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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Thomas, Bessie Margaret (1892–1968)

by Alan Ventress

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Bessie Margaret Thomas (1892-1968), librarian, was born on 14 March 1892 in Sydney, third child of Henry Charles Thomas, a clerk from England, and his native-born wife Gertrude Augusta, née Hillyer. In the mid-1890s the family moved to Canada, where Bess was educated and trained as a secretary and as a librarian. Living at Toronto from 1922, she worked as an assistant-librarian at the local university in 1927-28. She was impressed by the free library services in North America, particularly the Boys and Girls House of the Toronto Public Library. Persuaded by her cousin Mrs Edith Allworth to return to Sydney, she had arrived there by 1931. She was strongly influenced by Ralph Munn's and Ernest Pitt's critical report (1934) on Australian libraries.

Bess Thomas 'had that magical touch: she drew people to her'. At a meeting chaired by Professor E. R. Holme in September 1934, it was agreed that she and Edith Allworth, as honorary librarians, should establish a children's library at Mosman, which would allow free access to books for children of every age 'to inculcate and develop in them an understanding and love of good literature'. In December 1934 the Mosman Children's Library opened in the garage of the Allworths' home in Parriwi Road, with 350 books collected 'door-to-door' by Bess and Edith. The library soon outgrew its premises and was moved to a building behind Killarney School. In 1943 it found a new home in a building provided by the Department of Education, on the corner of Military and Belmont roads.

Committed to administering the library so as to fit it for inclusion in a municipal public library, Thomas imposed a fine of one penny if a book was overdue without good reason. She encouraged other activities—story hours, book-reviewing, a weekly chess group and play readings. Rosemary Dobson conducted a poetry group. Edith looked after the younger children and repaired the books, helped by the Friends of the Mosman Children's Library.

In 1945 the local council adopted the Library Act (1939) and the Mosman Municipal Library was opened with Thomas as chief librarian, the first woman in New South Wales to be appointed to such a position. The stock of 7000 books belonging to the children's library was incorporated into the Municipal Library. At that time there were 1700 borrowers. In 1952, when the library moved to Boronia, at 624 Military Road, the stock had risen to over 18,000 volumes; there were nearly 6500 borrowers. In 1949 Thomas had formed discussion groups to study English and Australian literature. Visiting librarians from other States and overseas used Mosman Municipal Library as a benchmark for children's library services. Thomas was also involved in the education of children's librarians and used the children's section of the library at Mosman to run various training courses.

Miss Thomas retired as chief librarian on 15 March 1962. She died on 7 March 1968 at the Sacred Heart Hospice, Darlinghurst, and was cremated with Anglican rites. In 1977 the children's libraries section of the Library Association of Australia established the Bess Thomas award to encourage excellence in children's librarianship.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Souter, Mosman (Melb, 1994)
  • Australasian Book News and Library Journal, 1, Nov 1946, p 179
  • Australian Library Journal, Dec 1975, p 482
  • Orana, 14, no 3, Aug 1978, p 70
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 29 Dec 1934, 24 Sept 1959
  • H. M. Hicks, Dip.Lib. assignment (manuscript, 1966, Mosman Municipal Library).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Alan Ventress, 'Thomas, Bessie Margaret (1892–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 18 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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