State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 80 Spring 2007


Keith Dunstan
Researching in the Library

My Outstanding recollection from those days is that remarkable man, Philip Vergilius Lake (Phil) Garrett. Phil originally was in charge of the Lending Library which occupied the building on to La Trobe Street. Mr Feely in his wisdom, for reasons I don't know, decided to get rid of the Lending Library. I suspect he decided that nobody lived in the city any more, so why have a lending library. Leave that lesser task to the suburbs, like Prahran and Ascot Vale, where plenty of people wanted to read Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler.
So Phil became the research officer. It was John Feely who put me on to Phil, via Brian Feely, a sports writer on the Sun, who was one of his relatives. I was writing a book called Wowsers, and when I gave the news to Phil his eyes lit up with considerable interest.
Phil was a small man, undistinguished. He could have been the accountant in a very dull legal firm, always correctly dressed in suit and tie. Ah, but what knowledge! How he acquired it all I don't know, but his brain was filled with unusual facts, and not the type of facts available in text books at the time. He was a walking index on Victorian history. He knew where all the bodies were buried. Yes, he excelled anyone in the Melbourne General Cemetery.
Immediately he started running off episodes which left me spellbound, the story of the missing mace, the unbelievable tales of the Reverend William Henry Judkins, who took on John Wren; the day Mick McLeod, the bookie, was kicked to death at Flemington Racecourse, how Sunday newspapers were banned because newsboys from the Herald were calling out lurid headlines while people were going to church; how male and female bathers at St Kilda very correctly were segregated — heaven knows what they would do if they got in the water together. He told me all about Madame Brussells and her luxurious brothel, how Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh, caused a drunken riot in the Fitzroy Gardens. I learned from Phil how a barmaid in a pub in Elizabeth street died from a burst bladder because women were banned from public bars, so no female lavatories were provided. He sourced in detail the intricacies of John Wren's Collingwood Tote. Then, perhaps most remarkable of all, he uncovered information of Melbourne's first cremation. This was organised by one Mr Le Pine and took place on the beach at Black Rock in April 1895. Three tons of firewood and a keg of kerosene were ignited under Mrs Frederick Henniker, aged 83. She burned away sweetly, while mourners sang ‘Shall We Gather at the River.’ The event was described in Parliament as scandalous.
The patient and ever-curious Phil directed me to sources for these events and many, many like them. I did at least four books with Phil: Wowsers, Knockers, Sports, and Ratbags. I came to realise that here was a man who was anonymous, a wonderful historian who was

Phil Garrett and user examining the new books trolley in the Lending Library [now ‘Mr Tulk’], ca. 1950. Glass negative. H27338/2. La Trobe Picture Collection.

unrecognised. Heaven knows how many people he wrote books for. He died in 1985 and I wish desperately he was still with us now.
Cyril Pearl was another hugely indebted to Phil. Cyril and his wife Paddy used to come over from Sydney, and stay for weeks while they received a marvellous transfusion of knowledge from Phil. I can see them now sitting in the Reading Room. Paddy, the perfect jewel of writer's wife, would run off here and there bringing back notes for Cyril. Then at 12.30 they would go off to have lunch at the Society in Bourke Street with Clive Turnbull, John Hetherington or whoever was available. The Pearls were a charming, witty pair.
Probably the most evil invention of the twentieth century was the electric guitar. Second in place was microfilm, and all the appalling tangle-making machines that went with it. Seeing there was no microfilm, all the ancient copies of the Age, Argus, Bulletin, Melbourne Punch and Bell's Life were freely available. ‘Just go up there and help yourself,’ said Phil. Which I did. Whole days would pass in a state of bliss, just turning over yellowing pages. Whereas with microfilm one became eternally lost. Press a button and suddenly you were 18 months beyond the desired date. Then upon finding the right date, how difficult to find the right column before your eyes started to holler for mercy. The direct approach of going straight to the volumes, of course could not continue, but how much easier research was then.
The Library was very different in the 1960s, more like a very good club. As in a club you kept your voice down as if in church, dressed, and treated the place as your home. One was trusted implicitly.
In this relaxed library there were no coin-in-the-slot lockers, a very convenient cloak room — and one could even leave a bicycle outside without fear of its being pinched.