State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 49 Autumn 1992


The Returning Exile'S Dispersal: C.H. Pearson Sells His Books

Stuart Macintyre's recent study of three Victorian liberals, Higinbotham, Syme and Pearson, deplores the fact that his subjects ‘left such tantalizingly incomplete traces of their inner lives’.1 Although it would be rash to claim that the sale catalogue of a private library makes good this deficiency, the record of Charles Henry Pearson's dispersal just before he left Australia for the last time in August 1892 deserves to be added to the dossier historians should study. This document has become available thanks to the La Trobe Library's acquisition some years ago from the late Sid Grant of a collection of lists and trade ephemera stemming in part from H.T. Dwight's erstwhile assistant Robert C. Miller.2
Pearson's modern biographer, John Tregenza,3 can be excused all the more readily for not having sought out the details of the auction since the memorial volume published in 1900 contains positively misleading information.4 Apropos of the address presented to the departing scholar and politician on 18 August 1892 by a group of friends led by Higinbotham it is noted:
A purse accompanied the address, with a request that Pearson should apply the contents to the purchase of books in remembrance of the signatories. It was a kindly thought for, before leaving, he had decided to sell his library, and had despatched it to London for the purpose. It had been painful work sending off his books, which he looked upon as friends. ‘I can find any in the dark,’ he used to say. When he was uncertain on any point, he would immediately go and pick out a volume, and satisfy himself. He never had to absent himself for more than a minute or two, knowing exactly which book and page would give him the desired information. With the money presented to him he subsequently replaced, and with joy, many of his favourite volumes — poetry in particular. A complete set of Browning was the first to go upon the shelf.5
At a distance of eight years the widow may not have recalled the exact destination of the consignment of books leaving their house, ‘Narrabeen’ on the corner of Wellington and Sussex Streets, Middle Brighton, but there can be no doubt that most of them were going to the rooms of Gemmell, Tuckett and Company in Collins Street. Whether some more choice items were sent to London for sale remains an open question, but it is also possible to assume that the residue was being retained for personal use after the family's return to England.
Despite Edith Pearson's long-standing desire to leave and to see her daughters educated away from Australia, the decision to sell up seems to have been taken fairly quickly. A back-bencher after the fall of the Gillies-Deakin ministry late in 1890, Charles Pearson had not stood for re-election to the Legislative Assembly in April 1892. Journalism and work on his major book National Life and Character: a Forecast6 occupied his time. However, serious illness in the winter of 1892 was to determine the final seavoyage to England. August of that year was devoted to taking leave from friends and associates and to realizing the assets that represented the extent of Pearson's savings from his colonial career.
There could hardly have been a worse moment to put a house and books on the market. The Argus advertisement columns on 6 August carried notices both for the library sale — set down for 13 August — and for the disposal of ‘Narrabeen’, with its two-and-a-half acres of garden and its ‘library 18 × 18’, nine days later.7 In the event, as later advertisements indicated, the books were offered on 15 August. The catalogues that were on 6 August to ‘be Shortly Issued’ were still described on the morning of the sale as ‘now in preparation’.8 Although Gemmell, Tuckett, and Co. were not averse to advertising in The Age, of which Pearson had once been the editorialist and
continued to be a correspondent, the rival Argus had the sole favour of the ‘FINE MANSION’ and ‘VALUABLE LIBRARY’ advertisements. Had the depression pruned budgets for publicity, or were ‘Librarians, Book Collectors, Private Buyers, and the Trade’, not to mention ‘Connoisseurs and Others’, essentially readers of the conservative newspaper? The misadventures experienced by Bernard Quaritch with consignments sent to Sydney and especially Melbourne in 1892 suggest that cautious auctioneers may well have avoided needless expense.9
The catalogue reproduced in facsimile in the following pages exhibits unmistakable signs of hasty compilation. Gemmell, Tuckett, and Co. had long since achieved pre-eminence as Melbourne's specialist house for book sales, but the standard description of lots left a great deal to be desired. The city had to wait till the arrival of the late Gaston Renard after the Second World War to see genuine professionalism in these matters. Nonetheless, when there were not extreme time pressures, as in the case of Pearson's fellow-Parliamentarian John Macgregor in 1884,10 the Collins Street firm could provide appreciably more bibliographical detail in its lists. It is true, too, that Macgregor's collection was incomparably richer, not only because its owner had set out to bring together the wherewithal for systematic study of a series of topics like classical philology and history of science and philosophy, but also because a partner in a leading law firm did not have to rely on salaried appointments for his income.
The virtual absence of dates for editions listed, the incidence of misprints, the rough-and-ready subject classification, all of these features ensure that bibliographers will have much trouble in identifying Pearson's holdings exactly. What is one to make of ‘226 Pope's Works; old edition 9 [volumes]’, ‘242 Scott's Works’ and ‘250 Butler's Hudibras; a fine rare old copy 2 [volumes]’ and many similar entries? Even worse are items like ‘342 French novels (various) 8 [volumes]’ ‘343 Works (various) in Russian 6 [volumes]’ and ‘468 Lot of Pamphlets’. Such vagueness is not an obstacle for the buyer attending the auction mart, but it complicates the task of the bibliographer intent on tracing intellectual influences and literary preferences. However, we have to make do with what we have in seeking new insights into Pearson's way of working.
In fact there are few surprises in that part of the politician's library that went to Gemmell, Tuckett, and Company. The hagiographical character of the 1900 Memorials should not outweigh what it contributes to solid understanding of Pearson's intellectual development and style and of his use of books. The edited version of ‘The Story of My Life’ contains many sharp observations on education in Britain and elsewhere. Pearson notes a piece of advice he received from Sir James Stephen in the form of
a rather severe caution he gave me after my return from Russia against dissipating my strength upon a variety of subjects. I have since had ample reason to regret that I did not follow his advice. At that time, however, I was more influenced by Goethe's views of culture than by any care to make a fortune or a name.11
James Bryce, writing to Edith Pearson in May 1897 and reporting on a meeting between her husband and E.A. Freeman and on their differences, made a similar point:
Your husband did not seem to care so much for minute investigations and for what may be called the antiquarian side of history as Freeman did. His interest lay chiefly in large and broad views; indeed, one of the characteristic tendencies of his mind was to boldness in the summarising and interpretation of facts. This made his talk eminently stimulative, and led me to think that he must have been a powerful and impressive lecturer, though I never had the good fortune to hear his discourse in public.12
Certainly the library sold in 1892 backs up this impression of a generalist, rather than a specialist
scholar. This was, after all, a career in historical writing and lecturing that was effectively completed before F.W Maitland came on the scene in the mid-1880s. Curiously, though, Pearson's two years at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1869–1871 teaching history in the Moral Sciences Tripos coincided with the beginning of Maitland's undergraduate career. Both men had connections with Leslie Stephen and Henry Sidgwick.13 While such a coincidence can be easily explained by the limited size of the liberal intellectual élite of Victorian England (or of any other European country at the same time), it is important to recognize that the push towards thoroughly professional scholarship in history and bibliography at Oxford and Cambridge began in Pearson's generation and was reinforced in the one following. In his new political career the cultured journalist was no longer able to follow the trajectory of his friend and contemporary Henry Bradshaw, University Librarian at Cambridge and distinguished incunabulist.14
Since Pearson was hardly in a position to build up a vast private library like Acton's, his reading and research remained dependent on other accumulations. Thus, after several months in the country retreat he chose on his return from his first sojourn in South Australia, he ‘felt the want of public libraries, and moved to Oxford (July 1867)’.15 All his life he profited from others' books, beginning with his grandfather's ‘great collection of Jansenist theology’, from which he learnt to read French in Nicole and Arnauld.16 In student days at Oxford he had the reputation of being unusually knowledgeable about books, as more than one contemporary testified to Edith Pearson after his death.17 Small wonder then that his second move to Australia in 1871 included a resolve ‘to take out my books with me’.18
Some hints as to the institutional libraries available to Pearson in Melbourne are contained in the sale catalogue. Both items 204 and 219 include ‘Catalogue of the Parliamentary Library’, and ‘215 Catalogue of the Public Library of Victoria, half-calf 2 [volumes]’ is undoubtedly the 1880 monument to Barry's stewardship. Pearson had become a Trustee, so it is reasonable to assume that this item together with the other lots set out under ‘PARLIAMENT, VICTORIA’ reached him in one or other of his official capacities. How diligent a reader he was in Swanston Street or Spring Street is another question again.
If one lays the sale catalogue alongside the references in National Life and Character, one sees that writing and reflection in his own library were the core of Pearson's intellectual activity in his last years. It is striking that a book that sets out to predict the future of civilization is based essentially on readings done a generation or more earlier than its composition in the 1890s. For all his access to many of the leaders of thought and scholarship in the Northern Hemisphere, including the United States of America, Pearson was more conventional and less adventurous in his taste and collecting than the colonial David Scott Mitchell.19 There are ways of triumphing over distance and isolation, but they are rarely understood by people who apply a sort of rigid topographical determinism to the writing of cultural history.
‘The Library sold in 1892 backs up the impression of a generalist, rather than a specialist scholar.’
Sadly one has to recognize that in the nineteenth century as in the twentieth administrators were and are likely to find themselves cut off from those people who are thinking new thoughts and exploring fresh approaches. Pearson resisted well, all things considered, and National Life and Character is a bold attempt to break out of routine. However, the freezing of his documentation in the 1870s is there to see in his footnotes. The list of books held in the Middle Brighton house speaks
essentially of stimulation received in the 1840s, 1850s and 1860s.
Although the haste and incompetence of the cataloguer built barriers, it is not impossible to grasp something of Pearson's linguistic range, especially from the sections on ‘Dictionaries, Foreign Languages, &c.’ and ‘French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Latin, &c.’. The leavening of imprints from the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries should not be interpreted as systematic collecting of old books. Anybody frequenting second-hand dealers and stalls in that period would be bound to pick up at least some examples of such material. On the other hand the auctioneeer was undoubtedly right to give some prominence — in the form of lots separately advertised and offered in advance of the rest of the sale — to a small group of autographs, engravings and sketches. The fashion for collecting autographs had been securely established generations before, and it was not ignored in Melbourne.20
The breadth of interest in history, politics and English literature can be explained in terms of the professional requirements of the teacher, journalist and politician. The section of ‘Works on Australia, &c.’ is modest, but more extensive even so than in the libraries of parliamentary contemporaries like W.E. Hearn21 and John Macgregor. Some titles, for example Hearn's own publications — lots 54, 140, 141, 162 —, may well have been gifts from the authors. Academic courtesies and the incidental perquisites of public life are often reflected in libraries. Similarly Pearson probably had more than one remaining copy of his own books, as in lot 39 ‘English History of the Fourteenth Century’, lot 71 ‘Early and Middle Ages’ and lot 261 ‘Historical Map of England’. Lot 397 ‘The Baron's War, by Blaauw’ had a similar origin, since Pearson saw through the press in 1871 the second edition of a work by his mother's cousin William Henry Blaauw. Family and friends account for lot 93 ‘Sermons of J.N. Pearson’ (Charles’ father) and for lot 430 ‘Ackland's Memoirs of the Cholera at Oxford’. It was with H.W. Ackland that Pearson began his abortive medical studies in 1852. The few medical texts in the section ‘Medicine, Science, &c.’ no doubt stem from that passing incursion into a different field.
Can we guess at what was not offered for sale by Gemmell, Tuckett, and Co.? Apart from the not inconsiderable mass of Pearson's own productions,22 this is a somewhat perilous procedure. However, it is possible to set lot 386 ‘Marcus Clarke's His Natural Life, &c. 3 [volumes]’ alongside the fact that Pearson was a subscriber to Hamilton Mackinnon's Austral Edition of the Selected Works of Marcus Clarke.23 Was this included in the lot, or was the novel present in its three-decker form? Once again we are defeated by the cataloguer's lack of care.
The fate of the Pearson books is largely unknown. It was still the norm in the 1890s as in earlier decades to dispose of deceased estates and of the libraries of departing colonists by auction. In the Sydney of Angus & Robertson and William Dymock sale by private treaty did occur, but the Melbourne trade was much weakened in any case by the financial crash. Four items were bought for the Melbourne Public Library, as the Stock Book for 1892 records (nos 1302–1305). Lot 159 ‘Fortescue on Monarchy, 1714, calf’ was purchased through Melville, Mullen and Slade for 3/5d and promptly rebound so that earlier provenance marks disappeared. Lot 2 ‘Jackson's Constitution of America, 1783; very rare’ was acquired for 4/11d and also rebound. It was a meagre harvest, but the Library, like Pearson himself, was in difficulties. It must also be said that much of the politician's collection would have duplicated the Library's holdings. The most melancholy aspect of this centenary is that we are reliving the same problems in 1992. There is a double irony then in the end of an able historian of the old school and of his books.
Wallace Kirsop


A Colonial Liberalism: the Lost World of Three Victorian Visionaries, Oxford University Press Australia, Melbourne, 1991, p. 15.


For further details see John Pascoe Fawkner's Library: Facsimile of the Sale Catalogue of 1868, Book Collectors Society of Australia, Melbourne, 1985, p. 13, and Ian F. McLaren, Henry Tolman Dwight: Bookseller and Publisher, University of Melbourne Library, Parkville, 1989, p. xii and passim.


Professor of Democracy: the Life of Charles Henry Pearson, 1830–1894, Oxford Don and Australian Radical, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1968.


See William Stebbing (ed.), Charles Henry Pearson, Fellow of Oriel and Education Minister in Victoria: Memorials by Himself, His Wife, and His Friends, Longmans, Green, and Co., London, 1900.


Pp. 293–294.


Macmillan and Co., London, 1893.


P. 2c.


The Argus, 15 August 1892, p. 2a.


See W. Kirsop, ‘Consignment Sales and Britain's Nineteenth-Century Colonial Book Trade’ in Library Association of Australia, Proceedings of the 19th Biennial Conference held in Tasmania, August 1977: Libraries in Society, The Conference Committee, Hobart, 1977, pp. 90–106, esp. pp. 103–104.


Catalogue of the Library of the late Hon. James [sic] Macgregor, Gemmell, Tuckett & Co., Melbourne, 1884 [sale on 18, 19 and 20 August]. Analysis of this quite remarkable document is proceeding.


W. Stebbing, op. cit., p. 105.


Ibid., p. 168.


Ibid., pp. 153–154, 178–187. See also G. R. Elton, F. W. Maitland, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1985, pp. 6, 7, 8, 10, 15, 17, 73, 105.


J. M. Tregenza, op. cit., p. 182.


W. Stebbing, op. cit., p. 127.


Ibid., p. 12.


Ibid., pp. 156, 158.


Ibid., p. 141.


See W. Kirsop. ‘A Note on Stendhal's Early Australian Readers’, Australian Journal of French Studies, XX, 1983, pp. 252–256.


On the phenomenon in general see A. N. L. Munby, The Cult of the Autograph Letter, Athlone Press, London, 1962.


See W. Kirsop, ‘W. E. Hearn's Library’ La Trobe Library Journal, vol. 3, n 12, October 1973, pp. 73–82.


See the list in Tregenza, op. cit., pp. 259–263.


Fergusson & Mitchell, Printers, Melbourne, 1890.