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Sir John Alexander Ferguson (1881–1969)

by R. Else-Mitchell

This article was published:

John Ferguson, by Keast Burke, n.d.

John Ferguson, by Keast Burke, n.d.

National Library of Australia, 53700637

Sir John Alexander Ferguson (1881-1969), bibliographer and judge, was born on 15 December 1881 at Invercargill, New Zealand, eldest of five children of Rev. John Ferguson, Presbyterian minister, and his wife Isabella, née Adie, both Scottish born. Educated at Invercargill until his father was called in 1894 to St Stephen's, Phillip Street, Sydney, John continued at the William Street Public School, then was privately tutored by James Oliver. At the University of Sydney (B.A., 1902; LL.B., 1905; D.Litt., 1955) Ferguson was a contemporary of H. M. Green, and graduated in arts with first-class honours and the university medal in logic and mental philosophy.

Admitted to the Bar on 27 May 1905, Ferguson soon developed a sound practice, principally in Equity and industrial law, and contributed to the Commonwealth Law Review. He appeared before the High Court of Australia and the Privy Council, most of his briefs being in the areas of industrial and constitutional law. In 1934 he became the first lecturer in industrial law at the university. When the Industrial Commission of New South Wales was reconstituted in 1936, Ferguson was appointed a judge, an office he held until starting a year's leave in December 1951 prior to his retirement.

During his seventeen years on the bench Ferguson dispensed justice with grace and was the author of many improvements in industrial awards. In a tribute, A. C. Beattie, the president of the Industrial Commission, described him as 'a modest innovator', 'something of a radical in his day', and 'a model of tolerance and courtesy'. Ferguson's gentleness of manner and independent spirit gained him the respect of the legal profession and of opposing parties in industrial issues.

His early interest in Australian history and bibliography, which was to be his major preoccupation, had been fostered by his marriage on 2 January 1907 to Bessie (d.1937), daughter of George Robertson, bookseller and publisher. The wedding, with Presbyterian forms, took place at Halstead, the Robertsons' holiday home at Blackheath in the Blue Mountains. Ferguson spent his lunch hours browsing in second-hand bookshops; his interest in books, libraries and Australian history grew apace. In 1914 he joined the (Royal) Australian Historical Society and began book-collecting in a serious way, an activity assisted by his father-in-law: Ferguson had to move in 1922 from his home at Greenwich to a larger house at Hunters Hill to provide more room for his books. Representing his 'personal and scholarly interests', his library included books, newspapers, periodicals and pamphlets, encompassing law, bibliography, publishing, religion, mission material in the vernacular languages of the Pacific islands, New Guinea and New Zealand, works on Captain Cook and R. L. Stevenson, military history, crime, convicts, transportation and literature. He encouraged scholars, whom he welcomed to his home, to use his collection. 'J.A.' to friends such as C. H. Bertie, George Mackaness and T. D. Mutch, he continued to be referred to by his fellow collector (Sir) William Dixson as 'young Jacky Ferguson'.

In 1917 Ferguson had published the first part of A Bibliography of the New Hebrides and a History of the Mission Press (part II, 1918; part III, 1943) which reflected his interest in the Presbyterian Church, of which he was an elder (from 1912) at St Stephen's and procurator (1921-36). His article on 'Studies in Australian Bibliography' in the Journal and Proceedings of the R.A.H.S. in 1918 foreshadowed the magnum opus that he was to undertake: the seven-volume Bibliography of Australia, 1784-1900, published by Angus & Robertson Ltd's Halstead Press and known to librarians and bibliographers simply as 'Ferguson'. He aimed to include an accurate description of every book, pamphlet, broadsheet, periodical and newspaper relating in any way to Australia, wherever they were printed, and to provide historical and bibliographical notes. The first volume was published in 1941 and volumes appeared at irregular intervals, the seventh and last being published in 1969, shortly after his death.

Closely involved with the R.A.H.S., Ferguson contributed to its journal and was president in 1922 and again in 1940-42 when he was able to implement an earlier plan to acquire a building, History House, for its headquarters. With Green and Mrs A. G. Foster, he had a limited edition, The Howes and their Press, printed by Ernest Shea. Ferguson married Dorothy Kathleen Johnston, a 29-year-old secretary, on 16 July 1945 at St Stephen's. A trustee (from 1935) and president (1963-67) of the Public Library of New South Wales, he remained on its governing body until 1969, and was made an honorary member of the Library Association of Australia in 1958. He was also president of the Captain Cook's Landing Place Trust and a member of the La Pérouse Monuments Reserve Trust. Ferguson was appointed O.B.E. in 1957 and knighted in 1961, but treasured equally his R.A.H.S. fellowship, bestowed in 1927. The National Library of Australia, Canberra, recognized his contributions to bibliography and to libraries with an exhibition in his honour in 1965 that coincided with the biennial conference of the Library Association.

'A reserved man, steeped in the traditional Presbyterian virtues', Ferguson had 'an engaging grin' and could appreciate a joke. In his eighties his 'spare, slightly stooped, sober figure' could be seen at his special desk in the Mitchell Library. Survived by his wife, and their son and daughter, and by the daughter and two of the three sons of his first marriage, he died on 7 May 1969 at his Roseville home. In conformity with his simple, frugal and considerate life, he had left instructions that his obsequies should take the form of a private cremation from an undertaker's chapel, without prior public announcement; he added the wish that 'those at a distance or hindered by age' should not attend. His eldest son George became publishing director of Angus & Robertson, John followed in his father's footsteps as a lawyer and Colin was killed in 1943 while serving with the Royal Australian Air Force. Sir John's collection of Australiana passed to the National Library and was housed in the Ferguson room.

Select Bibliography

  • G. D. Richardson, The John Alexander Ferguson Memorial Lecture 1975 (Syd, 1977) and for bibliography
  • Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 62, pt 2, Sept 1976, p 73
  • Historical Studies, 14, no 54, Apr 1970
  • H. de Berg, interview with Sir John Ferguson (transcript, 1962, National Library of Australia).

Citation details

R. Else-Mitchell, 'Ferguson, Sir John Alexander (1881–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 22 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

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