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.