Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Robertson, George (1860–1933)

by Anthony Barker

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

George Robertson (1860-1933), bookseller and publisher, was born on 14 April 1860 at Gosfield, near Halstead, Essex, England, twin son of Rev. John Robertson, Unitarian minister, and his wife Mary, née Robertson, both Scottish. When Robertson was 7, his father died and his mother returned to Scotland with her seven children. He had gone to school at Halstead and attended the South-western Academy, Glasgow, but left when 12 and was apprenticed to James Maclehose, bookseller and publisher to the University of Glasgow.

In 1879, after completing his articles, Robertson migrated to New Zealand to join three elder brothers, who had established a forest sawmill near Waimate, in the South Island. He 'put in three happy years in the bush', felling trees and doing other heavy timber-work.

Seeking better opportunities, Robertson decided to try his luck in Australia. He arrived in Sydney in February 1882 and began work at his former trade in the Sydney branch of the bookselling firm conducted by his namesake—but no relation—George Robertson of Melbourne. On 5 April that year at St Andrew's Cathedral he married Elizabeth Bruce, a fellow Scot from New Zealand. He remained at Robertson's for four years, becoming manager of the retail department. In January 1886 he paid £15 for a half-share in the bookselling business in Market Street established eighteen months earlier by a former colleague David Mackenzie Angus.

The business prospered. In 1890 the partners moved into much larger premises in Castlereagh Street, and a new partnership agreement for ten years was drawn up. Angus retired because of ill health in 1899 and died in 1901. His share in the firm was bought by Frederick Wymark and Richard Thomson, but Robertson remained the dominating force in the business for the next thirty years, becoming chairman of directors when the partnership was converted into a public company, Angus & Robertson Ltd, in 1907.

From the beginning, Robertson took a special interest in the acquisition and sale of books and other rare items relating to Australia and adjacent regions. He encouraged the wealthy collector David Scott Mitchell to collect Australiana instead of English literature. When Mitchell offered to bequeath his vast collection to the Public Library of New South Wales in 1898, on condition that the government provide suitable accommodation for it, Robertson's evidence before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works on 19 October 1905 helped to establish the value and importance of Mitchell's collection, and to ensure construction of the library building.

Robertson also determined to publish Australian books by Australian writers and produce them in at least comparable form to the best from overseas. Although the first publication bearing the Angus & Robertson imprint—A Crown of Wattle, poems by H. Peden Steel—appeared in 1888, Robertson began regular publishing in 1895 with A. B. Paterson's The Man from Snowy River and Other Verses, followed in 1896 by Henry Lawson's In the Days When the World was Wide and While the Billy Boils. Over the years he published many of Australia's best-known writers and such popular titles as The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke and The Magic Pudding as well as the Australian Encyclopaedia, the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 and authoritative works of Australian history, natural history and biography. For many years he ran the publishing department almost single-handed, seeking out and corresponding with authors, reading manuscripts, editing and proof-reading and supervising book-design. In the 1920s he bought a controlling interest in the Eagle Press, a Sydney printery, which he renamed Halstead Press after his birthplace; it became the largest book printery in Australia.

Largely self-educated from his own reading, Robertson considered booksellers to be as much engaged in educational work as headmasters and university professors and regarded bookshops as cultural centres. When the Castlereagh Street shop was fitted out in 1890, he insisted that customers should be encouraged to browse at their leisure. In 1895 he started a lending library, the Sydney Book Club, and in 1909 added an art gallery to the shop.

Robertson had few interests outside work and home. As a young man he went to the theatre every Saturday and in later life enjoyed watching cricket, fishing and bushwalking—in 1892 he had a family home (also named Halstead) built at Blackheath in the Blue Mountains, where he spent weekends. He was a life member of the Wild Life Preservation Society of Australia. Books and work, however, were his overriding passion. As an employer he was autocratic and had a reputation for roaring at his staff. He could be blunt, quick-tempered and stubborn, but was also generous and always ready to publish a worthy book that would probably lose money and to help a needy author financially.

Tall and solidly built, with black hair, a black beard and dark brown eyes, Robertson was sometimes portrayed as a broad Scot, but had only the faintest trace of a Scottish accent. His wife was an active worker for the Presbyterian Church, which perhaps accounts for the common assumption that Robertson himself was a staunch Presbyterian, though he was not a regular churchgoer. Their eldest daughter Bessie, also active in the Church, married (Sir) John Alexander, son of Rev. John Ferguson. Mrs Robertson died in 1908 and on 13 September 1910 he married Eva Adeline Ducat, a family friend, at St Stephen's Church.

In late 1932 Robertson fell and struck his head in the bathroom of his flat above the Castlereagh Street shop and never properly recovered. Survived by his wife and by a son and two daughters of his first marriage, he died in Sydney on 27 August 1933 and was cremated with Presbyterian forms; his ashes were interred at Blackheath, where his first wife was buried. His estate was valued for probate at £11,073.

Select Bibliography

  • J. R. Tyrrell, Old Books, Old Friends, Old Sydney (Syd, 1952)
  • H. Lawson, The Auld Shop and the New (Syd, 1923)
  • G. Ferguson, Some Early Australian Bookmen (Canb, 1978)
  • A. W. Barker (ed), Dear Robertson (Syd, 1982)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 28, 29 Aug 1933
  • Argus (Melbourne), 2 Sept 1933
  • Courier Mail (Brisbane), 23 Sept 1933
  • Australian, 8, 9 Nov 1986
  • Angus & Robertson papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • R. Wiley, Reminiscences of G. Robertson and Angus & Robertson Ltd (typescript, State Library of New South Wales)
  • family papers (privately held)
  • private information.

Citation details

Anthony Barker, 'Robertson, George (1860–1933)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/robertson-george-8233/text14413, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 22 August 2014.

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

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