trobe Library opened and in particular your effective advice and assistance given as a member of the committee….’
The Washington appointment was, for me, an opportunity to spend much of my time in the wonderful Library of Congress (where I shared a carrel with A. D. Hope). I was able to renew acquaintance with old Harvard and other friends, and to meet many persons of eminence in the library and literary world.
Unfortunately, after just under a year in Washington we had to return because of my husband's illness. Even before his heart-breaking death from cancer in April 1970, hundreds of sympathy letters expressed the hope that I would renew my old interests, including the Friends of the La Trobe Library.
Geoff Serle had welcomed me home with an encouraging letter that began with ‘Keep your pecker up’, even before he realised that my return was to have a sad ending. He informed me that the Friends were about to announce a move to engage a Manuscript Field Officer, and hoped that I could be interested. He wrote: ‘It would, of course, be no difficulty about postponing the job indefinitely’. I replied immediately that whatever happened to Bill I would not be interested, as I would expect to establish my own career as a professional writer. I suggested that Patsy Adam-Smith, whom I knew quite well, might be a good choice. She certainly proved it.
Once I had settled back in Melbourne I was happy to accept the Friends' invitation to return to the committee. In my absence the annual report for 1970 noted: ‘In recognition of substantial gifts to the Friends, Mrs E. W. Tipping and Miss Sheila Clark were elected life members’. It was a nice thought, and in thanking the committee I was reticent about reminding them that I had already been elected a life member, one of only fifteen foundation members who had paid fifty dollars for the privilege. While I was living in Washington the Friends had sent the minutes of meetings and the annual report for 1969. I was at least au fait with its achievements while I was away.
My own contributions when I returned to the committee of the Friends included some new ideas relating to the Journal. I had brought back some copies of The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress (the October 1968 copy of which, interestingly, contained a long article on ‘The Early Laws of Van Diemen's Land’, together with copious illustrations). Weston Bate had talked of a film on the work of the Library as a possible money-spinner. The minutes for 29 November 1972 record that I outlined ‘a film treatment on the spot, based on an epitome of Victorian history […] that the cost was not a critical matter as we should be able to get a grant from the Arts Council or some other authority’. There were differing ideas in the committee about the making of a documentary film, and a sub-committee was formed with Ken Austin as chairman and Pat Reynolds and Ken Horn as members. Discussions were still taking place in 1974 when I resigned from the Friends committee on being appointed to the newly-formed Council of the Arts.


There were hopes that the new Hamer government, with the Premier as Minister of the Arts, would be more understanding of the needs of libraries than had been the case in the past. At first there was little mention of libraries and literature. It was not easy to fight for books as being ‘the precious life-blood of a master spirit’, as Milton had so famously written. With some determination and support from the Director, Eric Westbrook, I became chairman of the publications and literature committee, after Dame Joan Hammond had asked: ‘When was literature not an art?’ For me it was a change to be among the foundation members of an Arts ministry that was prepared to appoint an influential advisory council. There was a chance to help many projects in which more new ideas had been simmering for years: we began awards for literature and helped to found the first Writers' Festival, as well as the Spoleto Festival (later the International Arts Festival), and generally assisted in the development of the literary culture.
It has been illuminating to revive memories of the various organizations in which I have been privileged to participate — the Friends of the Baillieu Library, the Friends of the La Trobe Library and the La Trobe Library Journal, and the Victorian Council of the Arts. I am conscious of how much our worthy citizens have achieved over the years. That hardly comes as a surprise to me, belonging as I do to the generation that believed in the proverbial wisdom expressed in the saying: ‘Tall oaks from little acorns grow’.