Ten years with Angus & Robertson Ltd in book publishing
– A paper read to the Sydney meeting of the Society on 1 June, 2008
FIRST, a brief history of Angus & Robertson. The original owners were David Angus (a Scotsman) and George Robertson. Their shop was at 89 Castlereagh Street, Sydney, opposite the department store David Jones Ltd. David Angus did not stay long in the business, but went back to Scotland, never to return. George Robertson did not have a son, but a daughter and two grandsons, one of whom, George, went into the business and was managing director when I worked there.
Some of Angus & Robertson’s authors of the early days are still well known today: Henry Lawson, May Gibbs, Ion Idriess, Norman Lindsay, and Frank Dalby Davidson.
I started my secretarial work at Angus & Robertson’s in December 1955 with Dr Colin Roderick in the Educational and Technical Publishing Department. At that time Dr Roderick was in the throes of fundraising for the installation of a Chair of Australian Literature at the University of Sydney. He was asked to become the Foundation Professor, but he declined the honour as he thought people would think he had “an axe to grind”. He was passionate about Australian history, Australian literature (particularly the work of Henry Lawson, on whom he was an authority), and especially Australian convict literature. He wrote books and articles on these subjects, and he also went on lecture tours during his annual holidays.
I met many well known and interesting people during my employment, and I well remember the first of these well known persons. One day Dr Roderick forgot to let me know he had made an appointment for someone to come and see him. He did this from time to time. This first time I was busy typing when there was a knock on the door. When I opened it, there was a tall, thin man looking down at me. I knew immediately who it was, but couldn’t believe my eyes, so I said: “May I have your name, please?” He said: “Chips Rafferty”—it was the famous Australian film star. Another time, when the office was in George Street North, a man came towards me along the dim passage. He was rather short, wearing dark clothes and a Homburg hat, so that I could not see his face clearly. He asked for Dr Roderick, and I asked his name; he said, rather brusquely: “McKell.” It was Sir William McKell, the Governor-General of Australia.
But while our office was still at 89 Castlereagh Street, I realised that the most interesting people were the authors. Some authors came in with their manuscripts asking to have them published, and others were asked to write a book on a specific subject, such as mathematics, English grammar, poultry, sheep shearing, or concrete technology—a whole range of educational and technological subjects.
One very interesting author was Allan McArdle, the author of Poultry Management and Diseases. He later became an advisor to the Food and Agriculture Organisation in India. Another was Thomas Griffith Taylor, a Sydneysider who moved to Canada as Foundation Professor of Geography at the University of Toronto. He had been to the Antarctic with the explorer Ernest Shackleton and the photographer Frank Hurley. Frank Hurley was also an author, but his books were edited in the Fiction and General Department.
I also met some other authors who passed through the Fiction and General Department. There was Ivan Southall, author of the Simon Black adventure stories for boys. There was also Ion Idriess, already mentioned, who wrote many books about Australia. I also met several of Australia’s leading poets of the time: Judith Wright, A D Hope, Rosemary Dobson and, in particular, Douglas Stewart, who a the time was Poetry Editor.
Dr Roderick also submitted tenders to the Department of Education, on behalf of Angus & Robertson, to publish primary school readers, and he was usually successful.
One book which took several years to complete was the story of John Knatchbull, who was convicted of burglary and murder and was the first man in Australia to plead insanity as his defence. John Knatchbull, born in England around 1792, was the son of Sir Edward Knatchbull—later Lord Brabourne—by the second of his three wives. In 1804, at the age of eleven or twelve, John Knatchbull entered the Royal Navy, under Nelson, and served in several sea battles. Life in the navy in those days was very hard; he was a weak character and was also manic depressive. In 1824 he was sentenced in London to fourteen years transportation to New South Wales for stealing and arrived in Sydney in April 1825. One day, years later, when he was in Margaret Street, Sydney, he entered a shop, stole the cash box, and hit the female owner and killed her. John Knatchbull wrote his life story while he was in prison. No-one knew what happened to the manuscript, until one day, at 89 Castlereagh Street, a person brought it to Dr Roderick. It was, of course, handwritten, in old-fashioned handwriting, and the paper was brown with age. Dr Roderick wrote it out again in his own handwriting, so that the manuscript would not be handled too much, and then I typed it. The original is today in the State Library of New South Wales. Before it was published Dr Roderick wrote to the then Lord Brabourne to ask if he had any objections to the manuscript’s publication. He did not and, indeed, was most interested in the whole story.
John Knatchbull did not escape the gallows. He was hanged in February 1844 in the Darlinghurst Jail, now the National Institute of Art. At that time executions were public spectacles, and some ten thousand people came to see this son of a lord hanged.
Colin Roderick’s book was published by Angus & Robertson in 1963 under the title John Knatchbull: From Quarterdeck to Gallows: Including the Narrative Written by Himself in Darlinghurst Gaol 23rd January– 13th February 1844.