State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 47 & 48 1991

100

An Extraordinary Man: John Kinmont Moir

The most significant single donation of material to the State Library of Victoria in its long history is without doubt the J. K. Moir Collection. Consisting of some eight thousand books, three thousand two hundred pamphlets, sixty boxes of manuscript material, several hundred photographs, research files and odd pieces of memorabilia, its acquisition by the library in the 1950s was a happy combination of the wishes of one extraordinary man and the institution's being able to accommodate them at a particular time in its history.
There is no doubt that John Kinmont Moir was an extraordinary man. He was born in November 1893 at Normanton in northern Queensland where his father managed a station.1 Normanton was then a port town for the cattle country on the Flinders and Cloncurry Rivers and had a population of around twelve hundred. About 1903 the family moved to Melbourne when Moir's father was appointed managing agent for a firm with large pastoral holdings. The job involved travelling and frequent long absences from the family.
The young Moir's education was through State schools and private tutoring. Around the age of seventeen he took work as a jackeroo in various parts of New South Wales. It is not clear when Moir returned to Melbourne but it was probably about 1920. Biographical details on his life for the next fifteen
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years or so are rather sketchy. Although obviously living and working in Melbourne his name does not appear in the telephone books or the annual Sands and Macdougall directories of the period. He may have undertaken some accountancy studies for by 1927 he was working as an accountant at Bon Marche. Around 1935 he became credit manager for the firm's retail arm, Payne's Bon Marche at 138–144 Bourke Street, a position he held until illness forced him to retire in mid to late 1957. He was an efficient and respected accountant. A fellow practitioner said in 1939, in support of Moir's application to be admitted to the Australian Institute of Creditmen, ‘… in my opinion he can be placed amongst the most capable credit officers in this city.’2
In the early 1920s Moir married Constance Trait in South Yarra. Although the couple bore a child — a girl unusually named Rodney — the marriage was not a success and was dissolved, possibly in the early 1930s. Moir married again, this time to a widow. By the mid 1940s he was again living by himself and remained single, cultivating in fact the image of a life-long bachelor.3 In 1944 or 1945 he purchased a disused hotel at 474 Bridge Road, Richmond, and lived there until illness forced him to move into the Coonil Private Hospital in Elsternwick where he died from heart failure in June 1958.4
The house in Bridge Road became a haven for collectors and writers. For locals there were the regular book and bottle nights on Friday and Sunday nights. Interstate visitors would stay as Moir's guest and talk late into the night about books and writers. On one occasion when the printer John Kirtley was staying at the house Bill Harney, the Northern Territory raconteur, was also an overnight visitor.5 The talk went on well into the small hours when Kirtley decided to call it a night. Later, when he rose for a call of nature, he found Harney still talking but by now only to himself as also Moir had gone to bed.6
Hamey later wrote a poem about his visits to Moir's house. Entitled ‘To J.K. at 474’ it reads in part:
Amidst the tomes of bygone days I tread on a wooden floor,
Outside, the trams go trundling by with a dull metalic roar,
But who can heed when he lives once more with the books of 474
A thousand books and a myriad dreams, with a City's noise outside,
I rub the cast of a poet's hand and a swagman's voice replied,
And a hundred ghosts came trooping in from “the days when the world was wide”.
Books all signed by their author's hand, weaving an old time spell,
Plaque and picture and inscribed jug ‘midst spears and an old horse bell
That maybe jangled bushland tunes by a now abandoned well……
Australia's past goes by me as I stand on a sacred floor.
And dream of the Central dry lands, when a knock comes on the door
And guests of the night come trooping in to a friendly 474.
Then J. K. smiles a greeting as they enter at the door.
Amidst good cheer with cheese and beer and ever rising roar
Dim hosts of ghosts join with us in the rooms of 474,
And mateships grow, and may it flow from here to evermore.7
‘Devoted to “Mateship, Art and Letters” the Bread and Cheese Club was active in promoting Australian writers.”
Moir was one of the twelve males who attended the foundation meeting of the Bread and Cheese Club in June 1938. The minutes of the meeting record that Jack Moir was elected to the chair. Over the following decade his name is virtually synonymous with that of the Bread and Cheese Club. Devoted to ‘Mateship, Art and Letters’, the Club was active in promoting Australian writers, publishing around forty books of verse and tributes and, in a sense, it was the urban manifestation of the ‘Walkabout’ school of Australian nationalism. Moir was the Knight Grand Cheese of the Club. By 1943 it was large and confident enough to publish its own
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history, Fellows all: the chronicles of the Bread and Cheese Club which included biographical sketches.8 There were over two hundred members.
Moir devoted much of his considerable energy to the activities of the Club. He chaired its meetings, scrubbed the floor of its city premises, wrote for its monthly newsletter. Bohemia, paid for and organised most of its forty or so publications and, amazingly, usually managed to find three dozen bottles of beer during war-time for its monthly meetings.9

“Through the 1940s Moir's name was synonymous with that of the Bread and Cheese Club.”

During the Club's early years Moir was greatly assisted by his office secretary, Doris Kerr, who also wrote under the name of ‘Capel Boake’.10 Her sudden death in 1944 was a severe blow to Moir. In a letter to Victor Kennedy he wrote:
‘Have suffered an irreparable loss in Doris Kerr (Capel Boake) who died suddenly on her way to work last week. She was my right hand in literary matters as well as being an efficient secretary for me’.11
Although Kerr's four novels are in the collection there are no files or correspondence on her and one can only surmise on whether she meant more to Moir than just someone who was an efficient secretary. The writer Myra Morris suggests this in a letter to Moir immediately after Kerr's death:
I feel that I would like to write to you as we talked about you a lot yesterday — Doris and I. And I know how much this awful thing will mean to you … There'll never be anyone else like Doris — so generous, so full of understanding, with so rare a mind … I've lost my best friend — and you've lost an irreplaceable co-worker and friend.12
After twelve years Moir relinquished the title of Knight Grand Cheese and became the Club's Oknirrabata, meaning ‘Wise Old Man’. He continued to write for each issue of Bohemia, and edited it from 1955 until his death. The Club continued its activities after Moir's passing in 1958, lasting until 1988 but for a long time it was only a shadow of its former self. Its heyday had been the 1940s, when Moir himself was at the peak of his energies.
Moir was revered by his fellow Bread and Cheesers. Given his energy and enthusiasm and what he had done for the Club — and he was the Club-this was understandable. Following his death the Club published a Moir Memorial Number of Bohemia which was full of glowing tributes to ‘J.K.M.’, as he was known to everybody.13 Biblionews, the bookcollectors’ quarterly, also carried several tributes to Moir. Two of the many eulogies are worth quoting in some detail. The first is from John Feely, himself a legend as the librarian at the Public Library of Victoria, remembered today for his Index to the Argus, 1846–1859. Talking about 474 Bridge Road, Feely wrote:
And no matter how often you'd been there, you always felt that sense of surprise and wonder — for once inside the door you were in a veritable Aladdin's Cave. There you were greeted by the warm and friendly man who had painstakingly put together this museum of Australiana — J. K. Moir… People came from far and wide to enjoy the conversation of this knowledgeable man, whose death was felt by so many… Most of his volumes are already in the Public Library of Victoria — the rest will come there eventually … His personal knowledge of out of the way places,
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and even more out of the way people, with which he could hold me spellbound with amazement will now never be written down.
He was at the beck and call of anyone who was interested in Australia… When you opened the door of 474 Bridge Road you never knew who you would find inside — Bill Harney, perhaps, orating about the Centre to a visiting author from overseas in search of local colour, a young school teacher with some of his pupils, a retired vicechancellor of a well-known university, and, on one occasion, a bishop. Or perhaps he would be playing host to one of the many committees in which he was so interested. Or making arrangements to mark some historic spot, or erect a plaque in honor of someone who had contributed to the culture of the country. In a silent, even shamefaced way, he played guide, philosopher and friend to someone in strife. But Moir was a man who succeeded in doing what he set out to do. He passed over to the State a collection of Australiana that would be hard to rival. And that is something for which he will be remembered especially.14
The second tribute is that of James Preston, longtime member and historian of the Bread and Cheese Club:
It is not often that a modern businessman, hard and keen, weds to his proficiency in his daily calling a love for and dedication to the literature, music and art of his native land. Where he found the time was beyond understanding but it is no secret that he achieved what he did at the cost of many almost sleepless nights. When asked, he replied whimsically that he had the same amount of time as anyone else — what there was on the clock!
The Adam Lindsay Gordon Wattle Movement through which he and other members distributed seeds from the poet's grave for planting throughout the world, was inaugurated by him. He was a patron of the Gordon Lovers’ Society, a life member of the Ballar at Gordon Cottage Memorial Committee, a member of the Gould League of Bird Lovers and the Wattle League, a life member of the Lawson Society, a member of the British Avicultural Society, a committee man of the Australian Literature Society, a member of the Poetry Lovers’ Society, patron of the Cobb & Co. Old Drivers’ Association and he belonged to several angling clubs. He was [also] a councillor of the Royal Historical Society of Victoria.15
However Moir was not popular with those on the left, especially during the cold war years of the early 1950s. His generally right-wing views led him to lobby with others against Commonwealth Literary Fund grants to known left-wing writers.16 An article written almost a decade after his death alleged that Moir openly boasted about sending reports to the Australian security service on writers he considered to be politically unreliable.17 To his credit, he was conscious of keeping politics out of the Bread and Cheese Club. When one of its members protested about the left-wing political activities and beliefs of fellow member, Harry Hastings Pearce, he was censured by Moir and encouraged not to return.18 Moir was actually very friendly with Pearce and the latter published his own special tribute following Moir's death. It reads in part:
Small in stature, rather rotund, but tremendously big in devotion to all things Australian, his dynamic presonality inspired others along similar lines. The interests of Australian culture, not only in a creative way in the present, but also in the preservation of the records of its past, was a fanatical obsession withhim. He had a remarkable ability of searching out and acquiring rare Australiana of all kinds… His knowledge of people and events was truly encyclopaedic. It only needed some simple comment or reference to set him off, impromptu, to reel off a detailed account of some event or some person's family history … His camera was always with him, and anything, object, building, place, monument, etc was certain to be taken, even if it meant a special journey, or the going of miles out of one's way…
He had the power to attract others around him by the sheer force of his personality, and the magnetic power tended to inhibit them from independent and differing judgements. Thus, whatever his opinion or decision might be, it was accepted, more or less as a matter of course …
He had the ability to engage in more than one occupation at a time. I occasionally visited him at his business office, and he could carry on a conversation, deal with accounts and letters, and give instructions to an assistant at the same time, without effort. At home he worked into the small hours of the morning answering letters, and a dozen other things. How he found time to read and gather the information he did, is a mystery.19
Walter Stone, the noted Sydney bookcollector and long-time member and supporter of the Labor party,
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was also a close friend of Moir. They first met in 1950, thereafter corresponding weekly, and Stone was a regular guest at Bridge Road when he was in Melbourne.20
The subtle and not-so-subtle differences between communists, fellow-travellers and left nationalists would probably not have interested or been fully understood by Moir. He was not an intellectual and did not generally mix with academics or thinkers. This is not to denigrate him. Obviously an intelligent man with an encyclopaedic mind, a different background and a University education would have given him a more rigorous and questioning intellect. As it was he was an accumulator of books rather than a reader of them, a proponent and publicist for Australian literature rather than a critic of it, a gleaner and storer of facts rather than an interpreter of them. His beliefs could crudely be described as a cross between those of the Jindyworobaks and the ‘Walkabout’ school (exemplified by Ion Idriess and Frank Clune) of Australian writing. In short, an Australian populist and patriot.
There is this sense of entrepeneurial energy and activity in all that one reads about Moir. Two examples from his correspondence with Victor Kennedy, then living in Queensland, aptly show this. The first concerns the publication in 1938 of Edward Pescott's Life Story of Joseph Furphy.21 Moir wrote:
Apart from suggesting its publication, arranging all details, paying for the job & distributing the book I cannot claim any merit.22
The second is in relation to a photographic exhibition held in 1939:
Have exhibitions of photos at Hawthorn, Sth Melbourne & the Public Library. Put 108 photos in the P.L. yesterday. Don't credit me with the photography. I get an expert commercial man to do it & pay him. Up to the present have had over 100 negs made & nearly a thousand prints made off them and am much poorer the consequence but the libraries are much better off.23
In 1938 Moir invited Kennedy to join the Bread and Cheese Club saying that the obligation in doing so was,
‘To be Australian in your outlook & to encourage an Aust(ralian) sentiment’.24
It is unclear how and when Moir became interested in Australiana. In a newspaper interview he stated that his travels throughout the country gave him a love of things Australian and he probably began collecting books about his native country in the late 1920s.25 By the middle 1930s he was becoming known in Melbourne literary circles-the biographer, collector and author, Percival Serle was writing to him in 1935.26 By 1937 Moir had presented copies of his typescript chronology on the life of Adam Lindsay Gordon, compiled over three years of part-time research and travel in South Australia and Victoria, to major libraries in Australia, and it was possibly through his love and interest in Gordon that Moir began to collect other Australian authors.
Moir was an indefatigable collector, attempting to acquire every novel or book of verse by an Australian author and he recorded his acquisitions in rough alphabetical order in a solid blue loose leaf register.27 The strength of the Moir collection is undoubtedly in its literary material. Of the eight thousand books, three thousand are novels and one thousand eight hundred are volumes of verse, while around seventy percentof the pamphlets are literary based. Unlike many collectors he was not too particular about condition, being content to accept the throwaway from the circulating library along with the nice copy with the dustwrapper. Once his reputation spread, authors often sent him inscribed copies of their books. He also wrote to authors, particularly those publishing their own work, requesting a copy. This acquisition of the ephemeral or privately published book is one of the strengths of the collection. What other library in Australia holds the pseudonymous Love Sonnets From Ballarat published by the author in the late 1930s? Jack Moir had a copy.
Moir also accumulated photographs of authors, corresponded with them, and subscribed to a press cuttings service for articles and reviews on Australian books and writing. This support material has been of considerable use to researchers. Two examples will suffice. His author portraits were used extensively in the Oxford Literary Guide to Australian Literature and correspondence in the collection helped identify the real name of ‘Waif Wanderer’ whose The Fortunes of Mary Fortune was recently reissued.28
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Moir's generosity to fellow collectors and his willingness to make his house and library in Bridge Road available to researchers and students has already been mentioned. It would appear that some people abused his trust and helped themselves to some choice pickings. There are books described in newspaper interviews with Moir that did not reach the State Library. Governor Phillip's Voyage to Botany Bay is one such example.29 His fine collection of art work also did not go to the library. This was because it was not part of the bequest although some of the black and white work in the form of portrait and historical sketches would have complemented the main collection. Moir's art collection was auctioned by Leonard Joel in November 195830 and it has been suggested that the eighty or so lots did not represent the total number of works originally stored and hung at 474 Bridge Road.31
The Moir collection came to the State Library in two stages, the first in March 1954, and the second in February 1957. Moir wanted the collection to stay together and there have probably been only four or five times in the State Library's history that it would have been able to accept a donation as large as Moir's. The first would have been at the library's beginnings in the 1850s, during its expansion in the 1870s, early this century when the great dome was being built, in the 1950s when the La Trobe wing was being planned, and in the present day with the current and proposed redevelopment. Posterity has a lot to be thankful for that in 1950 when Moir first approached the library with a proposal to leave his collection to the people of Victoria the time was ripe.
The Trustees of the Public Library of Victoria stated in their report for 1951 that:
In July 1950 the Trustees heard with great pleasure of Mr Moir's offer eventually to present his extraordinarily fine collection of Australiana to the La Trobe Library. The Trustees expressed their willingness to meet any special wishes Mr Moir might have as to the collection being kept together, and voiced their appreciation of his generous and public-hearted action in making this offer.32
In Moir's own papers there is a draft of a speech he made at the Library, possibly following the handing over of the first instalment of his collection in 1954.It reads in part:
I am constantly receiving books from authors & publishers. These will be added as received. In addition I have many thousands of letters, news cuttings, photos & references in scrap books which as time permits will be added.
If I might be allowed to add a note of criticism. I would like to express my appreciation of the helpful advice & encouragement received from Mr John Feely who has been a regular visitor & has been very helpful in his advice as to what would be acceptable to the Library from the mass of material I had. Apart from yourself, Mr Crean, [and] Mr A. McMeekin, no other Trustees seem to have been interested which sometimes gives me qualms regarding the collection.
I would like them to realize that the donation has been a genuine gesture — without any self-seeking recognition — to help future students of our literature. It has been a considerable sacrifice from one of moderate means but I hope future generations are appreciative.33
In a letter to the poet Hugh McCrae in 1955, Moir wrote:
Despite the fact that I work hard all day and sit up until 2 or 3 am each day writing to people all over the Continent [I] am well but tired.34
All current and future users of Australian material in the State Library of Victoria owe a debt to J. K. Moir. They also deserve to have no qualms about the storage and treatment of his collection in the redeveloped State Library.
JOHN ARNOLD
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1

Biographical details from ‘Patron of Australian Art and Letters’, Bohemia, April 1939; H. W. Malloch, Brief character sketch of John Kinmont Moir, F.R.G.S.A., Melbourne: Bread and Cheese Club, 1951; and Harry Hastings Pearce, In memory: John Kinmont Moir.: Australian Poetry Lovers’ Society, Footscray, Victoria, 1958.

2

Reference by Howard K. Ingham, Accountant, 29 Nov 1939. J.K. Moir Collection, SLV, Box 66, ‘Family Papers’.

3

An opinion confirmed by conversations with former members of the Bread and Cheese Club.

4

Details from death certificate where the actual cause of death is given as ‘acute myocardial failure’

5

Bushman and Northern Territory patriot See Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, p. 318.

6

Story told in Ron Edwards, ‘Jack Kirtley: some recollections’. Unpublished manuscript written in 1973 and quoted by Geoffrey Farmer in A true Printer. John Kirtley and Heemskerck Shoals, Sydney: Bookcollectors Society of Australia, 1990, p. 15.

7

W. E. Harney, ‘To J. K. at 474', Bohemia, 151st issue, (vol. 13 no. 5) 1 January 1958, n.p.

8

H. W. Malloch, Fellows all: the Chronicles of the Bread and Cheese Club, The Club, Melbourne, 1943.

9

Claimed by Moir in an undated letter to Victor Kennedy, c1942/43. Victor Kennedy Papers, Australian Manuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria, ML 9419

10

See Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, p. 96.

11

Poet and journalist. See Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, p. 387.

12

See Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, p. 494.

13

Bohemia, 158th issue (vol 13 no. 10), 1 August 1951, n.p.

14

Published in the Melbourne Herald and quoted in ibid, p.5.

15

Quoted in Jean Stone, The Passionate Bibliophile: the story of Walter Stone, Australian bookman extraordinaire, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1988, pp. 296–99.

16

See Lynne Strahan, Just City and the Mirrors: Meanjin Quarterly and the intellectual front, Melbourne 1940–1965: Oxford University Press, 1984, pp. 152–55, 178–81.

17

Oscar Mendelsohn ‘Literary Cham’, Nation (Sydney), 29 July 1967, pp. 15–16. I am grateful to Vane Lindesay for drawing my attention to this article.

18

Story related in conversation Harry Hastings Pearce, 1984.

19

Harry Hastings Pearce, In memory…, op. cit.

20

See Jean Stone, op. cit., passim.

21

Edward Pescott, The life story of Joseph Furphy, Hawthorn Press, Melboune, 1938

22

J. K. Moir to Victor Kennedy, 12 June 1938, Victor Kennedy Papers, op. cit.

23

J. K. Moir to Victor Kennedy, 8 October 1939, Victor Kennedy Papers, op. cit.

24

J. K. Moir to Victor Kennedy, 21 July 1938, Victor Kennedy Papers, op. cit.

25

‘He has collected 5,000 Australian Books’, Argus Weekend Magazine, n.d., c.1948. Press cutting Moir Biography File, La Trobe Collection, State Library of Victoria.

26

Moir Collection, State Library of Victoria, Box 8/2.

27

Now part of the Moir Collection, op. cit.

28

Lucy Sussex (ed), The Fortunes of Mary Fortune, Penguin Books, Ringwood, Victoria, 1989.

29

Described as being in Moir's collection in ‘Australian Books? He's got thousands’, Argus Weekend Magazine, 20 June 1952.

30

See [Catalogue of] Oil Paintings — Water Colours also Australiana from the Estate of J.K. Moir in conjunction with Mrs J.McClelland… Friday, 7th November, 1958, Melbourne: Leonard Joel, 1958

31

Conversation with Mrs J. McClelland, July 1990.

32

Report of the Trustees of the Public Library of Victoria… for the year 1951, Melbourne: Government Printer, 1951, p.7.

33

Box 66, ‘Family Papers’, J.K. Moir Collection, op. cit.

34

J. K. Moir to Hugh McCrae, 4 January 1955, McCrae Papers, Australian Manuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria, unsorted box.