Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 4, 2017

2017 Rare Books Week #2

Ok, here’s a further update from my adventures at Rare Book Week.

Robert Hoddle by Agnes McDonald (Wikipedia Commons)

On Sunday I went to Gary Presland’s about ‘Reconstructing Melbourne’s Forgotten Landscapes’ … if you have a really, really good memory you might remember that I reviewed Presland’s book The Place for a Village but this session was more about the resources that he used for his research.  It turns out that the early surveyors are the heroes of this story: Robert Hoddle is famous as our first surveyor because he laid out the grid for Melbourne, but his field books from the 1830s and 1840s are valuable sources for reconstructing the way that Melbourne used to be.  Other useful resources include the rare geological maps, artworks, land survey department documents which are held in various collections including the State Library, the Royal Historical Society of Victoria and the Public Records Office.  Other surveyors from this period also include Robert Russell and Clement Hodgkinson, and since they were also artists ‘of some ability’, the drawings and paintings that they did are useful too.   Presland acknowledges that some field notes are boring but other contain a ‘little gem’ of one sort or another and that presumably makes wading through the boring ones worthwhile.

Presland was keen to make his audience understand just how skilled these early surveyors were, when they had only the most primitive of tools to use.  There was no such thing as a theodolite in those days: what they had was a very long metal chain, formed from 100 links each of which was a ‘chain’ long i.e. 22 yards, the length of a cricket pitch.  (They have one at Museum Victoria).  Yet the accuracy of these surveyors was quite remarkable.

If you remember another book that I’ve reviewed, Yarra, a Diverting History of Melbourne’s Murky River by Kristin Otto, you will know that the water features of Melbourne have changed considerably since settlement began.  Dry features have changed too: there is no Batman’s Hill any more, but the waterfall on the Yarra was an early water feature to be removed because of flooding, and there have been so many diversions since then that the river is actually 2 km shorter than it used to be.  It’s been straightened out at Fishermen’s Bend and at the Botanic Gardens, and now there is Herring Island (formerly Como Island after the Como  Estate) which was created by moving a bend in the river.  And modern maps include water features that weren’t there before as well: Moonee Ponds Creek wasn’t there in 1863, it didn’t flow into the Yarra then, but into ponds and it emptied into what was called Batman’s Swamp.  There were originally ephemeral streams all over Melbourne, including some in Prahran which flowed into Tea Tree Swamp.  Elgar’s Special Survey in Box Hill showed that there were underground streams which don’t show up on the original survey by Thomas Nutt, which hints that Elgar, who was a land developer, was up to some kind of skulduggery  so that he got more land than he should have.

Changes in how we view the environment mean that swamps are now known as wetlands, and we value them as breeding places for birds and other creatures. But until the 1930s, they were considered dangerous to health and breeding grounds for disease, and they were drained for industrial and domestic use.  It would be impossible to know where these wetlands were without the old records and paintings, such as the one of Batman’s Swamp west of Melbourne.

It’s much, much harder to reconstruct flora and fauna from the past because settlement obliterated almost all of it.  Historical sources are not detailed enough, because explorer’s journals tend to generalise trees as gums, oaks and banksias without saying which species they were.  All we can use is the historical information with all its deficiencies, remnant vegetation in situ, and knowledge of regional flora.

The artist Alissa Duke was there at all the sessions I went to,  recording events in her unique style.  In case you missed my previous post here is an example of what she does, from the Boswell and Johnson session on Saturday.

©Alissa Duke

So there she was at Gary Presland’s session and gosh, she actually had the greeting cards I’d ordered from her stuff online all parcelled up ready for the post, so I’ve got them already.  They’re even nicer than they look on the website because they’re good quality paper and the colours are vivid (without being garish.)

On Monday I went to two terrific sessions, but it’s not easy to convey how special they were without the slide shows that the speakers used.  The first one, called Literature for Everyman was at the Monash Uni Law Chambers in Lonsdale St, and the speaker was Stephen Herrin.  He took us through the development of books in England, from the era when most people signed documents with an X because they were illiterate, to the growth of universal literacy in an era when books were too expensive for ordinary people to buy.  His most vivid example was with Hamlet: it cost 6 pence to buy a print version of the play to read, but a working man could go to see the play six times for that amount of money.

Anonymous – Wikipedia Commons

In the era when novels cost about 31 shillings, that was a week’s pay for a workman.  A clergyman earning ten pounds per annum sometimes needed to buy religious books that cost three weeks pay.   So chapbooks emerged: short stories or serials with engravings or illustrations, printed on a broadsheet or as a pamphlet that could be folded to make a book, and sold for a penny.  Some macabre broadsheets were sold at executions and since there were so many public executions in those days, it could be quite profitable.

By Viles, Edward – Wikipedia Commons

Women’s stories were published in chapbooks, and some did quite well out of it, but generally women in this era needed some kind of luck – in the form of a husband in the publishing industry or membership of a religious society which subsidised worthy and didactic alternatives to the scandalous Penny Horribles an Penny Dreadfuls with their stories of murders and smugglers.

The length of some stories of this era is explained by the fact that they were serials – ones like the Mysteries of London (1845-8) ended up being over 2000 pages long because each episode picked up from where the previous episode left off, and then ended on a cliffhanger.  Were they hack writers?  It’s hard to say because their writing was circumscribed by the form and they didn’t have the opportunity to develop characters like novelists did.

There was a special genre called Railway Lit: it was much easier to read a book on a train that on a coach so along came yellow backed books with eye-catching covers, sometimes cheap editions of authors like Trollope but others just trashy stuff like airport novels today.

This was such a terrific session, I really enjoyed it.

After a brief wander round in DJs to buy a picture frame, it was off to hear Dr Jonathan Burdon AM talk about silk maps and how they were used by downed pilots in WW2 for escape and evasion.  Just as you might have seen in the film The Great Escape starring Steve McQueen, escape from a POW camp was a dangerous enterprise, which usually resulted in execution if recaptured.  But it was a soldier’s duty to try to escape, partly to get back into the fight against the enemy, but also to tie up the enemy’s resources.  Well, although Dunkirk was a wonderful rescue of over 330,000 men, there were 40,ooo British and 48,000 French soldiers left behind and they ‘went into the bag’ as it was called.  Amazingly in one of the stalags they set up a print room to make maps for planned escapes, but back in England M19 realised that they could save lives if pilots were routinely issued with silk maps for escape and evasion.  Clayton Hutton is the hero of this story, and if you can get hold of it, you can read all about the project in M19, Escape and Evasion, by Foot and Langley.

Maps had to be thin, lightweight, durable, have stable colour, be crease resistant and silent when opened.  They had to be unnoticeable when tucked into clothing as well. Silk was used in the first place but of course it ran out before long and then they used rayon.  The Brits made over a million of them, and the US made 3 million for their air force and 2 million for their navy.  They were given to secret agents and also smuggled into POW camps inside chess pieces, in decks of cards and even Monopoly boards!  One thing though: the Red Cross was never used to smuggle the maps in, because if the Germans had got wind of that, then they would have shut down delivery of the Red Cross parcels that meant so much to the POWS.  They were smuggled in ‘privately’.

There were plenty of these maps on display and they really are stunning artefacts, but the hit of the night was a button that concealed the all important compass!

Are they still is use?  if they are, no one is telling, but they were used during the Cold War, the Vietnam War and in the Balkans…

You can read more about silk maps at the Australian War Memorial Website, and here you can see one that was repurposed as a dress after the war when material was still rationed in Britain.

I have more events to go to this week and will do my best to report on those too.  In the meantime, I am in the middle of reading Philip McLaren’s There’ll Be New Dreams for Indigenous Literature Week and I am loving it!

If you’re interested, have a look at the  Rare Books Week program and try to get to some of the events if you can.  There are probably still some vacancies at some of them.


  1. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.


  2. Sounds such a fascinating event Lisa. I was interested in Presland’s comment on the skill of the surveyors, and also on how some field notes can be boring. I often think about researchers and how much dross they often have to wade through to get the gold. They have to be meticulous about their records, and so patient.

    I’m travelling from tomorrow evening, so my visits might be more sporadic than usual over the next month. (BTW I’ve scheduled my ILW review for 6 July – bring to space some posts to keep the blog alive!)


    • Yes, we’re the lucky recipients of all that research, we only have to read the interesting bits:)
      I’m looking forward to your review, can’t wait to see what it’s going to be!
      Bon voyage!


  3. Sounds wonderful Lisa and your commentary so interesting.


    • Honestly, Fay, it’s been the best Litfest I’ve been to, such knowledgeable presenters and such interesting topics. I can’t get over the fact that it’s all free, too, thanks to sponsors like Kay Craddock. How lucky we are here in Melbourne!


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