Monday Musings on Australian literature: the Australasian Home Reading Union et al (2)

Shared Reading Sign

Shared Reading (Courtesy: Amy via Clker.Com)

You may remember that a couple of weeks ago I wrote a Monday Musings post on the Australasian Home Reading Union – and said at the time that I’d probably write more because I’d like to see what happened to it. Well, here is the next instalment. Please note, though, that my research isn’t as thorough as it could be – partly because I’m focusing on newspapers which, strangely enough, don’t think about what people in the future might want to know! Consequently, this “history” I’m gradually concocting should be seen as tentative rather than definitive.

Collapse of the AHRU

So, as I continued to search Trove, I found a bit of a gap in discussions of the Union in the early 1900s, though there were scattered references, such as to the meeting of a South Australian group in 1900. Then, suddenly, articles starting appearing around 1906 about something called the National Home Reading Union. Was this the same beast I wondered, or something different? This 1906 activity seemed to be mostly occurring in Western Australia. Was this simply that WA was now joining the east in the home-reading union movement? With just a little more digging, however, I found an article that explained it all …

The article appeared in Perth’s Western Mail on 11 August 1906 and concerned the visit to Australia of one Dr Hill, Master of Downing College, Cambridge. It commences by describing at some length Dr Hill’s “hobby” – the National Home Reading Union. He was one of the original founders in England and, he tells “the interviewer”, it had spread through various parts of the Empire, including Canada and South Africa. But what of Australia?

Well, you might also remember from my first post that the Australasian Home Reading Union started in Tasmania? Here is what Dr Hill says:

“When Bishop Montgomery first went to his See in Tasmania, I asked him to try to establish an Australian branch of the N.H.R.U. His efforts were only too successful. Why, in New South Wales the then Governor, Lord Jersey, took the chair at an inaugural meeting, and the Premier and several bishops were on the platform. The movement started with such eclat that the committee felt themselves strong enough to establish an Australasian Reading Union, with their own book lists, their own magazine, etc. But they did not reckon that whereas we in England can obtain an unlimited supply of scholars to write for the magazines the conditions are not equally favourable in Australia. After a short, though meteoric existence, the Australasian Union came to an end. Had it remained as it started – a colonial branch of the N.H.R.U. – it would still be flourishing. We have strong centres in Canada and South Africa, and in other parts of the Empire, and I should greatly like, before I leave, to see a branch established for Western Australia.”

Interesting, eh? Sounds like we, unlike other parts of the empire, decided to go it alone. Good on us for being independent! Anyhow, he goes on to suggest how to go about organising a new WA branch:

“It has been strongly borne in upon me since I came to Perth … that it is far less easy here to find men of leisure in need of a congenial occupation of this kind than at home. But this work is, perhaps, rather ladies’ work than men’s. It is the ladies who have the leisure to read, and they have their children to encourage in habits of reading. Many of our strongest committees at home are composed chiefly of ladies. If some of the ladies of Perth would organise themselves into a branch of the N.H.R.U., they would, I think, find that it not only immensely increased their interest in reading, but that it afforded them an effective means of advancing the cause of civilisation.”

Fascinating. Is it that we had fewer men of leisure – it probably is – or that we had fewer “in need of a congenial occupation of this kind”? And, did women (oops, “ladies”) have more time or, were they more motivated? There are, in fact, many issues we could unpick in his statement regarding class and gender, but that’s not my focus here, so let’s move on.

The interviewer then asked Dr Hill whether the Union focused on “serious works, and books of the dry-as-dust series.” Absolutely not, replied Dr Hill:

our whole object is to render reading recreative. We have, this year, courses on Stevenson, Browning, George Meredith, French novels, and many other subjects, which cannot be termed academic, and we never miss an opportunity of introducing into our lists novels, biographies, and essays, or other lighter forms or reading. We are not technical. We keep as far away as possible from bread and butter studies, and we absolutely decline to institute examinations. Our object is culture.

WA gets under way

A month later, on 15 September 1906, the Western Mail reported that a temporary committee had already been formed and that while they could not obtain all the material needed from England for some months, this committee would endeavour to put a proposal tighter “for a course of reading.”

Then, on 27 February 1907, the West Australian announced that the National Home-Reading Union was underway, though it does not provide specific details, beyond giving some examples of courses from the NHRU’s magazine. However, the very next month, another WA newspaper, The Northam Advertiser states that “A ‘men’s “circle” has been started in a small way in our midst, and some half dozen members have been enrolled. Mr. A. H. Greenwood is secretary, and the meetings are fortnightly at the Rectory.” (It’s notable, in fact, the degree to which the church seemed to be involved in this activity.) The article lists the course of reading – do click on the link to see what you think – and concludes by stating that:

The cost of the books will run from 9d to 1 /6 each, and about one or two books a month is all that will be required, so that it is within the reach of everyone to join, and the reading at home and the meetings are sure to be interesting and instructive. It is hoped to start a ladies’ “circle” as well, and Miss Janet Rickey will be glad to receive names of persons willing to join.

So, gendered groups, which is probably not surprising. And an overt reference to cost, which tells us something about their intended audience – “everyone”, not just the well-to-do.

There is more to this AHRU/NHRU story because it did seem to take off – but I’ll leave that for the next instalment.

15 thoughts on “Monday Musings on Australian literature: the Australasian Home Reading Union et al (2)

  1. Thanks this was a fascinating dip back into the time when so many people were going to evening classes (free in the UK anyway) and they were keen to self-educate. So there’s nothing new about book bloggers concentrating on particular books or authors at times, how they would have loved the internet.

  2. This is a fascinating history. The gendered groups really did fit in with the times. However it seems like such an alien idea today. To me, it sounds like it would make a book group downright glum.

    • Hmmm Brian – interesting, really, because I think more bookgroups than not in my experience are gendered, and are not at all glum. But, most adult education courses and groups – like, here, for example, U3A, are not gendered. My bookgroup has actively eschewed men because it would change the dynamic in ways that we don’t want – we are a serious book discussion group but we also function, as a by-product, as a women’s support group – but I would never want to go to an education class that only women.

  3. I read the story in the West and they seem to be studying history rather than literature (I wouldn’t mind seeing the course notes for social movements in North and South). Hopefully the Labor government we elect next year will return technical colleges to their original objective, as seen in this story, offering free opportunities for working people to improve both their minds and their employability.

    • Yes, that particular example was very historical based, but I’ve seen detailed lists of courses that include a lot of literature – Shakespeare, Poets, etc.

      As for TAFES (as we call them in our area), I think what’s happened to them is pretty sad. I don’t think government has a clear view about what it wants them to be anymore?

  4. I’d love to know the current stats for ‘self-improvement’ through self-education. Some years ago when I was on a committee developing policy on professional development for teachers, we were told that research showed that primary teachers did more professional development in their own time and at their own expense than any other professional group. It makes sense to me that people trying to foster a love of learning would like learning for themselves as well.

    But (fresh from reading the story of Mary Lee, a C19th South Australian activist) I wonder if people stuck in poorly paid work with lousy conditions now, in the C21st, have the same taste for self-improvement as their forebears did?

    • The movement(s) that brought about such institutions as the Mechanics Institutes does seem very C19th. In literature I can name Jack London, Joseph Conrad, Joseph Furphy who all largely came to literacy and education in adulthood. I think one of the differences today is that there are fewer academic/intelligent types trapped in working class occupations as universal schooling gives most of them the opportunity to move on into tertiary education.

      Personally, I’ve been enrolled in one course or another for 30 of my 67 years, but I had the advantage of a.) a middle class upbringing; and b.) effectively free university degrees.

      • Great discussion, Bill and Lisa. That’s interesting about Primary School teachers Lisa. I feel quite cross about the lack of professional development there – and the fact that the few days they do get can be taken up with things like updating St Johns Ambulance knowledge etc. That’s important I know, but teachers need skills. They need to be kept up with, for example, current technology – with what technology can enhance the classroom and what not – and, I’d say, they also need the re-invigoration that PD can give you. How often do teachers compete those PDPs or whatever they are called, have them ticked off by school leaders, and then not actually given the training to support those plans.

        And, good point Bill, regarding the impact of universal education. It has made a big difference. And now we have on-line self-education courses. How many people do those, and who knows who’s doing them and why. There’s a PhD there – if it’s not already underway. (I’ve read bloggers who have done courses on literature – such as that WA one on Australian literature, on what to look for in literature, etc.)

        • Just a PS. In my 20s I was living a totally working class life, often destitute, sleeping on mates’ sofas, all that stuff, but whenever I had an Australasian Post I would read all those short courses (Scotts?) on the back cover and plan which ones I might take. Never did of course. But after my son was born I began a Transport Diploma at Perth TAFE and that was my stepping stone into Accountancy and back into education.

        • It’s fascinating, Bill, to hear the different paths people take. It’s important the young people know these stories – know that what happens at high school isn’t the be-all and end-all of their dreams and hopes.

      • Well, there’s nothing like living in grinding poverty to inspire movements for improvement. The solidarity of C19th people working in terrible conditions was what led to improvement in living conditions as much as their self-education did. The trouble nowadays is that the gig economy is so fractured, and nobody belongs to unions any more. And who can blame kids who’ve finished Year 12 and still can’t get a decent job if they decide that more education isn’t what they need?

        • Good point Lisa – solidarity of people with the same needs can achieve a lot.

          As for what’s happening today, I feel the situation is so complicated that it’s not easy to work out one cause, or one solution. The problem with the gig economy is that it does suit some people. For some people there’s more flexibility than we’ve ever had before to suit work to one’s lifestyle, needs and aspirations. The challenge as I see it is to retain that flexibility in a way that ensures that people aren’t taken advantage of. The trouble as always is that life changes, society changes, and systems struggle to catch up. I really don’t know the answer …

  5. Yes, that’s what I’ve seen in TV interviews: some people do like it. In a weird way, they are analogous to the Kanaks and other foreign workers in early Australia, who were happy with the low pay because low as it was, it was better than unemployment at home.
    But these days, every day I see some ad shrieking about lower and lower prices, I think of some worker somewhere on the planet getting screwed…

    • Yes, true. It’s awful really because some of those workers in factories in poor countries are glad to have jobs but many of them are not only being paid poorly, and not given good conditions, but their health and safety is at risk. That’s the really terrible thing isn’t it? It’s good seeing some companies working on that but I can’t always keep up with which ones they are.

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