State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 22 October 1978


Autograph Manuscripts in the State Library of Victoria

We are used to regarding the La Trobe Library as a repository of Australian manuscripts but at present it houses a relatively little-known collection of predominantly nineteenth-century manuscript material by British, American and some Continental writers. This collection is identified by the Library as the Autograph Collection. Consideration is currently being given to the possibility that with the eventual opening of a newly-organized rare book collection in the State Library, these non-Australian autographs may be removed from their present location. Such a move would be made on the grounds that many of the items included amongst the autographs reflect or complement material within the rare book collection. A number of the items, because of their associations with distinguished literary figures, have particular value as exhibition material.
In view of its lack of a readily apparent unifying theme, the collection might more properly be called the miscellaneous manuscripts collection since, in addition to a large number of autograph letters, it also has a number of longer and quite significant manuscripts, including William Hazlitt's lecture on Chaucer and Spenser, and his sister Margaret's diary of her stay in America, together with letters from Charles Lamb, Robert Southey, Alexander Pope, Dickens, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Mark Twain, and other important writers, as well as a smaller number of Australian manuscripts.
The items in the collection have been placed in a series of boxes, running alphabetically, kept at present in the Australian Manuscripts Collection of the La Trobe Library. Each of these items has been placed between two conjoined foolscap leaves for protection, with a written note of content and occasional added details of provenance or explanation. A card catalogue is available to the collecttion, but has not been standardized in its method of entry, and will need to be reworked and corrected when the collection is finally moved.
Although no record remains of the original formation of the Autograph Collection, it can be suggested that it was the outcome of a plan to collect signatures and autograph letters of prominent men from a wide variety of fields, since the great number of items appear to have been retained because of a famous name rather than because of any intrinsically significant content. More likely however, the collection may have been conceived as a cataloguing convenience in fairly recent years for a relatively large number of miscellaneously acquired single items, unrelated to other more readily catalogued types of holdings.
Whatever the reason for its formation, it seems certain that the collection did not originate from the earliest days of the Public Library, and that, when it was later formed, probably sometime early in the present century, it enabled a fairly diverse selection of manuscript material, previously uncodified and unorganised, to be gathered together into a single collection, superseding a number of smaller scrapbooks, stockbooks, albums, and single files which (so one imagines) may very well have spread the manuscript holdings of the library too variously.
Much of the material in the collection appears to have been haphazardly, almost fortuitiously, acquired, beginning from the early days of the Public Library under its first Chairman of Trustees, Sir Redmond Barry. The book holdings of the State Library from these earliest days reveal it to have been founded and largely stocked by fervent men deeply attached to things British.
Unfortunately, no master plan was ever devised during those early years to build a comparable stock of European manuscripts, and it can only be lamented that a valuable opportunity to enhance the status of the library was thereby lost.
Of those manuscripts which were collected in the early years, a sizeable proportion are autograph letters written from Britain in reply to letters from Barry, who approached many notable men soliciting donations of
books to stock the newly-acquired shelves. These postal replies were simply lifted from the correspondence files of the library and placed in albums or boxes, as the basis of future manuscript holdings. It was from this unlikely beginning that the stocks of manuscripts in the library began. Subsequently, these items were transferred into, or formed the basis of, the Autograph Collection. Some other odd items acquired from unknown sources apparently wended a more uncertain path into the collection, as can be seen by such notes of provenance as ‘found in Chief Librarian's desk’ — with an additional note in this case which states that the letter had been kept in the top drawer! On only one occasion during these early years was there a purchase of collected documents. This was the group of Confederate papers, mainly letters by leading Confederate personalities, the purchase of which was organised by Barry through James Macdonald, the librarian of the Virginia State Library. But apart from this one instance no collection building of related manuscripts was attempted, and the provenance of the majority of the items shows the growth of manuscript stocks to have been largely effected through a trickle of haphazardly acquired single items, each of which was placed in a scrapbook or a stockbook, or kept separately, without any evidence of an overall masterplan. A few remaining notes of provenance from these times indicate that some collections of related documents were assembled in scrapbooks, and that these were later broken up for inclusion in the Autograph Collection. A notable example was the album of documents relating to Franklin, Parry and Lyons’ polar expeditions. But this was the exception. Occasional donations and purchases continued to add to the body of literary manuscripts over the years, but as one traces through the growing stock, the contents of the documents give little evidence to show a consistent acquisition policy.
During the present century, a number of non-Australian manuscript ‘collections’ have been presented or sold to the library at fairly regular intervals. These collections were acquired from Miss Lydia Johns (1908), Mr. A. C. Macfie (1925), Miss C. L. Montefiore (1929), Sir F. S. Chapman (1934), Miss Hilda Stevens and from Dr. Walter Simmons, the last two donations having been made in 1960. The last-named of these collections was of special import, since it comprised a sizable selection from the correspondence files of Messrs Chatto and Windus, the well-known London publishers. Most of the items in it are letters from famous authors who published with this firm. Also of note is the purchase from Miss Lydia Johns, which contained the two manuscripts by members of the Hazlitt family, William and his sister Margaret.
With the possible exception of the Chatto and Windus letters, none of these purchases just mentioned formed ‘collections’ in the true bibliographical sense of sharing common subject matter or some other unifying factor; they form collections only in the sense that they share a common origin. One other acquisition did form a collection in the true sense, that made in 1924 by E. L. Atkinson, of diplomatic papers from the English Embassy at The Hague (c. 1668–70), accompanied by papers written by William Blathwayt (1649–1717) who was secretary to the Ambassador. However, this last was an exception in both this respect and others. The other major acquisitions listed above are of considerable number and contain manuscripts which clearly pertain to the world of literary culture, rather than to politics or history. They form a significant number in the total holdings of the Autograph Collection as it now stands, and must figure prominently in any assessment of its character and significance.
The only time when the manuscript offerings of the British rare book trade were considered for purchase by the library was during 1944 when manuscripts were ordered from Maggs Brothers, London, probably in lieu of planned book purchases rendered impossible by the war, and also from Museum Bookstore, London, apparently at the same time. As it is now the policy of the State Library that no non-Australian manuscripts be purchased from overseas markets, the Maggs purchase will probably remain the last significant manuscript acquisition of this sort. As regards collection building, the library has rightly decided to concentrate on
Australiana. The La Trobe Library continues to attract British and American manuscript items of importance, but only because of their fortuitous appearance in collections of otherwise Australian interest, such as the Lindsay Family Papers and the George Coppin Collection. Library policy on manuscript acquisition can thus be seen to have taken definite directions, and, as the Autograph Collection has apparently developed essentially as a cataloguing miscellany, it is unlikely that its contents will henceforth change very radically.
From even a brief resume of the history of library manuscript acquisition, then, it can be seen that the Autograph Collection must be given special note. But on one crucial question library records are silent: during the years of unco-ordinated manuscript collection, between the earliest years and the present, at what time was the collection founded? Without records we can only work from the physical evidence of the collection in its present state. As noted, all the items in the collection are stored between two conjoined foolscap leaves, with annotations in black ink on the first recto. But not all of these leaf pairs have been drawn from a common stock and not all the annotations are in a single hand. The first of three paper stocks is an early hand-made variety, watermarked ‘1902’, and is used for items at the beginning of the alphabetical series but appears less frequently thereafter, and was probably drawn from the remnants of a very old stationery stock. The second, a thinner machine-made type in common use during the nineteen twenties and thirties, is by far the most commonly used. Both of these papers have written annotations explaining the items they house between their leaves, all written in black ink which pre-dates the wide-spread use of either the fountain pen or the ball-point. The third paper type is clearly of much more modern origin, and has annotations written in ball-point. Apart from these facts, other evidence is unhelpful. The actual manuscript numbers are hopelessly unserialised, and the cardboard boxes which house the collection at present are of fairly recent origin.
A reasonable reconstruction of the history of the Autograph Collection taking into account the stated facts, and certain others pertaining to acquisition dates, might suggest that it was set up to rationalize the growing number of miscellaneous manuscripts, probably some time during the nineteen twenties or thirties, especially in view of the fact that this was the period when a number of larger bundles of manuscripts were acquired. The collection continued to be added to. Then, possibly around 1960 when the Hilda Steven manuscripts and the Chatto and Windus correspondence were presented, many of the older storage covers were replaced with new ones, and/or a significant number of newer acquisitions were added or transferred into the collection.
The history of the Autograph Collection is relevant to any assessment of its character. We will not be surprised to learn that its contents are miscellaneous and that its potential value to researchers is uneven. One need only casually survey the catalogue to note the very wide variety of material it contains, from early latin parchments through royal decrees to the handwritten diary of a committed lunatic, and from the important Hazlitt manuscript to the not infrequent number of mere lithographs, facsimiles and even photographs. Research and scholarly purposes aside, there are a great number of fascinating curios and miscellanies which would keep the casual fossicker busy for many hours. These include several old deeds of conveyance, and documents written in older Dutch and French. Also there are seals and signatures from members of various Continental royal lines, including princes of some of the smaller nineteenth-century principalities. Generally, there is hardly an item in the collection which does not have either a certain fascinating human intimacy to it or an historical curiosity value, quite apart from any possible scholarly interest.
The chief research interest of the collection lies in the broad area of literary culture, which is to say the world of books and literature, and of what the Oxford English Dictionary calls ‘polite learning’. A great number of items of note are included in this area. Of undoubted importance is the manuscript of Hazlitt's lecture on Chaucer and
Spenser, the second of a series delivered in 1818 on the English poets, and the one to which Keats arrived (so one of his letters tells us) just as the audience was leaving. This manuscript alone raises a fascinating series of bibliographical conundrums, not the least of which are the complicated array of different page numbering systems, the one or two apparent major changes to the text whilst it was in composition, and whether these are the original manuscript notes used for the delivery of the lecture.1
Also of importance is a bound manuscript of biographical notes by Hazlitt's sister, Margaret, which relate the experiences of her father and his family whilst they travelled in America and Britain. It is a very personal account and the writer shows considerable narrative skill and a knack for engrossing one's attention. These notes have been printed in a modern edition, with a more lengthy and detailed text than the one in this copy, a fact which suggests that the present manuscript is an early draft.2 The cover, the binding and the writing leaf are of bibliographical interest.
Among the list of autograph letters by prominent literary men which the collection contains, most have been published. It is interesting that some major editions of correspondence by writers such as Pope and Byron have only in modern times caught up with what was apparently regarded as an unlikely repository for items by major British writers, and to date there remains one letter from W. M. Thackeray to John Joseph Shillinglaw (undated) which has not been reprinted.
A fascinating human episode is revealed in the series of six Charles Dickens letters in the Collection, all written in reply to one Robert Sydney Horrell, a hopeful poet who sought and obtained Dickens’ candid advice regarding a career in writing. The reticent young Horrell at first used the pseudonym of S. Harford, being apparently much concerned that his aspirations remain unknown. The envelopes accompanying Dickens’ replies have been marked ‘private and confidential’ by a public figure apparently more than prepared to listen to, and perhaps indulge, an unknown but serious-minded aspirant to his own craft of letters. Dickens adopts an understanding but realistic tone and warns of the frightful uncertainties of a life devoted to literature.
The letter dater June 1829 from Charles Lamb to Mrs. Sarah Hazlitt, wife of William, is interesting to view in the original, although it has been published. In the letter, Lamb expresses his mental suffering after a bout of particularly arduous travail, and apologizes for his lack of friendliness to her and to William, both of whom normally moved in Lamb's circle. As if the content of the letter were not enough, the handwriting itself shows signs of distress and discomfort. It appears hurried, crabbed and unpleasantly angular.
Both the Lamb letter and those of Dickens, along with others by Byron, Pope, Coleridge, Shelley, and Leigh Hunt, will be of interest particularly when an original text rather than a transcription is sought. Only a small number of American literary men are represented, but two letters by Mark Twain are notable, one to R. H. Home, undated, and one to Chatto and Windus, dated 14 October 1878. Any readers with special interests in the nineteenth century British literary scene would most probably find even a quick glance through the catalogue of the Autograph Collection to be rewarding.
Undoubtedly, the major significance of the Collection lies in the field of literature. However, other categories of manuscripts exist, including those of some continental figures of note. There is also the possible historical usefulness of the William Blathwayt Papers already mentioned, and a number of letters by such people as William Ewart Gladstone and John Bright, these last again showing the heavy weighting in favour of nineteenth-century Britain.
Finally, the collection includes a number of Australian manuscript letters and documents all of which will eventually be added to the Australian Manuscripts Collection. One interesting example which so far remains with the autographs is the collection of ten letters by John Batman (1801–1839) pioneer of Melbourne. The significance of the letters varies considerably. One, for example, is an introduction to his overseer for the purchase of some sheep. Another requests
permission from the Colonial Secretary to strip wattle or mimosa bark from around the Port Phillip District. A number of other letters detail his operations against, and his general dealings with, the aboriginal population in this district. Other documents of Australian interest are the fifty-four letters written by David Blair (1820–1899), the well-known Melbourne journalist. The letters are written to James Hingston of the Argus newspaper, and cover the period 1881 to 1896, but discuss various topics from literature, with little mention of the economic conditions of this fascinating period in Australian history.
Yet Australian material of real significance is rare in the Autograph Collection since most of it has already been transferred into the main Australian Manuscripts Collection and was, in any case, generally acquired in more recent times. It is interesting, however, that a great number of items in the collection were acquired locally, even during the earliest years; notes of provenance show a greater frequency of Melbourne and Victorian names and addresses than any from overseas. It appears that this phenomenon can be explained as due to the fact that many of the items in this Collection, although autograph letters written between Englishmen in Britain, were acquired through personal contact by people who preserved them as curios and later emigrated to Australia bringing these curios with them. The outstanding example of this process at work are the items purchased from Miss Lydia Johns of Avoca in 1904. Miss Johns was a descendant of the Reverend John Johns (1801–1847) an English Unitarian minister who served at Crediton, Devon, and as first minister to the poor with the Liverpool Domestic Mission Society.3 Johns married Caroline Reynell, of Newton Abbey, in 1833, but before that date boarded at Crediton with Margaret Hazlitt and her mother. During this time he came into contact with a number of literary and artistic personages of the era, especially those connected with Margaret's brother, William. After the death of Johns in 1847 his wife and children settled for a short while in Devon before eventually emigrating to Australia. Some details of their journey, and their subsequent movements on the new continent are given in Carol Cooper's article in the La Trobe Library Journal, October 1977.4 However, at some time before 1900, a number of the children finally settled in the Grampians region of Victoria, in the town of Avoca, near Ballarat. The combined State and Commonwealth Electoral Rolls (1908), Division of Grampians, Sub-division of Avoca, records four entries under the name of Johns, including number 748, ‘Johns, Lydia Reynell, Avoca, home duties, F(emale)’. This is the Miss Johns whose name appears in the State Library's accession volume for 1908, as the vendor of a number of manuscripts, including those by William and Margaret Hazlitt, and the letter by Charles Lamb.
Another consideration in explaining the local origin of many manuscripts is the obvious fact that cultural ties between Britain and colonial Victoria gave ample opportunity for an exchange of letters over matters both personal and official where friends or contacts had been separated by emigration of one of the parties. Mention might again be made of Sir Redmond Barry's correspondence to persons of distinction in Europe when soliciting book stocks for the new library. The replies he received, whether favourable or not, proved valuable of themselves. Even as late as 1923 Miss Hilda Stevens of Melbourne wrote to many English men of letters, among them John Masefield, to inform them of the recent death of her brother Alexander Gordon Steven, who wrote several volumes of verse. The number of replies was large and makes up a significant single acquisition.
By a variety of human endeavours, in combination with library cataloguing procedures and the apparently rather haphazard aquisition policies of an earlier era, the Autograph Collection has come to exhibit a quite distinctive character, as much of interest in the history of the State Library itself as any other of the collections it contains. Its significance lies not so much in the richness of any individual items, despite a number of clearly important exceptions, as in what it shows of the modern tendency towards specialization, evident today by the development of the La Trobe Library.
Chris Elmore


See the author's Monash M. A. thesis 1977, A Descriptive Catalogue of Literary Documents by British and American Authors and Notables, born before 1900, held in Victorian Institutional Libraries, Appendix II, pp.356–63, available from the Department of English, Monash University.


See Ernest J. Moyne, Margaret Hazlitt's Journal (Lawrence: Univ. of Kansas Press, 1967); C. F. Harold Love, ‘An Early Version of Margaret Hazlitt's Journal’, Aumla 43 (May 1975), pp. 24–32.


See Moyne, p.129, note to p.30.


Carol Cooper, ‘Reynell Everleigh Johns: A Rediscovered Victorian’, La Trobe Library Journal, Vol. 5, No. 20 (October, 1977), pp.90–96.