Sunday, 16 April 2017

Find us on Instagram


Our talented volunteer, Nienna Fontana, is developing a gallery of images which highlight the visual appeal of the wonderful Launceston Mechanics' Institute collection - the books, bindings, illustrations, typography, and even the bumps and scuffs gathered over the last two centuries.

You can now enjoy Nienna's superb photographs and follow her as she records her impressions of the collection on Instagram at:

Saturday, 15 April 2017

St John Browne and the Penny Cyclopaedia



One of the earliest tasks in establishing the new Launceston Mechanics' Institute Library was the provision of a Reference Collection for the use of members in the Reading Room. This collection was based largely on donations and so by 1861 it included an eclectic mix of subjects, as shown in this excerpt from the Printed catalogue of that year.

Many of these items remain in the collection today, and one with especially interesting provenance is the Penny Cyclopaedia.

Its accession was recorded thus in the minutes of the 1843 annual meeting of the society; "on loan, for use in the reading-room, the Penny Cyclopaedia, 21 vols., from St. John E. Browne, Esq."  Every volume was permanently inscribed with the owner's name on the flyleaf.

The Penny Cyclopaedia, which was produced for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, was published by Charles Knight the publisher of the Penny Magazine. Twenty-seven volumes and three supplements were published from 1828 to 1843. The Society's object was to publish inexpensive texts for an expanding reading public, with a particular emphasis on self-education; a perfect fit with the aims and ideals of a Mechanics' Institute.

Clearly, since we still have the set of books, the original owner did not exercise his right to reclaim his loan. So what is known about the donor, St John E. Browne?

He was a younger brother of Rev William Henry Browne, who was rector of St John's Church, Launceston from 1828 to 1868. St John must have soon followed his brother to VDL as he first comes to notice in Launceston in 1831 as the operator of a private school. The brothers' relationship is succinctly characterised by Gill Morris; - "hapless and impecunious [St John] certainly tried his brother's patience, energy and pocket as much as his position of influence within government circles."(1)

A few entries from Rev Browne's journal will serve to illustrate;

5 June 1837 ... "Lectured Mr Wales & Mr Turner for their conduct in trying to provoke my Brother to a Duel."

29 January 1842 ..."Wrote several letters, visited sick etc. also engaged getting letters for St John from Bankers & to assist him against the persecution of his superior."

2 November 1844 ... "Wrote several letters, also for St John again in trouble with postmaster Genl ..."

In parallel with the "persecution of his superior" St John faced the slings and arrows of public opinion via the columns of the local newspapers, where correspondents repeatedly drew attention to the shortcomings of the post office and his management.

Somehow, doubtless with his brother's assistance, St John survived in his tenure as Post Master at Launceston until his retirement on a government pension.

The Launceston Examiner announced his retirement with characteristic delicacy;

Mr. St. John E. Browne, Postmaster at Launceston, has forwarded an application, accompanied by medical certificates, asking permission to retire on allowance. This request, made in consequence of failing health, has, we understand, been assented to by the Executive. Mr. Browne will, therefore, cease to hold office at the close of the year: it is presumed he will be succeeded by Mr. Wm. Windeatt. Such is the programme for the 1st of January, 1861. We do not care to institute any comparisons, or to say a word calculated to wound the most sensitive; but we cannot resist the conviction that the arrangements thus briefly sketched, will be acceptable to the public and beneficial to the service. (2)

St John returned to England, and, despite his "failing health", survived until 1880.

At some point after his departure a user of the Mechanics' Institute Reading Room must have taken down Volume Nine of the Penny Cyclopaedia from the shelves, and, noticing St John's inscription, decided to add a sketch of the man for posterity; - faintly pencilled below the signature is the observation that "He left behind him a character stained by avarice, harshness and deception."




It is a reminder, in the age of increasing dependence on the digital surrogate, of the value of libraries in preserving what David Pearson has described as "museums of marginalia". Our volume of the Penny Cyclopaedia has preserved a unique interaction, a moment in time when our anonymous reader felt a spontaneous need to put a deeply held personal view 'on the record.'


1. Browne, W. H., His record is on high : the journal of Reverend William Henry Browne, LLD, of St John's Church, Launceston, Van Diemen's Land, 23 May 1830 - 19 February 1845 / edited by Gill Morris. Launceston, Tasmania : Gill Morris, 2013. p 13.

2. LAUNCESTON EXAMINER. Saturday, December 1, 1860. P2.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Remembering the Institute building



Readers of this blog will be aware of the history of the building which once housed our collection. Recently we were very pleased to receive a letter (reproduced below) describing the building as the writer remembered it in the 1960s. The image below was taken on 9 September 1969 from the roof of the Town Hall. At the foot of the post is a photograph from the front page of The Examiner newspaper, on October 6 1971, illustrating the demolition of the building.

Mechanics' Institute North Facade 1969

Dear Friends of the Mechanics Institute,

A friend in Launceston sent me an article in the Examiner last November concerning your organization. I just wanted to write and say how pleased I was to learn of your efforts to save the collection. I have many memories of the Institute which was an important place in my childhood. My mother worked there for many years and I knew nearly everyone who was associated with it when it was the Launceston Public Library. I first began going to the library there in 1962 and from 1965 I took music lessons from Walter Sutherland whose parents, Walter and Edna Sutherland, lived in the elegant Librarian’s flat at the top of the building.


The place always enchanted me and it was with shock and disbelief that we and many of our friends learned of its fate. Everyone I know did everything possible to save the building and was horrified when the State Library overruled local decisions on the matter. The debate on this subject raged for several years the beautiful building was deeply missed from the moment it was closed and to this day many of us are still aggrieved by its destruction. The decision to demolish was very unpopular amongst certain groups in Launceston and it was seen as arrogant and interfering on the part of the Hobart-based State Librarian, Mr A. E. Browning who was more or less demonised over the issue not that he had been greatly popular anyway. Phil Leonard was distressed by the whole issue as he had to straddle all boundaries on the matter and satisfy everyone.


My mother bought the bricks from the demolished building and had them delivered to our house in West Launceston where they remain to this day in the form of a courtyard and a wall. As children my sister and I spent many tedious weekends and afternoons cleaning thousands of those bricks of which a great many were handmade and retained the thumb print in the corner where the clay had been removed from the mould. I very much doubt that the present owners of the house have any idea of the provenance of the bricks which surround them now.


Most people will not remember the areas of the building that were not open to the public in the second half of the 20th century because very few people ever went into them. They were quite splendid and included several lecture theatres and a magnificent auditorium replete with a gilded proscenium arch. All of the rooms were of massive scale and had perfectly made Italianate tiling, highly decorative wrought iron, pressed tin and exquisite mouldings, all of the highest quality, which remained until the building closed. The children’s library, adult lending library and reference library were wood-panelled with beautifully wrought wooden bentwood chairs and more substantial reading chairs in the reference room. I think the library remained more or less as it was when it opened in the 1850s and its loss was unique and great.


There are so many wonderful stories of the building and of the remarkable people who worked there, many of whom I knew and some were remarkable characters. It was delightful to learn that the collection survives and that you are doing what you can to preserve it.


Kind regards

Marc Ellis


Friday, 2 September 2016

The Treasure Within 1 : Bell’s Poets


Among the LMI Collection’s treasures is a cluster of little gems, a set of very small, uniformly bound volumes: all 109 of them. 


Ten of LMI’s set of 109 pocket-sized Bell’s Poets volumes; 30cm ruler resting on top.

They have an intriguing past, not only in the history of London book production and bookselling, but in the air of mystery surrounding their acquisition by the Launceston Mechanics’ Institute in the second year of its life. Their collective name is Bell’s Poets, or as their richly illustrated title pages announce: Bell’s Edition – The Poets of Great Britain Complete, from Chaucer to Churchill.


Vignette of the author and half-title page for #52 in the series: Jonathan Swift, Vol I

(the quotation from ‘Corinna’ reads: ‘But Cupid with a Satyr comes; Both softly to the Cradle creep.’)

The ambitious goal of its founders for the Mechanics’ Institute was to make it a force for enlightenment that would attract the general public, and most particularly artisans, tradesmen, practical working men who might otherwise spend their time and money on frivolous entertainments, or worse still, drink. The greatest emphasis initially of these nineteenth-century social reformers was upon lectures and intellectually stimulating activities for larger audiences, but an accessible library was an essential component too. Scientific apparatus, natural history specimens and museum items were soon to follow.

In the few months following its founding meeting in March 1842 the Institute came to include many of Launceston’s leading citizens: Police Magistrate WH Breton, the Rev Charles Price, Rev John West, Rev. Dr Browne, Dr Grant, VW Giblin, James Robertson, Thomas Button and William Henty among others, whose donations put together an initial collection of books and periodicals. In the report from the Board of Management at the end of 1842 the Secretary (and Librarian) Mr TJ Connor noted 170 volumes. By October 1843 this had risen through donations not only by members but by others such as its patron Sir John Franklin, Lady Jane Franklin, and James Aikenhead, the proprietor of the Launceston Examiner. To these were added periodicals, including current newspapers from within the colony and elsewhere and by the purchase of the Penny, Blackwoods and Family Magazines and Chambers Edinburgh Journal.

It is in the Annual Report in October 1844 that alongside the donation by members Dr Kenworthy (of Lardner's Encyclopedia, 109 vols.) and Mr Oakden (8 volumes of Shakespeare’s works) that the first purchases of books are recorded. They are headed by: Novels of Sir Walter Scott (48 vols.), Bell’s Poets (109 vols.) and British Essayists (40 vols.) The cost altogether does not appear to be great, as the financial summary for the year has two listings of ‘Books as pr acct’, for £12.6.0d and £1.1.6d. By whom these accounts were presented, and whether they were local, wider colonial or London-based is not known. The partial unfolding of that story will wait for another post.

The early donations and purchases show a desire to provide a foundation library of reference for members, especially through the Lardner’s Encyclopedia volumes for information and the Bell’s British Poets for the best in literature, where it took its place beside works of Shakespeare, Scott and Byron, the latter two being the towering British literary figures of the earlier Nineteenth Century. 

It is not so easy now to recognise how pre-eminent poetry was in the canons of English literature from the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Century, but there is no doubt that for the citizens of Van Diemen’s Land making connection to the finest cultural artefacts of the mother country, poetry had a central place. To have so encyclopedic a representation of English poetry in their library was a way of ‘covering the field’. It is particularly notable that in the next 20 years, during which the library grew to over 4,000 volumes, Bell’s Poets served as the core, a form of collective anthology to which specifically desired authors were added. The poets included by Bell were not in general represented in future purchases or the increasingly scarce donations.

So when and where did the idea of producing the works of the leading British poets in sets of pocket-sized volumes emerge?  The story is told in a fine history of an aspect of late eighteenth-century publishing, Thomas F. Bonnell’s 2008 study: The Most Disreputable Trade – Publishing the Classics of English Poetry, 1765-1810 (OUP).

A tradition of publishing the most famous of Greek and Roman authors spread almost universally throughout Europe with the dissemination of the technology of printing in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth centuries. Accompanying the exuberant spirit of the Renaissance, too, came a growing pride in national literatures in Italy, France, Spain and, somewhat belatedly, in England for its greatest poets, dramatists and, later still, its prose writers.

Libraries of the aristocratic, the wealthy and the educated became filled with locally produced works, finely printed and often bound by the owners uniformly according to their own tastes, furnished with their family crests and bookplates. It was yet another step taken in the mid- to later Eighteenth Century for British publishers to bring out ‘pocket’ editions sufficiently small for them to be carried while travelling by coach or on board ship. Sometimes the publisher or bookseller would provide a custom-made travelling case for these miniature libraries.

The earliest in this mode of publication came from Glasgow with Robert and Andrew Foulis in 1765, followed soon after by William Creech and John Balfour in Edinburgh in 1773. The market was further stimulated by a change in copyright law in 1774 that no longer gave privilege to the old guard of London publishers who had claimed ‘the classics’ as their own territory.

An enterprising young London bookseller, John Bell, previously shut out by established rivals in the trade, saw his opportunity. Working with probably the best craftsman printers in Edinburgh, Gilbert Martin and his sons at the Apollo Press, Bell began his serial edition of the British poets in 1776. Starting with Milton, and working his way steadily through a further 49 earlier and later poets, he concluded with fourteen volumes of Chaucer in 1783.  Each one was furnished with its own engraving illustrating a few lines from one of the poems included, and a vignette of each poet at the start of the volume or subseries of his works.

Of the 50 poets featured, all but three, Chaucer, Spenser and Donne, flourished from the mid-Seventeenth to the mid-Eighteenth Century. Many of the remaining 47 are now largely forgotten, but at the time were popular and eminent enough to command an audience, and not just amongst the wealthy.  These works attracted sales from an educated middle-class and less affluent readership.

Bell’s terms were:  

Complete sets, 109 vols, neatly sewed and titled, £8 8s
Ditto, bound, calf, gilt and registered,   £13 13s.
Ditto, calf, gilt, elegantly marbled, and registered, £16 16s.
Ditto, superbly in Morocco, gilt edges, £3 3s.


It cost a further £2 2s. for a special case, ingeniously designed to look like two folio volumes (ref. Bonnell, p. 125).



Top half of an original folio case opened to show the first 52 volumes of Bell’s British Poets

These prices were certainly very reasonable, and opened what was otherwise an esoteric field to a whole new audience. Bell claimed the price of any one volume sewn in its plain wrapper at 1s 6d was a quarter the cost of any other publisher’s. And in the prospectus, like any bold entrepreneur, he vaunted ‘every page of the work may be admired as a typographical picture which displays at once the divinity and perfections in the art of printing.’ A more moderate twentieth-century estimate still praises it highly, however, by saying: ‘the type, though small, was clear and well spaced, the letterpress title-pages handsomely laid out, the engraved half-titles smartly conceived, and the portraits uncommonly well engraved from good originals.’ (both quotations taken from Stanley Morison, ‘John Bell: A Note Addressed to the Members of the First Edition Club, in Morison’s John Bell, Cambridge, Mass.,1960; quoted in Bonnell, p.130.)

It is clear why the LMI members should think of a set of Bell’s Poets to grace their new library. The set they bought has a mixture of the first and second editions, as well as later editions up to 1788, and the quality appears to the next-to-highest available.

So where did they acquire it, and what do the volumes themselves now in the Mechanics’ Institute Collection tell us about this phenomenon of British publishing and what was available to Launceston readers in the first half of the Nineteenth Century?  A later post will elaborate.

 Contributed by Mike McCausland