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.