State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 62 Spring 1998

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Annotation: Audubon's Birds of America in the State Library

The Story of the State Library's purchase of one of the world's great bibliographical treasures is told in a neat clerical hand on the back of a card in the old catalogue, now banished to the basement of the great domed building. The treasure is John James Audubon's Birds of America, which was originally published in 87 parts from 1827 to 1838. Each part consisted of five plates and cost two guineas. Only about 190 copies were issued. The Library's copy is bound in four double elephant folios (over a metre in height) and is complete with 435 hand-coloured aquatint plates. The volumes are housed in a custom-built, glass-fronted mahogany bookcase in the Rare Books Collection.
Foxcroft's note (for the writing is in the hand of the librarian, A.B. Foxcroft) tells us that in 1871 a Mr William Stallard, the Principal of Western College, Geelong, offered the Birds of America to the then Melbourne Public Library for £200 — ‘it would cost twice that to replace’, wrote Mr Stallard. In a curt memo, the President of the Trustees, Sir Redmond Barry (he was knighted in that very year), noted that £150 was too much. The book was eventually obtained for a paltry £100. A further £16 was spent on restoring the bindings on three of the four volumes. Today, we admire Barry for his success in getting a treasure so cheaply, but in my own perverse way I wanted to know more about the loser, William Stallard, and how he came to have one of the great books of the world in Geelong in 1871.
William Stallard is not a well-known figure. He does not appear in the standard histories of Geelong or Victoria, but very few people die without leaving any trace of their existence. After only a little searching, several traces of Stallard were revealed, including civil registrations, newspaper references, directory entries and advertisements.
When confronted by an a-historical figure such as William Stallard, my first port of call is the Library's Genealogy Centre where the civil registrations for the period can be searched on CD-ROM. After only a few minutes, I had the birth of a daughter in 1867, and Stallard's own death in 1882 at the age of 61. I immediately requested certificates from the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages. These took only a few days to arrive.
While waiting for the certificates, I contacted the Geelong Historic Records Centre. With remarkable efficiency and good use of the new technology, Angela Berridge of the Centre responded almost immediately to my inquiry. The Centre's index to the Geelong Advertiser revealed two references. The first, of minor significance, noted the change of name of Stallard's school from Western College to Western Commercial School (Geelong Advertiser, 11 April 1871). The second and more telling reference (Geelong Advertiser, 8 May 1872) indicates that in 1872 Stallard's residence was up for lease or sale. The
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Stallards were moving from Geelong, and perhaps the college had failed. Remember that this is only a short time after Stallard sold the Birds of America to the Library.
At this point, serendipity (read ‘dumb luck’) lent a hand. On the shelves of the Rare Books Collection many of the Geelong directories are gathered together in single volumes, sometimes with directories from other towns. While checking through one such volume, I inadvertently looked up Huxtable's Ballarat Commercial Directory for 1857; listed there was ‘Stallard, William, commercial academy, Doveton-street’ — there was even a half-page advertisement for the school, indicating the courses offered and the fees. Other Ballarat directories for 1862 and 1865 showed that Stallard continued to be the Principal of what became the Ballarat Grammar School.
Having placed Stallard in Ballarat in the 1860s, I thought that he might turn up in the excellent index to the Ballarat Star for that period. Sure enough, there were several references to such things as rivalry with the local Presbytery School, annual examinations, and local politics. It was in a report of the school's annual examination for 1866 (Ballarat Star, 14 December 1866) that Stallard announced ‘that he had decided upon leaving Ballarat, on account of the ill-health of his family’. He later explained in an advertisement for his new school in Geelong that he had moved ‘in consequence of the health of his family requiring a more congenial climate’ (Ballarat Star, 6 April 1867). Health benefits do seem to have accrued to Stallard and his wife: Lily Kate was born to them on 24 September, 1867.
The same advertisement, taking up some several column inches, was for the Geelong Commercial Academy, located at the corner of Victoria Terrace and Mercer Street. The course advertised was predominantly commercial, and the rates were slightly cheaper than those of the Ballarat Grammar. It is interesting to note that the school was a family business: the boarders were under the supervision (no doubt stern) of Mrs Stallard senior. Incidentally, old Mrs Stallard survived her son, dying at St Kilda in 1885 at the age of 85 years.
I think we can assume that the new school was not a success. As we have seen, Stallard sold out in 1872. Before that, the location of the school had shifted at least once, and the name had been changed on two occasions. The sale of the Birds of America in 1871 was apparently part of this struggle to make ends meet.
Even on the evidence to hand — a family in poor health, a failing business, an ageing breadwinner — one can deduce the downward trajectory of the family's fortunes. The certificates requested from the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages added a few more details of the family's life history. They also provided the story's denouement.
Firstly, the extra detail. Lily Kate's birth certificate tells us that Stallard had been born in Somerset (in 1821) and that he married Catherine Rose Kelly in Calcutta in 1846, apparently when she was only 14. Catherine had been born in India. There were two older children, Anne Kate and Eva Minnie. William Stallard's death certificate adds that he had been 25 years in Tasmania and 20 years in Victoria. In precise terms, this statement is clearly incorrect. However, we might surmise that Stallard had been in Tasmania at some stage of his life, presumably before he came to Victoria. We have seen
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already that he was in Victoria at least as early as 1857. A search of the Tasmanian Pioneers Index reveals the birth of Eva Minnie at Hobart on April 12, 1854.
The death certificate tells us that William Stallard died on 14 August, 1882. His profession was listed as clerk, not teacher. He was 61 years of age. The cause of death, as determined by the coroner, was ‘Suicidal drowning’, the result of an unsound mind from excessive drinking. A contemporary newspaper account (Age, 16 August 1882) gives a few more details.
It appeared that [the] deceased … was very despondent on account of his having been dismissed from his employment by reason of his intemperate habits. George Panwan, a ganger residing at Footscray, deposed that whilst standing on the Harbour Trust steps near the Gasworks, about half-past one o'clock on Monday afternoon, he observed the deceased deliberately throw himself into the water from the wharf on the Emerald-hill side of the river.
Stallard was buried in the Melbourne General Cemetery three days after his death. Nothing further is known about his wife, Catherine, or the children, Ann, Eva and Lily.
There is no evidence for when or how Stallard acquired the Birds of America, but we might suppose that it was in England rather than in India or Tasmania or Victoria. Perhaps the purchase of the Birds was the product of another, more affluent time, before the hardship of colonial life dragged William Stallard into the sink of despair. The Birds of America, purchased by the Melbourne Public Library for £100 in 1871, was recently valued at a conservative $5 million.
Brian Hubber