you're reading...
2010-12, 367, 368, Book Reviews, Colin Steele

‘The Celebrated George Barrington’ by Nathan Garvey

Sydney: Hordern House, 327 pp. $64

NATHAN GARVEY, who was CH Currey Memorial Fellow at the State Library of New South Wales for 2008, is the author of a number of articles on early Australian literature and the 18th and 19th century book trade. His first book The Celebrated George Barrington: A Spurious Author, The Book Trade and Botany Bay is based on his doctoral thesis, undertaken at the University of Sydney.

Garvey writes: ‘This is a book about the “Barrington” (George Barrington c. 1758–1804) . . . but in a broader sense it is also an inquiry into the print cultures of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and, more particularly, the somewhat shadowy world of popular publishing in this period.’ Garvey, in his first chapter, describes Barrington‘s notoriety as a gentleman pickpocket in the late eighteenth century, when he became known as ‘The Prince of Pickpockets’. Barrington, born George Waldron in Ireland, was arrested 14 times but only served three short prison terms before being sentenced to transportation. On arrival in Sydney in September 1791 he was sent to work at Toongabbie, west of Sydney near Parramatta. His ‘irreproachable conduct’ led in November 1792 to a conditional pardon.

In 1796 this pardon was made absolute, and Governor John Hunter appointed Barrington Chief Constable at Parramatta. In 1800, Barrington‘s ‘infirmity’, a euphemism for insanity, led to his resignation, although he was allowed to keep half his salary as a pension. Barrington died in 1804 but his ‘celebrity’ continued long after his death for several reasons.

The cult of celebrity is not a new phenomenon. Garvey provides fascinating insights into how Barrington ‘was created and commodified by the press’. People were originally interested in his crimes, ‘a folk hero perhaps in elegant dress’, but then he became the ‘redeemed sinner’ saved by transportation. Another major factor in the longevity of Barrington‘s fame came through his alleged publications. Garvey‘s second chapter, ‘The Lives of George Barrington’ documents the messy and complicated publishing history of the biographies of Barrington and his alleged travel narratives. This is important as the ‘Barrington’ books were probably the most widely circulated accounts of the early years of European settlement in Australia.

The third chapter, ‘Under a Deceptious Mask: Barrington as Author’, ‘explores how the original form of the “Barrington” Voyage text of 1795 (substantially plagiarised from John Hunter‘s Historical Journal of the Transactions at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island, London, 1793), was appropriated by a number of different publishers and adapted into different forms.’ Barrington‘s ‘History of New South Wales’ or ‘Barrington‘s Voyage to New South Wales’, became an instant bestseller, was translated into many languages, and went through many editions. All editions included almanac-like information, colour plates, details of crime in the colony and information for settlers. Some had a separate section devoted to Barrington‘s own ‘Life and Trials’.

This was a book trade in a world mostly without copyright laws and, adding insult perhaps to injury, the author was not the author in this case. Garvey meticulously documents more than 80 separate works attributed to Barrington which for decades had proved to be a source of bibliographical confusion. Much is owed in the unravelling of the bibliographic complexities, according to Garvey, to the work of EA Petherick, Arthur Jose, and JA Ferguson.

The text is supplemented by an extensive annotated reference section and a comprehensive bibliography of the ‘Barrington’ books published between 1790 and 1840, with some 26 illustrations included from the early ‘Barrington’ books. A short epilogue concludes that the publishing history of the ‘Barrington’ books is best seen ‘as a series of acts of fabrication, intellectual transgression and commercial opportunism — intimately connected with the changing nature of print culture in the late Georgian era . . . the story of these books remains a curious tale of how the culture of celebrity, and the dynamics of popular publishing, created a myth sold throughout the world’.

Garvey has successfully combined bibliographical, biographical and historical sources to provide a fascinating insight into George Barrington and his times and influence, both intentional and unintentional, in late 18th century England and early colonial Australia via ‘his’ publications. The book also benefits from the usual excellence in production standards that we have come to associate with Hordern House, this volume being printed in two colours and bound in red saifu cloth. A celebrated production indeed in all respects.



Comments are closed.


%d bloggers like this: