John Holroyd, O.A.M. (1911-2000)
John Holroyd was born in Melbourne in May 1911 and died on the 28th August 2000, at the age of 89. There is probably no-one whose departure from the world of books is of so much significance in terms of book-trade history.
John’s career in bookselling is well-known. He started work at Robertson & Mullen‟s in Melbourne in 1928 aged 17. In 1937 he moved to the Methodist Book Depot as manager. His 19 years in that position were interrupted by World War II, which took him to New Guinea in the Army for 3½ years. Leaving the Methodist Book Depot in 1956 he took a brief trip overseas, then returned to Robertson & Mullens in charge of their second-hand and antiquarian department. While working there, he wrote a biography of George Robertson, the firm’s founder, which was published in 1968. Four years later, the management decided to close his department, and John suffered the ignominy of having to sell off the stock by weight (20 cents per pound weight!). This could have been a miserable end to his career, but fortunately there was a prestige job for him in Sydney, where he was placed in charge of Swain’s, owned by Angus & Robertson as their antiquarian branch. His major task here was to supervise the sale of the library of Geoffrey Ingleton, artist. hydrographer and historian. This great collection of over 14000 books, comprising Australiana, Exploration, Art and General Literature, was sold in five catalogues from 1971 to 1977; the complete catalogue is of permanent value for collectors. When this task was over John was able to return to Melbourne and retirement in 1978.
His hobby then became the collecting of booksellers’ labels, a hitherto neglected branch of bibliomania. This at first seemed a mild eccentricity, but his collection of over 2000 labels, when presented to the State library of Victoria and put on exhibition by them in 1987, made a fascinating and instructive display of bookselling history and geography.
John’s membership of the Victorian Branch of the Book Collectors’ Society commenced in 1968. He was Secretary from July 1969 until his departure for Sydney in 1973. Rejoining after his return in 1979, he became President from March 1981 to March 1983, and again from March 1985 to April 1986. He also did another short spell as Secretary in 1982; and he was of course an indispensable Committee member throughout the period of his membership. He was elected a Life Member in 1988.
John’s uniqueness in our experience was his phenomenal memory. He had a gift of instant and precise recall of everything from his early years to recent events. He came to most Melbourne meetings, and was a ready contributor to whatever subject came under discussion, always illuminating detail with his personal reminiscence. His self-effacing manner gave the delivery all the more authority.
The Australian Booksellers’ Association had the benefit of his work as Secretary/Treasurer and appointed John their Honorary Historian, a position he later held with the State Library of Victoria, as a member of their committee. He also joined the Australia and New Zealand Association of Antiquarian Booksellers (ANZAAB), in which he became a Life Member. At Melbourne and Monash Universities he gave his time freely and generously to post-graduate students and other researchers on the HOBA (History of the Book in Australia) project.
We had seen less of John during the past two or three years as he became more frail and moved into a nursing home: even so he was frequently at our meetings, until this year. Visiting him last June, I was happy to find him cheerful and obviously well looked after. His mind was as alert as ever, and he was pleased to have contributed to the latest volume of the Australian Dictionary of Biography a memoir of his former boss at Robertson & Mullins, “Captain” Peters. (Earlier volumes of the ADB have several of his contributions.) At the nursing home his genial nature and readiness with anecdotes ensured the affection of his carers. A final illness led to his transfer to the Alfred Hospital, where he succumbed to pneumonia. With much sadness, we say farewell to a great bookman.