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Roberts, John Garibaldi (1860–1933)

by John D. Keating

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

John Garibaldi Roberts (1860-1933), tramways executive and bibliophile, was born on 3 October 1860 at Italian Gully, Victoria, elder son of John Pounder Roberts, storekeeper, and his first wife Frances, née Mooney, both from Wexford, Ireland. He attended Scarsdale and Cape Clear State schools, and in 1877 the family moved to Ballarat. Garry, as he was known, and his brother William Joshua subsequently went to work in Melbourne. In 1906 he was a founder and first secretary of the Scarsdale Old Boys' Annual Reunion, which set a pattern for similar groups of Melbourne residents eager to maintain their country loyalties.

Joining the staff of the Melbourne Tramway & Omnibus Co. in 1885, when it opened its first cable tram line, Roberts remained so employed for the rest of his working life, mostly as chief accountant. In 1920 he was appointed manager of the cable system within the new overall authority, the Melbourne & Metropolitan Tramways Board. He retired in 1923. On 23 August 1887, at South Melbourne, he had married Roberta Margaret Dickson.

An avid reader and keen theatregoer, Roberts said that he had begun collecting playbills in 1878: 'In the early eighties I was able to buy books, and on almost every Saturday afternoon I travelled round Melbourne looking for them'. He built up an extensive library, remarkable for its vast collection of cuttings, extracts and brochures, many preserved in bound volumes. The collection reflected the diversity of his interests, with particular emphasis on the fine arts, Australian Federation and World War I. He contributed articles of local historical interest to Ballarat newspapers. During World War I Roberts was actively engaged in patriotic fund-raising, and promoted facilities for sending newspapers and other reading matter to troops overseas.

Roberts's weekend retreat, Sunnyside, at Kallista in the Dandenongs (his permanent home after retirement), became a gathering place for his literary and artistic friends, who were often accommodated in a group of obsolete omnibuses converted to sleeping quarters. In 1913 C. J. Dennis was introduced to Roberts by R. H. Croll. Dennis intended writing a novel, and was invited to stay at Sunnyside in order to work undistracted. Unable to concentrate on the novel, he was encouraged to continue his verse-writing and Roberts made him a financial allowance on the understanding that he applied himself regularly to the work. The outcome was The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke (1915), dedicated by Dennis to Roberts and his wife.

Roberts was described in the Bulletin as 'guide, philosopher and friend of stray artists and inky wayfarers'; and Croll wrote of 'the fertile brain of our host, whose wit never flagged, whose invention was never at a loss'. Regular guests at Sunnyside included Web Gilbert, Hal Gye, Harold Herbert, David Low and John Shirlow who dedicated to Roberts his set of Melbourne etchings. Among occasional visitors were Tom Roberts and Mrs Aeneas Gunn.

Roberts died on 12 February 1933 at Kew, and was buried in Kew cemetery. His wife, a daughter and a son survived him. His elder son Frank was killed in action at Mont St Quentin, France, in September 1918. Roberts left an estate valued for probate at £1490.

Select Bibliography

  • A. H. Chisholm, The Making of a Sentimental Bloke (Melb, 1946?)
  • H. Coulson, Story of the Dandenongs, 1838-1958 (Melb, 1968)
  • B. Watts (ed), The World of the Sentimental Bloke (Syd, 1976)
  • Herald (Melbourne), 5 Aug 1920, 5 Oct 1931, 13 Feb 1933
  • Argus (Melbourne), 25 Apr 1931, 14 Feb 1933
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 14 Feb 1933
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 18 Feb 1933
  • Mountain District Free Press, 20 Apr 1950
  • J. G. Roberts papers (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

John D. Keating, 'Roberts, John Garibaldi (1860–1933)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/roberts-john-garibaldi-8226/text14399, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 19 April 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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