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James Sykes Battye (1871–1954)

by Fred Alexander

This article was published:

James Sykes Battye (1871-1954), librarian, was born at Geelong, Victoria, on 20 November 1871, son of Daniel Battye, wool-weaver, and his wife Maria, née Quamby, both of whom were from Yorkshire, England. After winning a Victorian state schools exhibition in 1884, he went to Geelong College, then to the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1891; LL.B., 1893). He was an assistant at the Public Library of Victoria in 1889-94, then became chief librarian of the Victoria Public Library in Perth. Battye was soon a significant, if junior, member of the group of Western Australian public officials who worked under the leadership of Premier Sir John Forrest and his associates Bishop Charles Riley and the publicist (Sir) J. Winthrop Hackett.

From 1912 until his death Battye was general secretary of the amalgamated library, museum and art gallery; Hackett and Riley were the first two presidents of the trustees. Battye had personally selected the basic book-stock of the library and later readers were often impressed by the range and depth of early accessions. By 1903 he had raised the number of books to 50,000, which grew to 100,000 by 1911. Yet by 1945 there were still only 175,000 volumes, while the parliamentary grant, which in 1905 had been £4000 for the library alone, was a mere £8500 for the three combined institutions. Though some progress was made after World War II with new trustees and some able professional staff, it is doubtful whether more than 10,000 books were added to the library in Battye's last ten years of office. Although the library was castigated in both the Munn-(E. R.) Pitt report of 1935 and the McColvin report of 1947, it must be admitted that Battye's professional work probably suffered after 1929 from discouragement when his finances, still recovering from wartime economies, were further crippled by the Depression.

The record of the library's development as a repository of West Australian history was broadly similar. In twenty-five years of keen personal and professional interest in the history of the State, Battye acquired official records of the Colonial Secretary's Department in 1903 and of the Treasury in 1918. Concern about the destruction of valuable records led to the establishment in 1923 of a Public Records Committee chaired by him. Revived in 1929 as the State Archives Board, it survived until 1943 but its activities were more sporadic than effective. Meanwhile his work in compiling the Cyclopedia of Western Australia (Adelaide, 1912-13) and the History of the North West of Australia (Perth, 1915), and in writing his Western Australia: a History … (Oxford, 1924), brought some valuable private papers into the library. This last book remained the standard work in his lifetime, won him a University of Melbourne D.Litt., and enhanced his local reputation as a scholar. Battye helped to establish the Western Australian Historical Society in 1926 and chaired the State executive of the Centenary Celebrations Committee. He backed the successful effort by his trustees in 1945 to secure government finance for a State Archives within the library and supported the first archivist Miss M. F. F. Lukis, but she had little more material to work on initially than the library had held in the 1920s.

Battye's physical height, commanding presence, unfailing self-confidence, impressive knowledge of relevant facts and his increasing skill in manipulating both large audiences and committees were valuable assets in public life. He was secretary of the Wesley Church Trust for most of his life, occupied official circuit and mission positions, and was a member of the Wesley College board. He was president of the Children's Hospital board in 1911-13, chairman of the board of governors of the High (Hale) School in 1911-23, and honorary secretary of the Victoria Institute for the Blind.

As secretary to Hackett's royal commission of 1909-11, Battye won and held a seat on the first university senate. While Hackett remained chancellor, Battye continued to act as though he were little more than his secretary. Subsequently, he became increasingly active as warden of convocation in 1920 and 1922-23, chairman of the finance committee, and pro-chancellor in 1931-36; he then succeeded Sir Walter James as chancellor until 1943. When the university had neither a full-time vice-chancellor nor a registrar, Battye undertook much detailed work and some important decisions fell to him. Long after the need had passed, he sought unsuccessfully as chancellor to recapture such responsibilities; a competent chairman of the senate, Battye no doubt influenced some members but had little effect on major policy decisions. He rarely revealed constructive imagination and, despite a certain skill and finesse in negotiation, was no match for the subtler academic minds. Partly because of his relatively low public service standing, his achievements as ambassador for the university were limited.

Battye was initiated into the Masonic craft in 1898. Having resigned his initial lodge membership in 1903, he was nominated by Hackett and Riley next year as an affiliate member of another lodge. Thereafter, his rise was meteoric. He prided himself that before holding grand lodge offices as president of its board of general purposes, deputy grand master and finally grand master from 1936, he had 'never held any office in a subordinate lodge other than that of Worshipful Master'. He laid the foundation stone for a new Central Masonic Temple during the grand lodge's jubilee celebrations of 1950 while in his fifteenth term as grand master. That year he was appointed C.B.E.

University and Masonic responsibilities, with crippling arthritis, diabetes and consequential failing eyesight, hampered his work as a librarian. There was increasing criticism of the backwardness of the State's public library services and of Battye's failure to give effective leadership. In 1950 he was still sufficiently active and influential to secure the withdrawal of a bill which would have placed the library under the control of a new board. By 1953, the trustees informed the premier that Battye was 'no longer in a fit condition to carry out the duties of his office'. Since he claimed life tenure, an abortive attempt was made to devise terms of retirement that would suit all parties. The State cabinet had just agreed on a revised version when he died on 15 July 1954. He was survived by his wife Sarah Elizabeth May, née Jenkins, whom he had married in Melbourne on 15 May 1895, and by five of their seven children.

Battye's portrait, in chancellor's robes, hangs in the senate room of the University of Western Australia, and another, in grand master's regalia, is in the Freemasons' Hall, Terrace Road, Perth. His most fitting memorial is the J. S. Battye Library of West Australian History, established as an adjunct to the new State Reference Library in 1956.

Select Bibliography

  • N. R. Collins and H. C. Forster, Golden Jubilee History, 1900-1950: Grand Lodge of Western Australia of Antient, Free and Accepted Masons (Perth, 1950)
  • F. Alexander, Campus at Crawley (Melb, 1363)
  • P. Biskup, ‘The Public Library of Western Australia, 1886-1955’, Australian Library Journal, Jan 1960
  • Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery, Records of the Librarian and Trustees, 1895-1954 (State Library of Western Australia and Library Board of Western Australia, Perth).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Fred Alexander, 'Battye, James Sykes (1871–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 14 April 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]


20 November, 1871
Geelong, Victoria, Australia


15 July, 1954 (aged 82)
Western Australia, Australia

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