David Scott Mitchell: RAHS Foundation Patron

A passion for collecting

by Alan Ventress (Mitchell Librarian)

Of the three great 20th Century benefactors of the State Library of New South Wales, David Scott Mitchell holds pride of place. This, however, does not in any way diminish the contributions of Sir William Dixson or Jean Garling, whose bequests have strengthened and enhanced Mitchell's original gift to the people of Australia. What is so marvellous about Mitchell's bequest was his vision in collecting Australiana when no one else was interested and then donating it to the Trustees of the Library, for the benefit of all.

David Scott Mitchell was an unlikely benefactor in an unlikely subject area. He came from a wealthy family who had made money in coal, specifically in the Hunter region of New South Wales; he was also among the first batch of graduates from the University of Sydney, where he studied mathematics, chemistry and physics. In fact he received the Barker Mathematical Scholarship while he was there. On graduating, he moved to law and in December 1856 was admitted to the bar, although, surprisingly, he never practised. These antecedents pointed the way to a life of undisciplined leisure; he could easily have frittered away his fortune in the aimless pursuit of pleasure. A turning point in his life came when his romance with Emily Heron came to naught and his engagement to her was called off. As in all things related to Mitchell's life, nothing is conclusive because he left so little evidence and never kept a diary. Like many great benefactors he was a modest, unassuming man who shunned publicity and, having sampled the social whirl and found it wanting, he turned to collecting.

Australiana at this time was far from his mind. He preferred Elizabethan poetry, literature and drama. This is why the Mitchell Library has a rather exceptional, if almost unknown, collection of this genre of literature, highlights of which include theWorks of Ben Jonson and an early edition of Spenser's Faerie Queen. He also loved the romantic poets of the 19th century and the Library holds many first editions of Byron, Keats, Shelley, Tennyson and Swinburne. Other unknown aspects of his collecting include various incunabulae such as the De Gramaticis of Suetonius, printed in Rome in 1472, and illuminated manuscripts, missals and books of hours. This style of collecting was very much in line with that of a well-off 19th century gentleman of means and could have easily ended in a rather sterile cultural cul-de-sac from the view point of Australian history.

It is uncertain what first attracted Mitchell to the collecting of Australiana; perhaps it was the collector's urge for completeness that inspired him? At the time 'completeness' would have been entirely possible for any wealthy collector of books and manuscripts relating to the history of Australia. Gordon Richardson, former Principal Librarian of the Public Library of NSW, in his 1961 T.D. Mutch Memorial Lecture, speculates that the acquisition of the Whitley collection of Australiana in 1887 by Angus and Robertson and some good salesmanship by George Robertson, may have started Mitchell on the path of collecting Australiana. Whatever the reason, we can all be grateful for it. If this is true, the whole collection was amassed in no less than 20 years, which is a remarkable achievement by any standards.

Mitchell as a collector was the right man in the right place at the right time. In one of those wonderful historical confluences of circumstances, everything favoured him. He was wealthy, he was single, he had time on his hands, he had space in his house (although this rapidly diminished) and he had identified a market in which few were interested. Finally, he appears to have settled on his mission in life and from that point on did not waver from it. Mitchell's modus operandi as a collector merits some attention. Invariably he spent Mondays around bookshops and second hand dealers all over Sydney and had a hansom cab permanently booked for these regular outings. He knew a bargain when he saw one and was very willing to pay for special items but had a reputation as a hard, but fair bargainer. He was also very patient in the pursuit of particular items. In one famous case he purchased the complete collection of rival book buyer Alfred Lee in order to get his hands on the original of Joseph Banks' Endeavour Journal, despite the fact that most of Lee's collection duplicated his own. As we all know, this journal is one of the cornerstones of the Mitchell's manuscript collection and its importance to Australian history cannot be over-emphasised. Mitchell had the perseverance, knowledge and foresight to realise this.

David Scott Mitchell became the Royal Australian Historical Society's founding patron in 1901, which is entirely in accord with his interests. As with all patrons, his duties were not onerous, but for a newly-founded Society his stamp of approval was very important and must have influenced many of those interested in Australian history to join the Society. We can all thank him for this100 years later.

David Scott Mitchell's last years were spent negotiating with the New South Wales government on an appropriate building to house his collection. Naturally, none of this was plain sailing and regrettably he did not live to see the Mitchell Library open, on 9 March 1910, amidst a welter of speeches extolling the great benefactor's virtues. Mitchell had died on 24 July 1907, clutching a copy of one of the rarest books of Australian literature, Barron Field's First Fruits of Australian Poetry, brought to him by Fred Wymark. He was a true collector to the very end.