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Henry Charles Anderson (1853–1924)

by C. J. King

This article was published:

Henry Charles Lennox Anderson (1853-1924), public servant, was born on 10 May 1853 at sea, son of Robert Anderson, later a police inspector, and his wife Margaret, née Hewson. The family reached Sydney in the Empire on 27 July. Educated at Sydney Grammar School and on a scholarship at the University of Sydney (B.A., 1873; M.A., 1878), he won the University Prize in 1872, the Belmore Medal for agricultural chemistry in 1873, and the Hercules Robinson prize for Shakespearian scholarship and literature in 1877. From 1873 he had taught at Sydney Grammar School. On 24 March 1880 at the Macquarie Street Presbyterian Church he married Harriet Lily Lloyd. Two years later Anderson became an examiner in the Department of Public Instruction and helped to reorganize its curricula and examinations; in 1889 he was vice-chairman of the Board of Examiners. A militiaman, he was promoted lieutenant, 1st Regiment, Volunteer Infantry, in 1885 and captain in 1888; he resigned in 1892. With his younger brother (Sir) Robert M. McC. Anderson, he was a founding member of the United Service Institution in 1889.

For twenty years Anderson carried out analysis and other work in agricultural chemistry 'as a hobby and recreation' and invested every shilling he had in a farm and orchard at Penrith. On 10 February 1890 he was appointed New South Wales's first director of agriculture; his department was formed haphazardly as a branch of the Department of Mines. He had to contend with catastrophic wheat losses from rust, widespread disease in plants and animals, pests such as rabbits, prickly pear, phylloxera and water hyacinth, and grossly inefficient farming methods. Within four months he edited and largely wrote the first issue of the Agricultural Gazette of New South Wales; he soon gathered the nucleus of a departmental scientific staff. In 1891 he established Hawkesbury Agricultural College on 'a sound, scientific and practical foundation' and next year the Wagga Wagga Experiment Farm. He acquired land for other agricultural colleges and farms for demonstration purposes, and made elaborate plans for free distribution of seeds, plants and cuttings and for a travelling demonstration unit to show farmers efficient dairying methods. Plants, trees, shrubs, seeds and insects of all types were to be botanically identified or entomologically classified and catalogued.

In August 1893 Anderson's department was virtually closed down and on 1 September he was appointed principal librarian of the Free Public Library at a reduced salary, a position for which he had 'no desire'. Continuing questions in parliament about his evidence to the royal commission into the civil service on 'political appointments' in the Department of Mines culminated in a select committee and a whispering campaign about his maladministration of the library. Hampered by an inadequate building and an outdated catalogue, he instituted annual stock-taking in 1894 (the first since 1885), helped country students by lending them 'small parcels of reference books', and became internationally known for 101 rules of cataloguing with the use of subject headings. In 1896 he published Guide to the Catalogues of the Reference Library … (fourth edition, 1902). He also ran classes for his staff, and employed women for the first time. In 1897 he attended the Second International Library Conference in London, and acquired for New South Wales Governor King's manuscript journal of his voyage to Sydney as a lieutenant in the Sirius. From 1901 he was also registrar of copyright and that year introduced the Dewey system of cataloguing.

Anderson believed in 'a National, and not a Municipal, Library' and emphasized the need to have books which 'reflect and give a history of the morals of certain ages'. In 1895 the library's name was changed at his instigation to the Public Library of New South Wales. After an introduction that year by Rose Scott to D. S. Mitchell, Anderson 'assiduously cultivated' him and, with the concurrence of the trustees, ordered books for him and acted out-of-hours as his secretary. In October 1898 Mitchell told him to notify the trustees of his intended bequest of his unrivalled collection. Anderson voluntarily moved out of his house attached to the library to accommodate the 10,000 volumes that Mitchell transferred.

In 1900 a Legislative Assembly select committee on the working of the free public library inquired into Anderson's alleged abuse of postal concessions, the inclusion of some of Judge Wise's books among 5000 volumes sold to Angus & Robertson, undue preference shown to those booksellers as agents for the library, and the presence of 'decidedly “blue”' books. Its report exonerated Anderson and strongly recommended early selection of a site for and erection of a commodious library. In 1905 when the bequest seemed to be slipping away, the premier (Sir) Joseph Carruthers at last intervened, and work started on the Mitchell wing; Anderson was responsible for its basic design.

In 1905 he became director of the State's new Intelligence Department and from January 1907 government statistician as well. Anderson was then appointed acting under-secretary and director of the new, independent and stronger Department of Agriculture in January 1908. Friend and colleague of William Farrer, A. J. Perkins and William Lawrie, he contributed many articles to the Agricultural Gazette in 1910-11. At the first Dry Farming Conference in Australia, held in Adelaide in March 1911, he was impressed by the extension of wheat-growing in South Australia, and the advantages of superphosphate and fallowing in winter; New South Wales was still relatively backward in its agriculture.

A fellow of the Senate of the University of Sydney in 1895-1919, Anderson was a trustee of St Andrew's College in 1896-1924 and helped to establish the faculties of agriculture and veterinary science in 1910. He was also joint honorary secretary of the Dread-nought Fund, chairman of the local branch of the New Settlers' League of Australia, a life vice-president of the Highland Society of New South Wales, secretary of the original committee which raised funds for the erection of the Robert Burns statue, an active member of the Farrer memorial committee, and a Shakespearian scholar. Although he had been a brilliant organizer, Anderson reflected on 'the futility of much of his labour' in his reminiscences written soon after his retirement in April 1914. Gordon Richardson described him as 'the ablest man ever to call himself a librarian in this country', gaining an international reputation in 'the classic age of librarians'.

Anderson died of heart failure on 17 March 1924 at Wollstonecraft and was buried in the Presbyterian section of Rookwood cemetery. Predeceased by his only son, he was survived by two daughters. His estate was valued for probate at £13,688.

Select Bibliography

  • J. R. Tyrrell, Old Books, Old Friends, Old Sydney (Syd, 1952)
  • G. D. Richardson, ‘The colony's quest for a national library’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 47 (1961)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1892-93, 1, 586, 1894-95, 3, 55 — evidence, p276, 1895, 1, 142, 1896, 2, 157, 159, 1900, 4, 591-739, Report … Relating to Proposed Mitchell Library, 1905, 4, 1335
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 18 Mar 1924
  • Rose Scott correspondence (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

C. J. King, 'Anderson, Henry Charles (1853–1924)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 24 February 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


10 May, 1853
at sea


17 March, 1924 (aged 70)
Wollstonecraft, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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