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Armstrong, Edmund la Touche (1864–1946)

by David McVilly

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Edmund la Touche Armstrong, by Lindsay Bernard Hall

Edmund la Touche Armstrong, by Lindsay Bernard Hall

State Library of Victoria

Edmund La Touche Armstrong (1864-1946), librarian, was born on 12 August 1864 at Herne Hill, Geelong, Victoria, fourth son of John Simpson Armstrong (d.1884), barrister, crown prosecutor and acting judge of the County Court, and his wife Alice, née O'Dell. His parents had migrated to Victoria from Ireland in 1858. Sixth of ten children, Edmund was educated at Scotch College, Melbourne, and studied part time at the University of Melbourne (LL.B., 1893; M.A., 1899).

Armstrong joined the Public Library of Victoria in December 1881 as a junior assistant at a salary of £50. By 1891 he was listed as assistant at £300 and by 1895 was principal assistant in the reference library. On 29 August 1896, after the premature death of M. F. Dowden, he was appointed librarian and secretary to the trustees of the Public Library, Museums, and National Gallery of Victoria. According to his memoirs he then decided not to practise at the Bar but to assist the trustees 'to carry on the work of the institution'. On his retirement on 30 April 1925 it was recorded that he had served conscientiously and diligently and had 'proved himself not only a learned and accomplished librarian, but also a most capable administrator'.

Armstrong opposed separation of the four sister institutions. He looked back to Sir Redmond Barry's concept and to the British Museum's model of a display of knowledge, creation and achievement all in the one institution: he was a curator of knowledge rather than a disseminator of information. His name will always be associated with the octagonal, domed reading-room, suggested by him in 1905 and opened on 14 November 1913. Although he intended it to incorporate the best features of the British Museum and Library of Congress reading-rooms, it was criticized from the outset as being inefficient with regard to space, lighting, heating and comfort.

Much, however, was achieved while Armstrong was chief librarian: grants from the government and gifts from the Felton Bequest enabled the library to grow in size and prestige. The Dewey decimal system of classification was introduced in the lending library in 1899 and in the reference library in 1910-15, the travelling libraries were revived and expanded in the 1900s and the country lending service began in 1920. He was secretary of the Library Association of Australasia in 1896-1902 and editor of the Library Record of Australasia in 1901-02. He was also the author and co-author of two carefully compiled histories of the library, museums and gallery covering the period 1856-1931.

Armstrong did not marry and gave much of his life to his work. In recreation, he was a member of the Wallaby (walking) Club (and by 1946 its oldest member), the Yorick and the Metropolitan Golf clubs and the Royal Empire Society. He was respected widely although his natural reserve and caution made him seem remote from his staff. His tall figure and regular features gave him a dignified appearance which matched his courteous demeanour and tactful and conservative attitudes. He died of coronary vascular disease at his home at East Malvern on 15 October 1946 and was privately cremated at Springvale. A portrait by Bernard Hall is in the State Library of Victoria.

Armstrong's eldest brother Thomas Henry was born on 2 April 1857 in Dublin and was educated at Geelong Church of England Grammar School, Geelong College, and Trinity College, University of Melbourne (B.A., 1880; M.A., 1883). Ordained deacon by Bishop Moorhouse in December 1880 and priest a year later, he was successively curate of Christ Church, St Kilda (1881-83) and Christ Church, Hawthorn (1883), first vicar of St Columb's, Hawthorn (1883-94), and archdeacon of Gippsland (1894-1902). He was rural dean of Sale (1896-99), and a canon of St Paul's Cathedral and examining chaplain to the bishop of Melbourne (1899-1902). On 24 February 1902 he was consecrated first bishop of Wangaratta, retiring on 31 March 1927. In his term the bishop's lodge was built, St Columb's Hall for the education of clergy established and a cathedral partially completed. In 1903 he was awarded an honorary D.D. by the University of Trinity College, Toronto, Canada.

After his retirement Armstrong was acting incumbent of St John's, Toorak, and was president of the Melbourne College of Divinity in 1930. Low Church in outlook, he was described as energetic, cheerful and sympathetic. He was handsome and tall, with a strong physique and a red beard. On 19 May 1892 he had married Marion Ruth, daughter of Henry Henty. He died of coronary thrombosis on 23 March 1930, survived by a son and a daughter. After a service at Paul's Cathedral he was buried in Boroondara cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • ‘The State Library building’, La Trobe Library Journal, Oct 1970
  • Church of England Messenger (Victoria), 4 Apr 1930, 1 Feb 1935
  • Argus (Melbourne), 27 Mar 1925, 24, 26 Mar 1930, 15 Feb 1935, 17 Oct 1946
  • Wangaratta Chronicle, 2 Apr 1930
  • E. La T. Armstrong, Fifty Years of the P.L.V.: Some Recollections and Some Notes (State Library of Victoria)
  • E. M. Miller, Some Public Library Memories 1900-1913 (State Library of Victoria)
  • L. Scott, Mainly from Memory 1908-1926 (State Library of Victoria)
  • Public Library, Museums and National Gallery of Victoria, Minutes 26 Mar 1925 (State Library of Victoria)
  • newscuttings on loan from J. H. B. Armstrong (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

David McVilly, 'Armstrong, Edmund la Touche (1864–1946)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/armstrong-edmund-la-touche-5052/text8421, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 25 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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