Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Arthur Wadsworth (1864–1931)

by Pauline Fanning

This article was published:

Arthur Wadsworth (1864-1931), by Sarony Studios, 1911

Arthur Wadsworth (1864-1931), by Sarony Studios, 1911

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23514865

Arthur Wadsworth (1864-1931), librarian, was born on 19 December 1864 at Windsor, Melbourne, eighth child of Robert Wadsworth, clerk, and his wife Julia Lucy, née Guillaume, both English born. His father was clerk of the Victorian Executive Council in 1875-89. Arthur was educated at All Saints Grammar School, East St Kilda, and studied at the University of Melbourne in 1880 before joining the Victorian parliamentary library next year. On 6 May 1891 he married Lilian Johnston Pengelley at All Saints Church, St Kilda. When Wadsworth succeeded the parliamentary librarian Richard Church in 1901, the newly elected Commonwealth representatives enjoyed the use of the Victorian Parliament House, with its library and staff, until the establishment of a Federal capital. Wadsworth was thus to have charge of the Commonwealth library for over twenty-six years while also being titular head of the State parliamentary library. His formal transfer to the Commonwealth service, not gazetted until 1927, was backdated to 1925.

As Commonwealth parliamentary librarian Wadsworth was responsible to a parliamentary committee more than usually jealous of its powers, particularly as its members had rejected a suggestion by Prime Minister (Sir) Edmund Barton that an additional board of experts might advise them on the formation of the new library. Since their chairman controlled most financial and administrative matters, Wadsworth had little independent authority. Nevertheless, he built up a strong collection of official publications, laid the foundation for a general reference collection, acquired some important basic Australiana and compiled two catalogues (published in 1906 and 1911). He was also responsible for the first five issues of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Handbook in 1915-26 and was executive officer for the library's multi-volume publication, Historical Records of Australia, in 1914-25. Possessing an 'encyclopaedic knowledge and a card-index memory', he was much in demand by politicians in search of information or quotations with which to embellish their speeches. Between 1909 and 1917 Wadsworth defended himself, with commendable restraint, against the unsubstantiated criticisms of E. A. Petherick: embittered by his lack of responsibility within the library, Petherick had accused Wadsworth of incompetence, ignorance and a lack of probity in dealing with booksellers. Wadsworth retired in 1927.

Tall, with a distinguished appearance and bearing, 'Waddy' was deeply interested in art and the theatre. An habitué of Fasoli's dinners, he was regarded by his friend Allan Wilkie as one of Australia's leading Shakespearian students. Wadsworth was an active Anglican and extended his interests to astronomy, physics and music. A sociable man, he included among his companions Sydney booksellers George Robertson and Fred Wymark, and Melburnians W. R. Maloney, E. A. Parr, Margareta Webber, and A. H. Spencer who described him as a 'whole man'. Wadsworth died on 21 April 1931 at Kew and was buried in Box Hill cemetery. His wife, daughter and two sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 22 Apr 1931
  • Parliamentary Library Archives (Canberra)
  • National Library of Australia Archives
  • E. A. Petherick papers (National Library of Australia)
  • C. McDonald papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Pauline Fanning, 'Wadsworth, Arthur (1864–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 14 June 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

Arthur Wadsworth (1864-1931), by Sarony Studios, 1911

Arthur Wadsworth (1864-1931), by Sarony Studios, 1911

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23514865

Life Summary [details]


19 December, 1864
Windsor, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


21 April, 1931 (aged 66)
Kew, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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Religious Influence

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