James William Dally, 1931-2005
The death this year of James Dally closed the career of perhaps the most distinguished and accomplished antiquarian bookseller in Australia during the late twentieth century.
Born on 16 May 1931, Dally was the elder son of a country bank manager, Maxwell James Dally. His secondary education took place at the Adelaide Boys’ High School, where he was noted for enterprise in English and also for his achievements in football and athletics. This would surprise anyone who knew him only later, as his adult health was often indifferent and gave no indication of a sporting background.
Leaving school at seventeen, he had the briefest of careers in banking, lasting (in his own words) for two weeks. Late in 1948 he joined the staff of the State Library of South Australia as a clerk, and worked there for four years, leaving in 1952, classified as library assistant. He moved to Hobart and worked in the public service for some years, returning to Adelaide in the late 1950s to join the Beck Book Company in Pulteney Street, then in the hands of the well-known bookseller Harry Muir.
Dally’s first position here was as manager of the new and second-hand textbook department, but his already formidable knowledge of old and rare Australian books was soon apparent, and Muir gradually allowed him to take over the second-hand department, which had been Muir’s own specialty. It was at this time that he met Rogie Savage, also on the Beck staff, whom he married late in 1961, having already separated from his first wife.
Until he left Beck’s, Dally became responsible for writing their secondhand book catalogues. In the late 1950s or early 1960s he issued the first catalogue in his own name from Tynte Street, North Adelaide, and a second from his brother’s home in New Street, North Plympton.
He began business on his own account in 1962, when he and Rogie opened a shop in Walkerville Terrace, Walkerville. Two years later they moved to the main street of Oatlands in Central Tasmania, where their two sons were born, Ned in 1964 and Hugo in 1965. In 1966 they moved south to the Hobart suburb of New Town, where Dally continued bookselling from his home.
He finally returned to Adelaide in 1979, buying a house in Gover Street, North Adelaide, and continuing to sell antiquarian books by catalogue from a private address.
Indeed, it was most private. He had no telephone, not even one with a silent number. His home address did not appear on his catalogues, and he could be contacted only through a rented mail-box at the Adelaide GPO. This was entirely in keeping with his character: he was a notably private man, spoke about himself and his personal life hardly at all, and gave his address only to a handful of close friends. With these friends, however, he was sociable, generous, and relaxed.
Antiquarian booksellers tend to be unusual people, and not only in Australia. But there were three qualities in Dally which gave him distinction even within their ranks: his capacity for research, his insistence on accuracy, and the excellence of the books which he published, at first under his own name and later under the press name of Sullivan’s Cove. For technical reasons, the last of the books in this series reverted to the James Dally imprint.
His catalogues, more plentiful in the earlier part of his career, showed both the results of research and a scrupulous care for presentation. In writing his catalogue descriptions, for instance, he took a step which now seems obvious but had not been done consistently before: he wrote whenever it was possible to the original publishers of the books, asking for details and circumstances. In this way he discovered, for instance, that many Australian works of fiction, and especially of poetry, had been published between the two world wars in commercial editions as small as 200 or 250 copies.
He contacted Blackwood in Edinburgh about the earliest book of Brent of Bin Bin and about Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career (1901). He wrote to Murray of Albemarle Street, who in 1820 had published Oxley’s Journals of Two Expeditions…, and discovered that only 500 copies had been printed.
These catalogues, distinctive and attractive in appearance, will not lose their reference value especially in the field of Australian creative writing, where Dally was a pioneering bookseller.
And this is even more true of the books which he researched, largely designed, and published, as the balance of his work gradually swung towards publishing. There were some 64 of them, the first a reprint in 1971 of the very rare Dalrymple pamphlet Scheme of a voyage … (1771), the last Gellibrand Days …, published this year.
Editions were small, sometimes as low as 55 copies. A few were simple reprints of rare works; some were first editions in book form of material taken from fugitive and ephemeral printings; many were collations and collections of material carefully researched by Dally himself.
All, without exception, were finely presented. With a refined and perceptive taste in typography, Dally chose the fonts, the paper, and his binders with great care.
He preferred the bite of metal into paper, and used, as long as he could find them, printers who set and printed by hand—the Nag’s Head Press in New Zealand, Foot & Playsted in Launceston. His proofreading was meticulous: no broken or dropped letters, nothing smudged, nothing out of alignment The title-pages he designed with infinite care, making many trial issues, shifting a line or a capital a fifth of a millimetre until he was satisfied with the balance and composition of the page.
These are books which will continue to give pleasure to collectors, and which in many cases will remain important source material for scholars and historians. No other antiquarian business run within one family’s resources in Australia, perhaps anywhere, has left such a legacy.
Dally had been unwell with an undiagnosed complaint for the first half of this year. He suffered a stroke on 11 July, and died four days later. His body was cremated.
Re Alan Rickard
The following message has been received by the Editor in respect to the obituary for Alan Rickard that appeared in the March 2005 issue.
Recently Nigel Sinnott passed on the Obituary of Alan Rickard, which you wrote for Biblionews.
As your second paragraph in regard to The Atheist Society in Sydney and The Atheist Foundation of Australia Inc is not quite correct, I take this opportunity to give the facts.
In the 1960s John Campbell resigned from the Humanist Society of South Australia and sought help from the Rationalist Association of NSW to re-establish the Rationalist Society of South Australia. My wife and I became members, with John Campbell as President, Laurie Bullock as Treasurer and Secretary.
At the end of 1960 the members decided that a name change to the Atheist Foundation of Australia Inc was more appropriate. John and Laurie continued their positions and I became the Vice-President.
John was a Socialist and Laurie was a Communist and there was friction, which erupted in 1971 at a Sunday afternoon gathering of the members. When John vacated the Chair, Laurie was about to take over but, as Vice-President, I closed the meeting.
Unfortunately Laurie had the only list of members, particularly those interstate, and was able to present his position, which resulted in the formation of The Atheist Society in Sydney. When that closed some members joined or rejoined the Atheist Foundation of Australia Inc, including Alan Rickard who continued for many years. (If I remember correctly he suffered from a bad investment.)
Keith S Cornish
PO Box 21
Gumeracha SA 5233