Monday Musings on Australian literature: the Australasian Home Reading Union (1)

Shared Reading Sign

Shared Reading (Courtesy: Amy via Clker.Com)

Reading Groups, U3A branches, Probus clubs, etc. These are just a few of groups around today in which people come together, formally or informally, to further their intellectual interests. What did people with such interests do in, say, late nineteenth century Australia? Well, one option was to join or form an AHR circle. Have you heard of these?

English and American antecedents

I admit that I hadn’t – until I stumbled across references to the Australasian Home-Reading (sometimes hyphenated, sometimes not) Union while researching Trove recently. So, I dabbled in Trove and to a degree in Google, and discovered quite a lot about Home-Reading Unions. As far as I can gather the idea has a few origins. In England, by the 1870s, there were reading courses offered by libraries, and post-university extensions schemes like the Oxford Home Reading Circle which involved systematic. My source for this, however, noted that these tended to be very middle-class, requiring an advanced level of education. This source, Robert Snape from the University of Bolton, goes on to say that:

The fragmentary progress in establishing a popular framework of adult education and guided reading in England was contrasted by the success in North America of the Chautauqua movement. Founded in 1871 as a camp meeting of the Methodist Episcopal Church at Lake Chautauqua in New York State, this evolved into the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Reading Circle comprising over 100,000 workmen, farmers, teachers and housewives who read prescribed books over a four-year course. The aim of the circle, which was widely imitated throughout North America, was to nurture the habit of daily reading through a formalised winter programme, its emphasis on system and method being underpinned by lists of prescribed reading, local discussion groups and an annual summer camp with classes and lectures.

That was 1871. The idea was then, Snape said, picked up back in England by one John Brown Paton, who was the Principal of the Congregational Institute in Nottingham. He heard about the scheme, and was attracted because, says Snape, he was “interested in the moral welfare of young people” and was “aware of their patterns of reading and what he perceived as the corrupting influence of cheap literature.” He had already founded the Recreative Evening Schools Association to encourage progressive reading amongst young adults.

The Chautauqua scheme, though, “offered an inspirational example of the large-scale programme of popular education Paton wished to introduce in Great Britain” and so, with the help of others, “he formulated a system of home reading circles, modelled on Chautauqua, that would provide ‘some guiding hand to show folk what to read’ and would be primarily for uneducated working people and for young adults who had recently left school.” He had hoped to engage the help of the universities but they wanted this scheme to be part of their existing extension programs. However, Paton was “adamant that his new scheme should embrace the Chautauqua principle of inclusiveness.” He consequently eschewed the universities with their middle-class constituency and founded the National Home Reading Union as an autonomous organisation in April 1889.

Snape writes that

the aims of the National Home Reading Union were to guide readers of all ages in the choice of books, to unite them as members of a reading guild and to group them, where possible, in circles for mutual help and interest.

Paton hoped it would, “check the spread of pernicious literature among the young” and “remedy the waste of energy and lack of purpose so often found among those who have time and opportunity for a considerable amount of reading.” The reading would occur within “a systematic framework, and would educate readers in the practice of reading reflectively and to personal advantage.” Paton believed that social reading in a circle would facilitate members discussing prescribed books. His primary audience was “relatively uneducated readers” but he also hoped to reach established readers for whom the program could make “reading more profitable.”

And so to Australia

Not surprisingly, Australians started to hear about the scheme. By 1890, there are various articles – and even letters to the editor – discussing the above English and American programs. And then, on 14 March 1892, an article in Melbourne’s Argus tells us that an Australian version, Australasian Home-Reading Union “was recently founded at the Hobart meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science.” Tasmania, eh?

The article’s main aim though is to advise that “an influential meeting of ladies and gentlemen” had just been held in Melbourne’s Town Hall “to co-operate in establishing a Victorian branch” of the Union. A Professor Morris advised the meeting that:

the object of the society was to promote a more systematic study of literature and science by publishing courses of home reading appealing to different tastes, drawn up by specialists in various subjects, by, publishing a monthly magazine containing additional help for students of each course, and by the formation throughout Victoria of local circles for combined study and discussion by those taking up the same courses.

Another attendee at the meeting, Mr. R. T. Elliott, said that

rapid progress had been made in New South Wales and Tasmania, where Lady Hamilton had taken a most active interest in the union, and that the results already attained in Victoria were very encouraging.

It seems that the formation of circles around Victoria was indeed taking off. An article in the Beechworth, Victoria’s, Ovens and Murray Advertiser of 21 May 1892 says that a circle was about to formed in Beechworth. It explains that the reading program can “be selected according to individual taste, whether that be for scientific, historical, philosophical or popular literature” and that the plan is “so arranged that intending readers, who know little or nothing of the subject they may choose, can begin with very easy and popularly written hand-books and proceed to more comprehensive but equally popular works.” It believes that the circle

will prove itself a very great boon to the social life of quiet Beechworth.

I have numbered this post (1) because I plan to return to this organisation again: how active was it, how long did it last, and how effective was it as a democratising project. Meanwhile, you can look at the Union’s 1894 edition of the AHR (Australasian Home Reader) Volume 3. It contains, among other things, prescribed readings for their courses, as well as papers relating to the year’s business.

38 thoughts on “Monday Musings on Australian literature: the Australasian Home Reading Union (1)

  1. This is so interesting. I also share your curiosity as to how long these groups lasted and how effective they were. Though reading groups still thrive, I suspect that something similar today would be accused of pushing an elitist form of book choices.

    • Yes, Brian, you can’t imagine a reading course of the ilk these days for workers can you? Anyhow I’ll see what I can find. I was mainly looking in the 1890s, but before I narrowed it I thought I saw something dated the 1920s. However I think that reader only went to 1897.

  2. I hadn’t heard of these groups and in particular don’t remember them coming up in C19th fiction. But I think now that I know of them (thankyou!) then it’s possible I will see them in Ada Cambridge or, more likely, Catherine Helen Spence.

    • It’s funny, Bill, how often things suddenly pop up once you’ve heard of them.

      These circles reminded me a little of an American historical fiction novel by Helen Hooven Santmeyer called “And the ladies of the club”, set in the midwest from the late 1860s to the 1930s. It follows the lives of some young women who, with their teacher, form a literary society “intended to promote culture and literature among the educated citizens of the Ohio town, while avoiding controversial subjects such as women’s suffrage and other reform movements”! (Wikipedia) It provides a wonderful social history of the era. It’s a bit “genre” but I’ve never forgotten it – because of the idea of the club and the social history. A bit off topic, but there you are!!

  3. So great to know that the history of these groups go back so far. As an active participant in our local U3A and Library Book Group, I can vouch for how important these have been for me. Interesting that “quiet” Beechworth still has a thriving intellectual community in the form of a U3A. In fact one of the U3A classes I take in Wodonga has the tutor travelling from Beechworth, where he also has a longer established group for Philosophical conversations.

    • Thanks La65. I was. coincidentally, in Beechworth a couple of years ago when they had their Writers Festival. I was with friends so couldn’t attend much but one of the others in our group and I went to a poetry reading on a street corner. I loved it – and loved that it was happening is this historic little town.

      When I retired I planned to attend U3A courses, but so far I haven’t attended one. I just cannot find more time to carve out of my week. My husband though has been going to an advanced German conversation class for several years, and is, in fact, volunteering in the office as I write. It’s a great organisation isn’t it?

  4. I joined U3A this year (now that my life has straightened itself out a bit). I did a course to learn how to do cryptic crosswords, (now a daily hobby) and I’m in a group that does gallery visits around Melbourne once a month. And through that group, I’ve made an Indonesian friend who invited me to join an Indonesian book group! (I swore I’d never join another book group, but I can’t resist this one).
    I’ve also taught at U3A: I filled an adult ESL class for a fortnight, and then I did a six week Indonesian for Beginners (which made me realise how rusty I was. I had to do soooo much preparation for each lesson!!)

    • Oh yes I remember you mentioning the gallery visit one. I like the sound of it.

      Mr Gums and I courted over cryptics and still do them now. Not at home but whenever we are at a cafe having coffee out comes the cryptic. Love them.

      Will we see more Indonesian book reviews in the future?

      • My parents did the Times Crossword every weekend together:)
        Indo books? I’m about to start the first of Indonesia’s most famous author’s Buru Quartet. It’s called This Earth of Mankind and it’s by Pramoedya Ananta Toer (who I’ve read before, but not this quartet.)
        It’s surprisingly difficult to source English translations of Indonesian books, and even harder to get hold of anything in Indonesian. Although I used to be able to read Agatha Christies translated into Indonesian, I am very rusty now so for a book I really care about, I’m going to read a translation.

        • The Times cryptic or normal? I don’t understand The Times cryptic style as well as most of the Aussie ones… Though David Astle is a challenge. Haven’t tried his for a while.

        • Oh, I’ll check that out. David Astle’s allusions and worplays can be left field too. Our prime source is a book of Donald Harrison puzzles. He’s DH in the SMH… Or was. I haven’t looked for years. Some American puzzles, I used to do the LA Times one, are interesting… They are a mix of straight and sort of cryptic.

        • Darn you Lisa! Another distraction! I’ve done a few. They are a bit different to the ones I do but not so different that I couldn’t work out the style. She (Christine Lovatt I mean) uses more homophones than the ones we do, and she has more of those where the word itself is located in the clue. It took me nearly an hour to do the first one, and I did use a few letter hints but the others have been faster, albeit with one of two clues that tricked me. Hers are a fun change…

        • I like being able to get a letter hint if I’m stumped because every few days they (perhaps with a different setter?) come up with one that baffles me until I get a hint. The only down side is that there’s only seven on the site at any one time, and you can’t access other ones once you’ve done the puzzle of the day.

        • Haha yes, it’s a good way though of managing obsession. I agree with the letter hint. It will usually point you in the right direction to understanding the clue. Whenever I guess a word in a cryptic puzzle I’m never happy until I’ve worked out how the clue would have got there.

        • Well that’s the trick to learning how to do them, as well as learning how the mind of the setter works. But sometimes, I am simply flummoxed about how he/she got there.

  5. Hi Sue, It is Victorian Seniors Festival Month, and one of the events is “How words can help you find your Way.” The description of the event: “the oldest known library in the world in Egypt is translated as ‘the house of healing for the soul’. Reading in a group can improve well-being for both the listener and the reader”. I belong to several U3A groups and think they are great for learning and socializing. I try to do a crossword and a Sudoku every day. The Saturday’s Australian has excellent puzzles.

    • Oh, that’s a great quote, Meg. Thanks.

      Mr Gums does sudokus every day. I did for a while but somehow they bored me after a while. I think because they are just numbers. Yet my dictionary writing mother lives sudokus too.

  6. My gosh, such detail! I love the details around the rules of making the sessions attractive and how hard it was for Tasmanians to access the books. I enjoyed looking at this history. My grandmothers were born in 1894. Just an after thought. 🤠🐧

  7. You can find more information on the formation of the Australasian Home Reading Union in Jan Roberts’ biography of Maybanke Anderson, subtitled ‘Sex, suffrage & social reform’, (1993). Maybanke Anderson was a leading Sydney feminist in the late C19. She ran a school for girls that prepared them for matriculation. For a time she published a women’s newspaper, Woman’s Voice. She was architect of the strategy that saw women included as voters when the federal constitution bill was being drafted in Adelaide in 1997. With her husband Francis Anderson, Professor of Philosophy at Sydney University , she was a founder of the Home reading Union in NSW. Your professor Morris is probably E.E. Morris of Melbourne Grammar School, an authority at the time on the development of Australian English. There was a high level of literacy in late C19 Australia and the and demand for reading material is evident in the high numbers of local newspapers, magazines, circulating libraries, mechanics institutes etc. I’ve written a little on this enthusiasm for reading in The Oxford history of Australia Vol 3 1860-1900 ‘Glad Confident Morniing’ (1988). You’ll find more in Martyn Lyons work on the history of the book in Australia (3 volumes) and his history of reading written with Lucy Taksa. Beverley Kingston

    • Thank you very much Beverley. I haven’t so far seen her name mentioned. I looked in the Oxford companion to Australian literature and the Union has no entry, though is referred to under an entry for the Reader. It could of course be referred to under other entries. Anyhow, all this is to say that I’m glad to know it’s been covered more thoroughly elsewhere.

    • I’ve just checked ADB, Beverley, and seen your article on Maybanke there. Fascinating. I’ve come across various references to Literary Societies around that time. I love that people’s desire to read, learn and discuss in groups is by no means a new thing.

      BTW I note in your article that she was also known as Wolstenholme. A Mrs Wolstenholme had come up in Trove as an early mover and shaker in the Union, but I hadn’t connected that when you made your original comment.

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