2010 Script & Print

The tension between British and Australian publishers has long been a central thesis of antipodean print culture histories about the early twentieth century, particularly in relation to Angus & Robertson whom British publishers looked upon with some unease. However, John Barnes in arguing that the “model of Australian creativity and originality unappreciated and resisted by London publishers has been generally accepted”, demonstrates the utility of questioning this history by revealing the readiness of some British publishers (like Blackwood, Duckworth and Jonathan Cape) to contribute “significantly towards the beginnings of an [Australian] national literature”.[1] Similarly, though the archival record chronicles a certain amount of antagonism towards Angus & Robertson and that British publishers as a collective actively made the path of an Australian publisher more difficult through confirming agreements that froze out opposition, pre-Second World War documents also reveal an attempt to create a co-operative “axis” between Angus & Robertson in Sydney and George G Harrap and Co in London, with the Australasian Publishing Co (who was considered “a part of the Harrap organisation”)[2] as sales representative to both.[3] Their collective aim, to quote Walter Harrap, was to “work closely in harmony but yet as distinct entities”.[4] The Australian market might have been perceived to be the “special preserve” of some British publishers but in the late 1930s Harrap took a broader view that Angus & Robertson could be “used in an intelligent way as part of one huge machine whose object it is to increase the sale of books in the English language”.[5]

Conscious of how the Australian and British book trade might react, Walter Harrap, in writing to Stanley Bartlett of the Australasian Publishing Co about his London-based discussions with Angus & Robertson publisher George Ferguson, remarked that “a copy of this letter will be given to Mr Ferguson but it will not be seen by anyone and will be destroyed when he has read it”.[6] Fortunately, copies of these personal discussions survive in the Mitchell Library[7] and thus this paper will briefly trace Angus & Robertson’s negotiations within the “axis” and the broader issues confronting an Australian company which sought to become a publisher of consequence within early twentieth-century English-speaking markets. Because the production and selling of the written word “transgresses the boundary between the incommensurable sacred and the marketable profane”[8] – with books often the centrepiece for arguments about literary merit, national representation and commercialism – publishing company histories can provide useful case studies that join together economic, social, cultural, political and legal or copyright tensions. My intention therefore is not to contradict the established history of Australian publishers struggling to develop during the early twentieth century within “the framework of old imperial connections”[9] nor is it to recuperate the reputation of British publishers in Australian print cultures studies. Rather my aim is to complicate it through exploring the ways in which some Australian companies actively sought out “new imperial connections” during the pre-Second World War period. On the one hand, the local industry is indeed characterised by a sense of exasperation at Australia continuing after Federation to be regarded as “an appendage of Great Britain”[10] and, according to Martyn Lyons, “as a huge continental extension of a typical British circulating library”.[11] Yet on the other hand, in some quarters the industry is energised by the potential opportunities afforded through negotiating with London publishers in placing Australian books “behind the lines”[12] and the possibilities of establishing an Australian export market, what Richard Nile and David Walker refer to as “the complex art of owning and disowning London, of courting its influence and resenting its power”.[13]

Like many complicated relationships of love and hate, this particular tale of two major publishers begins with a gift and some cordial pats on the back, in this case the “most acceptable gift” of an Australian-made book sent in 1938 from George Ferguson to Walter Harrap, who replied with the considered praise that: “many a book on this side is published that is not half so well produced”.[14] Sending books as gifts was an integral part of Angus & Robertson’s promotional strategy that also included delivering food parcels to British publishers, printers and binders regularly welcoming Australian delicacies as a “relief from the monotony of the average [English] everyday diet”.[15] Equally appreciative, Walter Harrap wanted to build on a two hour talk he had with Ferguson at a London luncheon[16] and included with his thanks a copy of a highly-confidential letter sent to Stanley Bartlett expounding all details of Harrap’s “triangular proposal”.[17] Doubling as an Australian representative for Harrap, Bartlett was not new to the controversy regarding the relative dangers or advantages of Australian companies publishing in their own territory and he was in favour of a co-operative move for three reasons: it closely resembled a similar proposition Bartlett tabled two years earlier; he was anxious other publishing houses might seize this opportunity before their plan was in place; and, in his view of their “progressive policy” and highly successful (though universally despised) mail order business, Bartlett conceded there was “no better organisation in Australia with whom … [they] could co-operate with than A & R [Angus & Robertson]” …[18]

EXTRACT: Ensor, J 2010, ‘A Policy of Splendid Isolation: Angus & Robertson, George G Harrap and the politics of co-operation in the Australian book trade during the late 1930s’, Script & Print, vol. 34, no. 1, pp. 34-42.



[1] John Barnes, “‘Heaven Forbid that I Should Think of Treating with an English Publisher’: The Dilemma of Literary Nationalists in Federated Australia”, in Simon Eliot, Andrew Nash and Ian Willison, eds, Literary Cultures and the Material Book, London: The British Library (2007): 409. To establish his point, Barnes refers to: the publishing history of Joseph Furphy’s Such is Life by Jonathan Cape fifteen years after the author’s death; Henry Lawson’s experiences in London, particularly his positive treatment by British publishers during 1900-1902; the publication of Miles Franklins My Brilliant Career by Blackwood; and the unacknowledged work of publisher’s reader Edward Garnett who introduced the Overseas Library through Duckworth. See also Peter Morton, “Australia’s England, 1880-1950” in Peter Pierce, ed., The Cambridge History of Australian Literature, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press (2009): 255-281.

[2] George Ferguson to Walter Harrap, 26 October 1938, MSS 3269/322 ML.

[3] The Australasian Publishing Company was established by George Harrap, son of publisher George G (Godfrey) Harrap, during a visit to Australia in 1915 and was the outcome of a partnership with Constable & Company and Houghton Mifflin Company. However, over time, “the bonds which joined the three parties to the venture … [became] loosened” and control of the firm was eventually handed over to its existing manager Stanley Bartlett in 1922. Through the restructured Australasian Publishing Co, Bartlett continued to represent George G Harrap as their Australian agent. For further details, see George G Harrap, Some Memories, 1901-1935: A Publisher’s Contribution to the History of Publishing, London: Harrap (1935).

[4] Walter Harrap to Stanley Bartlett, 2 September 1938, MSS 3269/322 ML.

[5] Walter Harrap to Stanley Bartlett, 2 September 1938, MSS 3269/322 ML.

[6] Walter Harrap to Stanley Bartlett, 2 September 1938, MSS 3269/322 ML.

[7] All correspondence is sourced from the second collection of material related to the documentary archives of Angus & Robertson, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney. Permission to use these records was granted by the HarperCollins Subsidiary Rights Manager, 4 June 2008. Research for this article is located within the context of, and was made possible by, Richard Nile’s CI-1 ARC Discovery grant “Colonial Publishing and Literary Democracy in Australia: An Analysis of the Influence on Australian Literature of British and Australian Publishing”. I am very grateful to Richard Nile, Rana Ensor, John Yiannakis and William Smithwick who provided feedback on a draft of this paper presented at Literature and Politics, 3rd annual conference of the Australasian Association for Literature. I am also in debt to the generous curatorial assistance provided by Arthur Easton in regards to the Angus & Robertson archives, who sadly passed away on Anzac Day 2009.

[8] Laura J Miller, Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption, London: University of Chicago Press (2006): 19.

[9] Richard Nile and David Walker, “Marketing the Literary Imagination: Production of Australian Literature, 1915-1965”, The Penguin New Literary History of Australia, Australian Literary Studies (Special Issue) 13.4 (October 1988): 284.

[10] Angus and Robertson to JP Lippincott Company (Philadelphia), 16 June 1918, MSS 314/53 ML.

[11] Martyn Lyons, “Britain’s Largest Export Market”, in Martyn Lyons and John Arnold, eds, A History of the Book in Australia 1891-1945: A National Culture in a Colonised Market, St Lucia: University of Queensland Press (2001): 25.

[12] Angus and Robertson’s actual metaphor for breaking into the London market as publishers and booksellers was “to get in behind”, a military concept suggested by the gardener of Hector MacQuarrie, which led to the company establishing a British branch, an endeavour named “Operation London”. See Neil James, Spheres of Influence: Angus and Robertson and Australian Literature From the Thirties to the Sixties, Ph.D., Sydney: The University of Sydney (2000): 260.

[13] Richard Nile and David Walker, “The ‘Paternoster Row Machine’ and the Australian Book Trade, 1890-1945”, in Martyn Lyons and John Arnold, eds, A History of the Book in Australia 1891-1945: A National Culture in a Colonised Market, St Lucia: University of Queensland Press (2001): 17.

[14] Walter Harrap to George Ferguson, 2 September 1938, MSS 3269/322 ML.

[15] HJ Jarrold to George Ferguson, 31 January 1949, MSS 3269/364 ML. For further examples of Angus and Robertson sending food parcels to the United Kingdom, see also WE Dedrick to George Ferguson, 8 June 1948, MSS 3269/348 ML; Sheila Hodges to George Ferguson, 10 February 1949, MSS 3269/293 ML; and Walter Harrap to George Ferguson, 4 November 1949, MSS 3269/322 ML.

[16] George Ferguson was in London overseeing the conversion of the Australian Book Company (which Ferguson took over following the death of A & R’s London agent Henry George a week after he arrived) into the new Angus and Robertson branch, eventually relocated to 48 Bloomsbury Street. Though the new branch continued Henry George’s work in “the movement of British books to Australia for sale” in the A & R bookshop, Ferguson also sought to “develop a London end to the firm’s publishing …, an organisation in London which could sell the books” being published in Australia. (George Ferguson, interview with Suzanne Lunney, 11 May 1976, National Library, TRC 452, pp 33-35.) Walter Harrap eventually became the first person Ferguson telephoned or went to see every time he came to London. (George Ferguson to Ian Harrap on the death of Walter Harrap, 21 April 1967, MSS 3269/322 ML.) For more background on George Ferguson, see Neil James, “‘The Fountainhead’: George Ferguson and Angus and Robertson”, Publishing Studies 7 (Autumn 1999): 6-16, and Neil James “‘Basically We Thought About Books’ – An Interview with George Ferguson”, Publishing Studies 5 (Spring 1997): 8-16.

[17] Stanley Bartlett to Walter Harrap, 22 September 1938, MSS 3269/322 ML.

[18] Stanley Bartlett to Walter Harrap, 22 September 1938, MSS 3269/322 ML.