Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 12, 2019

Rare Book Week 2019: Legal Luminaries and their Libraries

Our last event for Rare Book Week was held today at the Victorian Supreme Court library.  The train from Sandringham was running, the rain gods spared us, and the library (as you’d expect, given the ubiquitous lawyers in Melbourne’s legal precinct), was conveniently close to nice places for lunch.

Victorian Supreme Court exterior (Wikipedia)

The building is both beautiful and suitably impressive. Built between 1874 and 1884, in Renaissance Revival style and faced in Tasmanian bluestone, the building consists of a square enclosing a circular courtyard, with the eight courts within the wings.  I have been in one of these courts when I was on a jury, and a very sombre space it is indeed.

Supreme Court Library reading room (see attribution below)

The Supreme Court Library is underneath the dome.  It’s a stunning room, with an decagonal reading room table similar to the one in the State Library reading room, with the library stacks in recesses leading off the side walls.  Between the wings there are portraits of assorted legal big wigs most of whom appeared to be long dead and gone — with the exception of the rather incongruous one of the first female supreme court judge, the Honourable Marilyn Warren AC.  (Incongruous, I hasten to say, not because she’s a woman, but because of the modern style of painting, and the others are all bewigged and robed in red). The other exceptions were a fine portrait of the first Chief Librarian, John Schutt (whose name *smacks forehead* I forgot to note) and one of William Barak (1824-1903), included because he was a prominent figure in the struggle for Aboriginal rights and justice.  As the factsheet tells us:

… the portrait holds pride of place among the Court’s past and present Chief Justices — a fitting tribute to a man considered as the last Chief of the Yarra Yarra tribe.

Victorian Coat of Arms (Wikipedia*)

The dome and balcony (Photo: The Spouse)

I have consulted my copy of How to Read Buildings, a Crash Course in Architecture by Carol Davidson Cragoe (2008) but I can’t find the proper term for round windows in a dome, but these ones are painted glass.  We were told that (since the building predates Federation) the coats of arms are not the Australian one [with its IMO dopey kangaroo and emu] but the Victorian coat of arms, which we could not really see so high up but from below looked suitably dignified.  I now regret Googling to see what it actually looks like. If we ever get round to having a republic, and a nice new flag, perhaps we could then turn our attention to our soppy coats of arms.  I am all for cherishing history and all that but really, someone was having a laugh at colonial pretensions when these coats of arms were designed.

Yes, I digress…

On display there were also exhibits of interest to feminists everywhere.  It is 50 years since the landmark 1969 Menhennit ruling on the legality of abortion in Victoria, which was the first legal precedent with regard to abortion law anywhere in Australia.  The ruling in R v  Davidson stated that abortion might be lawful if necessary to protect the physical or mental health of the woman. The cabinet contained Justice Menhennit’s notebook from the trial, and reactions to it from the time.

BTW that’s not Justice Menhennit in the portrait, that’s Sir Henry Arthur Winneke who was a Chief Justice of Victoria and the 21st Governor of Victoria from 1974 to 1982.  He presided in some notable cases too.

Justice Joanne Cameron was the first speaker, and she spoke about how she owes her love of the American poet Emily Dickinson to a school librarian.  If you saw the recent film and/or have read Dickenson’s poetry, this was familiar territory, but she shared with us ‘I Heard a Fly Buzz’ and ‘I Could Not Stop For Death’ as examples of Dickenson’s innovative style which was ‘a world away’ from ‘the heaving bodices of Wuthering Heights’ and the US Civil War poetry of Walt Whitman.

Tim McFarlane (from McFarlane Legal, a firm that specialises in mediation) was next to speak, and charmed us immediately by confessing that he was not just a bibliophile but also a bibliomaniac and a sore trial to his family because of the books all over the house. He likened his collection to the Golden Days Radio station playlist, with a bit of everything: biographies and autobiographies, books about trains and explorers, legal histories and so on.  He started off by showing us a prized copy of Biggles, a collection which he says he started as an inducement to an offspring who was a reluctant reader.  The tales of derring-do were a great success, and his son is now a keen reader as well.

McFarlane became fascinated by St Thomas More since he was nine years old.  (Yes, St Thomas More as in A Man for All Seasons, which many of us read at school and also saw as a film.)  Someone gave him a copy of St Thomas More by Elizabeth Ince, and he now has 50 books about him including a rare 1840 edition by W. Job Walter.  (He confessed to not having read them all, but plans to do so in retirement).  His fascination with More extends to having visited the cell in the Tower of London from which More was executed, not an easy excursion to arrange because it’s in a part of the Tower not open to the public.

Voss (1957), dust jacket designed by Sidney Nolan

The next slide was of a first edition of Patrick White’s Voss. Yes! McFarlane also collects first editions of Miles Franklin winners, just like I do, only *pout* he’s got all of them, even the elusive Dal Steven’s Horse of Air which I could only read as a tatty old paperback on loan from a regional library. Apparently he belongs to an all-male book club, (whose members have threatened to expel him if he ‘outs them’) and (like my optometrist, who also belongs to an all-male book club) they take turns to choose a book.  Many of their choices have been MF winners, and he has a high opinion of Oz Lit.  (Well, we bonded straight away, of course!)  BTW he likes the art work on the first editions because they are works of art in themselves.  True, though not recently, alas.

Our last speaker was the Chief Librarian, Laurie Atkinson, who told us all about the Classics Collection.  These books were primarily donated by Sir Redmond Barry and are a gentleman’s collection imported from London.  With great ceremony a selection of these were brought downstairs in a red velvet bag, and we were treated to a slide show of special pages from

  • Leaves from the journal Our Life in the Highlands, which was a gift from Queen Vic herself and suitably inscribed in her own hand.  Apparently she was persuaded to publish these journals of her travels in Scotland, England and Ireland and her yachting trips, and she kindly distributed them widely including to our Supreme Court Library.  Yes, there are scholarly books about how heavily edited these journals were, but hey! it doesn’t take much imagination to guess that any negative opinions about the Scots or the Irish would have been very promptly excised, eh?
  • Mill’s Principles of Political Economy. This, unlike most of the books in the Classics Collection, shows signs of being very well read.  Make of that what you will!
  • Byron’s Poetical Works, complete with the bookseller’s stamp: it’s from Guillaime’s, a Colonial Bookseller in London.
  • Volume 1 of the Complete Works of Voltaire – a gorgeous edition with #envy beautiful illustrations.
  • A Handbook to England’s Cathedrals, a sort of travel companion, with the library’s Rules glued inside the front cover.  (You can see an example of this in my slide show below). Ms Atkinson had us all laughing when she said that the first thing librarians do when they get a new book is to ‘mutilate it’ with stamps, and accession numbers, and yes, rules.  (Which apply, BTW only to men, since it was assumed that only men would be using the books.  Women can do whatever they like with them!)
  • The Trial of Queen Caroline 1820 by Sir George Hayter.  It wasn’t actually a ‘trial’, it was a parliamentary debate about whether George IV could divorce her or not. (He was not the mad one, that was George III). Unlike most of the books in the Classic Collection, this one is actually a law book.  And so was the next one, a more sobering choice:
  • The Trial of German Major War Criminals 1945, which is a collection of speeches from the Chief Prosecutors.

The last book was a bound catalogue of the Supreme Court Library.  It contains a list of all the books (of course) but also a list of all members of the legal profession, including where they came from, e.g. from the Inns of Court in London.  I wonder if family historians know about this treasure trove of information?

We were then invited to take a look at the Classic Collection, up a spiral staircase on the first floor.

Image credits:



  1. Lovely building. Almost as impressive as the Library of Congress in Washington. I visited the city (during a road trip New York – Miami with friends who were moving house there) and was persuaded by the librarian friend to go into the Library. It’s magnificent – a cathedral to books. Thanks for this series of posts, Lisa; I’ve enjoyed all of them so far. How do you find the time/energy to post so often?! All of this while also hosting the Indigenous Lit week…wow.


    • *chuckle* Funny you should mention that, Simon, I am utterly exhausted, and am going to spend the whole day tomorrow loafing in bed with a book. (There’s a whole swathe of exercises I’m supposed to do for my whiplash injury and I haven’t been doing them the last three days so I really must get back on track or I’ll be crippled by it again).


  2. I have enjoyed these posts, Lisa. I salivate over all the rare books in the British Library when I go there…..


  3. How marvelous! I am envious!


    • When you come to Melbourne for a holiday, I’ll take you on a guided tour if you like. We could go to the Book of the World exhibition at the newly-renovated SLV and then on a tour of this library, it’s open to the public (subject to security) and they have guided tours:)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Yes! Absolutely! That would be heaven!


    • We could probably squeeze in a nice lunch somewhere as well:)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Wonderful post Lisa.


    • Thanks, Kate, I’ve had a great time this week so it’s nice to share it this way:)


  6. What a magnificent building. Of course i now have to go find out what that coat of arms looks like that you dislike so much – I have the same reaction to national anthems, surely the most dreary selection of ‘music’ ever.


  7. I love this! Reading rooms are my favorite and this one is spectacular! Thanks for sharing.


    • Thanks Robyn! If you ever come to Melbourne, I will also show you our famous State Library Reading Room:)

      Liked by 1 person

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