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Edward Augustus Petherick (1847–1917)

by C. A. Burmester

This article was published:

Edward Augustus Petherick, by Maull &​ Fox, 1890s

Edward Augustus Petherick, by Maull &​ Fox, 1890s

National Library of Australia, 23480896

Edward Augustus Petherick (1847-1917), bookseller, publisher, bibliographer and book collector, was born on 6 March 1847 at Burnham, Somerset, England, eldest of nine surviving children of Peter John Petherick, stationer, and his wife Ann, née Press. The family sailed from Bristol in the Kyle and arrived at Melbourne in March 1853 with 400 books. Edward could read at 5 and while working for his father attended Alfred Brunton's School at Fitzroy part-time until 1860. On 11 August 1862 he joined the bookselling and stationery firm of George Robertson, who was impressed by Edward's precocious knowledge of books and enthusiastic application to his duties. In spare time he acted as secretary to the Sunday school at the Oxford Street Congregational Church, Collingwood, and its Penny Savings Bank and Young Men's Society.

In 1870 Robertson chose Petherick to reorganize the London office. He soon transformed the branch and remained manager till 1877 when the possibility of Robertson's retirement required him to return. When Robertson decided to continue as the firm's head Petherick returned to the London office. The next years were probably the most fruitful and satisfying for Petherick. In 1865 he had begun to collect titles for a catalogue or bibliography of Australia but put it aside in 1870. In 1878 he wrote: 'the business of the London department being well organised, I took up the work again; but finding I could do little without the books, I began to collect them—as they came within my grasp, and the savings of a limited salary'. In 1882 he won public recognition as a bibliographer by publishing the Catalogue of the York Gate Geographical and Colonial Library. Its success prompted William Silver to enlarge his collection with help from Petherick whom he commissioned to prepare a second edition sub-titled 'An index to the Literature of Geography, Maritime and Inland Discovery, Commerce and Colonisation'; it was published by John Murray in 1886. Assisted by his brother Harold, Petherick had worked for four years on the book which won immediate and wide acclaim. When Silver died in 1905 Petherick arranged the sale of the York Gate Library to the South Australian branch of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia. With tireless industry, inexhaustible energy and bachelor freedom, he became involved with many learned societies and corporate activities from the Royal Geographical, Hakluyt and Linnean Societies to the Royal Colonial Institute and the Library Association, becoming a life member of them all. He also wrote numerous reviews, letters and articles, many of which were never published.

When Robertson retired, Petherick set up business in 1887 as the Colonial Booksellers' Agency at 33 Paternoster Row with a capital of £800, the backing of a number of publishers and the assistance of Australian banks as distributing branches in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. By 1894 he had immensely influenced the content of reading on Australia. He also entered publishing, issuing quarterly the Colonial Book Circular and Bibliographical Record (later the Torch) and in 1889 launched his Collection of Favourite and Approved Authors. On 1 March 1892 in Dorset he married a widow Mary Agatha Skeats, née Annear, and next year visited Australia in connexion with his business.

In 1894 Petherick went bankrupt with debts of about £50,000. His book stocks were sold to E. W. Cole of Melbourne and his Collection of Favourite and Approved Authors was taken over by George Bell & Sons. With his wife's help he met his difficulties and she and a number of friends succeeded in saving his own collection of Australiana. Broken by his business failure, he became a cataloguer with Francis Edwards & Co. in 1895-1908 and produced a series of outstanding catalogues of Australasian material. As means permitted he continued his collecting and devoted much effort to complete his 'Bibliography of Australia and Polynesia'; he prepared a printed prospectus of it in 1898 but was unable to arrange publication.

In 1894 Petherick had approached Edward Braddon and Duncan Gillies with an offer to present his collection to 'Federated Australia', he to be appointed librarian of the collection at a nominal salary. The offer was considered in December 1895 at a meeting of Australian agents-general who asked the Imperial Institute to house the collection. Although the institute was unable to co-operate Petherick clung to the idea of presenting the collection to the Australian people. When the Commonwealth came into being in 1901 he wrote on 15 March to Prime Minister (Sir) Edmund Barton proposing that the collection be added temporarily to 'the High Commissioner's Office' in London with himself as its custodian and buyer for the Federal Parliamentary Library. His approach was premature and no action resulted. In 1908 he and his wife took the collection to Australia and soon negotiated with the Federal Parliament. Its Library Committee on 27 May 1909 recommended acquisition of the collection 'in consideration of an annuity of £500 a year: Mr Petherick to render during the currency of the annuity such services in the Commonwealth Library as the Committee may from time to time prescribe'. An agreement between the Pethericks and the Commonwealth was signed on 4 November, and was confirmed by the Petherick Collection Act of 1911.

In 1909-17 Petherick tended his collection with growing frustration, compensated only by appointment as C.M.G. in 1916. Apart from the casual recognition which Australians made of his overseas achievements he found himself in complete antipathy to the Commonwealth librarian, Arthur Wadsworth, under whom he worked. This disharmony was increased by Petherick's belief that his experience and knowledge as the foremost authority in the world on Australiana were being ignored. In this situation his bibliography came no nearer publication, except for some sections in the Victorian Historical Magazine in 1911 and 1912. Its 100,000 entries remained in manuscript, available for consultation in the National Library. Predeceased by his wife on 10 May 1915, Petherick died disappointed in Melbourne on 17 September 1917.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 1910
  • C. McDonald papers MS40 (National Library of Australia)
  • Petherick papers MS41, MS760 and letter files (National Library of Australia)
  • Petherick bibliography of Australia and Polynesia (National Library of Australia).

Additional Resources

Citation details

C. A. Burmester, 'Petherick, Edward Augustus (1847–1917)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 14 July 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

Edward Augustus Petherick, by Maull &​ Fox, 1890s

Edward Augustus Petherick, by Maull &​ Fox, 1890s

National Library of Australia, 23480896

Life Summary [details]


6 March, 1847
Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset, England


17 September, 1917 (aged 70)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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