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Spencer, Albert Henry (1886–1971)

by Wallace Kirsop

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Albert Henry Spencer (1886-1971), bookseller, was born on 8 March 1886 at Balmain, Sydney, younger son of Henry Spencer (formerly Henrik Bertelsen), a labourer from Denmark, and his native-born wife Alice Jane, née Prynne. His father died when Bert was aged 2 and the family's straitened circumstances meant that he had to leave Waverley Superior Public School at 14 to work as a boot-clicker. Eight months later he secured a position as messenger-boy with the booksellers and publishers Angus & Robertson.

Between 1900 and 1922 Spencer learned the trade from its Australian masters, George Robertson himself, and his employees Frederick Wymark and Jim Tyrrell; he eventually became head of the secondhand department, and the friend and confidant of Sydney collectors such as (Sir) William Dixson and Sir John Ferguson. On 30 January 1909 Spencer married Eileen Rebecca O'Connor (d.1964) at Woollahra Presbyterian Church.

Deciding to set up on his own in Melbourne, Spencer had—in addition to a loan of £1000 from Henry White—the support and encouragement of Frank Cole and of Robertson. In 1922 he began trading at the Hill of Content, 86 Bourke Street. For several months in 1928 the business was transferred to the Eastern Market while the shop was rebuilt with an extra storey. Very quickly the new shop emerged as a major outlet for antiquarian, second-hand and fine new books. Spencer's connexions helped him to obtain the privilege in the 1920s of dispersing the spectacular libraries of Robert Sticht, Cole and White. He maintained contact with Sydney collectors and successfully attracted the custom of Melbourne's notable citizens and bibliophiles. A limited number of books were published by the business, which formed itself into a private company.

The sudden death in 1946 of his son Gregory, who was planning to join the firm, determined Spencer's sale of the Hill of Content to Angus & Robertson Ltd in 1951. Thereafter he busied himself in superintending the transfer of Dixson's collection to the State Library of New South Wales, working again for his old employers, publishing his memoirs—The Hill of Content (1959)—and selling books privately from his Sandringham home. Despite the help of friends and neighbours, Spencer's health was frail and his last years were saddened by the deaths of his wife and daughter. He died at Parkville on 20 February 1971 and was cremated. His estate was valued for probate at $16,034.

Raised in Presbyterian piety, a Freemason and a Rotarian, Spencer shared the prejudices and enthusiasms of his generation. That his bookselling style was far removed from clinical professionalism is suggested by his observation to the editor of his manuscript: 'Emotion is & was my impelling force'. Spencer asserted the strength of English tradition in his approach to the world of books. For all the sentimentalism of his decidedly avuncular stance, he remained an accomplished technician, an astute marketer of his own book, a clever advertiser and an uncompromising stickler for the right of the retailer to set his own prices. In the difficult decades between 1920 and 1950 he helped to give Melbourne and Australia a sense of the mission of antiquarian bookselling.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Booksellers Association, The Early Australian Booksellers (Adel, 1980)
  • Albert Henry Spencer papers (State Library of Victoria).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Wallace Kirsop, 'Spencer, Albert Henry (1886–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/spencer-albert-henry-8603/text15025, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 31 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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