State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 1 April 1968

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The Redmond Barry Papers

There could be no more fitting repository for the papers of Sir Redmond Barry than the La Trobe Library, for Barry was the chief founder of the Melbourne Public Library (ultimately the State Library of Victoria), and he was a personal friend and official associate of C.J. La Trobe himself.
Barry, an Irishman who had graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, emigrated to Melbourne in 1839, and lived there until his death in 1880. He deserved the description by his contemporary Garryowen, who called him ‘the most remarkable personage in the annals of Port Phillip’. There was hardly a worthwhile public endeavour or institution in Melbourne's first forty years that was not indebted to him in some way, and many of the most important of such undertakings owed to him their very life; the University of Melbourne, the Public Library and the National Gallery are three such. As senior puisne judge of the Supreme Court of Victoria for nearly thirty years, he was an important figure in the administration of justice in the Colony, and in the development of its laws. In the public mind today, he is perhaps chiefly remembered as the judge who tried Ned Kelly.
His papers in the La Trobe Library are impressive in bulk, and rich and revealing for a biographer. They do not portray in great detail the Chancellor presiding at the University or the judge upon the bench, or the public man swaying great affairs. They show rather, with the most unguarded frankness, the man who seemed so majestic and solemn beneath mortar-board or wig and ermine—a warm, impulsive impatient human being, with all the faults that flesh is heir to.
Yet to the general historian, as distinct from the biographer, the papers are a disappointment. They are in every sense personal papers. With one or two exceptions there is little of an official or public nature about them, though from time to time a disconcertingly brilliant if narrow beam of light flashes from a personal letter on to public personages or events. The social historian will find them of interest for their unselfconscious testimony of how life was lived in Melbourne between the 30's and the 80's, but even here there is little that we do not know already from Garryowen, from Georgiana McCrae and from many others.
The La Trobe Library staff has prepared a splendidly detailed inventory of the collection, and the serious student could scarcely ask for a better guide. What follows is a broad survey of the general content, with here and there a more detailed sampling.
Of greatest splendour in appearance and probably of least usefulness are Barry's immense leatherbound illuminated addresses, his degrees, warrants and commissions, with their solemn engrossing and gold leaf, their purple ribbons and gigantic seals.
Then there are humble household papers, inventories of his library, furnishings, cutlery and garden tools, even his bill from Spode for his enormous white dinner service with his crest and motto in gold leaf. Carefully bound in annual volumes are the records of the sale of produce from his
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little farm at Syndal, covering most of the decade of the 60's.
The very large number of private letters form perhaps the bulk of the collection. They are to and from his relatives in Ireland, to and from friends in Australia and overseas, and to and from his own immediate family in Melbourne.
The Irish letters give a good informal account of life in the Colony, and the other personal letters sometimes afford an interesting sidelong glance at the famous. There is, for example, a sardonic and amusing view of the great Ruskin in a moment of stress in a letter from Alfred Taddy Thomson, who acted for the Gallery Trustees in London.
Barry the man comes out clearest of all in the letters exchanged between him and his own family—his common law wife Louisa Barrow and their three sons and one daughter.
His career and his private and social life, and to a small extent his inmost hopes and fears are revealed in the day books. Written in an execrable and sometimes indecipherable hand upon ruled foolscap pages, they are tantalizingly laconic. The historian turns to them eagerly for information upon some great event, and is told only that upon the day in question ‘Billy the buggyhorse died of a ruptured stomach’. Lamentably for the biographer, there are gaps of many years in these personal records. A three-volume journal of his visit to Rome in 1862–3 is written in much grander style, decked out with fitting quotations from Gibbon and the Bible.
Typescript copies of a series of letters to Hugh Childers and others in England (the originals were held by Alexander Turnbull in New Zealand) give a full account of the affairs of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery of Victoria, and are the nearest approach to a systematic account of any matter of public significance.
Legal historians may find interest in a bound table of cases of the decisions of Mr. Justice Willis, resident judge in Port Phillip of the Supreme Court of New South Wales. In this volume, Barry the young barrister does his best to extract the principles upon which Willis, most cantankerous and eccentric of judges, reached his verdicts in his often tumultuous and disorderly court.
Press cuttings, photographs, programmes and menu cards all fill out the collection, which in the preceding paragraphs has been sampled rather than surveyed. It reveals, sometimes very intimately, the life of an important man of the time; it gives many glimpses of his contemporaries and of the quality of the lives they lived. But with few exceptions it provides little fresh knowledge of great causes or events. They are personal papers and, as their owner might have said with a pompous lapse into Latin, praeterea nihil.
P.A. Ryan
There follows a typical letter of Barry's which displays well the stern zeal with which he promoted the interests of the Public Library. The letter is a copy not in Barry's writing and is unaddressed, but was almost certainly sent to J.J. Guillaume (father and son), London booksellers, who for nearly ten years had supplied the Library (and presumably the Supreme Court and University libraries). The reader will not be surprised to learn
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that the long-standing arrangement was cancelled in 1864.
December 26th 1863.
I must remind you that I took nearly one hundred and fifty pounds out of Mr. Maxwells hands when I was in London because the Committee of the Supreme Court Library was dissatisfied with him for not spending it. I gave you orders which would have required one thousand pounds to pay for them, that amount has been sent home, three hundred pounds more goes by this mail. Still your books do not arrive and the money taken from Mr. Maxwell is lying idle at this moment in the hands of Mr. Bright brothers in Liverpool. It is, I cannot help saying, provoking to find you so negligent of your own interests as well as of ours, in not using more diligence in the execution of our orders.
You will, if this continues, oblige me to advise the Committee to distribute the orders amongst other Booksellers to ensure expedition. I must also say that the Committee is not pleased with your correspondence, one strain addressed to our Secretary and another privately to me is not the correct mode of open dealing, half measures cannot be accepted.
The books are well bound, but the price is too high whoever bound them and as you take only twopence in the shilling off the publishing price, though the works may be bought, many at least at a very much greater reduction, the Committee will adhere to their view particularly as you have not accepted their proposal of submitting the question to the Agent General.
I must beg of you to cause your binders to stamp their names permanently in every book bound by them, in order that we may know which are the work of Riviere, Haydon etc. and which of Mr. Nutt. Mr. Maxwells charge for 8 vo large size full bound Law Calf is four shillings and sixpence only, and the work is excellent. You should not charge more. You omit to have the year of publication marked on the back of books, this must be done here at your expense. It is very unpleasing to me to have to write to you in this critical manner, and after such full and repeated instructions it should not be necessary as affairs should glide as smoothly as well regulated machinery.
Three or four thousand pounds a year passing through your hands is worth looking after, and as I give you credit for a desire to give satisfaction it is very easy for you to do so. Our University books for Professor McCoy are not come yet, the delay is the cause of much dissatisfaction to him. Trusting that you will not oblige me to ruffle my temper by scolding you on another Christmas day but that you will make renewed exertions to entitle yourself to our monies.
I am yours etc.
Redmond Barry.
I saw at Holtons I think or at Quaritch I do not remember which, sheets of [?] for binding, taken as I believe from Notes and Queries, get one and send it by return of Post. You have been asked fifty times to send the Sheets or Synopsis of Geology, Metallurgy, Botany, and other branches of Science, give this your attention. The Serials and Patent Journals must be sent with the strictest punctuality and despatch.

Portrait of William Buckley, c1851, oil on canvas, 35″ × 27¾″. Attributed to Ludwig Becker, 1808–1861. Presented by the Friends of the La Trobe Library, 1967.

Sir Redmond Barry. Portrait by John Botterill (1817–81). Canvas size 30″ × 25″. La Trobe Library Collection. Purchased 1892.