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.

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.