Monday musings on Australian literature: Bush Book Club (2)

Last week, I introduced the Bush Book Club. Established in Sydney in 1909, its aim was to get books out to remote areas of New South Wales not supported by other services like Schools of Arts and Mechanics Institutes. In my post I focused on its establishment and aims, but I found it so interesting that I’m back again, this time to share something about their book selections and early achievements.

The books

Not having independent funds, besides what they fundraised, the Club (B.B.C.) planned to focus on donated secondhand books, but that didn’t mean they accepted anything. While they wanted to cater for males and females of all ages, their goals were worthy, which meant, as I quoted last week, there was a censoring committee to ensure that “vulgar, trashy, novels, and morbid, unwholesome works” would not be sent. Indeed, as the Mudgee Guardian and North-Western Representative (30 June 1910) reported, the Club’s aim was

To provide high-class literature to the dwellers in the bush districts of New South Wales, who live beyond the reach of any School of Arts. … The books for the club are provided by people who are interested in supplying really good literature. The club is non-political, and non-sectarian.

So, its early aims were good quality literature, that was non-political and non-sectarian. However, it seems that as it got underway, the materials sent were more varied than these goals imply, albeit, as the newspaper reports continued to confirm, books continued to be censored. This censorship doesn’t seem to have been questioned, though, suggesting that the censor’s pen was light or that the recipients were undemanding.

I read many reports about the club over its first decade, mostly comprising newspaper reports on the Club’s annual meeting. The story was the same – the good work being done, and increases every year in the number of “centres” being supported; the call for donations of money and books to support the work; and references to the dullness of life in “outback” and the need to support the people who were “breaking the sods of our new country and bearing the burden and heat of the day away from the pleasures and comforts of civilisation” (SMH 17 April 1912). These comments sound condescending at times, but many remote people were desperate for reading matter, all the same. No mention, of course, of First Nations people. It seems that the patron was always a “Lady” – like Lady Poore, Lady Chelmsford, Lady Strickland – most of them, vice-regal. The role was presumably passed on as each arrived with her husband, but there is a sense from the reporting that they took on the role with relish.

There were also some references to the actual books. Reporting on a Club meeting in December 1911, two years after the Club’s establishment, The Sydney Morning Herald, noted that there was a tendency for book donors to send

too many “serious” books. The lighter style of literature, tersely written, and of ordinarily human interest, was preferable.

A few months later, The Sydney Morning Herald’s (17 April 1912) report (linked above) commented that it’s alright “if they [the recipients] are not great readers, and if Marie Corelli and E. P. Roe are appreciated above Ruskin or Carlyle”.

On 18 April 1917, the same paper reported that

the demand among bush readers was chiefly for wholesome fiction, but tastes are very varied; “anything and everything about the war” being eagerly devoured.

And a few months later, on 4 July, it wrote that the Club’s:

library is gathered together, being truly an “omnium gatherum” of all sorts and descriptions, from Bacon to Artemus Ward, from Dickens to Charles Garvice, from Shakespeare to Gordon, all acceptable and all sure of their readers. The only literature barred from the shelves are political and sectarian works. … The parcels are selected, so that there is a sprinkling of heavier reading, one or two of Thackeray or Dickens, or suchlike; two or three boys’ and girls’ books, and about 20 light novels, besides magazines and small weekly publications galore.

“I must read or I shall go mad”*

The Club lasted some decades and expanded beyond New South Wales, but I will write more on this later. Here, I’ll focus on its first decade. The Sydney Stock and Station Journal regularly reported on it, which is not surprising given its rural focus, but this must also reflect the Club’s significance. In January 1912, just over 2 years after the Club was founded, the journal reported that there were 125 centres operating, adding that

There is a “centre” within coo-ee of the Queensland border, and there are several out on the Castlereagh. The Riverina knows the B.B.C. well, and the Club’s books are working out towards the Darling. No place is too far.

The journal also notes that a centre could be as small as a few families. I imagine the Club’s willingness to be organisationally flexible played a role in its success. It wouldn’t have hurt, either, that, as this journal also said, the Club “is anxious to send just what the centre wants. Its desire is to please. Say what you want and the Club will do its best to satisfy.”

Some of the newspaper reports describe the sorts of “centres” that were receiving books. On 7 May 1914, the Clarence and Richmond Examiner reported that there were 309 centres, which included “railway camps, sleeper cutters ‘ camps, shearing sheds, and country hospitals”. A year later, on 29 April 1915, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that there were 370 centres, and named the Light Horse Camp at Liverpool as one of them. It was, of course, wartime, by now.

The annual meetings, on which the newspapers reported, often also shared some of the letters of appreciation received. On 21 June 1916, The Sydney Morning Herald shared some:

One lady wrote that for years she had not been able to read anything except a newspaper, books being out of reach but now she is making up for lost time with the help of the Book Club. Another correspondent described the pleasure given to the children of the household when the parcel of books arrived; a lighthouse keeper sent his warm thanks for (presumably) “light” literature, which relieved his solitude.

Very funny! 

By 1918, the club was still going strong, with many of the original volunteers still involved. The majority of them were women, and they included some interesting names – but I will talk about that in my next B.B.C. post.

* The N.S.W. Red Cross Record (1 July 1919)

11 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Bush Book Club (2)

  1. When you think how poor some of those bush families were, the work these ladies were doing must have been a godsend even if their aims seem lofty to us today.
    My first MIL (born a little later than this, but still, in much the same rural isolation) finished her final year of schooling (Leaving Certificate) with two other girls in the class, and the teacher had to lend them her books which they shared.

    • I think you are right Lisa. The city folk at times sound quite condescending of bush-life, but on the other hand, they did understand that reading is a joy that many in the outback were missing, and that loneliness was very real. The fact that the Club survived for as long as it did – and on the smell of an oily rag it seems – suggests just how much these book parcels were appreciated.

    • I can understand that M-R … I would devour stuff about the pandemic if I could. I think there are always readers who want to escape and readers who want to explore whatever their world is currently experiencing? From my reading of Trove, war literature was a popular genre for much of the first half of the twentieth century.

  2. Interesting article! I admire the ladies that did that work. I was curious to see if there were any similar volunteer groups in the United States that gave away reading materials. There were and are bookmobiles, but I don’t know about groups that send out free new and used books.

    • Thanks Carolyn … I love that you admire their work and were interested to compare. The thing is I would not have known about this if we hadn’t had the Trove database, so, who knows what might be lurking in American newspapers of a century ago?

  3. Sorry, I read this in the fog of no-sleep and flying, and didn’t come back. It arrived too late for me to ask mum, though Sea Lake probably had a library anyway. I remember in 1962-4 the country school dad was at would regularly get a box of books for the teachers. Us kids(headmaster’s sons) had first go at it, some of them were pretty racey – I still remember one where an older man ‘seduced’ a girl on her last day of high school.
    Mechanics Institutes, the buildings anyway, are still ‘everywhere’. I hope you do a post about them one day.

    • Completely understand Bill … thanks for remembering. I know the B.B.C. made it to Queensland but haven’t yet come across references to other states, but am only into the early 1920s.

      Hmm .. re that racey book!

      Yes, we are lots of Mechanics Institute and School of Arts buildings in our travels. One day perhaps?

  4. I can’t think of much to add to your lovely post other than to say that I always enjoy reading the origin stories of book clubs and getting books to people who were previously unable to get their hands on them, so reading your post was a pleasure.

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