Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Samuel Mullen (1828–1890)

by J. P. Holroyd

This article was published:

Samuel Mullen (1828-1890), bookseller, was born on 27 November 1828 in Dublin, son of George Mullen, bookseller, and his wife Eliza, née Orson. Educated at Nuttgrove College and Trinity College, Dublin, he was indentured to an apothecary at 16. He disliked the work and was soon apprenticed to the booksellers, William Curry, jun. and Co., where he met George Robertson. Mullen completed his apprenticeship in 1848, went to London and worked for John W. Parker & Son, where he met an apprentice, William Charles Rigby (1834-1913), who in 1859 started a bookshop in Adelaide.

At 24 Mullen decided to migrate and sailed for Melbourne in the Great Britain; Robertson was a fellow passenger. They arrived on 12 November 1852 and Mullen went to Apsley, near Hamilton, with an introduction to S. M. Baird of Mount Bute station. Next year he became first assistant to Robertson who had opened a bookshop in Melbourne. They adjusted to their new conditions and the business grew rapidly. To shorten the time between ordering and receiving stock Robertson decided in 1857 to open a London office and chose Mullen for the post. On 6 October 1855 at St Peter's Church, Melbourne, he had married Eliza Moss. With his wife and infant son he sailed in the Essex but in London found that Robertson had appointed his own brother. No explanation was made and the two never spoke to each other again, although they later published some books in conjunction.

Supported by some London publishers, Mullen planned to open a bookshop and library in Melbourne. He selected stock and returned to Victoria in 1859 with his family and brother William Lowell. He opened at 55 Collins Street East. Based on Mudie's of London, his library was the first of its kind in Australia. It contained serious works besides better-class fiction and with vice-regal patronage was an immediate success. The book department catered for the intellectual élite and became a popular meeting place. William organized a stationery section and Samuel was appointed a bookseller to the University of Melbourne. He had books in foreign languages besides the best English literature. Several of his assistants achieved distinction: Adam Graham Melville (1842-1921) took charge of the library in the 1860s; Leonard Slade (1859-1954) served in 1876-1939 and became a partner; Richard Powell Raymond (1843-1918) was later manager for Robertson; and J. R. G. Adams became librarian to the South Australian Public Library in 1896. In Slade's opinion the greatest bookman to enter the shop was Alfred Deakin. In the 1870s Mullen had warned his staff that he 'appears to be buying more books than he can afford', but Deakin always paid. Mullen moved in 1879 to larger premises at 31 Collins Street East.

Although he sponsored some important works, Mullen had no clear publishing policy. His authors were more pragmatical than creative and ranged from James Bonwick to Bishop Moorhouse. He published several textbooks at matriculation level and his Christmas cards of flower studies by Ellis Rowan in 1883 were claimed to be the first Australian prints by chromolithography. At the royal commission on tariffs in 1882 he opposed duties on school books and printing papers. An avowed free trader, he argued that local manufactures could best be encouraged by placing Victorian copyright works on the school list.

For some years Mullen suffered from a heart ailment. In October 1889 he sold out to his brother William, A. G. Melville and L. Slade. At a farewell dinner given by fellow booksellers he expressed sympathy for the 'poor suffering dock labourers' on strike in England. He planned to spend two years abroad but died in London on 29 May 1890, leaving an estate of £14,900. Predeceased by his wife on 15 October 1868, he had married Wilhelmina, daughter of Dr J. J. Wild of Zurich, at St Luke's Church, Emerald Hill, on 17 September 1870. She survived him with a son and daughter, and four sons and two daughters of the first marriage.

As president of the Booksellers' Association, Mullen had supported the Early Closing Association and held office in the Protestant and Catholic Orphanages and the Austin and Children's Hospitals. Prominent in St Luke's Church, Emerald Hill, he had been a warden of St Paul's in the city. He was a founder of the Melbourne Chess Club, the Melbourne Shakespeare Society and the Mechanics' Institute at Emerald Hill, where he had lived, and was active in the move to open the National Gallery on Sundays. Mullen's was an institution. Marcus Clarke, Fergus Hume and W. J. Turner wrote about it, and a visiting author in 1889 claimed that 'Half the respectable families in Melbourne belong to Mullen's'. In 1921 Melville and Mullen merged with George Robertson & Co. to form Robertson & Mullens.

Select Bibliography

  • H M. Humphreys (ed), Men of the Time in Australia: Victorian series, 2nd ed (Melb, 1882)
  • J. H. Burchett, Utmost for the Highest (Melb, 1964)
  • J. Holroyd, George Robertson of Melbourne (Melb, 1968)
  • G. Serle, The Rush to be Rich (Melb, 1971)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1883, 2nd S, 4 (50)
  • A. G. Melville, ‘The book trade in Australia since 1861’, Library Assn of Australasia, Proceedings of Sydney Meeting, 1898
  • L. Slade, ‘Melbourne's booksellers’, Victorian Historical Magazine, 15 (1935)
  • Australasian Sketcher, 5 July 1879
  • Illustrated London News, 19 Jan 1889
  • Leader (Melbourne), 17 Aug 1889
  • Argus (Melbourne), 30 Oct 1889, 2 June 1890
  • Age (Melbourne), 2 June 1890
  • Herald (Melbourne), 26 Oct 1939.

Citation details

J. P. Holroyd, 'Mullen, Samuel (1828–1890)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 21 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


27 November, 1828
Dublin, Dublin, Ireland


29 May, 1890 (aged 61)
London, Middlesex, England

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