Worn linen covers, delicate illustrations and historical signifance: The Stanley Athenaeum collection

If you’re anything like me, you probably find old books beautiful.



Worn linen covers, stylish print, soft pages and delicate illustrations — you can find all of these things in the Stanley Athenaeum, and a visit there is rewarding simply for the aesthetic pleasure of opening books from the nineteenth century and contemplating all those who have handled them before.


Even the way the books are labelled and stamped can be evocative of years long gone.


But the Athenaeum has more than this. Some of its books are quirky, even a little bizarre.


Others are significant. The most valuable work in the collection is an 1861 edition of On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. This book was first published in 1859. At the time it was acquired, the Athenaeum’s copy was the earliest edition in Australia.

The Historic Book collection

From its opening in 1856 up until the 1970s, among its many other functions, the Stanley Athenaeum served as a lending library. Now the collection has been kept intact, providing us with an insight into the reading lives of communities of the past.

The collection has fiction for adults and children. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


There are also reference and nonfiction books, covering subjects such as biography, history, philosophy, poetry, politics, science and natural history and travel.

“Due to the large subject matter the library covers, especially pertaining to local history, its interpretive potential is huge.” Laura Donati, Significance Assessment Report, 2010.

Below is a description of some of the Athenaeum’s books.


As well as On the Origin of Species, there are books by William Guilfoyle, landscape gardener, botanist and director of the Melbourne Botanic Gardens in the late nineteenth century. These are, Domestic Floriculture and Australian Botany Specially Designed for Use in Schools (1878).


The Box Seat or Medicus and the Shroff by “The Shroff” is a collection of tales about two friends visiting the Beechworth and Yackandandah area and staying at Tanswell’s Hotel. The book isn’t dated, but it is from around 1900.


Some other books in the collection are: religious works by Bishop James Moorehouse (1826 – 1915); Charles Darwin, Expressions of Emotions in man (1872); Aldous Huxley, Essays (1863) and Alexander von Humboldt, Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe I – IV (1849 – 1871).


Where is our exsiccatae?

Melaleuca_ericifolia in von Mueller's third fascicle 1876 National Museum Australia via Maraoke
dried specimens of Melaleuca ericifolia from von Mueller’s third fascicle 1876. National Museum Australia via Maroske, 2007

From 1874 to 1876, Victoria’s Government Botanist and director of the Melbourne Botanic Garden, Ferdinand von Mueller, published a three-volume work defining the flora indigenous to Australia, “for public instruction”.

This was an exsiccatae: a set of dried specimens.

It consisted of three fascicles (or instalments) of 50 sheets, each sheet holding dried specimens of one species, along with the scientific name and details of its discovery. The 1876 fascicle, the third instalment, was distributed to only 33 institutions. According to a letter of the time, one of them was the Stanley Athenaeum (see Maroske 2007).

It is no longer in the collection. This might mean that someone has taken it home. The building has been continually opened to readers, meetings and other events over the years. Or it may mean that, as a collection of dried plants attached to paper, it deteriorated and was not kept.

Also missing is Confessions of an Opium Eater, by Thomas de Quincey, present in the catalogue, but not on the shelves.




“In the early days of the collection it was run by men. Around the 1870s, the Victorian Government began granting funding to libraries, and stipulated that memberships and committee membership must be opened to women. This changed things. Women started to appear on the Stanley committee and you can see the purchasing in the collection change.” Chris Dormer, Friends of the Stanley Athenaeum, private communication, 2017.

In Australian fiction, the Athenaeum has books by Ada Cambridge (1844-1926), who at times during the 1870s and 1880s was a resident of Yackandandah, Wangaratta and Beechworth. There is also a run of novels by Ethel Turner (1872-1958), author of Seven Little Australians (although this one is not in the collection) and some by Alan Marshall (1902 -1984). Marhsall is most famous for I Can Jump Puddles and the intriguingly named How Beautiful Are Thy Feet, but the books in the collection are: These are my People, This is My Grass and In Mine Heart.

Two Superstars

At present, two nineteenth century editions of Jane Austen books — Mansfield Park (published in 1885) and Sense and Sensibility (published in 1882) — are displayed as an acknowledgement of the 200 year anniversary of the author’s death.


In 2012, to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens, the Athenaeum displayed eleven books by the author. The editions range from the 1861 to the 1950s. They are now kept in polypropylene zip lock bags to preserve their condition.


Something Unique

The collection also holds some rare three-volume novels published in the nineteenth century.


Margaret Oliphant was widowed in 1859 and wrote to support her family. She wrote ninety-eight novels and over fifty short stories in many genres. She was self-deprecatory, considering her own work to be of less literary merit than the Brontes, but she could be considered “one of the most prolific, influential and widely known British writers of the nineteenth century” (Weber, 2012, p101).

“Copies of three decker novels … are very likely unique now in this country and consequently of great interest to students of the Victorian Age and of its literature” (Professor Wallace Kirsop of Monash University quoted in Culture Victoria).

The three-volume or “three-decker” novel became popular in Britain in the nineteenth century because of the high cost of printing and the demands of the lending libraries. If a novel was divided into three parts, the income from Part I could be used to pay for the printing costs of the later parts. Also, the reading of the first part could create a demand for Parts II and III. Between 1842 and 1894 the Charles Edward Mudie’s lending library demanded of publishers that almost all novels appeared in three volumes. This had important effects on the structure, plot, style, and even imaginative worlds of the Victorian novel (Landow, 1972).

The Geoff Craig Local History Collection

Another important section of the Athenaeum is the collection of the work of local historian Geoff Craig (1935 – 2003). Stanley born and bred, Geoff wrote many books, assembling information about generations of local families, European and Chinese settlers, churches, industries, organisations and the life of the area. He collected obituaries, newspaper clippings, lists of ratepayers names and other papers. Geoff bequeathed his works and their copyright to the Athenaeum. There are around fifty titles, including local, regional, institutional and thematic histories. The Friends plan to republish some of these.

Ros Woods of Friends of the Athenaeum in front of Geoff Craig Collection. Geoff’s collection of local books are on the left of the picture and Geoff”s own works are on the right.

Geoff also donated his extensive library of local history books. These are being catalogued according to the Dewey system.

 Community Archives

The Athenaeum holds and maintains records of many Stanley community groups and organisations, including the CWA, the Fruitgrowers’ Association, the Stanley New Year’s Day Sports Committee, the Recreation Reserve Committee, the Back to Stanley Committee, the Red Cross, the CFA and the Stanley Cemetery Trust. These must be continually filed and catalogued.

Objects and photographs

The Athenaeum still has some of its original furniture and fittings including: shelving, a fireplace screen, settle, fire tools, heaters, lamps and lights. There are illuminated addresses, honour boards, pictures, cups and trophies, and a geological collection from the local area and other parts of Australia.

It also has “the strangest collection of objects, things that have just ended up here” (Chris Dormer). These include vases and silver cups, and a collection of objects related to the playing of Euchre.

“Back in the 1940s and 50s, some of the old timers used to play here on a Friday night to raise money. Interestingly there is quite a collection of ash trays because in those days, of course, everybody smoked” (Chris Dormer).

References and further reading

Anderson, Noel ‘Those institutes called mechanics’ Australian journal of adult education 6 (4),june 1962.

Baragwanath, Pam and James, Ken (1976), These Walls Speak Volumes: A History of Mechanics’ Institutes of Victoria. Ringwood North, Vic: Mechanics’ Institutes of Victoria Inc.

Barker, Donald (2002), “Funding communal culture: opportunism and standardisation of funding for mechanics’ institutes in colonial Victoria. The Australian Library Journal, 51:3, 247-257,

Craig, Geoff F. (1986), History of the Stanley Public Room and Athenaeum. Stanley, Vic: G.F. Craig.

Craig, Geoff F. (1999), The Stanley Athenaeum. Stanley, Vic: G.F. Craig.

Cusack, Frank (1973), Canvas to Campus: A history of the Bendigo Institute of Technology. Melbourne: Hawthorn Press.

Donati, Laura (2010), “Significance Assessment Report 2010” quoted in Culture Victoria. https://cv.vic.gov.au/organisations/stanley-athenaeum-public-room/

Eggert, Paul (2003), “Robbery Under Arms: The Colonial Market, Imperial Publishers, and the Demise of the Three-Decker Novel”. Book History (Pennsylvania State University Press). Vol. 6, p127-146. 20p.

Haigh, Gideon (2016), “Mechanics’ institutes, athenaeums revived as historians preserve the past” The Australian 30th July, 2016. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/mechanics-institutes-athenaeums-revived-as-historians-preserve-the-past/news-story/398b3136f10ac623b2b9af998f7f9753

Landow, George P. (1972), “Review of Mudie’s Circulating Library and the Victorian Novel by Guinevere L. Griest” Modern Philology, Vol. 69, No. 4 (May, 1972), pp. 367-369 Chicago: The University of Chicago http://www.jstor.org/stable/436861

Lowden, Jim (2012), “The unveiling of Mechanics’ Institutes of Victoria plaque no. 29; &, Opening of the Charles Dickens’ 200th anniversary exhibition.” Stanley, Vic. : Stanley Athenaeum & Public Room

McKenzie, D.M.W. (1943), Looking back: the early days of Stanley. Beechworth [Vic.] : The Ovens and Murray Advertiser. http:/​/​handle.slv.vic.gov.au/​10381/​185389 

Maroske, Sara (2007), “Educational exsiccatae: Ferdinand von Mueller’s botanical lessons in colonial Victoria”. reCollections: Journal of National Museum of Australia. March 2007, v. 2, n. 1, pp 37-47. http://recollections.nma.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/332954/EducationalExiccatae.pdf

National Library of Australia (2009) “Community Heritage Grants ‘09”. Canberra: National Library of Australia.

Oliphant, Margaret (1990), The Autobiography of Margaret Oliphant: The Complete Text, Elisabeth Jay (ed). Oxford England, New York: Oxford University Press.

Weber, Brenda R. (2012), Women and literary celebrity in the nineteenth century: the transatlantic production of fame and gender. Aldershot, Hants, England  and Burlington, VT : Ashgate.

Whitworth, Robert P. (1865), Bailliere’s Victorian gazetteer and road guide : containing the most recent and accurate information as to every place in the colony : with map. Melbourne: F.F. Bailliere.Wesson, Alfred (1971), ‘Mechanics institutes in Victoria’ Victorian Historical Magazine 42(3) August 1971.








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