Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Rowlandson, Alfred Cecil (1865–1922)

by Carol Mills

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

Alfred Cecil Rowlandson (1865-1922), publisher and bookseller, was born on 15 June 1865 at Daylesford, Victoria, second surviving son of Arthur Hodgson Rowlandson, Indian-born goldminer, and his Scottish wife Susan Sophia, née Black. Educated at Northcote State School, Melbourne, and the Superior Normal School, Brisbane, he began work in 1877 as a shop-boy. Moving to Sydney next year, he became an office-boy. In 1883 he joined Henry Lloyd's New South Wales Bookstall Co., a chain of railway and ferry bookstalls modelled on the British firm, W. H. Smith & Son. He began by selling tram tickets, and was a manager when the proprietor died in 1897. Rowlandson bought the business from Lloyd's widow. On 2 February 1898 he married Alma Rebecca Jenkins (d.1925) at Surry Hills. From about 1902 he published the widely known 'Art Series' postcards, which were sometimes printed in Germany.

Rowlandson's most important contribution to the Bookstall Co. was his introduction of a publishing programme of Australian titles. In 1904 he launched the 'Bookstall Series' with Steele Rudd's Sandy's Selection. He paid Rudd the unprecedented fee of £500 for all rights: the book soon broke even, but Rowlandson never paid so much again, although he preferred outright purchase to paying royalties. Accurately gauging the public's taste, he sold paper-covered editions printed on 'newsprint' for a shilling. Such Australian artists as Ambrose and Will Dyson, Fred Leist, the Lindsays, David Low, Percy Spence and Syd Ure Smith were employed to produce the covers and black-and-white illustrations. By 1922 over 250 titles had been published by over seventy authors, including such well-known writers as Louis Becke, J. H. M. Abbott, Randolph Bedford, Edwin Brady, Roy and Hilda Bridges, Dale Collins, George Cockerill, Edward Dyson, Jack McLaren, Vance Palmer, Ambrose Pratt, Ed Sorensen and James Walsh. Many titles were first novels and a fair proportion of authors were women. He also issued Low's The Billy Book for two shillings.

Ridiculed during the early years of his venture, Rowlandson established a new market for Australian authors. Such were his expenses in payments to author, artist, printer and readers of manuscripts that he needed to sell 10,000 copies before getting his money back. By 1922 almost five million copies of Bookstall books had been sold.

A busy man, of unfailing courtesy, Rowlandson was well groomed and well dressed. He gave his time unstintingly to any comer, even the most crackpot would-be author. Known to his friends as 'Rowly', he was sociable and had convivial relations with his staff and competitors. As a young man he was a keen cyclist and became a petty officer in the Naval Brigade. Later he enjoyed fishing, boating, motoring and gardening.

Suffering a physical breakdown early in 1922, Rowlandson went on a sea voyage. He died on 15 June in Wellington, New Zealand, of diabetic complications after an operation for appendicitis and was buried in Gore Hill cemetery, Sydney. His wife, son, daughter and adopted daughter survived him. His estate was sworn for probate at £110,000. A book in his honour, The Late Alfred Cecil Rowlandson (1922), edited by R. Wynn, and destined for publication on his return from the United States of America, became his eulogy.

Select Bibliography

  • Lone Hand, 1 Oct 1918
  • The Pacific, 2 Oct 1924
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22, 29 June 1922
  • Bulletin, 6 July 1922.

Citation details

Carol Mills, 'Rowlandson, Alfred Cecil (1865–1922)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/rowlandson-alfred-cecil-8287/text14523, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 25 November 2014.

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

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