Tuesday, 7 October 2014

James Bonwick and Australian archives

James Bonwick was pivotal in the development of the idea of a public record office or archives in NSW.[1] Ironically it was in England from the early 1880s than Bonwick made his mark on the archives of Australia in general and on those of NSW in particular

The first recorded awareness of the value of public archives and of the necessity for their preservation as fundamental source materials for the history of Australia dates from the third quarter of the 19th century when the Centenary of the Colony was approaching. This interest led to the appointment of an archivist in New South Wales in 1887 and to the publication of the History of New South Wales from the records and Historical Records of New South Wales. [2]

The task of searching for documents was one in which Bonwick was well practised. He had carried out intermittent research in Hobart, Melbourne and Sydney from the 1840s and after his return to England in 1877 he began his research at the Public Records Office. The result of this work was contained in the First Twenty Years of Australia and Port Phillip Settlement. Both books are little more than chronicles, composed largely of quotations from contemporary documents linked with phrases such as ‘the writer then declares’, there being little attempt at interpretation or editorial comment. Yet both works were important in that they showed just how valuable the documents located in London could prove to be in arriving at a comprehensive view of Australian history. The preface to Port Phillip Settlement noted that there were ‘stores of wealth awaiting research in London’, suggesting that ‘faithful copies of such interesting documents should be in the public libraries of colonial capitals’.[3] Instances of neglect and destruction that Bonwick had experienced both in London and the colonies made it even more essential that copies be made before valuable documents were lost.[4]

 [Portrait of James Bonwick] [picture]

Bonwick was not the first colonial historian who realised the value of the records located in England. F.P. Labilliere[5] had searched Colonial Office papers for his Early History of the Colony of Victoria and in the early eighties G.W. Rusden[6] and J.H. Heaton[7] had made reference to similar documents. At an even earlier date the Canadian government had begun a much more systematic and thorough search of English archives. The position of Dominion Archivist was created in 1872 with the purpose of collecting records in an Archives Office in Ottawa. Douglas Brymner (1823-1902) was appointed to the position and almost immediately began transcribing documents in the Public Records Office. Bonwick met Brymner, was impressed with the scheme, and realised that a similar plan could be adopted by the Australian colonies.[8]

Having already worked as an emigration lecturer for the Queensland government during 1874-1875 and 1882-1883, it is not surprising that in August 1882 he should make his first offer as a transcriber to the Colonial Secretary in Brisbane. His offer accepted, transcripts relating to Moreton Bay were begun in May 1883 and completed by December.[9] Bonwick worked at great speed on his task of patient collection that suited his perspective on history. Bonwick’s research had shown that Australian history was not without its ‘myths’, erroneous views created by partisan spirit. Many Australian histories were works composed by participants in the events they described and were often ‘coloured by the hues of party’.[10] His own works were not without this fault, though he came to realise that he was often misled by accepting the evidence of personal opinions ‘influenced by party feeling or private sympathy’.[11] Bonwick saw it as his task to correct this bias by presenting history based on reliable factual evidence. He found models for his work in the books of English historians like Lecky and Sharon Turner, both ‘honest recorders’ who stressed patient critical scholarship; the ‘fine writing with faulty research and party prejudice’ of Hume and Macaulay was to be avoided as it would only sustain those ‘myths’ which Bonwick wished to destroy.[12]

By claiming the support of eminent historians, Bonwick pressed on with his idea of encouraging the Australian colonies to have him transcribe the relevant documents. Over a year passed on completing the Queensland transcripts before Bonwick was able to persuade the South Australian government to appoint him in February 1885, but it was only a small order and took less than five months to complete.[13] This batch was followed by transcripts relating to the discovery of Port Phillip, copied for the Melbourne Public Library from July to November 1886[14]. In January the following year the Tasmanian government, prompted by the local historian James B. Walker (1841-1899), engaged Bonwick as a transcriber.[15] The first batch of these transcripts was completed in July 1887, a second batch in June 1888, and a third group was transcribed (at a guinea per day) between June 1890 and January 1894 when the work was stopped because the Premier pointed out ‘the absolute necessity of curtailing our expenditure’. Then between March 1899 and June 1902 further transcripts were copied gratuitously by Bonwick, but such was the interest in Hobart that neither the government, the Royal Society nor the Public Library was prepared to contribute towards a gift of £25 for Bonwick who had now retired from transcribing.

The NSW Government almost stumbled into history matters with the acquisition of the Brabourne Papers in 1884. These papers relating to NSW included letters of Banks, Flinders and Bligh and were finally purchased for £375. [16] Bonwick was employed by the NSW government to list and briefly describe these papers, his first work of an archival nature. During this period Bonwick was angling for a position in NSW and he gave a lecture to the Royal Colonial Institute in London in 1895, where he regaled them with ‘curious stories of shameful negligence in the preservation of official documents here and in the colonies’.[17] Bonwick also commented on the negligent way the NSW Government looked after its archives in his monograph The first twenty years of Australia

All these precious manuscripts were extracted, in the writer’s presence, from a heap of rubbish and old documents, laden with the undisturbed dust of many years’.[18]

Finally, in April 1887 Bonwick’s repeated requests to the New South Wales government met with success when he was appointed to transcribe documents to be incorporated in a new history of the colony to be published in the centenary year of 1888.[19] The initial move came from Charles Potter, the Government Printer, who proposed the publication of a new edition of Thomas Richards’ history of New South Wales[20], but it was decided that an entirely new work be published, the documentary material being provided by the transcripts. Bonwick was appointed in April to transcribe for £50, and when the first batch was forwarded to Sydney in September 1887 the material they contained proved so valuable and interesting that the work was allowed to continue without interruption.

From 1887 until his retirement in 1902, Bonwick worked full time at his transcribing duties, copying approximately 125,000 foolscap sheets for the Tasmanian and New South Wales governments (both series were compiled concurrently). Copied by hand, many of them by Bonwick himself, some by female assistants employed by him, they represent years of patient work spent in the cold, dimly-lit Records Office. Other sources of information were not neglected; the Home Office, War Office, Admiralty, India Office and the Colonial Office were all visited, as were the headquarters of the London Missionary Society and many other private bodies. Journeys were made to Scotland, Ireland and Wales in search of material.

The transcripts have been described as ‘a major influence on Australian historical writing’, in that they stimulated serious historical research.[21] Many of the transcripts reached a wide audience by their incorporation in the Historical Records of New South Wales and later in the thirty-three volumes of the Historical Records of Australia. The publication of these documents showed Australian historians the vast mass of evidence that was awaiting their research before reliable judgments could be made. The transcripts and their publication allowed Australian history to move from the highly personal interpretation that had previously served as history to balanced, professionally written work.

If the transcripts proved such a stimulus, can they now, after eighty-odd years of use, be accepted uncritically? When the Commonwealth government began publication of the Historical Records of Australia,[22] Dr. Frederick Watson[23], their editor, spoke of the ‘grave errors’ and lack of ‘accuracy, completeness and precision’ found in the Historical Records of New South Wales.[24] Although he is critical the value of Bonwick’s work, Watson does make some very pertinent criticisms of the transcripts. Firstly, he noted the action of the censor before the transcripts were forwarded to Australia. In dealing with public records, Bonwick was restricted to material of a certain age. He was refused permission to transcribe documents relating to Moreton Bay after 1850, and the same restriction also applied to documents of the other colonies had the transcription proceeded far enough. Furthermore, the authorities at the Colonial Office placed restrictions on those archives to which it gave Bonwick access. In one instance some material from the Appendix to Bigge’s Report was destroyed at the Colonial Office and the remainder was forwarded to Sydney on condition that it was kept ‘strictly confidential…not to be printed and not to be accessible to the public’.[25] This is a particular instance, and it is now impossible to determine how much censorship was applied during the day-to-day work.

A second, more serious defect of the transcripts are the editorial omissions made by Bonwick. When he first applied to the NSW government for employment, Bonwick offered to work as ‘the historian and not the copyist’[26], revealing an attitude to archives that has since proved erroneous. Later, when forwarding the first batch of transcripts to Sydney, Bonwick noted that ‘there is a careful omission of all names of prisoners, private slanders and irrelevant facts’.[27] There is no evidence to suggest that this policy of editing was changed as the copying continued. Nor are the New South Wales transcripts unique in this respect. A comparison of the South Australian transcripts with the originals shows that Bonwick paraphrased or omitted to a considerable extent; the Tasmanian transcripts suffer likewise because of Bonwick’s failure to include references to the location or series number of the original, and because he followed Walker’s advice ‘to restrict your selection very considerably’.[28] Such editing not only destroyed the value of the transcripts as an undisturbed archival sequence, but, as Watson remarked, ‘it is only by the careful examination and assimilation of all statements...that the fundamental basis of truth may be conceived in its true proportions’.

Two further limitations need to be considered. As the bulk of the transcripts increased, both the Tasmanian and New South Wales governments allowed Bonwick to employ female assistants to carry out the actual copying while he acted as searcher and general superintendent. Although this practice certainly improved the legibility of the copies it is possible that the assistants, lacking historical background were not careful in their work nor had it thoroughly checked by Bonwick. Finally, the transcripts now in the Mitchell Library have been considerably re-arranged from the numerical sequence provided by Bonwick. Many have been extracted and bound into separate volumes, whilst the rest have been sorted into three series, thus rendering almost useless the lengthy indexes which Bonwick prepared. The result of this censorship, editing and rearrangement is that the transcripts have to be used selectively and with care. Most of them have been published in the Historical Records of New South Wales and the Historical Records of Australia or are now available in the original form on the microfilm copies provided by the Joint Copying Project. Only some small sections of the transcripts retain some value; the rest are available elsewhere in a more accurate form.

Although it was not his intention, Bonwick’s transcriptions placed British state papers at the heart of Australian historiography. This was a reflection of local and especially NSW identity. History provided the justification for NSW’s dominance in the new Australia, something that could not be denied when faced with the overwhelming evidence in Historical Records of New South Wales and the Historical Records of Australia.


[1] Featherstone, Guy, ‘Bonwick, James (1817-1906)’, ADB, Vol. 3, pp. 190-192.

[2] Archives Authority of New South Wales, Annual Report, 1961, pp. 1-2.

[3] Bonwick, James, Port Phillip Settlement, (Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivingston), 1883, p. iv.

[4] Bonwick, James, First Twenty Years of Australia: a history founded on official documents, (Low, Marston), 1882, p. v.

[5] Labilliere, F.P., Early History of the Colony of Victoria: From its Discovery to its Establishment as a Self-Governing Province of the British Empire, 2 Vols. (Low, Marston), 1878.

[6] Rusden, G.W., History of Australia, 3 Vols. (Chapman and Hall), 1883.

[7] Heaton, J.H., Australian dictionary of dates and men of the time: containing the history of Australasia from 1542 to May, 1879, (G. Robertson), 1879.

[8] Wallace, W.L., (ed.), Macmillan Dictionary of Canadian Biography, (Macmillan), 1963, p. 89; Bonwick, J., ‘The writing of colonial history: an abstract of a paper delivered to the Royal Colonial Institute, 26 March 1895’, Royal Colonial Institute proceedings, Vol. 26, (1894-1895), pp. 6-7.

[9] The details of the Queensland transcripts are drawn from Letter Book, Agent-General to Colonial Secretary COL/85 and COL/89 (Queensland Archives).

[10] Ibid, Bonwick, James, Port Phillip Settlement, p. v.

[11] Bonwick, J., An Octogenarian’s Reminiscences, (J. Nichols), 1902, p. 258.

[12] Ibid, Bonwick, J., ‘The writing of Colonial History’, p. 4.

[13] Details of the South Australian transcripts are drawn from South Australian Archives: Letter Books of Correspondence, Agent-General to Treasurer 1884-1885, 613 and 634.

[14] Details of the Victorian transcripts are drawn from Victorian Archives: Melbourne Public Library Librarian’s Letter Books 1885-1877.

[15] Details of the Tasmanian transcripts are drawn from Tasmanian Archives: Premier’s Department Records, 1/16/119, 8/8, 1/53/31, 1/167/40; and Walker Papers, University of Tasmania: J.B. Walker Letter Book 1883-1892.

[16] The papers are available on the State Library of New South Wales web site www.sl.nsw.gov.au/banks.

[17] Ibid, Bonwick, James, ‘The writing of colonial history’, pp. 270-272.

[18] Ibid, Bonwick, James, The first twenty years of Australia, p. v.

[19] Details of the New South Wales transcripts are drawn from Mitchell Library: Correspondence re Bonwick Transcripts, uncatalogued manuscript 152.

[20] Richards, Thomas, An epitome of the official history of New South Wales: from the foundation of the colony in 1788 to the close of the first session of the eleventh parliament under responsible government in 1883 compiled chiefly from the official and parliamentary records of the colony, (Govt Printer), 1883.

[21] Ward, J.M., ‘Historiography’, in McLeod, A.L., (ed.), The Pattern of Australian Culture, (Melbourne University Press), 1963, p. 216.

[22] The original series of Historical Records of Australia was launched in 1914 and discontinued in 1925 by which time thirty-three volumes in three Series, I, III & IV had been produced. Series III concentrated on Official Despatches between the Colonial Office and the colony of Tasmania from 1803-1827 in its six volumes.[22] The original plan was for seven Series: Series I, Governor’s Despatches to and From England; Series II: Papers belonging to the General Administration in Sub-Sections (not-published); Series III, Despatches and papers relating to the Settlement of the States (resumed publishing 1997); Series IV: Legal Papers; Series V: Exploration Papers (not published); Series VI: Scientific Papers (not published); and, Series VII: Ecclesiastical, Naval and Military Papers (not published). Following an unsuccessful initiative to continue the project in 1956, a further application stimulated by the 1988 bicentenary and supported by Australian Research Council grants and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library resulted in the resumed series continuing the Tasmanian context of which three volumes have been published to date.

[23] Mitchell, Ann M., ‘Doctor Frederick Watson and Historical Records of Australia’, Historical Studies, Vol. 20, (1982), pp. 171-197, Mitchell, Ann M., ’Watson, James Frederick William (1878-1945)’, ADB, Vol. 12, pp. 398-399. See also, Mitchell, Ann M., Dr Frederick Watson and Historical records of Australia, (Sydney Hospital), 1981.

[24] HRA, Series I, Vol. 6, ‘Introduction’, p. x.

[25] Mitchell Library: Correspondence re Bonwick Transcripts, uncatalogued manuscript 152.

[26] Bonwick to Sir Henry Parkes, 16 January 1884, in Mitchell Library: Autograph Letters A9.

[27] Mitchell Library: Correspondence re Bonwick Transcripts, uncatalogued manuscript 152.

[28] J.B. Walker to Bonwick, 16 April 1891, in Walker Papers, University of Tasmania: J.B. Walker Letter Book 1883-1892

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