State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 6 October 1970


The Pearson Papers

In 1873, when he was in his early forties and living on his bush farm in the mid north of South Australia, Charles Pearson wrote to his friend Charles Eliot Norton, Professor of Fine Arts at Harvard, ‘I hope fortune will bring us together again. You like myself have a sort of double nature; yours being the American-European, as mine is the Australian-European; and even in Boston I have no doubt you will often look longingly across the Atlantic.’ Pearson's ‘double nature’ was shaped by his career which, from his graduation at Oxford with a first in classics in 1852 to his death in London in 1894 was divided almost exactly between Europe and Australia. In his European years he travelled widely, became a leading English medieval historian, helped to pioneer the study of English historical geography, and contributed regularly to London reviews. In Australia he was in turn a farmer in South Australia (1864–6, 1871–3), lecturer in history in the University of Melbourne (1874), founding headmaster of the Presbyterian Ladies’ College (1875–7), educational reformer (he produced a notable Royal Commission report on education in Victoria in 1878 and was a very active member of the Council of the University of Melbourne from 1875–80), Member of the Legislative Assembly (1878–92), leader writer for the Age (1878–85) and Minister of Public Instruction (1886–90). There was no one quite like him in the colonies. The Argus remarked in 1889 that he was ‘still for the general public the solitary example of the cultured radical which our political life has produced.’ It is doubtful whether anyone in Australia during the 1870s and 80s was better acquainted with the latest overseas thinking and practice in the fields of education, social welfare, parliamentary government and land ownership, or more active in disseminating ideas on these subjects through the press, the public meeting, the lecture room and Parliament. In 1892 Deakin wrote to him: ‘I can candidly assure you that on summing up your colonial experiences you would need to throw into the credit side of the scale an immense amount of other men's actions and words of which you have really been the parent.’ Like Deakin himself he belonged to that rare species, the Australian politician who is also an intellectual — a man not only well-informed about matters of current public concern, but capable of standing, as it were, outside the events in which he is involved in order to discover underlying forces and long-range trends. Pearson's articles ‘On the Working of Australian Institutions’ (1867), ‘Democracy in Victoria’ (1879), ‘The Liberal Programme’ (1880) and his book National Life and Character: a Forecast (1893) eloquently demonstrate this power.
I well remember the day in 1959 when I learnt from Sir Keith Hancock that Pearson's papers had been ‘discovered’ in London by Dr Geoffrey Serle. I had been working for two years on a biography of Pearson, but although I had found a number of his letters to others, and had been in touch with his eldest daughter's son, I had not discovered the existence of any Pearson papers. And now here was the news that a whole trunkful of them, including letters from more than two hundred correspondents, had turned up. Even better, the owner of the papers, Mr C. H. P. Gifford, O.B.E., who had only recently inherited them from his mother, Pearson's third daughter, had very generously agreed,
on Dr Serle's advice, that the bulk of them should come out to Australia for my use on the understanding that they would later be divided into ‘Australian’ and ‘English’ collections, the first of which he would donate to the La Trobe Library, the second to the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
The Bodleian collection has now been catalogued, and a copy of this may be consulted in the La Trobe Library, together with a microfilm of several hundred letters written to Pearson, for the most part on matters not directly associated with Australia. As, however, this microfilm was made directly from three letter books as they were first received from Mr Gifford, and as the contents were not then arranged in a strict alphabetical sequence, it can be rather frustrating trying to find a particular letter by this means, and an inquiry direct to the Bodleian might prove simpler. To avoid this difficulty an approach is now being made to the Bodleian by the La Trobe Library to have a new microfilm made of the ‘English’ letters to correspond with the Bodleian catalogue. The papers in the Bodleian also include a number of letters written to Mrs. Pearson in connection with the compilation by William Stebbing of Charles Henry Pearson … Memorials by Himself, his Wife and his Friends (London, Longmans, Green & Co., 1900), papers relating to Pearson's career at Oxford, his research as a historian, certain liberal reform campaigns in which he was involved before emigrating to Australia and his journalism in London. There is also a manuscript in Pearson's own hand of his autobiographical fragment ‘The Story of My Life’ which ends with his arrival in Australia for the second time in 1871. When I compared this manuscript with the version printed in Stebbing's Memorials I soon discovered that a number of passages had been altered or deleted, mostly, it seems, because they reflected unfavourably on the Pearson family, but some because the editor evidently considered them of no interest to potential readers. How misguided editors can be! One of the passages so omitted — a casual remark by Pearson that an uncle, Richard Puller, ‘wrote a book on Population, as Percy [for Piercy] Ravenstone’ provided the clue to the identity of one of the most original and influential critics of orthodox political economy in the early nineteenth century — a clue which has been sought in vain by one economic historian after another, from Max Beer to Joseph Dorfman, who only recently edited a reprint of ‘Ravenstone's’ seminal first book, advancing the hypothesis that the author was a certain ‘Edward Edwards’.
In the La Trobe collection one of the most valuable items (431/5) is one of the least imposing — a small, very ordinary notebook in which Pearson kept certain personal accounts from 1880 to 1885. Besides such expected entries as £2.4.0 per month to Mary Phelan, presumably a servant who lived in, and allowances to his three daughters, Pearson here lists no fewer than 650 leading articles and book reviews which he contributed to the Melbourne Age and its weekly off-shoot, the Leader, from August 1880 to February 1884. Pearson identified each article by a short title and a date in order to have his own record of payments due to him by the Age office. He also listed ‘night work’— presumably general editorial work in the office which he equated with writing a leading article. The standard rate was £2 an editorial — which might run to 1,500 words. On an average week during his busiest year, 1883, Pearson wrote three editorials and a Saturday book review for the Age and one editorial for the Leader, giving him an annual income from this source of £837.19.2, to be added to his salary of £300 p.a. received as a Member

Charles Henry Pearson

of the Legislative Assembly. Until the discovery of this little account book there was no reliable key to authorship of articles in the Age and Leader. Too often it has been assumed that articles were written by the proprietor, David Syme. In his Morrison of Peking, for example, Cyril Pearl quotes a pungent Age editorial on the iniquities of the Kanaka trade, remarking that it was ‘almost certainly written by David Syme’ (p. 37). In fact it was written by Pearson who lists it in his account book under the title ‘Queensland Slave Trade’ and gives the date as 10 May 1883. The second Age editorial quoted by Pearl on the same page was also by Pearson, identified in this case by the title ‘Sabbatarians’ and the date 18 May 1883. It is printed in full in chapter ten of my life of Pearson, Professor of Democracy (Melbourne University Press, 1968), pp. 177–80. There is an extended discussion of Pearson's role in the Age office generally in this chapter.
The letters in the La Trobe collection fall into two broad groups, those primarily of family interest and those from men and women in public life. The family letters are disappointingly limited. There is only one from Pearson to his wife, one to his wife and eldest daughter jointly (which reveals his admiration for General Gordon — 439/1 (c)), six youthful letters to his mother, forty-three to his youngest daughter Maud (who inherited the papers) and one to his second daughter Muriel. While these letters give some idea of the day-to-day experiences of Pearson's family over the years immediately preceding his death in 1894, they do not provide much insight into the springs of his inner life. Mrs Pearson's diary (431/4) suggests that both husband and wife experienced a good deal of frustration during the course of their married life, and this may explain why there is no sign of the many letters that must have passed between them — or of correspondence which certainly once existed between Pearson and Mrs Lloyd Evans (née Parry) to whom he wrote some youthful love poems. The one letter from Pearson to his wife opens affectionately with ‘Dearest Edie’ and goes on to mention his meeting with a number of old friends in Adelaide, and to recommend that she take particular care to see that the fire insurance is paid. From this, and from her diary entries, it appears that Mrs Pearson took an active interest in the events and personalities of her husband's public life but did not involve herself in his intellectual and religious speculations. It is therefore most unfortunate that Pearson's sister Charlotte, who was particularly close to him, should have deliberately burnt the letters he wrote to her over a long period, for they may have given a better understanding of his psychology than any other source. In the absence of any intimate correspondence the only guide to Pearson's inner life is his poetry, of which there is a small collection in the La Trobe (430/1–9). The most deeply-felt and best-written of his verses are those on religious themes. Although sceptical of the validity of much orthodox dogma, and attacked by the religious press of Victoria as an archsecularist, Pearson remained throughout his life a man of deep religious instincts. A letter to Sir Henry Acland (in the Bodleian collection) written shortly after his graduation, show that he had been thinking seriously of the monastic life, but had rejected this as less ‘Christian’ than a life lived in the world. In 1888, when he was Minister of Education in Victoria, and under constant fire from the religious press, Canon Potter begged him to make his religious views public, to which Pearson replied (439/2 (c)), ‘I think any statement of my actual views, given with the limitations I should feel bound to give in a confession of faith, would scandalize the mass
of the so-called religious world though half a dozen men like yourself would understand it.’ The depth of his faith — or rather, his sense of religious commitment, can be gauged from the poem ‘In Galilee’ dated 2 May 1880 (430/2, p. 71):
In Galilee
Unknown and strangely said the voice that cried
“Arise and follow me.” Yet they that heard Felt their hearts burn within them at the word
And followed, lightly casting life aside.
Severed from all old memories, as the bride Leaves home behind her, entering her lord's gate, These twain accepted that incarnate fate. Prophet or dreamer, crowned or crucified, Not theirs to question “was the voice divine?”
Not theirs to linger where their lives lay planned;
He speaks and passes on. Nor other sign Doth God accord but understood command
“Follow me to the death.” Nor other call Shall break our rest till the last darkness fall.
His letters to Canon Potter and to the Reverend Charles Strong, a long 46-page manuscript entitled ‘A “Dream” of a Seeker after Christ’ (undated, 434/1) and a collection of short essays, some on religious matters (436/1), further illuminate his views on the state and role of the Christian Church in the later nineteenth century. There is nothing in his papers to suggest that he ever shared the spiritualist enthusiasms of David Syme and Alfred Deakin.
The more significant of Pearson's public correspondents were Alfred Deakin (thirteen letters in all, including two very interesting letters on the inner workings of the 1891 Federal Convention, one of them, alas, incomplete); Sir William Des Voeux (on the Kanaka trade in the Pacific); Sir Charles Gavan Duffy (in a letter of 12 March 1877 he offers the services of his son Frank—later the High Court Judge—in Pearson's campaign to win the Boroondara seat); George Goschen (a letter of 24 October 1888, written when Goschen was Chancellor of the Exchequer, discusses the issues arising from the Afghan incident); George Higinbotham (two letters, one, dated 20 June 1882, criticizing the policy which he thought was being adopted by the committee raising funds for the Melbourne Working Men's College, the other a statement signed by the group of men who gave Pearson a farewell dinner in 1892); Edward Ellis Morris (his letter of 19 November 1878, agreeing to continue as a member of an Industrial Schools Commission reveals one source of the animosity to which he was subjected while Headmaster of Melbourne Grammar and which is discussed in a recent issue of this journal (Vol. 1, No. 4, p. 89), Sir Anthony and Lady Musgrave (two letters of 29 March and 1 June 1874 discuss his views on Capital), Charles Eliot Norton (other letters are in the Bodleian), Sir Thomas Wemyss Reid, editor of the London Speaker (a letter of 26 May 1890 throws further light on E. E. Morris not, in this case, to his credit), Catherine Helen Spence and her brother John Brodie Spence, both prominent figures in South Australia, H. A. Strong, sometime Professor of Classics in the University of Melbourne, David Syme (one letter only, but an interesting one), and Sir Henry Wrixon. There is also a separate group of letters in box 438 relating to Pearson's association with the Presbyterian Ladies’ College and his resignation in 1877. In some cases both sides of the correspondence are available, either in La Trobe or elsewhere. Copies of Pearson's letters to C. E. Norton taken from the originals in the Houghton
Library, Harvard University had already been added to the Pearson papers before they were given to the La Trobe, and it is hoped that copies of his letters to Sir Anthony and Lady Musgrave, to Alfred Deakin, Lord Bryce and Sir Charles Dilke may also be obtained from the libraries at present holding them.
The contents of Pearson's papers on the whole make serious reading, but there is some light relief. In a letter of 19 May 1869, W. J. Stephens informs Pearson that he, of all people, is being impersonated by a mate of the bushranger ‘Thunderbolt’, then on trial for his life. (The whole extraordinary story can be traced in the Sydney Morning Herald of 11 May, 17 June and 3 July 1869 and in a letter from Pearson to Stephens in the Mitchell Library which begins ‘If one is to be hanged, one may as well know of it.’) There is also at least one letter (to H. A. Strong dated 11 July 1884) which helps to explain Pearson's reputation as a raconteur:
‘I suppose you have heard of the social scandal that convulsed all Melbourne a month ago. Two of the newly-imported officers’ wives, Mrs Brownrigg and Mrs Walker having cards sent them for a Cinderella dance (got up in aid of a charity), dressed up two of their maids and sent them under escort of a male friend for whom a ticket was bought. The ladies (!) were suspected but got safely through the evening. When it leaked out Mrs Walker justified herself to the Committee by saying that as so many people in Melbourne had risen from the ranks, she thought maidservants would not be objected to. Of course, the two offenders are sent to coventry for the present. The worst of it is that the strong feeling created by this little piece of larrikinism will effectually prevent officers being invited from England in future. I am to dine to-night at a great dinner given by Sargood to the naval officers who were lent us to help in bringing out the torpedo boats. I shall be curious to see how the Army men are received.’
It is a pity that so few passages in Pearson's papers contain such relaxed, amused comment on the colonial scene. But he was not very often a relaxed and carefree man. Sometimes, when drinking tea in the hot sun with the John Gavan Duffys, or talking with a small congenial group who had retreated from a tedious debate into the parliamentary library he would unwind and talk easily and brilliantly, but the social conscience implanted in him by his Evangelical up-bringing would never allow him much holiday from the serious business of improving and reforming the world. ‘Rest, rest —’ he once exclaimed to his wife who had been urging him to do so, ‘there is all eternity to rest in!’
John Tregenza
University of Adelaide.