Royal Reels: Gambling


The New South Wales postcard with the red 1d ‘Shield’ printed stamp was postmarked with a duplex SYDNEY/ NO 22/ 11 30 AM/ 98/ 43 cancel with the barred N.S.W. obliterator. It was addressed to Percival Crowle Esq, Wilby, Warialda (Figure 1).

The reverse showed a 4-storey business building for Geo. Robertson at 361 & 363 George St. Sydney, Booksellers to the University Association. The firm had additional addresses at Little Collins St., Melbourne, 17 Warwick Square, London E.C., Adelaide and Brisbane. There was a reception postmark for WARIALDA/ NO 25/ (1898)/ (N.S.W.) And the manuscript read: “22 Nov 98, Dear Sir, The Book mentioned by you is not in stock, neither can it be procured in town” and it was initialed for Geo. Robertson & Co. (Figure 2).

George Robertson, bookseller and publisher, was born on 5 July 1825 at Glasgow, Scotland, son of Rev. William Robertson, Congregational minister and city missioner, and his wife Sarah, née Stee. In 1829 the family moved to Dublin. Robertson left school at 12 and was apprenticed to William Curry, jun. & Co., booksellers; S. Mullen worked there later and the two became friends. Robertson joined Curry’s manager, James McGlashan, when he began his own bookshop in 1846.

In 1852, with no prospects in Ireland, Robertson migrated to Victoria in the Great Britain, taking a supply of books. He reached Melbourne with Mullen on 12 November; E.W. Cole arrived the same day. With not enough money for a cab to the city, Robertson sold a case of books on the wharf. He opened at 84 Russell Street but in March 1853 moved to larger premises in Collins Street East and Mullen became his manager. Ordering large stocks some six months in advance, Robertson met education orders, opened a library and supplied retailers throughout Australia and New Zealand. With generous credit he helped other booksellers to set up on their own. In 1857 Robertson sent Mullen to London to open a buying office but before he arrived Robertson had given the post to his own brother William. Mullen and Robertson never spoke to each other again.

With trade increasing, Robertson built a large warehouse in Elizabeth Street in 1860. He opened in Sydney and appointed a resident traveller in New Zealand. In 1862 he quit Sydney but restarted there in 1875 and opened at Adelaide and Brisbane soon after. In 1872 he concentrated on wholesaling and moved to a large warehouse in Little Collins Street. In 1883, at the suggestion of his friend David Syme he made the business a public company, giving shares to senior employees. An individualist, Robertson was soon irked by the board of directors; after four years he bought out the company and resumed control with his sons as partners.

Robertson issued elaborate literary, educational and medical catalogues and in 1861-91 distributed his Monthly Book Circular. He opposed the admission of American pirated editions of British novels. His first publication, a sermon by Rev. Macintosh Mackay, appeared in 1855. He built up an important publishing list and was the first in Australia to set up a separate publishing department. He issued over six hundred titles, including many textbooks and practical works, taking the risk on his principal books; his best publications were reprinted or distributed in Britain. He installed a lithographic plant and bindery and imported the stereotype plates of overseas books for which he had secured the local rights. Robertson imported books from the United States and also printed local editions of leading American writers.

In ill health, Robertson retired in 1890 and died on 28 March 1898 at the St Kilda mansion he had built in 1865; he was buried in the St Kilda cemetery and is commemorated by a tablet in All Saints’ Church, East St Kilda. He was survived by three sons and three daughters of his first wife, Lavinia Lydia, née Baxter (d.1879), whom he had married at St Paul’s, Melbourne, on 4 July 1857, and by his second wife, Nora Parsons, née Harding, whom he had married on 3 February 1881, and their two sons and two daughters.

Although he lost heavily on his shareholdings during the financial collapse of the 1890s, Robertson left an estate valued at £117,477. After his retirement, his second son, Charles Melbourne, took over the firm, but his sons, who had always deferred to him, were not good businessmen. Reserved and dour, Robertson never sought public honours but was generous to his employees and to charities. A picture of George Robertson is seen in Figure 3.

I acknowledge that the text and Figure 3 are both extracted from the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Categories: Advertising Covers