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Australian Library and Literary Institution 1868, watercolour by E. Hawley

Origins of the State Library of New South Wales, 1826–1869

Geoff Barker
Between 1826 and 1869 the Australian Subscription Library was reshaped into a Free Public Library.

Beginnings, 18261836

On 13 March 1826 a small group of well-to-do Sydney gentlemen met at the Sydney Hotel to discuss regulating access and loans to the valuable collection of books being acquired by the 'Sydney Australian Subscription Library and Reading Room'. Their concerns were keenly felt, for, as with most privileged men of their age, knowledge about the new practical sciences and philosophies were acquired through personal endeavour rather than through professional training. In Sydney these concerns were amplified by the lack of universities or public schools teaching sciences; and the fact almost all books which came off the printing presses in Europe spent months at sea before finding themselves in the hands of Sydneysiders.

The 'Sydney Australian Subsciription Library and Reading Room' had been set up a month earlier, on the 3 February, to try to remedy some of these issues. Here they would be able to loan each other books from their libraries and pool their subscription fees to purchase new volumes from the Government Agent in London. Although they had yet to secure premises for their new venture the first members had paid £5 admission fee and agreed to pay a further £2 per year to continue their membership. 

Membership was exclusive as these costs were prohibitively high for many Sydneysiders in 1826 and women were excluded from being able to become members. On top of this, new subscribers could only be proposed by existing members and they then had to wait for three-quarters of the members to agree on their appointment. Given all of this, it is no surprise the the early library was almost exclusively reserved for a small elite group.   

Surviving on the money from such a limited pool of people was always going to be hard and it was perhaps inevitable that over the next forty years financial difficulties would be a constant concern for members. However, in its infancy the subscription model seemed to be working for its members and in June 1827 the Library achieved one of the first milestones. This was the leasing of one Mr Terry’s newly completed line of buildings on the northern end of Pitt Street. In December of the same year the preparations were completed and the Library moved its store of books to open its first reading room at “No. 1 Terry’s Buildings”.  

At their general meeting on 10 February 1829, everyone applauded the donation of rare texts, money and a general atlas by Archdeacon Scott but underlying problems were emerging. For one thing there was a low turn-out (only a dozen or so members turned up) and there were concerns about the performance of Mr Barnard, the Government Agent employed by the Library to purchase books in London. Mr Barnard it seems while acknowledging the receipt of the group's money had failed to deliver a single volume and the meeting decided to employ Mr Donnison of 'Donnison and Cobb' instead.  

Finances were also an issue. Sydney had no electric or gas lighting and the costs of accessing the collections in the evening needed to be carefully thought through before the committee finally resolved,

to keep the library on lawful days open to members in the evening, by candle light, and to keep up the lights and fires, if necessary, till nine o’clock

Further problems confronted the Library when in 1831 the Commissioners took possession of the Terry Street building for the use of the King’s School, forcing the Library to a new location on the site of the old post office in George Street. Perhaps as a way of compensating them, Governor Darling, offered as a parting gift on 10 October 1831,

two building allotments in Hyde Park for a suitable library and also two allotments in the vicinity of Rushcutters Bay for the purpose of being sold or otherwise disposed of for promoting the success of this valuable institution. 

The old Post Office, George Street, illustration from Historical Notes, Bladen, 1911
The old Post Office, George Street

It was intended that the Hyde Park properties would be united with a new Museum building and was to be granted free of 'quit-rent' for ever. However offering land grants was one thing, finding the money to build a library would prove much more complicated. 

In December 1831 the books and pamphlets were moved into the old Post Office but the provision of land, and now a government building from the public purse had introduced another issue. The library needed a Government Act to formally pass the lands over to the trustees. On 29 July 1834, Governor Richard Bourke passed this Act which made it possible for the library to own land and sell shares in the Society or Company and lastly it enabled the, 

Proprietors of a Public Library heretofore instituted and conducted at Sydney  … under the name of “Australian Subscription Library,” to sue and be sued.

Government support continued, although by July 1835, they were still searching for an allotment for erecting of a suitable building. The only ones at the Government’s disposal were in Bridge Street and Church Hill and the members were concerned about the size and scale of building on these sites. They were also worried about who would pay for it as Governor Bourke had recently,

offered to erect a building at the expense of Government, in which the Library should have permanent and suitable accommodation, at a mere nominal rental, and in which, also, there should be accommodation for a Colonial Museum, provided the proprietors of the Library would forego their claim to the building allotment

While the library was obviously taken with the financial benefits of the proposal they baulked at the site chosen by the Governor. Somewhat ironically, given Bourke’s preferred location was in the Government Domain,

in that part of the prolongation of Bent Street, intervening between the site of the old windmill, at the end of Macquarie Street, and the Botanic Garden.

In addition, there was some dissatisfaction expressed by members about the grant of land on the Bridge Street site and this appeared to help hold back building on the site. But by this time the future of the library was not confined to internal discussions. Around this time people began openly discussing the issue of public access to the Sydney Subscription Library collections. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald from January 1836 articulated some of these thoughts;

there is no Public Library - properly so called - in this Colony; and we regret to acknowledge we are so far behind other colonies in this respect. … The Australian Subscription Library is not a Public Library in the proper sense of the word; and although we admit the right of the members to manage their own concerns as they please, we are so little admirers of monopoly in literature, that we would rejoice to witness the establishment of a Public or National Library, in Sydney.

This external interest in the creation of a National Library was something which successive New South Wales governments exhibited varying degrees interest in throughout the lifetime of the Subscription Library. It even played a significant role in the development of the Mitchell Library, which was constructed 1906-1910 as the first wing of the long promised National Library. 

But in 1836, while the Australian Subscription Library was expressing unhappiness about the locations offered by the Government, they  faced a more pressing problem. In May of that year they were forced to move from their cramped location in Old Post Office on George Street.

Over the next month or so they transferred their growing collection to the more commodious upper floor of the late residence of Chief Justice Forbes on the corner of Bridge and Gresham streets (this is now occupied by the old Department of Lands building). The bottom floor of the building was occupied by the Court of Requests.

Residence of the Chief Justice
Residence of the Chief Justice

A question of government support, 1838–1842

This move had been made with the support of Governor Bourke but in 1838 he was replaced by Governor Gipps. Among the subjects that attracted the attention of the new Governor was the want of a public library and the fact that the Australian Subscription Library,

although endowed as if it had been a public institution, being in fact, exclusive in the extreme. His Excellency has lately, we are given to understand, intimated to the Managing Committee, that until the Library assumes something more of the form of an institution to which the public generally is admissible, he has determined to withhold privileges which it has hitherto possessed, in order that Government patronage may not be extended to an institution merely private.

In consequence of this intimation, the Committee, we believe, have it in contemplation to make the institution to all intents and purposes a public one, reserving to the original subscribers only the exclusive privilege of the entree to a private room, the grand hall of the Library being thrown open to all who choose to become connected with the institution.

By July 1838 the Library was trying to urge the commencement of building as Government estimates for the year had allocated 4000 pounds to build a Public Library and Museum. But the Government was now asking for assurance the public would have access to the books. On 25 October the Society proposed allocating a special room in the new building where the general public could look at books but not lend them.To complicate matters, they also stipulated that access would be by a ticket which needed to be signed by a member of the committee and the expense of a library attendant was to be incurred by Government. Perhaps not surprisingly the government did not support the proposal. By the end of 1840, letters were still being fielded in the Press by the public demanding a library in Sydney, 

which might deserve to be called an “Australian National Library”.

In April 1839, John Fairfax had been appointed as the Society’s new librarian and in May 1840 the Society sold the allotments in Rushcutters Bay for £3,384. This was in part to raise some much-needed funds to advocate for a new building but also helped facilitate yet another move. By May 1841 the library was forced to move out their premises to make space for the Surveyor General’s Office. The new location was a building next to St James Parsonage in Macquarie Street and was granted to the library by the Governor for two years until the new building on Bent Street was completed. The move also marked the resignation of John Fairfax, to begin his illustrious newspaper career, and the appointment of a new librarian Mr. Elliot.

The Bent Street building, 1842–1850

Finally, in 1842 Lieutenant Barney submitted the long-awaited scheme for a building for the Subscription Library. Initially the sum of £10,000 was allocated for a building a hall and the architect Henry Ginn was appointed to complete the design.  The foundation stone of the new building on the corner of Bent and Macquarie Street was laid by Alexander Mcleay on 14 February, 1843.  In his speech at this event, Mcleay tried to make it clear that changes had been made to ensure the new library was to be more open to the public,

latterly, in order that there should be no reasonable plea for refusing to the library the title of a public establishment, the proprietors unanimously agreed to relinquish all their right and claim to any part of the books and other property, and an Act of the Legislative Council has been passed, by which this is declared to be the law of the colony. 

By April 1843 the two year lease on the building next to the parsonage had run out and the library was forced to make yet another move; this time to a house in Macquarie Street rented from Mrs. Reibey for £300 a year.  Nearly a year later, building was underway but the committee still had no fund in place for extending the scope of the building except for the money raised from the sale of the land in Rushcutters Bay.  In the preface to the 1843  edition of the Library catalogue, the Committee stated that they were,

anxiously waiting for a more favourable opportunity, when the improvement in monetary affairs may dispose the members .. to entertain and respond to the many and great claims, which the first Public Library in Australia has upon their patronage and support.  

Finding enough money to complete the building was a very real problem for the managers of the Subscription Library. In February 1844, Rev Dr. Lang, submitted a series of resolutions at a Special General Meeting to reform the Library and in the ensuing “hue and cry” it became clear certain parties were opposed to any form of change. Singled out for special condemnation by this group was Lang’s principal proposal which was to appoint a Special Committee to examine the affairs of the library, and that no proprietor who had been a member for more than ten years could be on this committee.  Unfortunately for Lang’s opponents, one of the only options open to them for solving the need for funds was extending their credit by pledging their future revenue for their subscribers.  A highly risky strategy. 

Those, like Lang, that supported a more public Library also pointed out that once the building was complete the library would convey the allotment of ground at the top of Bent Street to the Trustees of the institution. After this transaction, the Library would be independent of the Government making it much harder to argue for the needs of the public.  These supporters also pointed out that the grants of land were advanced on the,

express understanding and condition that it should be a public and not a private or exclusive concern.  

Regardless of these concerns, on 5 July, 1844, the Sydney Morning Herald gazetted the granting of the town allotment at Bent Street. The land granted was,

twenty and one half perches, County of Cumberland, parish of St James, city of Sydney, commencing at the intersection of Bent Street with Macquarie Street. Being in satisfaction of a promise made by Sir R. Darling, on 10th October, 1831 for the site of the Australian Subscription Library. Quit rent, one peppercorn forever. 

By the middle of 1844, the library building was well underway with the walls almost twenty feet from the ground. By July the entrance was nearly complete although some thought it would have been better placed on Macquarie Street rather than on Bent Street.  A year later it was reported in the Australian Newspaper that the Library, now nearly complete, had been built on a weak foundation and the design had been modified to give the exterior walls artificial strength. In fact, one architect had recommended that it be taken down. As it turned out, these were not idle concerns as forty years later the walls did nearly fall and required a substantial rebuild.  

But over the course of the rest of the year, the building moved towards completion and in November 1845 the members began moving the books into the new premises.  Finally, after nearly twenty years of lobbying, the Australian Subscription Library opened the doors on its own building in November 1845. 

The Subscription Library, Bent Street, built 1843-5, Sketches of Sydney, 1843-1847, Jacob William Jones, State Library of New South Wales, DGA 32
The Subscription Library, Bent Street

Initially things seemed to progress well at the new building. There were more requests for books and the number of potential subscribers was extended. On 9 July 1846, females formally became be eligible for election as subscribers.  And in 1847 the Governor gave to the Institution the allotment on Bent Street adjoining the Library. By this time they had amassed 21,670 volumes and there were some 4,600 visits to the reading room per year.  They even branched out to host a three month exhibition of Fine Arts in the library’s hall that was so successful it put money back into the library coffers.

The Australian Library and Literary Institute, 1853–1869

The ownership of land and new building also brought on the decision to make a major change to its management structure. On 7 October 1853, the library passed an Act of Incorporation and renamed itself the ‘Australian Library and Literary Institute’, in effect making it a public company with 1000 shares set at 25 pounds each. According to long-term member George Miller, this was done to imitate similar institutions in England and create a body of shareholders, 

who would, in fact, be the holders of the property, and thus become interested in its welfare and advancement. 

On 4 March 1854, Dr. Mitchell chaired a special meeting of the proprietors and shareholders where it was proposed to proceed as soon as possible with the completion of the building and to extend the supply of,

modern works and the most popular periodicals. 

But the Library’s Treasurer also sounded a warning. These good times depended wholly on the money acquired from share sales and new subscribers. This proved to be sound advice, for over the next ten years the precarious financial position of a Library no longer supported by Government would become more apparent. This was particularly obvious when it came to its  numerous expenses. The new Library was still incomplete; new books were required to draw in subscribers; a librarian’s wage had to be paid; there were accrued debts and fuel costs; and the building required ongoing maintenance.

Interior of Australian Library and Literary Institute with Dr Richard Hawley, Bent Street

Three years later these issues had become a harsh reality for the Library as their income was reliant on the 114 shares that had been sold and the 300 or so subscriptions taken up at £3 per anum each.  The serious nature of the situation was made clear at a special meeting held on 2 October, 1857 where they discussed a proposal to sell the books and landed property belonging to the institution to move to other more suitable premises. This had been put forward at a previous meeting in August but as there were only a few members present John Fairfax’s moved the amendment to October reasoning for this radical move should not be made when only 16 proprietors were present and,

more especially when it was considered that a portion of the money with which the library had been erected had been obtained as a grant from Government, while the remaining portion had been raised by the subscriptions of members.

The Secretary E. Daintrey went on to state that,

there was no disposition on the part of the public to take shares, and he could not, under these circumstances, see any other alternative open but that of disposing of the library and ground… unless they could devise some means for increasing their revenue, they would be obliged to stop. 

The dire nature of the situation was amplified by the Treasurer’s report which gave the last balance as being just £173. Their annual revenue was around £500 and the cost of management, £345, fuel £50, interest upon their debt £50, leaving just £55 pounds for book purchases. 

Others at the meeting were more optimistic about the Library’s future. The M. P.  Charles Cowper disagreed and felt that the public would take up more shares, and even suggested selling some of the books which he declared were “utterly useless” [luckily for future researchers this did not come to pass].  T. W. Cape argued that lowering the share price to 15 pound would allow more people to buy them. Captain Moriarty thought that reduction in the price of the subscriptions to around one or two pounds would help, particularly given their main competitor, the Mechanics’ School of Arts, offered more competitive rates.  After numerous arguments for and against the meeting finally decided not to sell the Institution but agreed to look into other means by which the library could raise more capital.

Three days later in a letter to the editor of the Empire, a correspondent calling themselves Nerva issued a stern warning about the decision, 

the day of reckoning is at hand, and like all institutions formed by the would-be aristocracy to be supported solely for themselves, they may linger for a time and in their passage display their incapacity for keeping pace with the times, become a byword and reproach, sink gradually into insignificance, and lastly be reckoned only among the missing. 

Four months later, at the Library’s Annual General Meeting a report on raising capital was tabled before the 15 members present. Sadly ,they made it clear they were not able to find any savings in expenditure, could see no advantages in reducing annual subscriptions, and that without finishing the Hall they could not lease out any part of the building. In fact rather than saving money the report suggested taking out a loan of over £2000 to finish the Hall. 

In the discussions that followed, Dr. Lang made his feelings about the current state of affairs clear,

in the process of time the institution was diverted from the purposes for which it had been originally founded - a feeling of exclusivity was entertained by the shareholders, who proceeded to the length of blackballing two or three respectable citizens … and from that time, the institution was looked upon by the public with distrust … the only way to get the institution out of its present difficulties was to popularise it by reducing the amount of the subscription, and making the public aware that the old character of exclusiveness has been done away with. 

In the end the meeting passed an amendment to allow more time to consider the report and think about the option of reducing the cost of subscriptions.  In March the shareholders met again to consider the report. This time those present determined to follow through on the recommendation to take out a loan of £2,200 to upgrade the building and not lower the fees.

Australian Library and Literary Institution 1868 / watercolour by E. Hawley

A year later, 31 January 1859, the renovations were nearing completion, and  discussions were still being had about what uses could be made of the building once these were complete. The costs had been substantially less, only £1,300 leaving decisions to be made by the dozen or so present as to how to spend the remainder of the loan. As it turned out this subject was deferred until after the election of the new office-bearers. 

This deferment of a decision seems to have continued and by December 1865, another report was tabled before the committee. This one recommended an Amendment Act be applied for to Parliament to see the property of the institution be represented at a capital of 2000 shares of £5 pounds each and that opening hours to the public be extended. This it was suggested would place the Institution in,

a much better place than it has ever before held in public estimation.

After some deliberation about the way the existing shares should be divided up, and the resignation of Professor John Smith, the meeting deferred any decision and was adjourned.  A month later, with the Library bank balance now at £39 16 shillings and 11 pence, the recommendation was adopted and the Bill was brought before the Legislature. In addition a new librarian, Mr. H. D. Hawley, was appointed. 

To make matters more difficult, the idea of the government creating a National Library and Museum had not disappeared with the formation of the ‘Australian Library and Literary Institute’ and the debate about its location and design would continue iright through to the 1920s. The image above is a design for a National Library and Museum in Hyde Park presented by the architect James Barnett in 1883.

An unfortunate event which occurred in 1865 highlighted this problem. In September of that year the well-respected Sydney Judge, Edward Wise, unexpectedly died at the early age of 47.  He left behind a young wife and children who set about auctioning off his property. A collection of 6000 items were auctioned at the old Bank of Australasia building through Mssrs. Bradley and Newton on the 4 December.  But it appears another 750 volumes, mainly of significant Australian material, were set aside to be bequeathed to the Australian Museum on condition they were lodged in the Free Public Library.  As a result the library had to wait until the ‘Australian Library and Literary Institute’ could effect changes that would make it a library that was free for public use before this important collection of Australian material was transferred into the library. 

In the years following 1865, there was still a solid block at the library unwilling to make these changes. In a letter to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, 26 January 1969, M. P. Q. says,

from what I hear, I am led to believe that, unless some prompt, energetic and prudent measures be taken, the most disastrous consequences will ensue. Already from want of fresh supplies of books, and other causes, I understand that many subscribers have dropped off. 

On Friday 19 February, 1869, the proprietors and shareholders were advised they were in debt to the tune of £1,100 and a that further cost of £500 was to be expected if they intended to fix the front walls which had started to give way. Four options were then presented to those attending: first, to continue the institution; second, to offer the books and building to the government for £8000; third, to sell the building and books to the highest bidder; and fourthly, to sell the building and remove the books to some other building, if one could be rented at a reasonable rate.  

Of these they agreed that the building and books be offered to the government.  Finally on 22 September, 1869, the Sydney Morning Herald announced that the government had agreed to purchase the Library’s books and chattels for £1500 and to rent the building for 12 months at £800 in advance and have the right to purchase the building outright for no less than £4000.

In addition, the government had revisited a loan of £25,000 voted by Parliament in 1861 for a free public library and used this towards effecting the transaction. Mr Walker, the Inspector of Public Charities, was appointed its new Librarian, while Mr Hawley was to be appointed as his assistant. While increasing public access to the collections was one reason for the purchase another was the transfer of books and records held in other government departments to the new Library.  

One reason for the initial leasing of the building was that the designs for a Free Public Library first drawn up by the Government Architect, Mr Barnett, had been discussed in June 1869, with a view to putting this larger project, estimated at around £100,000, back on the table. 

the site is eminently suited by reason of its central position and extent, for the erection of a Free Library; and the building which Mr. Barnet has designed would be a conspicuous and noble embellishment to that eminence which overlooks the harbour scenery of great natural beauty. It is a fortunate circumstance for the public that the land adjoining the Museum is available.

Proposed National Museum, view from Hyde Park looking north-east

Finally, on 30 September 1869, the doors on the building were reopened under the new management as the Free Public Library. It had taken over 40 years but Sydney, at long last, had a library which gave free access to books, magazines and journals. The positive response from the public saw the library continue to evolve over the next forty years. Increasing numbers of books were acquired, in the absence of a State Archive important Government documents were transferred to the library (including the transfer of  Judge Wise's collection), a statewide lending service was established, and some of the most significant collections of Australiana were acquired. The increasing significance of these collections also cemented public awareness of the Library’s role as the most important repository of documents relating to Australia’s past.  These changes which occurred between 1869 and 1920 will be the subject of 'Part Two' of this history of the State Library of New South Wales.

Geoff Barker
Senior Curator, Research and Discovery

Sydney Australian Subscription Library & reading Room, The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 22 March, 1826,
The Australian, June 6, 1827,
Progress of Literature, The Australian, 13, February, 1829,   
The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 13, December, 1831, 
The Sydney Gazette, 18, October, 1831, 
Captain-General mid Governor-ln-Chief of the Territory of New South Wales and its Dependencies and Vice-Admiral of the same, with the advice of the Legislative Council. An Act to enable the Proprietors of Public Library, heretofore instituted and conducted at Sydney, under the name and designation of the "Australian Subscription Library ," to sue mid be sued in the name of the Secretary for the time being of the said Library, and for other purposes therein mentioned, The Sydney Herald, 18, August, 1834, 
The Subscription Library, The Colonist, 16, July, 1835, 
Domestic Intelligence, the sydney Morning Herald, 25 January, 1836
Commercial Journal and Advertiser, 1 May, 1836, 
The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 3 November, 1838, 
Ildephonsus, Public LIbrary, Australian Chronicle, 22, 12, 1840,
Subscription Library, Sydney Herald, 28 May 1841,
South Australian Register, 12 April, 1843,
The Australian Subscription Library, Sydney Morning Herald, 15 February 1843,
Public Library of NSW, F M Bladen, State Library of New South Wales, 1911
Australian Subscription Library, Sydney Morning Herald, 30 January, 1844, 
The Colonial Observer, Sydney, 18 July, 1844,
The Sydney Morning Herald, 12, July, 1844,
The New Library, Sydney Morning Herald, 1 June, 1844,
New Library, The Australian, 24 July, 1844,
The Australian Library, The Australian, 26 July, 1845, 
The Port Phillip Patriot and MOrning Advertiser, 1 November, 1845, 
The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 January, 1847, 
Sydney Gazette and General Trader, 6, January, 1848, 
The Sydney Morning Herald, 9 May, 1854,
The Sydney Morning Herald, 20 December, 1853, 
The Sydney Morning Herald, 9 May, 1854, 
Empire, 29 January, 1859, 
The Sydney Morning Herald, 3 October, 1857,  
Empire, 3 October, 1857, 
The Sydney Morning Herald, 3 October, 1857,  
Empire, 3 October, 1857, 
Empire, 29 January, 1858, 
Australian Library and Literary Institute, Empire, 5 March, 1858, 
Annual general Meeting, Australian Library and Literary Institution, 1 February, 1859, 
Australian Library and Literary Institution, Sydney Mail, 9 December, 1865, 
Australian Library and Literary Institute, Empire, 16 January, 1866, 
The Death of Judge Wise, The Empire, 30 September, 1865, 
Advertising, The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 December, 1865, 
Bequest of the Late Judge Wise, The Empire, 30 July, 1866,
Australian Library and Literary Institution, Sydney Morning Herald, 26 January, 1869, 
Australian Library and Literary Institute, Empire, 20 February, 1869, 
The Public Free Library, The Sydney Morning Herald, 22 September, 1869, 
The Public Free Library, The Sydney Morning Herald, 8 September, 1869,
The Australian, 26 July, 1845,