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James Robert Tyrrell (1875–1961)

by W. S. Ramson

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James Robert Tyrrell (1875-1961), bookseller and publisher, was born on 3 July 1875 at Darlington, Sydney, son of George Tyrrell, dealer, and his wife Mary, née Colgan. His father, born on the Isle of Wight, had served in the Crimean War before trying his fortune on the New South Wales goldfields; his mother had come to Queensland from Ireland. Jim attended the Pigeon Ground (Public) School at Balmain and Petersham Superior Public School; the Tyrrells moved to Newtown during his boyhood. At the age of 13 he began work with Angus and Robertson, running errands, delivering books in a billycart and 'keeping an eye on the front' (the books displayed outside the shop). Relations within 'the family' were close: Tyrrell's early reading was guided by Angus and his first exercise as an independent bookseller (at night in a shop near the university) was encouraged by Robertson's generosity in allowing him to choose freely from discards.

Already enmeshed in the world of books, Tyrrell spent ten months in London and Edinburgh as a buyer for the firm in 1897-98. His tour was part business, part pleasure, both an expansion of his knowledge and contacts in the book trade, and a pilgrimage to the 'literary shrines' of England and in particular Scotland. On his return, he married Matilda Bourne, daughter of a museum curator, on 17 August 1898 at St Stephen's Anglican Church, Newtown. Tyrrell stayed with Angus and Robertson for seventeen years, acquiring an invaluable training in the craft of bookselling and an enviable knowledge of Australiana and its major collectors.

Again with the friendly support of Robertson, Tyrrell set up in business in 1905, with a partner, on the corner of Castlereagh and Market streets. Like many of Sydney's booksellers, he was to move premises several times. After five years of indifferent success, he made a fresh start in Adelaide, finding ideal premises at 128 Gawler Place. Dealing in art as well as books, he began the diversification of activities which was to characterize his return to Sydney; he also rekindled that entrepreneurial pleasure he had experienced at Angus and Robertson's of playing a constructive part in building public and private collections, and of running an establishment which was seen as a focal point by writers and bibliophiles.

Returning in 1914 to Castlereagh Street, Sydney, Tyrrell not only expanded the twin strands of bookselling and art-dealing, but formed a publishing company, Tyrrell's Ltd, in which Jules Francois Archibald among others held shares. Prominent on its list, which also reflected Tyrrell's abiding interest in early Sydney, were Henry Lawson's volume of verse, My Army, O My Army! (1915), Zora Cross's Songs of Love and Life (1917) and a volume of caricatures by the cartoonist David Low. Tyrrell himself compiled and published a collection of Aboriginal place-names (1933) and wrote a short reminiscence of David Scott Mitchell in 1936.

Testimony to Tyrrell's fascination with collectable items, and the breadth of his knowledge and interests, was his acquisition of the established Hunter Street business, Antiques Ltd, and in August 1923 of Tost & Rohu, 'Taxidermists, Tanners, Furriers and Island Curio Dealers', 'the queerest shop in Sydney'. In financial straits in the late 1920s, Tyrrell added a museum to this shop in Martin Place. From 1935, when he moved to 281 George Street, he concentrated on books; his son Eric later took over the burden of management.

In Old Books, Old Friends, Old Sydney (1952) Tyrrell records something of his boyhood and progress as an independent bookseller and art dealer; it is less an autobiography than a collection of often anecdotal reminiscences of the years (1888-1905) he spent with Angus and Robertson. Its sequel, Postscript: Further Bookselling Reminiscences (1957), has notes on Henry Kendall, William Traill and James Brunton Stephens and includes the uncollected poems of James Lionel Michael as transcribed by Kendall.

Tyrrell writes modestly, but with a strong sense of having been privileged to witness and take part in a formative period in Australian cultural history. His style is matter-of-fact, his memory keen and his observation sharp. Skills honed in the pursuit of Australiana reveal themselves in the vivid clarity with which he records the 'picturesque cavalcade' of 'bookfellows' that passed before him. Among his acquaintances were booksellers Angus, Robertson, George Robertson of Melbourne, William Dymock and Fred Wymark; writers such as Lawson, Archibald, Banjo Paterson, C. J. Dennis, 'Steele Rudd', Alfred George Stephens, 'the alliterative quintet of Brennan, Brady, Brereton, Bedford, and Becke'; visitors to Sydney like Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson; artists and illustrators including Norman and Lionel Lindsay and Low; collectors, among them Mitchell, (Sir) William Dixson, Arthur Triggs, Henry White and A. H. Turnbull from New Zealand; and other bibliophiles prominent in public life, such as Sir Henry Parkes and Billy Hughes. The book provides invaluable glimpses of these and other figures, and casts light on their engagement at a critical time in the collection and preservation of Australiana.

Best remembered as the doyen of sellers of second-hand books, Tyrrell died at Cammeray, Sydney, on 30 July 1961 and was cremated. His wife, son and daughter survived him. Perhaps the most poignant tributes to Tyrrell's role in their common pursuit are those of poets who knew and frequented one or other of his shops—Lawson's 'Song of Tyrrell's Bell', Roderic Quinn's 'Tyrrell's Bookshop', and Kenneth Slessor's 'In Tyrrell's Bookshop':

Broadsheets there are, of horrid hangman's tales;
Yellow-stained maps from some forgotten book;
Journals of convict years in New South Wales,
And Captain Cook.

Mottled monastic tomes of Cicero;
Ballads of murder, testaments of thieves;
Shakespeares in brindled duodecimo,
With rusty leaves.

Long forgot relics of a dead decade:
All that is old, and nothing that is new —
Here, in the shadows, half an earth has made
Last rendezvous.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Booksellers Association, The Early Australian Booksellers (Adel, 1980)
  • People (Sydney), 20 Mar 1957, p 48
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15 Dec 1945, 27 Mar 1954, 22 Feb 1958
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 6 Aug 1961
  • Tyrrell papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

W. S. Ramson, 'Tyrrell, James Robert (1875–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


3 July, 1875
Darlington, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


30 July, 1961 (aged 86)
Cammeray, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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