The story behind the Holtermann Collection

The Holtermann Collection is one of the Library's significant collections and owes its existence to a number of generous benefactors

The story of Holtermann

B.O. Holtermann (2nd from left), Richard Ormsby Kerr (centre) and Beyers (2nd from right), with reef gold from Star of Hope mine
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From 1872 to 1875, Bernard Otto Holtermann, a successful gold miner and merchant, commissioned Beaufoy Merlin and Charles Bayliss of the American & Australasian Photographic Company to document towns in New South Wales and Victoria to promote the wonders of the Australian colonies abroad.  Bayliss and Merlin travelled to each temporary  town and region of the gold fields and photographed every single house and shop in what has been described as an early "Google street style".

What ensued was a truly remarkable series of photos that tell the warts-and-all story of life on the goldfields. 

The discovery of the plates

The collection of photos had been in a garden shed in Chatswood (NSW) in 1951 for many years in a house belonging to one of Holtermann's descendants.  It was an editor from the Australasian Photo Review who made the discovery and he had been tipped off by a librarian at the State Library of New South Wales. Remarkably the glass plates were all in good condition.   They were 3,500 glass plate negatives. 

But it wasn't until the digitisation initaitive that these photographs could be truly seen for the extraordinary documents they were.

Woman holding photos over digital scanner and wearing blue gloves

The digitisation initiative

Through working with a number of benefactors and trusts and foundations the Library began the laborious process of digitising from the original glass plate negatives in 2008.  This was a very painstaking process to ensure the large fragile sheets of glass didn't break and that their images were captured in the best possible detail.

This important collection now provides us with a documentary record of the development of Sydney and Melbourne in the latter half of 19th century and, in particular, the goldfield towns of NSW and Victoria (such as Hill End and Gulgong) as well as stunning promotional shots of Sydney and Melbourne – from 1870 to 1875.  

The images are so detailed it is possible to reconstruct towns, down to the types of goods on display in shops windows and the advertising material on shopfronts, as well as the clothing and faces of the pioneer inhabitants. It hurls the viewer immediately back into the rough and tumble of life on the goldfields. Although the Library has digitised versions available, they have not been able to do justice to the level of detail captured in the original glass plate negatives.   

The digitisation project meant that the extraordinary detail and clarity of these images can be appreciated and also assist in their preservation and minimise the need for public access.  

UNESCO recognisation

The State Library of NSW’s world-renowned photographic archive, the Holtermann collection, was  officially included on the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World register at a ceremony in May 2013.

According to Alex Byrne, NSW State Librarian & Chief Executive: “The Holtermann collection is Australia’s most internationally significant 19th century photographic archive due to its sheer size and its unrivalled visual record of Australian life in and around the goldfields. Few photographic collections such as this have survived anywhere in the world and I am thrilled UNESCO has recognised the rich cultural value of the Holtermann collection and this iconic story from our past,”

Thanks to many generous benefactors – particularly the fundraising efforts and personal support of Graham & Charlene Bradley, Rob Thomas and Geoffrey & Rachel O’Conor to name a few - this amazing historical resource is available to be discovered and viewed by the entire community.

By any definition this was a truly fabulous success story for the Foundation and it's partners.