Sunday, 16 April 2017

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Our talented volunteer, Nienna Fontana, is developing a gallery of images which highlight the visual appeal of the wonderful Launceston Mechanics' Institute collection - the books, bindings, illustrations, typography, and even the bumps and scuffs gathered over the last two centuries.

You can now enjoy Nienna's superb photographs and follow her as she records her impressions of the collection on Instagram at:

Saturday, 15 April 2017

St John Browne and the Penny Cyclopaedia

One of the earliest tasks in establishing the new Launceston Mechanics' Institute Library was the provision of a Reference Collection for the use of members in the Reading Room. This collection was based largely on donations and so by 1861 it included an eclectic mix of subjects, as shown in this excerpt from the Printed catalogue of that year.

Many of these items remain in the collection today, and one with especially interesting provenance is the Penny Cyclopaedia.

Its accession was recorded thus in the minutes of the 1843 annual meeting of the society; "on loan, for use in the reading-room, the Penny Cyclopaedia, 21 vols., from St. John E. Browne, Esq."  Every volume was permanently inscribed with the owner's name on the flyleaf.

The Penny Cyclopaedia, which was produced for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, was published by Charles Knight the publisher of the Penny Magazine. Twenty-seven volumes and three supplements were published from 1828 to 1843. The Society's object was to publish inexpensive texts for an expanding reading public, with a particular emphasis on self-education; a perfect fit with the aims and ideals of a Mechanics' Institute.

Clearly, since we still have the set of books, the original owner did not exercise his right to reclaim his loan. So what is known about the donor, St John E. Browne?

He was a younger brother of Rev William Henry Browne, who was rector of St John's Church, Launceston from 1828 to 1868. St John must have soon followed his brother to VDL as he first comes to notice in Launceston in 1831 as the operator of a private school. The brothers' relationship is succinctly characterised by Gill Morris; - "hapless and impecunious [St John] certainly tried his brother's patience, energy and pocket as much as his position of influence within government circles."(1)

A few entries from Rev Browne's journal will serve to illustrate;

5 June 1837 ... "Lectured Mr Wales & Mr Turner for their conduct in trying to provoke my Brother to a Duel."

29 January 1842 ..."Wrote several letters, visited sick etc. also engaged getting letters for St John from Bankers & to assist him against the persecution of his superior."

2 November 1844 ... "Wrote several letters, also for St John again in trouble with postmaster Genl ..."

In parallel with the "persecution of his superior" St John faced the slings and arrows of public opinion via the columns of the local newspapers, where correspondents repeatedly drew attention to the shortcomings of the post office and his management.

Somehow, doubtless with his brother's assistance, St John survived in his tenure as Post Master at Launceston until his retirement on a government pension.

The Launceston Examiner announced his retirement with characteristic delicacy;

Mr. St. John E. Browne, Postmaster at Launceston, has forwarded an application, accompanied by medical certificates, asking permission to retire on allowance. This request, made in consequence of failing health, has, we understand, been assented to by the Executive. Mr. Browne will, therefore, cease to hold office at the close of the year: it is presumed he will be succeeded by Mr. Wm. Windeatt. Such is the programme for the 1st of January, 1861. We do not care to institute any comparisons, or to say a word calculated to wound the most sensitive; but we cannot resist the conviction that the arrangements thus briefly sketched, will be acceptable to the public and beneficial to the service. (2)

St John returned to England, and, despite his "failing health", survived until 1880.

At some point after his departure a user of the Mechanics' Institute Reading Room must have taken down Volume Nine of the Penny Cyclopaedia from the shelves, and, noticing St John's inscription, decided to add a sketch of the man for posterity; - faintly pencilled below the signature is the observation that "He left behind him a character stained by avarice, harshness and deception."

It is a reminder, in the age of increasing dependence on the digital surrogate, of the value of libraries in preserving what David Pearson has described as "museums of marginalia". Our volume of the Penny Cyclopaedia has preserved a unique interaction, a moment in time when our anonymous reader felt a spontaneous need to put a deeply held personal view 'on the record.'

1. Browne, W. H., His record is on high : the journal of Reverend William Henry Browne, LLD, of St John's Church, Launceston, Van Diemen's Land, 23 May 1830 - 19 February 1845 / edited by Gill Morris. Launceston, Tasmania : Gill Morris, 2013. p 13.

2. LAUNCESTON EXAMINER. Saturday, December 1, 1860. P2.