David Scott Mitchell and Australia's First Book

By Larkin, Maryanne | M A R G I N: life & letters in early Australia, August 2007 | Go to article overview

David Scott Mitchell and Australia's First Book


Larkin, Maryanne, M A R G I N: life & letters in early Australia


The bicentenary of the publication of Australia's first book was noted in an article in Margin in 2002. (1) The Mitchell Library in Sydney is the proud custodian of two copies of this very rare book with the rather prosaic title of New South Wales General Standing Orders. (2) They were bequeathed to the Library one hundred years ago this year by David Scott Mitchell, one of Australia's greatest book collectors. The story of Mitchell's acquisition of these copies has been told by several writers, including J.A. Ferguson and Anne Robertson, but with some inaccuracies and omissions. (3) Mitchell was a passionate collector, but a poor keeper of paper records who depended almost entirely on his excellent memory to know what he had in his collection. It is now difficult to establish a chain of ownership for many of the items which he donated to the Library.

Fortunately we know, through the records of others, some details about how Mitchell obtained his copies of Standing Orders. He bought one at the sale of the library of politician Sir John Hay who died in 1892. This copy, two volumes bound together, includes annotations showing corrections to be made to the text. The volume is inscribed with the names of the Sydney Gazette Office, Robert Howe (son of George Howe), surveyor William Wells and John Hay.

Although it has neither his signature nor his bookplate, Mitchell's ownership of this copy is well documented. Bibliophile John Hughes, MLC, told the Select Committee on the Working of the Free Public Library in 1900: 'I saw that particular copy, which was sold with Sir John Hay's Library, and I know the history of it. I gave a commission for it, but I subsequently found that Mr Mitchell had a commission out also, and I knew perfectly well that there was no use running against Mr Mitchell if he wanted the book ... and I withdrew'. (4) The book sold for 25 [pounds sterling]. Anne Robertson claims that this volume was 'doubly precious, for it had belonged to Anna Josepha, the wife of Governor King'. In this, she is incorrect. It is Mitchell's other copy which was formerly owned by the King family.

This second copy, in two separate volumes with the printer's corrections incorporated, was Philip Gidley King's own. Published accounts of its provenance omit part of the story. Bookseller James Tyrrell wrote that Mitchell acquired it from Edward Petherick: 'Fred Wymark once met D.S. Mitchell coming away from Petherick's bookshop ... Under Mitchell's arm was a parcel, and on his face a look of ineffable joy. And no wonder! Atter an hour's bargaining he had beaten Petherick down from 75 [pounds sterling] to 50 [pounds sterling] for New South Wales General Standing Orders ... Mitchell's purchase from Petherick is today one of the treasures of the Mitchell Library'. (5) However, further evidence suggests that Petherick was acting as an agent for the owner.

With the volumes in the Mitchell Library is a note, dated 14 March 1892, signed by J.H. Vannooten stating that he sold the books to D.S. Mitchell, and that he obtained the volumes directly from a member of the King family. There is also a copy of a letter, 29 October 1891, offering the work in two volumes to the Librarian of the Melbourne Public Library. …

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