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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Tulk, Augustus Henry (1810–1873)

by C. A. McCallum

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

Augustus Henry Tulk (1810-1873), by T. Humphrey & Co.

Augustus Henry Tulk (1810-1873), by T. Humphrey & Co.

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H4697

Augustus Henry Tulk (1810-1873), librarian, was born at Richmond, Surrey, England, son of Charles Augustus Tulk (1786-1849), and his wife Susannah, née Hart. His father was a Swedenborgian who owned property in Leicester Square and represented Sudbury and later Poole in the House of Commons. Augustus attended Winchester School and received a good classical education. Later he studied at Heidelberg and elsewhere on the Continent, and gained fluency in German, French, Russian and Italian. Like many other young Englishmen of his class and time, he was brought up as a 'gentleman' with no particular calling or profession. In 1838 at Newcastle upon Tyne he married Jane Augusta Browne.

For health reasons Tulk was advised to live in a warm, dry climate. At the suggestion of J. J. E. von Guerard, his son's former tutor then in Australia, Tulk decided to migrate. He bought the schooner Guyon and, with his wife and family, sailed from London in March 1854, reaching Melbourne on 13 July. Optimistically, he had loaded his vessel with mining machinery and goods likely to be in demand on the goldfields; a few months experience proved that he lacked business aptitude and, after heavy losses, he sought a more congenial occupation. Learning of the establishment of a public library in Melbourne, he applied for the position of librarian and was selected from forty-eight applicants; he took up his post on 5 May 1856 at a salary of £600.

Tulk was soon on excellent terms with the library's president (Sir) Redmond Barry with whom he had much in common. Both worked indefatigably in gathering a notable collection of 80,000 volumes, Tulk contributing his first-hand knowledge of most of the great book shops of Europe. In 1863 he was appointed a member of the commission of inquiry into the promotion of the fine arts in Victoria, and he worked assiduously for the establishment of an art gallery. Next year he was given leave of absence to visit England and to collect the donations that Barry's representations abroad had produced. While there Tulk proposed a novel, but unsuccessful scheme by which a copy of every book published in England would be sent to Victoria in exchange for local copyright protection. Back in the colony, he introduced an unusually advanced system of book classification according to subjects.

Tulk's success in building up the Melbourne library led to offers of appointments from Sydney and overseas, but he could not bring himself to leave his 'own' library. Grave, courteous and dignified, he had a high reputation both as bookman and linguist. His knowledge of literature both ancient and modern was extensive and he loved books. In Victoria he added a study of Fijian and Australian native dialects to his repertoire of languages. In later life he suffered from diabetes. Aged 63, he died in his home in St Kilda on 1 September 1873 and after a Church of England service was buried in the general cemetery at Carlton. Survived by his wife, three of his four sons and his two daughters, he left debts amounting to some £600. His portrait by Philip Lindo is held in the State Library of Victoria.

Select Bibliography

  • E. LaT. Armstrong, The Book of the Public Library, Museums, and National Gallery of Victoria: 1856-1906 (Melb, 1906)
  • D. McVilly, ‘Augustus Henry Tulk’, Australian Library Journal, Feb 1975
  • Age (Melbourne), 2 Sept 1873
  • Australasian Sketcher, 4 Oct 1873.

Citation details

C. A. McCallum, 'Tulk, Augustus Henry (1810–1873)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 19 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

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