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David Mitchell, the Mitchell Library and Australiana

In 1907 David Scott Mitchell (1836–1907), a wealthy and obsessive collector of books, made a gift to the people of Australia. On his death, he bequeathed his collection of Australian books, pictures, records and other items, numbering in the tens of thousands, to the Trustees of the Public Library of New South Wales. Under the terms of his last will and testament, the collection was to be housed in a separate building called 'The Mitchell Library'.

David Scott Mitchell

David Scott Mitchell, donor of the Mitchell Collection. Image courtesy of the State Library of NSW: gpo1_10694.

In March 1910, the Mitchell Library opened, just under three years after his death. The collection still stands as 'the greatest single cultural bequest ever made in Australia' (Elizabeth Ellis, Mitchell Librarian, June 2007). Mitchell's collection was, and continues to be, important to the people of Australia because it focused on Australian documents, books and art. Over the years it has helped Australians define themselves and understand the history of white settlement in Australia.

David Scott Mitchell, Bequest of David Scott Mitchell, 1907. Image courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales.

Mitchell's vision and foresight in collecting and preserving documents at a time when Australian history was unfashionable, and considered unimportant, was noted in 1907 on his death by the then Premier of New South Wales, Joseph Carruthers. He wrote that David Scott Mitchell's memory:

... is due an everlasting debt of gratitude for the noble work he has undertaken in gathering together all available literature associated with Australia ... and in making provision that the magnificent collection should, for all time, on his death, become the property of the people of his native state.

The start of a 'magnificent obsession'

David Mitchell was an enigmatic man. He is known first and foremost as a collector; details of his personal life are relatively scant.

He was born in Sydney in 1836 into a wealthy family who were seasoned book collectors by the time of his birth. His grandmother's, mother's and father's extensive and impressive collections of old and rare books attest to the fact that he was part of a family of avid readers and collectors. He graduated from Sydney University with a Bachelor of Arts in 1856 and was admitted to the Bar two years later, although never practised law. By the age of 30 (and probably much earlier) he was collecting—buying books at auctions and seeking out items of particular interest. Although he remained in Australia his whole life, in his tastes, education and pursuits, Mitchell was a man of the world.

Owen Stanley (1811-1850), George Street, Sydney from the Main Guard, 1847; bequeathed by David Scott Mitchell. Image courtesy of the State Library of NSW: PXC 281A f.1.

His collection began broadly, including early printed books, European poetry and fiction and medieval manuscripts. Yet on his death, his collection was considered important because of its massive number of items relating to Australia and the Pacific. By the late 1860s Mitchell had begun to collect Australian literature, although not exclusively and not with the passion that characterised his collecting in later years.

On 19 July 1868, he wrote to his cousin, Rose Scott, about some of the reasons behind this growing interest:

I generally get all the Australian literature I come across not so much for intrinsic merit ... as that I think some day anything like a complete collection of Australian books will be curious.

'I must have the damned thing'

photograph showing Dymocks Book Arcade in George Street, Sydney.

Henry King (1855-1923), Coulston & Co., Toose Optician, Royal Hotel, Dymocks Book Arcade, George Street, Sydney (detail), ca. 1885-1895, photograph. Image courtesy of the State Library of NSW: SPF/187.

Over the years, Mitchell's interest in Australiana grew. He was a professional collector, with the financial means to purchase widely and secure expensive items, although he had a reputation as a haggler. Mitchell personally visited bookshops and pawnshops in Sydney on a regular basis – such as Dymocks Book Arcade – searching through discount bins for used books, pamphlets and any other rare or unusual item he could find.

But perhaps more importantly, Mitchell had a network of friends, dealers and fellow collectors who worked for him, buying books on his behalf or alerting him when items, out of their own reach, came up for sale at auction.

Booksellers came to know that if they found an item Mitchell would be interested in, he would pay well for it. His friend, the bookseller and publisher of Australian literature George Robertson, was a key player in the development of Mitchell's Australian collection and the acquisition of items for it. In 1897 he wrote to his colleague James Tyrrell, 'Do not purchase any Australian books except for Mr Mitchell's order ... Mr Mitchell will always give us a profit on such – you know how keen he is ...'

Front cover of the journal kept on board HMS Endeavour by Joseph Banks, 1768-71

Joseph Banks - Endeavour journal, 25 August 1768 - 12 July 1771, bequeathed by David Scott Mitchell. Image courtesy of the State Library of NSW: a1193608.

Another important character who helped shape Mitchell's collection was Alfred Lee, a businessman and rival Australiana collector who encouraged Mitchell to further grow his interest in items relating to Australia. Joseph Banks' Endeavour journal, a key piece in Mitchell's collection and item of national significance, was originally purchased by Lee at auction in London.

Later, in 1906, Mitchell bought Lee's entire collection of over 10,000 books, paintings, pamphlets, prints and drawings for 5700. Most of Lee's collection were duplicate items that Mitchell already owned, except for a few rare and extremely valuable books he had coveted for years. It was an amicable arrangement and Lee sold his collection knowing that Mitchell intended to donate his entire library to the Public Library of New South Wales on his death.

One of the Principal Librarians at the Public Library was Henry Charles Lennox Anderson, who served in that position from 1893 to 1906. He was repeatedly frustrated by Mitchell's financial capability and network of 'assistants' as he increasingly found himself outbid at auctions by the obsessive collector. Anderson said that he was being 'cribbed, cabined and confined' by Mitchell who he described as 'a dreadful human bogey whose lair was 17 Darlinghurst Road'.

Rose Scott

Album of photographs of family and friends, no.13 Rose Scott (detail) ca. 1863-1892, bequeathed by David Scott Mitchell. Image courtesy of the State Library of NSW.

In 1895 he was introduced to David Mitchell by Mitchell's cousin Rose Scott. Having personal experience of Mitchell's fervour for collecting, and knowing that the purse of the Public Library was unable to compete with him, Anderson changed his strategy. Instead of trying to beat Mitchell at auction, Anderson began to actively help Mitchell improve and expand his collection. For ten years Anderson acted as his agent and broker, and worked for him as an unpaid, part-time assistant, spending 26,000 on items for the collection on Mitchell's behalf.

Anderson's approach worked very effectively because in 1898 Mitchell decided to bequeath his collection to the Public Library. As confirmation of his intended donation, during that year Mitchell transferred 10,000 volumes of non-Australian works from his home at 17 Darlinghurst Road to the library. As the Public Library was already full and the new Mitchell Library building had not even begun to be designed, the only place for the books was Anderson's home, which was adjacent to the library, so Anderson moved out.

After this time, Mitchell's interest in growing his Australian collection intensified. He now solely concentrated on expanding his collection and finding rarities and oddities that had eluded him previously.

The collection

The Aborigine Piper, who accompanied Mitchell on his expeditions

The Aborigine Piper, who accompanied Major Mitchell on his expeditions. Lithograph by Fernyhough, Sydney, c. 1836. Bequeathed by David Scott Mitchell. Image courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales: a1122021.

Some items immediately stand out as being priceless in terms of Australian history: miniature watercolours of Captain James Cook; the papers of Sir Henry Parkes;Sir Joseph Banks' Endeavour journal 1768–71; correspondence from the Colonial Secretary's Office; John Oxley's journal and Ludwig Leichardt's papers; paintings by S T Gill and Conrad Martens; a copy of the original manuscript documents of the arrest of Governor Bligh—the list goes on.

Yet David Mitchell's collection was not just of 'important' or notable official records—it was a treasure trove of all sorts of items and is proof of Mitchell's broad range of interests relating to Australia and the Pacific. He wanted everything and was not interested in hiding the truth of history or omitting facts. He reportedly said 'I must have the damned thing, if only to show how bad it is'.

Even today, his collection is surprising in its range. It includes concert programs; photographs; Christmas card designs; shipping registers; convict muster rolls and reports; maps; sheet music; family papers; private letters; drawings of insects; salary books; songbooks; autographs; poems; sketchbooks; botanical watercolours; scripts of plays; police files; items, papers and documents relating to aboriginals; ships' journals and legal documents. Overwhelmingly, the collection consists of everyday items that capture the popular culture and social reality of the day.

It is these pieces that are perhaps the most important to Australians today because they give us some sense of what life was like for ordinary people who lived in the colonies. The items in the David Mitchell collection are not an 'official' history—they are the real thing.

Queen Gooseberry, Bronze welded mug c.1800. Image courtesy of the State Library of NSW: R 252.

David Mitchell's understanding of the future value of papers he collected, especially items relating to Australia's convict history, cannot be understated. His friend, the collector and bookseller Frederick Wymark, recalled Mitchell's visionary approach when he later quoted Mitchell as saying:

The main thing is to get the records. We're too near our own past to view it properly, but in a few generations the convict past will take its proper place in the perspective, and our historians will pay better attention to the pioneers.

Page 9 from the journal of Mary Reiby

Page 9 from the journal of convict Mary Reiby 1820-1821; bequeathed by David Scott Mitchell. Image courtesy of the State Library of NSW: a1454001.

Mitchell's are prophetic words indeed, considering that now Australians are proud to have a convict in the family tree, and our politicians boast of being of good convict stock during campaigns.

Like the archive box or photo album of a nation, the collection contains a remarkable array of documents and images that together create a picture of an emerging Australia from the earliest days of white settlement. Without Mitchell's fervour for collecting, our understanding of Australia's history may not be the rich tapestry it is today.

The donation

When David Mitchell died in 1907, the terms of his bequest and last will and testament had already begun to be acted on. Several months earlier, as he lay ill in bed, the foundation stone for the new Mitchell Library was laid. The donation of his library was given on 'the condition that the same shall be called and known as 'The Mitchell library' and shall be permanently arranged and kept for use in a special wing or set of rooms dedicated for that purpose...' (Last will and testament of David Scott Mitchell).

Mitchell Library under construction

Mitchell Library, Domain in course of erection. Image courtesy of the State Library of NSW: d1_10943.

Mitchell had provided a further 70,000 to purchase more items and to preserve what he had already collected. New South Wales simply needed to provide the building. It did this after some pressure and threats from both Mitchell and his friends, including George Robertson.

After his death, staff from the library visited Mitchell's home. A few had been Mitchell's friends and had visited there on a regular basis up until he died, so were aware of the state of the collection. Books were stacked haphazardly, covering tables, cabinets, the floor—literally every surface. Revolving wooden bookcases groaned under the weight of the volumes crammed into them. The walls were hung with artworks. The place was at once a treasure chest and a nightmare—there was no order to the stacks of books, and no catalogue of what was there. The house itself was in a terrible state of disrepair and damp permeated every room.

David Scott Mitchell's bedroom piled with books

Residence of late David Scott Mitchell, the bedroom. Image courtesy of the State Library of NSW: d1_10951.

Staff quickly realised the books and art needed to be removed before they all decayed, but the new library was not finished. In haste, the books were loaded onto carts and taken down the road to the vault at the Bank of Australasia to await the completion of the new building. It was estimated that the number of items was in the range of 60,000.

Amazingly, however, librarians created no catalogue of the collection – neither when it was moved out of 17 Darlinghurst Road nor when it was moved into the new library in 1908. Almost immediately, new items began to be acquired, so items in the original collection bequeathed by Mitchell were 'lost' in the ever-growing collection.

Today, the library continues to fulfil Mitchell's vision and is a key repository for the documentary heritage of Australia. It remains an invaluable source for researchers and readers who want to learn more about Australia's heritage. Warren Fahey AM, a folklorist and researcher, has said that collections like David Mitchell's 'help us understand who we are as Australians'.

To mark the centenary of Mitchell's death and his gift to the nation, the Mitchell Library commenced a project to identify the original collection. A huge task, it began in 2002 and concluded in 2007. Now, the entire David Scott Mitchell collection has been catalogued and identified by library staff and can be viewed on their internet site. An exhibition was also held at the library during 2007 to commemorate the man and his collection. In 2010 to mark the centenary of the Mitchell Library opening its doors, the State Library of New South Wales has developed an exhibition and website showcasing objects from the collection.

drawing of two swagman costumes

Album of costume designs for Reedy River, Sydney New Theatre, 1954. Image courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales.

The importance and value of the Mitchell Library continues today as new generations of Australians discover the treasures that are kept within its walls.

Useful links

Look, listen and play

The Mitchell Library

David Mitchell

Mitchell's family

Other people involved in Mitchell's life

The David Scott Mitchell collection

Selected items in the collection

Last updated: 12th January 2010
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