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David Scott Mitchell (1836–1907)

by G. D. Richardson

This article was published:

David Scott Mitchell, by Dalton's Royal Photographic Establishment, 1864

David Scott Mitchell, by Dalton's Royal Photographic Establishment, 1864

State Library of New South Wales, 446638

David Scott Mitchell (1836-1907), book collector and national benefactor, was born on 19 March 1836 in Sydney, only son of Dr James Mitchell and his wife Augusta Maria Frederick, née Scott. In October 1852 he became one of the first undergraduates of the University of Sydney (B.A., 1856; M.A., 1859), where he won scholarships in mathematics, with prizes also in physics and chemistry; he also played cricket outside the university. In December 1858 he was admitted to the Bar but never practised though he is said to have later declined appointment as attorney-general.

With independent means Mitchell shared in the diversions of Sydney society and won renown especially for prowess at whist. On slight evidence he is alleged to have had a broken romance with Emily, daughter of Sir William Manning, thereby changing the course of his life. Probably more significant was the death of his father in February 1869; his will was successfully contested by the family on the grounds that his mind had been failing and he was under an outsider's undue influence. The notoriety of the case was humiliating to the refined and sensitive Mitchell. His mother died in 1871 and he moved from the family home in Cumberland Street to Darlinghurst Road, where he lived in increasing seclusion as a bibliophile.

Mitchell had been reared in a cultivated household; never robust, he preferred books and intellectual interests to business or politics. By 1866 he had won some repute for scholarship in English literature and for the next twenty years he collected mainly English literary works, including many fine editions which in 1900 exceeded 10,000 volumes. From about 1886, probably encouraged by George Robertson, he turned almost solely to the record of Australia and its surrounding region. Book-collecting, which had been an intellectual pastime in youth and a scholarly vocation in maturity, became his all-absorbing purpose. His aim, not merely comprehensive but exhaustive, was to gather a copy of every document he could that related to Australia and also to the Pacific, the East Indies and Antarctica.

In this aim Mitchell was favoured: he had wealth, leisure and position, with useful social connexions yet was free from outside distractions. His scholarly knowledge of books, coupled with education, experience and a talent for book-collecting, approached genius. Moreover his predecessors and competitors were few and less fortunate. He was also well served by the booksellers, especially Robertson and his assistant, F. Wymark, who had vision besides bibliopolical skill. After 1895 he was aided and encouraged by H. C. L. Anderson, the principal librarian, who had seen Mitchell as the chief rival of the Public Library of New South Wales and set out to combine forces.

His association with Anderson, and perhaps with Dr James Norton, Mitchell's solicitor and president of the library trustees, probably most influenced the disposition of his collection. Apart from Mitchell, the library had the best Australasian collection and had demonstrated a capacity and will to develop it. Mitchell was ageing and in poor health, with no relations of like interests to his own. On 17 October 1898 he offered to bequeath his collection to the library trustees. The offer was immediately accepted and eventually his conditions were met: the trustees were incorporated in 1899 and after the intervention of the premier, (Sir) Joseph Carruthers, the Mitchell wing of the new library building was begun in 1906.

Mitchell had been baptized in St James's Church, Sydney, but became an agnostic. In all other matters he was a conservative. He was of spare build and delicate constitution although having nothing of doctors. Reserved and modest, he was a good conversationalist with a touch of wit and humour. He remained unmarried and lived meagrely and unostentatiously in a comfortless house, declining honours and any infringement on his privacy. His cousin, Rose Scott, was his nearest approach to a personal friend though he readily helped deserving scholars. He had a name for parsimony except in his collecting, where he spent liberally but with the collector's ethics that had no place for sentiment. He was also a good landlord though he did little to develop his estates of more than 42,000 acres (16,997 ha), mainly in the Hunter Valley, leaving their management to agents.

Mitchell died on 24 July 1907 and bequeathed to the library trustees his entire collection with an endowment of £70,000. After some minor bequests the residue of his estate of £261,000 went to his sister Augusta, wife of Edward Christopher Merewether. Despite his fine memory and erudition he wrote nothing and left as his one main memorial the Mitchell Library in Sydney. When opened on 8 March 1910 it had some 60,000 volumes and much other material. It remains unrivalled in its field and is one of the great national collections in the world.

Select Bibliography

  • J. R. Tyrrell, David Scott Mitchell: A Reminiscence (Syd, 1936)
  • A. H. Spencer, The Hill of Content (Syd, 1959)
  • C. E. Smith, Dr. James Mitchell (Newcastle, 1966)
  • B. Stevens, ‘David Scott Mitchell’, Lone Hand, Oct 1907
  • G. D. Richardson, ‘David Scott Mitchell’, Descent, 1 (1961)
  • H. C. L. Anderson, David Scott Mitchell, Some Reminiscences (State Library of New South Wales)
  • F. V. G. Wymark, Reminiscences of D. S. Mitchell (State Library of New South Wales)
  • D. S. Mitchell and Rose Scott papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

G. D. Richardson, 'Mitchell, David Scott (1836–1907)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

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