Saturday, 11 October 2014

The need for an archive

Bonwick’s main interest lay in the preservation of records for posterity and he followed this interest assiduously even though he was not successful in having a public records office created in any of the Australian Colonies. Between 1872 and 1891 Bonwick called on Sir Henry Parkes, the NSW Premier to support and assist him in his endeavours.  Bonwick had a Public Service position in mind when he wrote to Parkes:

It was as the historian and not the copyist, that I sought to select from the old records of our Colony. I would copy the most important, make a digest of the others, and give a collective report of the whole as the archivist’.[1]

In May 1885, Bonwick wrote privately to Parkes:

By this mail is sent an application to the Colonial Secretary at Sydney, for permission to act as the archivist in your colony to a small extent. Knowing from Sir Saul [Samuel, NSW Agent General in London], who has little interest in literary matters, that the Govt may need a friend to literature to support my claim, I ask your service. Objections to a general transcription of early records I can understand, as family names and stories may appear, so I seek only to make for your Public Library a list of all the documents in the Record Office here, from 1786 and a short digest of their contents.[2]

Even though Bonwick was never appointed archivist of NSW, he was the first to raise the profile of archives in the Australian colonies and certainly contributed to the belief that the proper care of government archives was the cornerstone of democracy. Not everyone was impressed with Bonwick’s work. A reviewer of the second volume of Historical Records of New South Wales asked rather sarcastically

Why must we read a quantity of the dreariest public correspondence, all that is hardly the material for history...The whole thing has been conceived on an excessive scale which neutralizes the talent of the historian and exposes the community to ridicule...besides the disproportion of the work is melancholy. Four solid tomes bring us only a few years on our way to New South Wales. In four volumes Mommsen has written the history of the majesty of Rome.[3]

It was not all criticism and in the preface to Historical Records, Alexander Britton wrote:

But for the active search made in London by Mr J Bonwick FRGS, the early records on New South Wales would have been little better than a blank, the transcripts that have been made repair, so far as can be repaired, the loss of early Colonial records. [4]

Bonwick had written to Parkes in 1891:

I hope soon to report to you upon the systems adopted in various countries, in relation to the preservation and utilization of materials constituting a records office’.[5]

Bonwick was not the first person who had suggested the establishment of a record office for government archives. George Burnett Barton[6], brother of Edmund Barton, first Prime Minister of Australia,  noted:

The records of the Colony for the past hundred years are stored in a large room at the Colonial Secretary’s office; but no attempt has been made to ascertain their contents, or even to arrange them so that their contents could be ascertained, by anyone in search of information they are supposed to contain...the result is that the records, in their present condition, are not available for historical or any other purposes.[7]

Archives were invariably stored in a haphazard arrangement with no special premises. When the Garden Palace in Sydney was vacated after the International Exhibition of 1879-1880, it was thought to be a good idea to store some State archival material there. When the Palace burned to the ground, these irreplaceable archives, including relics of the Eora people, were also destroyed. In subsequent correspondence with Parkes, Barton puts forward a proposal for his employment as Keeper of Public Records, but this fell on deaf ears.

In 1891 a History Board was appointed to revise the text of the official history of NSW, to supervise the Colonial archives collection and to publish the documents on which it was based. This grew into Historical Records of New South Wales, edited first by Alexander Britton and then by Frank Murcott Bladen, who went on to become Principal Librarian at the Public Library of New South Wales in January 1907.[8] In that role he was vocal in his criticism of the lack of a public records office in NSW, stating:

It is a disgrace to Australia as an enlightened nation that there is no place where the original papers bearing on the discovery of the continent; the exploration and settlement of the states; the constitutional history and records of their courts of law and judicial and political institutions can be consulted by the student of history.[9]

As Principal Librarian Bladen occupied an influential post to push for the establishment of a records office, though despite his best efforts, nothing tangible occurred during this period. Bladen had undertaken a visit to Europe in 1902 looking at archives that influenced his thinking during this period. The concept of a records office was once more on the agenda with some powerful supporters. The Trustees of the PLNSW were pushing for a separate public records office for their own possibly more selfish reasons. This was the construction of a suitable building not only to house the library collections of the State but also the archival collections.


[1] Bonwick to Parkes, 16 January 1884, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, Parkes correspondence, A9, p. 51.

[2] Bonwick to Parkes, 8 May 1885, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, Parkes Correspondence, Vol. 2, A872, p. 363.

[3] Sydney Morning Herald, 20 January 1894, p. 4.

[4] HRNSW, Vol. 1, (1), p. xi

[5] Bonwick to Parkes, 2 November 1891, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, Parkes Correspondence

[6] Ward, John M., ‘Barton, George Burnett (1836-1901)’, ADB, Vol. 3, pp. 113-115.

[7] Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, Parkes Correspondence, Vol. 6, A876, p. 39.

[8] Fletcher, B.H., ‘Bladen, Frank Murcott (1858-1912)’, ADB, Supplementary Volume, pp. 33-34

[9] Bladen, F.M., Manuscript notebook on archives, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, C710, p. 12. .

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