12 April 2024

Canberra's first published book celebrates its 100th year, chapter and verse

| Sally Hopman
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White gloved hands holding old book

This year marks the centenary of the publication of Canberra’s first book, Canberra’s First Hundred Years, complete with the author’s annotations – now in the safe hands of the University of NSW Canberra archive. Photo: Supplied.

It was only meant to be a sketch of St John the Baptist Church, but such was the passion of its author that it became Canberra’s First Hundred Years – the first book to be published in the nation’s capital in 1924 – 100 years ago.

Author Frederick Walter Robinson, a much-admired teacher and man of letters, played a pivotal role in early Canberra, beginning when he moved to the region in 1913 and was appointed Associate Professor in Modern Languages at the newly established Royal Military College, Duntroon.

In those days, according to Assistant Curator of Special Collections at the University of NSW, Canberra, Susan Thomas, Duntroon cadets had to study literature as part of their education to be good, learned citizens.

Copies of his book are coveted in rare book circles, Ms Thomas said, but none more so than the one held in the UNSW archive.

“What makes the UNSW Canberra edition special is that it is Frederick Robinson’s own copy, and he annotated the title page with some interesting information about its publication history,” she said.

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“I love Robinson’s devotion to his book and its subject which resonates in the text, and his annotations. Not content to limit his history to that of St John’s, he becomes fascinated with the site and region on which it stands and interweaves its history with that of ‘place’ including that of the traditional inhabitants.

“In 1924 he is already lamenting the demolition of early buildings to make way for the new Canberra, and advocates for the use of local Aboriginal names for places rather than imposed names such as National Circuit.”

Ms Thomas said the book was special for many reasons, none more so than the personal connection that is so self-evident thanks to the prominence of his inscriptions.

“That he took pains to inscribe the specific publication history of the book on its title page, and dedicate the copy to the Royal Military College Library on 2 February 1963, exactly 50 years to the day after he joined the staff there in February 1913, speaks of his personal connection to the book, as do the minor corrections and additions that he could not help but add in pen half a century later to add to the ‘completeness’ of the book.

Gloved hand with old book on bookshelf

The author’s copy of Canberra’s First Hundred Years is one of the gems in the UNSW Special Collections archive. Photo: Supplied.

“I feel so feel so grateful to him for inscribing it because I haven’t seen anything anywhere that highlights this moment in time. It’s wonderful that he felt so strongly and personally about Canberra and that we can know that today.”

She said Robinson noted on the title page that while the book was printed in Sydney, it was “published” in Canberra – that is, the printing was initiated and paid for by the Canberra publisher, the Clergy of St John’s in Reid. He also notes the book was first distributed publicly via the Church Door, the RMC canteen and the Hotel Canberra bookstall in April 1924.

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“As a curator and book historian, I really love the way in which the book and its detailed inscription evoke a picture of early 1920s Canberra and its little bookstalls, not captured elsewhere in other sources I have read,” Ms Thomas said.

“As there was no dedicated bookshop until the Canberra Book Club was established in Manuka in 1927, books were distributed for sale to the reading public at community hubs, small outposts of settlement, interspersed by paddocks and dirt roads.”

Ms Thomas said the book was acquired when the RMC Duntroon library closed – that collection becoming the core of the UNSW archive.

“There was so much wonderful material in it,” she said. “We continue to be surprised by what is in there.”

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