Thursday, 27 February 2014

The Presidents of the Launceston Mechanics' Institute

The Institute's governing body was a Board of Management, with an elected President. Many individuals prominent in Launceston's civic life took the role of president. This post is the first of two listing the Institute's presidents with brief biographical notes focussing on their contributions to the city.

It was Institute practise to request a portrait from each president to be hung in a place of honour in the Reading Room. The illustration below shows a part of the portrait gallery.


William Henry Breton
The founding President of the Institute, William Breton was a retired Royal Navy officer who served as Police Magistrate at Launceston. He was the author of Excursions in New South Wales, Western Australia, and Van Diemen's Land; During the Years 1830, 1831, 1832, and 1833, published in London in 1833.


William Henty
A member of the Henty family, prominent in the white settlement of three colonies – VDL, Western Australia and Victoria, William was a solicitor and active in church, educational and horticultural activities. He represented Tamar in the Tasmanian House of Assembly and became Colonial Secretary in 1856. Resigning in 1862 he returned to England, where he died in 1881.*

1851-1853, 1855-1858

Reverend Robert Kirkwood Ewing
Ewing was successively a minister of the Congregationalist, Presbyterian and Anglican churches. Included among his many interests during his time in Launceston were the St Andrew's Club, a benefit society promoting co-operation within the Scottish community, the Launceston Philharmonic Society and St Andrew's Teetotal Society. While president of the Institute, he taught elocution, gave lectures and helped to raise funds for a new building. Among his publications were "A Lecture Replying to Objections against Phrenology" (Launceston, 1852), Moses and Colenso (Hobart, 1864), and a book of poetry, Filings of Time (Launceston, [1869]).*


Cornelius Gavin Casey
Casey was a surgeon, who served for a time as assistant colonial surgeon and as medical officer to the gaol, watch-house and police at Launceston. He was an important investor in mining ventures in western Tasmania and prominent land developer in both Tasmania and Victoria.*


Arthur John Marriott
Marriott served a brief period as President of the Institute and was a central figure in the controversial acquisition of the Brindley organ. He was secretary to the Launceston Chamber of Commerce, a choirmaster and a talented cricketer who represented Tasmania in the 1851-52 season. He left the colony suffering ill-health, and died at Nice, France, in 1866.


Ronald Campbell Gunn
Gunn was a prominent figure in many areas of life in the colony; a commandant/supervisor of convicts, commissioner of crown lands, estate manager, magistrate, Member of the House of Assembly, Member of the Legislative Council, and pro-transportationist. He is particularly remembered as a fine botanist and plant collector. In 1842 he wrote Observations on the Flora of Geelong. For seven years he edited the Tasmanian Journal of Natural Science in which many of his articles appeared. He also contributed to the London Journal of Botany. In 1862 he helped to compile Walch's Almanack, and he wrote the section on zoology in John West's The History of Tasmania (Launceston, 1852).*


William Stammers Button
W.S. Button was a respected businessman, brewer and company director who was Launceston's first Mayor. He was an enthusiastic promoter of railways, banking and insurance services. He served as a Member of the Legislative Council for six years, helped establish the Launceston Examiner newspaper, and was a very active member of the Princes Square Independent Church.

1867, 1871-1872

Reverend Charles Price
Price founded a Congregational Church in Launceston in 1836 and maintained his ministry for 55 years. He played a key role in the establishment  of the temperance movement in the city, the City Mission and the Bible Society. Several of his sermons were published in Launceston and his lecture "The intellectual improvement of the working classes" was published by the Institute in 1850.

1868, 1869-1870

Edward Taylor Boyes
The son of G.T.W.B. Boyes, well-known as a diarist and correspondent who chronicled life in Tasmania in the 1830s and 1840s, Edward was resident in Launceston for 36 years and Collector of Customs for the City until 1883 when he was promoted to that position in Hobart.


Canon Marcus Blake Brownrigg
Brownrigg was inducted as rector of St Johns Anglican Church on 2 August 1868. He published several of his addresses, including one on "Regeneration, and Public Services for the Young". His lecture on temperance, delivered at the Institute in 1870 was also published. One of Brownrigg's chief interests was the Mission to the aboriginal peoples on the Islands of Bass Straits, which in fourteen years he visited thirteen times. Among his published records of these trips was The Cruise of the Freak (1872), which he also illustrated. For the mission he also built the five-ton yawl-rigged 'Franklin' with his own hands at his rectory.
He also studied astronomy and built a small observatory at his rectory where the government astronomer from Hobart often conferred with him. Brownrigg studied homoeopathy so that he could treat his poorer parishioners. With talents inherited from his parents he was also an artist of some merit, painting sea, forest and bushland scenes and in 1878 an excellent view of Launceston. Brownrigg succeeded in making St John's, Launceston, probably the most vital church in northern Tasmania.*


Reverend William Law
Reverend Law was pastor of Christ Church, Launceston, for forty-eight years. Prior to settling in Launceston in 1854 he was active in the London Missionary Society in the Pacific Islands. Law was a life governor of the British and Foreign Bible Society and a dedicated supporter of the Launceston City Mission.

These brief biographical notes are based in part on entries in the Australian Dictionary of Biography. Those notes marked with an asterisk refer the reader to ADB Online for further information.

The second post in this series will cover the presidents who served the Institute from 1873-1928.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

The Librarians of the Institute

In the long history of the Launceston Mechanics' Institute, there were effectively only two full-time librarians. This post is a brief account of these two men and their contributions to the Institute's library.

Alexander Johnston

Alexander Johnston was born in Scotland and came to Launceston initially to fill the position of precentor to St Andrews Church in the 1850s. He was a cabinet-maker by trade and he obtained employment with Mr S Joscelyne. He left St Andrews to become precentor at Chalmers Church, a position he held for some years. After leaving the employ of Mr Joscelyne he set up in business for himself as a cabinet-maker, with premises in Brisbane Street.

Following a succession of part-time and voluntary appointments, the Board of Management of the Mechanics' Institute had appointed A B Biggs, well-known teacher and astronomer, as librarian and resident hall-keeper in 1860. This selection was made from a field of twenty-three applicants and carried an annual salary of £100. However Biggs did not find the work congenial and he resigned in 1861, although he retained an interest in the Institute and later served as a board member.
Mr Johnston was appointed to the position of librarian at the Mechanics' Institute on April 23, 1861. 

The library was in desperate need of organising principles and sound management. The Board considered Johnston to be a "competent librarian"[1] although he was apparently without previous experience. Their judgment was well-founded however and he occupied the position until his death in 1906.

At a special meeting of the Board of Management on the day of his death a minute was passed on the motion of the President, Ernest Whitfeld, and seconded by Mr Henry Button. It read;

The board of managers of the Mechanics' Institute and Public Library desire to place on record their sincere regret for the loss the Institute has sustained in the death of the late Alexander Johnston, the librarian of the Institute for nearly 45 years. He was assiduous in the discharge of his duties, and possessed the confidence and respect of the various boards of managers and by his good qualities merited the same.[2]

The obituary published in The Examiner on 13 January 1906 paid tribute to Johnston as a man who "always took a deep interest in all matters pertaining to the Institute, and was a most zealous and upright official."[3] It made the further point that "during the whole of his long connection with the Institute he had never applied for his salary to be raised, although the managers, who knew his worth, from time to time increased the stipend."

Of Johnston's family, we know that he left a widow, two sons and a daughter. One of his sons predeceased him, losing his life in attempting to rescue a passenger who was drowning after a shipwreck. Another of his sons was a reporter with the Melbourne Argus.

Johnston's tenure as librarian was not entirely without controversy. Stefan Petrow, in his book Going to the Mechanics, refers to a number of letters to the Examiner which mention Johnston. He was said to set great store by order and efficiency. To his detractors he was an inflexible stickler who had one set of manners for the rich and another for the poor. Others viewed him as a "careful, methodical and intelligent manager."[4]

As an instance of this the books in the library were arranged in numbered order. They were given a running accession number as soon as they arrived and were shelved consecutively on closed shelves. Thus, like subjects were not shelved together, and members were obliged to select from a printed catalogue, and its supplements, until 1898 when adult members were permitted to browse parts of the collection. Also the Reading Room was available to subscribers only. These were limits which led to considerable frustration, and through the 1890s membership hovered around 400.

It was also the case that the Board of Management played a very active role in the operation of the Institute and left limited scope for initiative on the part of its librarian. The stimulus for change to these arrangements came from the Board.

Police Magistrate Ernest Whitfeld had joined the Board of Management in 1902 and was elected its president in 1904. He held the position until 1908, and then served as Vice-President for another five years. Whitfeld's first priority as president was the classification of the collection. He was so convinced of the need that he helped with the work. Johnston resisted at first but eventually joined in the project.

The works of fiction were arranged in alphabetical order by author around the walls of one room. Labels were attached to shelves holding prolific authors. New books were placed on display shelves. The non-fiction collection was organised into a general subject arrangement. The borrowing system was also changed.

Johnston died less than a year after these changes were made. While he had reluctantly supported the Whitfeld initiatives, his assistant had been enthusiastic about them, and it was he who succeeded Johnston as librarian.

J R Forward

Joseph Reginald Forward held the position of librarian at the Institute from 1906 until 1948. He was born in Wiltshire, England, in 1878 and came to Australia with his parents in 1882. His first job was with Launceston booksellers A W Birchall and Sons, following which he served as Johnston's assistant for five years, before being appointed librarian in 1906.

Recalling the time when he became assistant librarian, Forward said;
To have any idea of what the library was like, try to picture 27,000 books on tiered shelves in numerical order. No attempt had been made at classification. That was one of the first jobs I undertook. There were then four rooms in the library section of the Institute as it was then known, and we took all the books down from one wall and dumped them on the floor in order to get started with classification.[5]

Under the stewardship of Forward, membership increased steadily if not dramatically, reaching 1000 in 1927.

Unlike many mechanics institutes and subscription libraries of the time, the Launceston collection continued to provide reading which appealed to serious tastes as well as popular fiction. Forward was keen to develop a children's section, and to stimulate reading for this group, but was frustrated by a lack of space. Subscription fees were required in order to maintain the necessary level of funding, and subscribers demanded popular titles which restricted his ability to expand.

In 1929 the name was changed to Launceston Public Library, and Forward became the first Municipal Librarian.

In 1935 the Munn-Pitt Report on Australian Libraries made some favourable comments on the Launceston Public Library, although it cavilled at the description 'Public Library';

As a mechanics' institute – and that is the only fair way to judge it – this library is one of the best in Australia. Its building is pleasant, commodious and gives the impression of housing a library which is alive and progressive. The book collection is much stronger in its reference and non-fiction sections than is usually found in institute libraries.[6]

In 1943 the Librarian of the Commonwealth National Library, Mr K J Binns, in his report on library services in Tasmania, said;

The Launceston Public Library is probably the best subscription library now surviving in Australia and reflects credit on its Board and its energetic Librarian, Mr Forward.[7]

Forward was a supporter of the Free Library movement, and after complex negotiations the Launceston City Council took full responsibility for the library in 1945 and the subscription method was abandoned.

The immediate effect was an explosion in membership. By June 1946 the Library had 10,782 members, including almost 3,000 children. The research area was being well-used. The children's library was "brightly coloured and full of light"[8] and it even had a goldfish bowl.

In the inaugural Launceston Book Week in 1947, a new reference library was opened, and a membership drive lifted the number of registrations to 14,000.

When he retired in 1948 Joseph Forward was described by the Examiner as one of the most widely known men in Launceston.[9] In an interview shortly before his retirement Forward said that the library's development during the past forty years had made it as near perfection as the ground plan of the building would allow.[10]

Forward had a strong interest in church work and he was a life deacon of Christ Church, Congregational. He was also a very enthusiastic singer, member of several church choirs and, for some years, secretary of the Trinity College of Music. He continued to reside in Launceston after his retirement, dying in 1964 at the age of eighty-six.

[1] Stefan Petrow, Going to the Mechanics, Launceston, 1998, p.80
[2] The Examiner, 13 January 1906, p.8
[3] ibid
[4] Petrow, pp. 80-81
[5] The Examiner, 13 November 1947, p. 2
[6] Munn, Ralph and Pitt, Ernest R, Australian Libraries, Melbourne, 1935, p.87.
[7] Binns, Kenneth, Library Services in Tasmania, Hobart, 943, p. 9
[8] The Examiner, 2 November 1946, p. 9
[9] The Examiner, 13 November 1947, p. 2
[10] ibid

Monday, 3 February 2014

Alex Thomson, Bookbinder

For most of the second half of the nineteenth century the Launceston Mechanics' Institute's library books were rebound locally by Alex Thomson. Many hundreds of the surviving titles carry  Thomson's bookplate and his distinctive brown half-leather bindings

A selection of W E Norris titles bound by Alex Thomson

Alexander Thomson, Jnr, a Scotsman, and his wife Isabella were both apprenticed as bookbinders at W and R Chambers in Edinburgh, later famed as the publishers of Chambers Encyclopaedia.
Alexander Jnr and Isabella came to Launceston under engagement to Henry Dowling, around 1849.
Dowling had printed and published a Tradesman's and Housekeeper's Diary in 1836, and a pirated edition of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, in twenty-five parts from August to December 1838; they were followed by lithographed illustrations and in July 1839 by a bound volume, claimed to be 'the largest publication which has issued from either the New South Wales or Tasmanian Press'. Dowling helped to produce the Launceston Courier in 1840-42, the Teetotal Advocate in 1843, the monthly Van Diemen's Land Temperance Herald in 1845-49, and, most notably, John West's The History of Tasmania in two volumes in 1852.[1]

 Alex Thomson's plate from a copy of W S Hayward's Left to the World (c1900), 
LMI Accession No. 7120.

In 1853 Alexander, bookbinder, Charles Street, adjoining the Cornwall Chronicle office, advertised that he “executes every description of binding, both plain and ornamental, gilt or marble edge, Law, Music Books, Portfolios etc. Account books made to order."[2] In January 1854 Alexander was also advertising his “Cheap Toy Bazaar” in Charles Street, opposite the Star Inn.

According to the Launceston valuation roll for 1859 Alexander was occupying a house and shop in Charles Street between Brisbane and Paterson streets, but the next year he had moved to a house and shop further south in Charles Street, between York and Elizabeth streets. This would have been 144 Charles Street, premises which remained in the family for many years. [The address maintains a literary connection to this day as the location of Nicholson's Bookshop.]

 Another Alex Thomson plate, from Florence Marryat's Phyllida (new ed. 1883), 
LMI Accession No. 3178.

Alexander Jnr, died in Launceston on 20 April 1887. His son David Thomson, bookbinder, stationer and poster advertising agent, continued the family business until 1937 when he died on 27 April at his stationer’s shop, 144 Charles Street, at the age of seventy-five.
David's daughter, Isabella Jane Mead, was a notable Launceston historian, and Director of the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery from 1950-1953, the first woman to head a major public museum in Australia.[3]

[1] Isabella J. Mead, 'Dowling, Henry (1810–1885)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 4 February 2014.

[2] Launceston Examiner, 28 April 1853, p. 400, c. 4.