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Book Collecting

The first edition of Jonathan Wantrup's Australian Rare Books 1788-1900 was published 35 years ago. In the intervening decades he continued to make revisions and to add new chapters. The revised and enlarged second edition, to be published in 2022, is three times the length of the first edition, adding five long new chapters, with over 500 works now described in the second edition Checklist (including many revisions or additions to the books described in the first edition).

The new chapters deal with: Colourplate Natural History to the 1850s; Colourplate Natural History from 1860 to 1900; The eight elaborate French 'grands voyages' into the south-west Pacific between 1817 and 1840, with an attempt to provide ideal descriptions of all the magnificent official and participant publications; books of the Australian gold rush from the 1850s and 1860s; finally a chapter on Australian colonial literature focusing on the landmark works that led to an Australian literature by the turn of the century.

Extract from Chapter Twelve

The first account of goldfields life by a miner, as opposed to a visitor, came from a Victorian digger, William Hall. Hall described himself as “fourteen years’ resident in Australia” and his name duly appears in the 1838 Port Phillip census. When the rushes began in 1851 he was a merchant and shop-keeper in Melbourne but, like many others, was unable to retain his workers. Sensibly, he arranged a partnership with three younger men, two being former employees, and set off for Mount Alexander in October. Hall and his party were successful but after a time he became disenchanted with their company and returned to his former avocation as a store-keeper, profitably establishing several stores on the diggings.

His relatively short but quite detailed narrative of his mining experience was published in London late in 1852 by Effingham Wilson, a publisher and bookseller who specialised in colonial works. The octavo booklet – it has 56 pages, the last blank – was entitled Practical Experience at the Diggings of the Gold Fields of Victoria. The first edition is very rare; it is not recorded by Ferguson and I can find a record of only one copy on the market, that sold by Bernard Quaritch Limited in 1979. The Quaritch first edition was rebound but it would probably have been issued in wrappers, as was the second edition, which was issued the same year in yellow paper wrappers and was in other respects identical. A third edition, also printed in 1852, added “With the Government Regulations for the Diggers” to the title-page, printing these regulations on the previously blank page 56. As with the first edition, only one copy of this third edition has appeared on the market, in 2018. It is now in an important private collection. All editions of Hall’s book are rare.

Quite apart from its historical and sentimental appeal as the first published narrative by a digger, Hall’s Practical Experience is a valuable and interesting work. His style is fluent and unaffected, his descriptions evocative, his eye for detail of character and incident is sharp. As both a successful digger and an established colonist he is able to offer a comparative perspective when describing the social effects of the gold rushes, a perspective lacking in subsequent first-hand accounts written by emigrant diggers.

Hall writes from the viewpoint of the petit bourgeois, which, oddly, is an uncommon viewpoint for the digger writer, who tended to be either ‘gentleman’ or labourer. In Hall’s case this permits some useful insights into the developing Australian egalitarianism. He is, for instance, very conscious of the distinction between master and servant and, indeed, stands upon that distinction. Nevertheless, he records with equanimity that squatters and other employers, ruined by the lack of labour, were to be found digging side-by-side with their former servants. Hall’s cheerful and active acceptance of this disregard for the ‘proper distinctions’ is in marked contrast to the apoplectic rage of so-called gentlemen like James Macarthur.

The author’s own rejection of social pretensions and affectation, quite as much as the democratic temper of the goldfields, is revealed in his relation of an episode from his first day at the diggings. He saw a young dandy, dressed after the most approved fashion in an exquisitely tailored bushman’s outfit, alight from his chaise-cart.

'He stepped forward and asked a digger, who happened to pass at that moment, to carry a bag of sugar from the cart to his tent, a distance of thirty yards, and he would give him a shilling. The man looked at him with the most withering scorn, and placing his foot on a piece of stone, said – "I say, my fine fellow, if you will tie up my bootlace, I will give you a crown". This quite paralysed the dandy digger, who sneaked off amidst the boisterous laughter of the bystanders.'

The young lordling was one of those who learnt the lesson of the goldfields and Hall records that he soon lost “his ridiculous notions of superiority”.

It is doubtful that this characteristic Australian distaste for servility had its origins in the gold rush but, as this anecdote suggests, gold provided the economic lever that enforced respect for individual dignity. This is just one of the enlivening details that makes this rare first account by a digger both desirable and significant. Its value is hard to determine: the Quaritch first edition was priced at US$225 in 1979 and would now realise more than ten times that figure, with the second and third editions not far behind. It is a book to be acquired at the first opportunity: there may well not be another.