State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 62 Spring 1998

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Library Profile: Augustus Tulk, Gentleman Librarian

Augustus Henry Tulk was appointed the first librarian at the Melbourne Public Library on 5 May 1856. His selection from a field of 48 applicants was a most prudent one. When he took up his duties, the library had been open to the public for only three months and contained slightly fewer than 400 volumes. When he died in office some seventeen years later, the Public Library of Victoria had more than 80,000 volumes and had expanded to include a picture gallery and the scientific and natural history museums. This expansion, partly mirroring the overall expansion of the gold rush colony of Victoria, was due mainly to the work of two people, the indefatigable Chairman of Trustees, Redmond Barry, and Tulk himself.

Augustus Henry Tulk (1810-73)

Tulk was born in 1810 at Richmond in Surrey, the son of Charles Augustus and Susannah Tulk (née Hart). His father and grandfather were noted Swedenborgians (followers of the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg), and men with independent fortunes. Charles Tulk was a one-time member of the House of Commons, representing, initially, Sudbury and later Poole, and an active county of Middlesex magistrate who took a special interest in the management of prisons and asylums and the improvement of the working conditions of factory hands. An active publicist for rational mysticism, he was also an intimate friend of Coleridge.
Young Augustus received a classical education at Winchester College and later studied abroad at Heidelberg and elsewhere on the continent, gaining a fluency in German, French, Russian and Italian. He was also familiar with Greek, Latin, Dutch and Spanish, and allegedly could distinguish between the dialects of Norway, Sweden and Denmark. In short, he was an educated gentleman of independent means.
In 1838 Tulk married Jane Augusta Browne at Newcastle-on-Tyne. They were to have five children. For health reasons — he was a diabetic in later life according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, — Tulk was advised to live in a warmer and dryer climate. At the suggestion of Eugene Von Guerard, his son's former drawing master,
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Tulk decided to migrate to Australia. He purchased the General Guyon, a brigantine, loaded it with mining machinery, including a quartz-crushing machine, and sailed with his family for the colonies, his intention being to sell the machinery and to set himself up as a squatter on the land.
The Tulks arrived in Melbourne on 13 July 1854. The quartz machine was erected at Mount Egerton, near Ballarat, but Tulk apparently lacked any business aptitude and, after several bad mining investments, decided to seek a more congenial occupation. He successfully applied for the position of librarian at the newly established Melbourne Public Library where he commenced duty on 12 May 1856 at a salary of around £400 per annum.
Tulk was said to be familiar with all the major bookshops in London and Europe, and he worked hand-in-glove with Redmond Barry to develop the collection of the fledgling library. In his 1906 chronological history of the library, one of Tulk's successors, E. La Touche Armstrong, wrote in almost hero-worshipping words:
… the new Librarian set to work. Book by book, set by set, the foundations of the Library were laid, and in almost every volume the Librarian was able to take a personal interest. For there were was a keen satisfaction in collecting the works of the great men of letters. The English chronicles and romances, the early Bibles, the works of Chaucer, More, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Milton, Swift, Steele, Addison and numerous others, to the days of Tennyson and Browning, Caryle and Matthew Arnold; these and their great foreign contemporaries were all intensely interesting ‘quarry’… Then there were the classics and some good translations; all the great histories and topographies; the magazines and publications of the learned societies; the scarce books, the good ‘tall folios’ and the dainty little duodecimos. (E. La Touche Armstrong, The Book of the Public Library, 1906, p. 110)
At the opening of the Queen's Hall Reading Room on 24 May 1859, Redmond Barry proudly pointed out that the library now contained more than 13,000 volumes and that an additional 2000 books were due any day, and that soon the library would have over 25,000 volumes as a large order was being supplied from London. By early 1861 Tulk could report that the library contained in excess of 22,000 volumes and a new catalogue was authorized at a cost of £500. By the time it was completed in 1862 it listed over 27,000 volumes.
In that year Barry travelled to Europe to represent Victoria at the International Exhibition in London, and Tulk took a year's leave of absence, beginning in August 1864. Both were assiduous in buying books and seeking donations for their beloved Melbourne Library. By March 1865 the collection had grown to 38,000 volumes and it was to double in size over the remaining eight years of Tulk's time in office.
In addition to building the book stock, Tulk played an active role in the formation of what was to eventually become the National Gallery of Victoria (opened as the Museum of Art in May 1861) and the Museum of Victoria. The three institutions came under the one set of trustees with the passing of the Public Library, Museum and National Gallery Act in December 1869. The previous month had seen
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the passing of the Copyright Act, the forerunner of legal deposit and the basis of the library's printed Victoriana Collection, under which the library was entitled to receive a copy of every book, newspaper, periodical and map published in the colony.
Tulk died at his St Kilda home on the morning of 1 September 1873 after a period of ill-health. As a mark of respect the library was closed for the day. Despite his failing health Tulk had continued working up to a week before he died and, according to the biographical section in The Book of the Public Library, he was studying Fijian and Australian Aboriginal dialects, still keeping up with his European stable of languages. The same biography said of Tulk as a librarian:
He was to some extent a Librarian of the old school, and to say that is to pay the memory of the man no mean compliment. It means he was of a school with Dibdin, Laing, Douce, Ellis, and perhaps, the old Italian Magliabecchi. He had not the combination of scholarship and practical librarianship of Panizzi but he had the wide reading and real love of books that so often marked the old-time librarian or keeper. (p. 112)
A warm obituary in the Australasian Sketcher (probably written by James Smith) quoted a writer and a fellow acquaintance:
Even in his later days of declining health, when met, casually slowly tracing his painful way homewards from his beloved library, a literary question — no matter how recondite or deep — always received the same polite and ready answer. It was, indeed, the humour of certain of his friends, knowing intimately his marvellous quality, to lay little traps for him, in the pleasant hope that some one time, merely by miracle, he might be caught tripping. Through the course of a seventeen years' intimate and unbroken intercourse with him, it can be testified, he was never once caught. (4 October 1873)
Tulk was the ideal appointment as the first librarian of Australia's first free library. At one stage, he was approached to be the Librarian at the Public Library of New South Wales and he was also offered assistance in obtaining a position as a librarian in the Royal Household in England. However, he remained loyal to the Public Library of Victoria. His tenure saw the foundation of the its great collection, the effective establishment of Melbourne's three major cultural institutions (the Public Library, the Museum and the National Gallery) and the introduction of the legal deposit obligation of publishers of books and printed material in this state. He may have been a booklover first and a librarian second, but this fault, if it can be called such, was the Library's — and Victoria's — gain.
John Arnold