(Reprinted from Lane Cove Historical Society Inc Newsletter No 198, February 2005, pp.3-5)
On October 31, 2004, Eric Russell, historian, author and book collector, passed away at Royal North Shore Hospital, Sydney. Eric was a long-term resident of Greenwich and more lately of Kamilaroi Retirement Centre. He was the commissioned author of two of Lane Cove’s important histories.
Eric was born in Paddington, Sydney, in 1922 and spent his early years in the Woollahra-Paddington area, attending Woollahra Public School. He had one brother, Edward, born when he was five years old. When Eric was just seventeen his mother passed away and the family split up.
When Eric left school he worked in a shop in the city. He was also a reporter at council meetings for the original Bondi Daily. His brother has remarked that when he was a teenager Eric had a passion for books and reading. His writing started at this early stage, in the pre- and post-second world war years, when he produced a science fiction newsletter called Ultra. He had a lifelong interest in science fiction, belonging for many years to a group of enthusiasts called the Futurians. He was still reading and collecting science fiction as late as 2000. He was smitten with the BBC Radio series, The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, and its sequel.
Eric was also interested in playwriting. In 1947 he produced a play Vintage Bread which, with other plays, was recorded by his brother Ted. He wrote numerous radio plays and short stories, only two of which were broadcast. The first was an adaptation for broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) of a science fiction short story and the second a 32-part serial of Dickens’ Pickwick Papers. Later he had a close association with our local Greenwich Players, and mourned their folding in the 1980s. In 1993 he offered the Theatre for the Deaf some mime sketches he had developed. He had had no suitable venue to try them out after the demise of the Greenwich Players. He commented that Marcel Marceau had expressed strong interest in them.
His interest in book production started with work in the publication department of Dymock’s Book Arcade in George Street, Sydney, in the early 1950s. During this period he also worked as a casual reporter in the Sydney newsroom of the ABC Radio News, often on the late shift.
In 1953 Eric contracted tuberculosis, had one lung removed and was sent to a sanatorium in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney with a prognosis of six months left to live. He wrote:
In hospital with plenty of time on my hands I gradually cooled down and began to realize that I now had a golden opportunity to change my life. I put ambition to one side, took up leisure in a big way, read large books slowly, and gradually turned to thinking about a different and less frantic kind of future in my chosen field. The first dividend of this little campaign was a radio serial that I wrote for the ABC. By the way the doctors were mistaken.
From 1954 to 1970 he was employed as a publisher’s editor by the Sydney publisher and bookseller Angus & Robertson, dealing initially with a wide variety of books, but eventually specialising in histories. Among the latter were some of the most significant reference works on Australia – including A History of Australian Literature by H M Green in 1961, volumes 5, 6 and 7 of Ferguson’s Bibliography of Australia, the wonderful facsimile editions of the Sydney Gazette, Songs of Central Australia by T G H Strehlow in 1970 and many others.
He also worked as an indexer. In 1975 he indexed the second volume of David Collins’ The English Colony in New South Wales, and for nine years, from 1975 to 1984, the very important periodical Art in Australia. He was also involved in the Royal Australian Historical Society’s project in the eighties to index part of the Sydney Morning Herald.
It was in the 1960s he started writing histories of Sydney municipalities — he came into this field at a time when the writing of local history was not viewed as an academic discipline — professional historians were derogatory about the standards of local histories. It is remarkable that Eric, with his limited formal education (finishing school during the Depression he probably only completed his Intermediate Certificate, so leaving around 15 years of age) was one of the first to raise the standard of local histories. He plumbed the depths of original resources in both the Mitchell Library and the State Archives, uncovering materials that had not been used to any extent before. In a later letter he pointed out the inaccuracies of histories that depended solely on secondary sources. He referenced his writing in great detail and usually provided detailed indexes.
His second home for much of his working life was the Mitchell Library in Sydney. Staff from the Mitchell have mentioned his generosity at Christmas when he would bring in beans from his own garden or items purchased overseas as gifts. Jim Andrighetti of the Mitchell Library has drawn attention to a recent conference paper by Margy Burn of the National Library of Australia on the relationship between librarians and researchers. In this she states:
North Shore local historian Eric Russell once brought in a box of broad beans he had grown. I still have the note he included which read: ‘Some eat broad beans, some grow broad beans, some have broad beans thrust upon them.’
Over the period from 1966 to 1995 Eric completed municipal histories of Willoughby, Lane Cove, Drummoyne, Woollahra and North Sydney, with a second edition of the Drummoyne history and a further publication on Lane Cove called A Century of Change: Lane Cove Municipality 1895-1995. The Opposite Shore, his history of North Sydney, was commended in the 1991 Fellowship of Australian Writers Local History Award. Not all his suburban histories came to fruition—he did considerable research for histories on Parramatta and the City of Sydney which were sadly not published.
Eric’s staunch support for the typewriter led to many great discussions on the advantages and disadvantages of computers in writing. However, he did allow one to be used for his last Lane Cove publication. Eric was very aware of the importance of photographs in historical publications and spent considerable time collecting them, usually copying them himself with his faithful camera. One early publication in 1975, Victorian and Edwardian Sydney…, was largely based on photographs.
A particularly interesting assignment he had in the 1970s was the research for the re-creation of Old Sydney Town as it was in 1810—the buildings, streets, shops, furniture and clothing. He published a portfolio of documents in conjunction with his research. Following this, from 1976 to 1985, he became a consultant historian for the Sydney City Council.
On his death Eric had three further books partly researched but not completed. An unfortunate mishap which occurred while he was researching one of these books left him without sight. He had been a member of the Book Collectors’ Society of Australia since the 1950s. In a letter to a friend in India he wrote: “Although I am not really a true collector and my accumulation of books and magazines are largely the tools of trade of a writer and researcher…., I am a book person nevertheless.”
Eric long had a passionate interest in India and visited the country four times—in 1977, 1978, 1983 and 1997. His two closest friends were an Indian couple—Ali and Sonhail Manek. His second incomplete work and most recent research project was related to both India and the history of the Sydney Gazette, with which he had been involved in earlier years. He was comparing the Sydney colonial newspaper press with the newspaper press of India in East India Company times.
His third incomplete work is a history of printing and publishing. It is hoped that researchers can be found to complete these tasks that Eric, with his indomitable optimism and despite his recent blindness, always planned to finish.
Eric’s wry sense of humour which stayed with him to the end can be illustrated with two examples. Firstly, he felt strongly about many issues but especially about printing and publishing quality. When making a suggestion relating to this that he knew was controversial he would soften it with this prelude:
I don’t want to rock the boat so violently that it capsizes and we find ourselves in the shark-infested sea without a paddle.
In April 1995, in his speech at the launch of his centenary history of the Municipality of Lane Cove, he described the occasion as the launch of a brain child. (Throughout he is having a dig at the abhorrent computer.) The product was “a book—it required no licence, no electricity or battery, it required no spare parts and was not subject to rust. To access the information all you had to do was open the volume and read.” He also described writing as being like pregnancy. The birth was assisted by three midwives. The author had evening sickness. The printer nursed the patient and delivered a 60-page, 100-year-old new brainchild with graphic art.
We will miss his humour and we will miss his friendship. The legacy of his histories is with us forever.
The Committee has agreed that Eric’s ashes will be spread in the garden of our historic house Carisbrook in Burns Bay Road, Lane Cove.