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2011-12, 371, 372, Australiana, Brian McDonald

George Mackaness: An intriguing insight

CONGRATULATIONS TO JÜRGEN WEGNER for his excellent piece on George Mackaness in the September–December 2010 edition of Biblionews (367 and 368). What a fascinating person was Mackaness, both as a collector of Australiana and promoter of our amazing history through his publications and monographs.

My interest in Mackaness’s writings was first stimulated when reading some of his 24 contributions to the Journal of The Royal Australian Historical Society¹ as well as the many articles he wrote for early magazines, periodicals and newsletters (including the early editions of Man: The Australian Magazine for Men . . . and yes, I only bought them for the articles!)

Wegner rightly points out in his article that much can be learned about a person through annotations and underlines made as they assimilate the contents of their books. This can also work in reverse, as much can be appraised about the author when annotations and comments are made by another person.

One of Mackaness’s books that eluded me for several years (budgets can be so frustrating) was his Admiral Arthur Phillip. Finally, in the early eighties I obtained a copy, albeit slightly out of my budgetary constraints, but the provenance was too good to pass up. This copy was owned by Dr (later Archbishop) Eris O’Brien, author of The Foundations of Australia (1786-1800).

As O’Brien scrutinised Mackaness’s tome he added his own thoughts and comments along the way – and some of them are very revealing. O’Brien’s fountain pen worked overtime throughout the first three chapters of Admiral Arthur Phillip after which the comments become spasmodic until the bibliography. Notations by O’Brien in the bibliography reveal again that Mackaness was not an excellent proofreader. In 1965 there was a falling out between Walter Stone and Mackaness after the printing of Bibliomania because of Mackaness’s aversion to proofreading.²

O’Brien’s marginalia complement Mackaness’s research in some places but is rather critical of Mackaness’s lack of referencing as regards source materials he used for his research.

With regard to Phillip’s recommendation to join the Portuguese navy by Rear-Admiral Hervey, O’Brien states,

Where does M. get all these excellent details . . . we search for authorities and notes. He should remember that he is writing a source book to guide others also? [sic]

A few pages on O’Brien continues,

Most interesting, but what is source? This is a most important fact – we would like the source & M’s view of the accuracy of source More notes are needed.

Over the continuing pages O’Brien continues to scribe the words ‘Where’ and ‘Source’ and at the conclusion of the first chapter O’Brien writes,

This chapter is highly important as giving precedent for the later Phillip – full of excellent facts, but annoying to the historian who vainly searches for notes describing documents mentioned – though packed full of references to letters, reports, etc. [there are] 4 pages of facts unchecked – suggest expand in later edition.

Chapter Two begins with O’Brien’s notation,

This chapter is better documented, naming Spain & Chapman’s journal [sic] etc., but even here important statements unchecked.

O’Brien makes several notations throughout this chapter and his short but noteworthy remark at the end reads,

Too much reliance on romantic journal of Spain’s.

Chapter Three of Mackaness’s biography on Phillip scrutinises the proposals for the establishment of the colony of New South Wales from 1783 to 1786 – the time period that O’Brien studied in minute detail. O’Brien noted several passages in Mackaness’s text that were quoted from his The Foundation of Australia. One particular paragraph, dealing with Edmund Burke, O’Brien’s marginalia just state, ‘Word for word from OB – p. 141’ (page 97 in the 1950 edition).³

On page 69 Mackaness relates that Phillip was ‘much worried by the way in which the convicts and marines were crowded together on the transports, and by the unsatisfactory arrangements made for victualling them, neither flour nor anti-scorbutics being allowed by the officials.’ O’Brien’s marginalia state, ‘Misses a strong point in Phillip by not quoting his letter – a namby pamby way & unjust to Phillip’s biography.

See OB 207, 208.’ (144, 145 in the 1950 edition.)

O’Brien also takes issue with Mackaness for not doing more research into the number of people who embarked on the First Fleet. On page 74 Mackaness calculated the various lengths of sentences of the 717 convicts who arrived in New South Wales, beside which O’Brien penned,

N.B: shirks question of how many left England. See p. 79 of this book.

On page 79 Mackaness relates how authorities disagree with regard to the number of convicts on the various ships as well as the number who died on the voyage out and then quotes the figures from Phillip’s returns. O’Brien inscribed,

Why not discuss question see p. 74 of this book. I should wish he had discussed this question.

O’Brien continued reading Mackaness’s book, making only a few minor comments along the way, until the bibliography and then his pen went into overdrive. O’Brien’s fastidious eye found numerous errors with dates and volume numbers. He again rebuked Mackaness’s lack of citing source material and also his failure to elaborate on some of the bibliographical entries.

Despite O’Brien’s admonishments and constant call for sources and references, Mackaness’s biography of Phillip was,

Meticulously researched, it was detailed and readable, cast fresh light on the first governor’s career, and presented a full analysis of his work in the colony. Later writings have added detail, especially about Phillip before and after he served in New South Wales, but the overall picture remains intact.

It is interesting to note that in the latest treatise on Arthur Phillip by Derek Parker, he makes no mention or reference in any way to Mackaness’s book.

Bibliophiles today owe a debt of gratitude to George as he has given us a wealth of source documentation regarding our remarkable history to add to our collections. It was his proposal that steered the Royal Australian Historical Society into publishing the annotated editions of the First Fleet Journals.6

Mackaness was president of the society for only two terms and attempted against all odds to implement ‘A Long range plan for the Extension and Development of the Functions and Activities of the Royal Australian Historical Society.’7   Some of his ideas must have caused some hot debate amongst the Royal’s Council. Although they adopted the whole of Mackaness’s plan in principle, they decided to hold a series of Special Council Meetings to formulate the details of the plan. Some of these meetings lasted more than three hours!8 It should be mentioned that out of 22 Councillors in 1948 seven of them were past presidents.9 With the staid views that some of these past presidents must have embraced it is understandable that Mackaness declined a third term as president and did not even stand for Council. Marjorie Jacobs mentions that Mackaness’s ‘plan was not revived by his successor.’10

Fortunately this stymieing interlude he had to endure during his term of presidency did not dampen his enthusiasm to continue annotating and publishing his Australian Historical Monographs series. Mackaness began producing these in May 1935 with the first, Robert Louis Stevenson: His Associations with Australia, being limited to only 30 copies. By the time Mackaness became president of the Royal he had produced 16 titles; he went on to produce 41 titles altogether in 46 volumes.

The series is a wonderful asset for historians and collectors as they ‘made available manuscripts not otherwise published or for reprinting items of extreme rarity.’11   As Mackaness continued to publish these monographs, so the desire for collectors to have them in their possession led to print runs being increased from 30 to 35 to 60 to 100 to 125 to 150 and finally to 200 copies. In 1979 Review Publications, Dubbo reprinted all the editions to make them more available to researchers and scholars; however the originals are still sought after by the collectors of Mackanessiana. To have a complete set of the original editions is rare due to the limited run of numbers I, II and III. Even Geoffrey Ingleton’s collection lacked an original Robert Louis Stevenson and in its place was a ‘made-up’ facsimile copy with a long note in Dr Mackaness’s holograph explaining the circumstances of this action.12

Mackaness numbered and signed each copy in his distinctive purple ink, and from number III, George Angus Robertson’s Journey to South-Eastern Australia, 1884 . . . he began producing presentation copies. (Interestingly enough my copy of Robert Louis Stevenson has been neither signed nor numbered.)

Like all true bibliophiles, Mackaness had an affiliation with his collection. I was lucky enough in 2009 to purchase Mackaness’s personal record of his library. In 1958 Mackaness began working methodically through his shelves and listing each book by hand in a series of foolscap folio memo and ledger account books. By 9 March 1961 he finished cataloguing all the shelves in the ‘Main Study’ using a total of 18-volumes and recorded 5,875 items from his collection on 500 hand-numbered pages. Volume IV contains his ‘First Editions of Modern English Writers’ which separately records 274 individual items giving a total of 6,149 volumes. In 1966 Mackaness revalued his collection using the then up-to-date catalogues of A&R, Coles, McDonald and Berkelouw to assist Angus and Robertson with the impending sale. He also added lengthy descriptions to some of the entries that were worthy of note and made comments throughout relating to the rarity of many items.

For each of the 18-volumes Mackaness has written on the cover in school-like script writing: ‘Catalogue | of | The Collection | of | Dr George Mackaness’. He then lists the Volume No., case and shelf. He has also written on the covers the total price of the contents of each volume in pounds, shillings and pence, which ranged from £210/4/6 to £1,602/15/6. These prices may have possibly been the original 1958 to 1961 values, as the cover of the First Editions of Modern English Writers has the same green biro price as each of the other volumes; however Mackaness has written in red pencil below, ‘Not yet revalued, 1966’.

It is an enthralling record of Mackaness’s collection. As Wegner points out in his article, it appears that not all the collection of George and Alice were sold through A&R. A quick tally of the number of books listed in the three catalogues comes to 4,214, far short of the 6,149 items he has meticulously itemized in the 18 volumes.

Interestingly enough, there are some items listed in the A&R catalogues that are not listed in Mackaness’s personal record. Did A&R add a few extra books into the catalogue from their own stock? The other fascinating aspect is the prices that Mackaness placed on items in his own collection. One would think that he would overstate the value, but in fact comparison reveals that the majority of items listed in the A&R catalogues far exceeded Mackaness’s estimates.

A few examples include:

• Samuel Bennett’s The History of Australian Discovery and Colonisation was listed in Vol. 3, No 144 with a price of $140, Mackaness had pencilled the value of 15 guineas (£15/15/-) equivalent then to $31.50

• The special issue limited to 50 numbered and signed copies of Dr Frederick Watson’s History of Canberra was listed in Vol. 1, No 1040 at $40 whereas Mackaness thought 5 guineas or $10.50. The ordinary edition (albeit inscribed by Watson) was valued by A&R at $17 but Mackaness had written 3 guineas ($6.30)

• A set of The Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Australian Historical Society (Vol. 3, No. 57) has the price of $450 whereas Mackaness stated £150 ($300)

• A set of Historical Records of New South Wales, the originals, not the 1978 facsimile set, (Vol. 3, No. 891) has the price of $200 whereas Mackaness listed £45 ($90)

But there was one entry that I really feel was in the buyer’s favour in the A&R catalogue. Mackaness had listed his 33-volume Historical Records of Australia at £165 ($330) whereas A&R listed the 33 volumes with the Beginnings of Government in Australia volume for only $150 – an absolute bargain considering the historical information they contain for the researcher!


1 Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society. Guide to the Contents. Volumes 1 to 65, 1901 to 1980, Compiled by D.I. McDonald, pp. 29-30.

2 There is a handwritten note in Walter Stone’s rare, first issue copy of Bibliomania in which he stated that Mackaness had asked him to proofread the book on his (Mackaness’s) behalf. It was subsequently printed but withdrawn on the morning of publication due to uncorrected errors and was later reissued with a new page 7/8 tipped in. Walter goes on to say that Mackaness barely spoke to him again. Walter Stone Collection. Catalogue Two, Compiled by Peter Tinslay, The Antique Bookshop & Curios, May, 1982, p. 94.

3 Although both works were published in the same year, Mackaness acquired one of the paperbound original 1936 editions produced for O’Brien’s submission for his PhD with the University of Louvain. This is why Mackaness’s gives the date of O’Brien’s work as 1936 in his bibliography.

4 Brian H. Fletcher, Australian History in New South Wales 1888 to 1938, Sydney: New South Wales University Press, 1993, pp. 164-5.

5 Derek Parker, Arthur Phillip Australia’s First Governor, Woodslane Press, Sydney, 2009. I should mention here that Parker did base some of his research on several recently published books and in so doing did, unfortunately, perpetuate several myths. For example, that ‘Pinchgut’ was named due to the starvation of convicts placed on the island, when it is actually a nautical term and the often repeated fallacy by Robert Hughes, David Hill, et al., that Dorothy Hanlon committed suicide, when she in fact paid her own way back to England on board the Kitty in 1793. For further information see Molly Gillen, Founders of a Nation pp. 158-9; David Collins, An Account of the English Colony of NSW, edited by Brian Fletcher, note on p. 580; J.B. Cleland ‘The Old Woman from Botany Bay’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 43, Part 3, 1947, pp. 137-9.

6 Marjorie Jacobs, ‘The Royal Australian Historical Society 1901–2001. Part 1 “Students of a like Hobby”: the Society 1900–1954.’ Much Writing, Many Opinions. The Making of the Royal Australian Historical Society 1901 to 2001, Edited by Alfred James, Sydney: The Royal Australian Historical Society, 2001, p. 26.

7 Royal Australian Historical Society Forty-eighth Annual Report and Statement of Accounts, Volume XXXIV, Part VII, Sydney, 1949, Appendix II, p. xlii et seq.

8 Ibid., p. xvii.

9 Ibid., inside front cover list of Office Bearers 1948.

10 Marjorie Jacobs, op. cit., p. 27.

11 A Catalogue of Select Books from the Ingleton Collection, Part One, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1971, p. 76.

12 Ibid. p. 76, item number 866.



Brian McDonald




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