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Angus & Robertson / Archives (State Library of New South Wales)

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Administrative History


Administrative History

The foundation of the organisation which was to become Angus & Robertson Limited (A & R Ltd) was laid in June 1884 by David Mackenzie Angus. With capital of 50 pounds he opened a small shop at 110 1/2 Market Street, Sydney, selling second hand books sent by a friend, Young J. Pentland, from his native Scotland. Angus was helped in this venture by a number of people, among them James Bruce, later writing master of Sydney, who wrote by hand 100 copies of the opening announcement for Angus' shop; his brother Donald (Dan) Angus who was to remain in the business until his death in 1916; and George Robertson who was to become Angus' partner. David Angus' first employee was the young Fred Wymark who joined him as trade boy in 1884 and would become part owner and director of A & R Ltd.

Born in 1855 in Scotland, Angus emigrated to Australia arriving in November 1882, in the hope of improving his health in the warmer climate. Soon after his arrival Angus found employment in the Sydney branch of George Robertson and Company - no relation to his future partner - booksellers of Melbourne. After eighteen months, Angus left George Robertson's to establish a business for himself.

Compelled by deteriorating health to abandon temporarily the business in 1885, Angus realised the necessity of taking a partner into his bookshop with him. George Robertson was born in England of Scottish parents in 1860 and arrived in Australia, after two years in New Zealand, in February 1882. Soon after his arrival, in April, he married his first wife, Elizabeth Bruce. Robertson also found employment in the Sydney branch of George Robertson and Company where he was to meet David Angus. In 1886, with savings of 15 pounds, Robertson bought a half share in Angus' Market Street bookshop and in January of that year the partnership, Angus & Robertson, was formed. In May, David Angus married Jane Lindsay Telfer.

Initially the partnership was occupied in bookselling only. In 1888, however, A & R's publishing activities began in a small way with the publication of three books. The first of these, a book of verse titled A crown of wattle was written by a young Sydney solicitor, H. Peden Steel. This was followed by the publication of Ishmael Dare's book of verse, Sun and cloud on river and sea, and Facsimile of a proposal for a settlement on the coast of New South Wales written by Sir George Young in 1785. Ishmael Dare was a pen-name used by Arthur W. Jose who wrote or edited a number of A & R's publications. Christopher Brennan, A. G. Stephens, Bertram Stevens, T. G. Tucker and David McKee Wright also worked as editors for George Robertson. His daughter, Bessie Ferguson, occasionally reported on manuscripts while others worked on a freelance or part-time basis. In later years, none of the three books published in 1888 was to be listed among A & R's publications.

Publishing continued on a small scale during the ensuing years and the bookselling business continued to expand, necessitating a move to larger premises at 89 Castlereagh Street in 1890. In 1895 regular publishing began with the successful publication of another book of verse by another Sydney solicitor. Andrew Barton (Banjo) Paterson's first work, The man from Snowy River and other verses, sold 5000 copies in the first four months after publication.

This was immediately followed by two further successes. In early 1896 A & R published a book of verse by Henry Lawson, In the days when the world was wide and other verses. A book of prose, While the billy boils followed in August. Lawson would continue publishing with A & R until his death in 1922.

The success of these books established, as George Ferguson has observed, the important fact that "Australian subjects and background ... had power to attract many readers. It is from this time publishing on a large scale became an integral and important part of the firm's business; and new opportunities were constantly opened up for Australian authors". (1)

Partially in anticipation of establishing a continuing publishing programme, 1895 saw another, albeit smaller, milestone for both A & R and Australian publishing when the first catalogue of A & R holdings was circulated. This small catalogue is notable as the first separate catalogue of purely Australian publications ever issued.

A & R's circulating library, The Sydney Book Club, was also established at this time. Its origins lie in the "actions of a number of local legal men who, between them purchased about a hundred books from A & R and then, in turn, read them, and finally sold them back to the firm". (2) In 1895 this group formed The Sydney Book Club under the charge of J. G. Lockley. The Book Club closed in August 1958. During this period, in the 1890's, A & R was appointed official bookseller to the University of Sydney, the Free Public Library (later the State Library of New South Wales) and the Parliamentary Library, and publishers to the University of Sydney.

David Angus, who had taken little interest in the publishing side of the business, continued to suffer from ill health, forcing him to retire in 1900. He sold his share in A & R to Fred Wymark and Richard Thomson, another employee, and returned to Scotland where he died in 1901, survived by his wife and their two sons.

In the same year a Melbourne branch of the business, known as Angus, Robertson and Shenstone, was opened. Fred S. Shenstone joined A & R in the late 1890's succeeding Hugh Maccallum as Secretary and Manager of the publishing department. The imprint bearing all three names can be found on various publications from 1902 to 1903. In February 1904 it was decided to close the Melbourne branch and concentrate on Sydney as the distribution centre for Australia and New Zealand. The idea of a Melbourne branch was not rekindled until 1950.

A public company was formed and incorporated on 4 February 1907, succeeding the former partnership. The first meeting of the Board of Directors took place on 12 February and was attended by George Robertson (Chairman), Arthur Wigram Allen, Richard Thomson and Fred Wymark.

A & R Ltd continued to expand its activities, both locally and overseas, with a wide field of fiction and non fiction publications. In 1910 its growth led to the extension and renovation of the Castlereagh Street premises which have been recorded in Henry Lawson's poem The auld shop & the new. Although written and presented to Robertson in 1910, A & R published a limited edition for private circulation only after Lawson's death, in 1923. It was in 1910 that Robertson married Eva Adeline Ducat after the death of his first wife in 1908.

Overseas, a London agency of A & R Ltd was established in 1913. Known as The Australian Book Company, the agency was operated by Henry George. In 1937 The Australian Book Company was bought by A & R and established, in 1938, under the direction of Mr Spencer who was succeeded by Hector Macquarrie.

With the advent of World War I, publishing activities continued despite the threat of various restrictions and shortages, particularly paper shortages. During this period, in 1915, A & R published C. J. Dennis' enormously successful first work The songs of a sentimental bloke followed the next year by The moods of Ginger Mick. These and many other publications at the time were printed in standard editions as well as special Editions for the Trenches.

In the bookshop the war years saw the establishment of the Military Department. Under the direction of Lieutenant Stupart, assisted by William Kirwan, this highly popular department specialised in the requirements for the soldier selling not only service booklets but also boots, shoes, hats, belts, camp stretchers, badges for all the Services etc. The Department terminated shortly after the close of the War despite hopes that it would continue.

A new company, under the same name, was formed and registered in New South Wales on 21 September 1920, taking over the former company. The extra capital which resulted from the reorganisation proved beneficial and in 1923 A & R expanded its interests again with the incorporation of printing, the third branch of its business, into the firm.

Prior to 1923 A & R's publications were printed by various outside firms. For some months in 1923, however, A & R ceased publishing owing to high increase in the cost of printing and binding books. Publishing resumed when a controlling interest was acquired in a printing establishment, Eagle Press Limited. By 1928 all A & R's books were being printed by Eagle Press which was renamed in 1929 Halstead Printing Company Limited after George Robertson's native village in Essex, England. In 1937 the printing concern was incorporated as a proprietary company and became known as Halstead Press Pty Ltd.

The 1920s saw some significant publishing achievements. Between 1924 and 1930 a number of these bore the imprint of the Cornstalk Publishing Company. The two major publications of the decade however, bore the A & R imprint. The first edition of the Australian Encyclopaedia was published in two volumes in 1925 and 1926 under the editorship of Arthur W. Jose. Alec H. Chisholm was Editor-in-Chief of the ten volume second edition of Australian Encyclopaedia published in 1958. In 1962 A & R sold the Australian Encyclopaedia to the Grolier Society of Australia. The other major publication of the '20s was the Official history of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 edited by C. E. W. Bean. Undertaken by the Commonwealth Government, Bean's history was published from 1921 and comprised twelve volumes.

Considerable extensions occurred in the publishing section at the end of this decade when, in 1928, arrangements were finalised for an increase in the reprinting of Australian books published in England. Book sales were adversely affected the 1931 imposition of primage duty on imported books. This was removed, together with sales tax on books, the following year effectively advancing sales in 1932 and 1933.

George Robertson died on 27 August 1933 at the age of 73. He was survived by his wife, and by a son and two daughters from his first marriage. He was succeeded as Chairman of the Board of Directors by Richard Thomson.

A & R Ltd expanded slowly in the ensuing decades, increasing publishing activities in both Sydney and London. The most significant move in retailing was the 1950 purchase of A. H. Spencer's Hill of Content Bookshop in Melbourne which opened in 1951 as A & R's Melbourne branch with Arthur G. Smith as Manager. In 1954 premises were bought in London with a view to increasing the sales of A & R publications overseas. The following year publication of books in London commenced with encouraging results.

From the inception of the business in 1884 until 1954 the company's issued share capital had increased slowly but steadily to $400,000. The next 13 years, the period of A & R's most rapid expansion, saw the amount increase fivefold to just over $2 million. This accelerated expansion of activities was "the outcome of the first battle for control of the company in 1959-62 and the direct cause of the successful takeover of the company by Ipec Insurance in 1970". (3)

Walter Vincent Burns accumulated a large portion of A & R shares in the late 1950s. He became a director of the company in 1959 and Managing Director the following year. During this period two proprietary companies - A & R (Publishers) Pty Ltd and A & R (Bookshops) Pty Ltd - were registered as wholly owned subsidiaries. A & R Ltd also acquired Robertson and Mullens Ltd (Melbourne booksellers and publishers); H. E. C. Robinson Pty Ltd (map publisher and retailer); Swains & Co. (Sydney stationers and booksellers); Alberts Bookshop (Perth); and other retail outlets in Australia, Wellington and London as subsidiary companies.

With Burns as Managing Director A & R Ltd underwent major reorganisation resulting in considerable dissatisfaction among personnel. Consequently, resignations and high staff turnovers followed including the resignations of A. A. Ritchie (Chairman) and two other directors. Burns brought two people to the Board of Directors from outside the firm ending the tradition begun by George Robertson of promoting members of staff to the Board of Directors.

The result of Burns' reorganisation was such that each of the three divisions of A & R Ltd - retailing, publishing and printing - were made separate subsidiary organisations with their own directors. In addition, new subsidiaries were incorporated often reflecting not so much the interests of bookselling and publishing as Burns' own interests, chiefly in real estate.

In addition to A & R Ltd, the main firm, the company comprised the following subsidiaries: A & R (Bookshops) Pty Ltd; A & R (Properties) Pty Ltd; A & R (Publishing) Pty Ltd; A & R (Wholesale) Pty Ltd; Halstead Press Pty Ltd and H. E. C. Robinson Pty Ltd .

In 1960, at the end of this expansion, Burns resigned; selling his shareholding to Consolidated Press. Following two unsuccessful takeover bids in 1960, Consolidated Press, in 1962, sold its 30% shareholding in A & R Ltd to three groups of investors; William Collins (British publishers) bought 21% while 3-6% was acquired by other British publishers. The remaining 5-7% was acquired by a company formed by several A & R directors.

In the 1960s expansion in the operations of all three divisions continued. New retail outlets were established in Canberra, Sydney and Newcastle; in 1966 the business of A. V. Green (Newsagencies) Pty Ltd in Wollongong was acquired, the factory building of J. C. Stephens Pty Ltd was erected in Victoria during 1966/67; in 1967 A & R acquired Ells Consolidated Holdings Pty Ltd of Newcastle. Later in the same year a non-trading company was incorporated in the United Kingdom known as A & R (UK) Ltd . The activities of the London agency were transferred to this company from January 1968. Alberts Bookshop Pty Ltd was acquired in Perth to take advantage of educational bookselling opportunities in that area.

The company developed its printing operations in Sydney and Melbourne despite the adverse effect on profits caused by Australian publishers using cheaper Asia based printers. A & R's Singapore company began publishing operations in 1969. In the same year the business of J. C. Stephens Pty Ltd was sold due to lack of profitability.

During this period the Board of Directors consisted of one director for each division - retailing, publishing and printing - and four outside directors with a solicitor, accountant, printing company executive and the Australian Managing Director of Collins.

In 1970 Collins sold its shareholding in A & R Ltd to Tjuringa Securities, an associate of Ipec Insurance Ltd. By 1971, A & R Ltd was wholly owned by Ipec Insurance under the chairmanship of Gordon Barton. Once again A & R underwent major reorganisation. After operating at a loss in 1972, the printing operation, Halstead Press, was sold to John Sands Pty Ltd. In publishing, an attempt was made to strengthen international operations based in London, Singapore and Manila and the brief association with Paul Hamlyn's Octopus Books venture was formed. New publishing offices were located at Cremorne Junction. In retailing, the shop at Castlereagh Street was sold and a new, modernised store opened at 109 Pitt Street.

At the time of the takeover A & R Ltd owned and controlled 22 subsidiary companies, eight of which were dormant. The majority had been acquired during the takeovers of the previous decade. Most of these were quickly sold as unprofitable including the H. E. C. Robinson map business and some retail outlets. The A & R Ltd Group now consisted of the parent company, A & R Holdings Ltd, which discontinued trading; A & R (Bookshops) Pty Ltd; A & R (Publishers) Pty Ltd; A & R (S.E. Asia) Pty Ltd; A & R (Wholesalers) Pty Ltd and A & R (UK) Ltd.

Once again staff changes abounded in all divisions and at all levels. All the previous directors, with the exception of Aubrey Cousins, had resigned or retired by the first half of 1971. By the following year, Cousins had also left.

In 1978, Ipec Insurance Ltd became known as Ipec Holdings Ltd still under the chairmanship of Gordon Barton. The following year the A & R bookshops were sold by Ipec to the Melbourne based publications distributor Gordon and Gotch (Australasia) Ltd. In 1989 A & R's publishing division was merged with Collins (Australia) owned by Rupert Murdoch.


  Summary  [Table of Contents]   Endnotes