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Peters, Charles Harold (1889–1951)

by J. P. Holroyd

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Charles Harold Peters (1889-1951), bookseller and soldier, was born on 25 January 1889 at Collingwood, Melbourne, son of Charles Thomas Peters, a Victorian-born boot importer, and his second wife Katie Gibbs, née Foot, who came from South Australia. Harold attended state schools and took night-classes at the Working Men's College, Melbourne. He was an omnivorous reader, and later claimed that he was educated 'mainly through books'. At the age of 14 he joined Melville & Mullen's bookshop, where he was trained by Leonard Slade. When he was refused a raise, he crossed to George Robertson & Co. Pty Ltd, but two years later went back to Melville & Mullen.

Commissioned in the Australian Imperial Force on 6 March 1916, Peters reached the Western Front in November as a lieutenant in the 38th Battalion. He won the Military Cross for leading a patrol against an enemy trench at Armentières, France, on New Year's Eve 1917 and for recovering a wounded soldier from no man's land on the following night. In August 1918 he was promoted temporary captain (substantive in October). Near Bony, in September-October, he commanded two companies which penetrated the Hindenburg line. For his 'dash and judgement' he was awarded a Bar to his M.C. Following leave in London—during which he called on leading publishers—he returned to Melbourne. His A.I.F. appointment terminated on 19 August 1919, by which time he was manager of Melville & Mullen Pty Ltd.

At Scots Church, Melbourne, on 30 September 1919 Peters married Elizabeth Wilson with Presbyterian forms. Unable to renew its lease on the 'The Block' in Collins Street, the firm merged with its old rival, George Robertson, on 1 July 1921 and moved to Elizabeth Street. Peters became general manager of Robertson & Mullens Ltd. Later that year he led a trade campaign to promote books as Christmas gifts. He organized Children's Book Week in 1924 and Australian Authors' Week in 1927. With S. V. A. Zelman and A. S. Nicholas, he compiled a book of 'digger' songs.

Due to Peters' initiatives, Robertson & Mullens sold 100,000 copies of P. C. Wren's Beau Geste (London, 1924). He published local works and often used the Melbourne printers, Brown, Prior & Co. Each week from 1925 to 1936 he presented 'Books, Wise and Otherwise', a book-review programme on radio-station 3LO. He donated his earnings from the show to the Melbourne Legacy Club, of which he was a member and acting-president (1928). (Dame) Mary Gilmore called Peters 'that kindest of men' and regarded him as the best sales promoter among local publishers. He wrote the introduction to her book of poetry, The Disinherited (1941).

Peters was appointed managing director of Robertson & Mullens in 1943. Ill health led him to retire in 1948, but he continued as a director of the firm. Short, thickset and convivial, he was president of the Victorian Booksellers' Association (1927-48), the Working Men's College (1929-30) and the Australian Booksellers' Association (1949). He chaired the Union Building Society for many years, served on the council of the University of Melbourne (1932-39) and belonged to the Savage Club. Survived by his wife, son and daughter, he died of coronary vascular disease on 10 January 1951 in his Canterbury home and was cremated with Anglican and Masonic rites. His estate was sworn for probate at £15,807.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Booksellers Assn, The Early Australian Booksellers (Adel, 1980)
  • W. H. Wilde and T. I. Moore (eds), Letters of Mary Gilmore (Melb, 1980)
  • private records of C. H. Peters, 1DRL/0545 (Australian War Memorial)
  • C. H. Peters, ABC radio broadcast (transcript, 5 Feb 1950, State Library of South Australia)
  • Australian Booksellers Assn records, ms 3937 (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

J. P. Holroyd, 'Peters, Charles Harold (1889–1951)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/peters-charles-harold-11377/text20325, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 18 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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