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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Robertson, George (1825–1898)

by J. P. Holroyd

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

George Robertson (1825-1898), by unknown photographer

George Robertson (1825-1898), by unknown photographer

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H98.73/14

George Robertson (1825-1898), 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. They 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. His authors included James Bonwick, A. L. Gordon, Henry Kendall, W. E. Hearn, Marcus Clarke, Rolf Boldrewood (T. A. Browne), G. G. McCrae and Brunton Stephens. 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. He was the only bookseller to have his name as a distributor on the title-page of Raffaello Carboni's The Eureka Stockade (1855). He sponsored a biography of C. J. Don and brought out a local edition of the novel by the Irish convict J. B. O'Reilly.

In ill health, Robertson retired in 1890 and died on 23 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. An excellent mentor, at various times he employed such notable men as W. Dymock, David Angus, George Robertson (1860-1933), F. W. Preece, and G. B. Philip. The rival firms established by Robertson and Mullen were merged in 1921.

Select Bibliography

  • Notices of the Book & Stationery Warehouse … Erected for George Robertson (Melb, 1860)
  • Correspondence Between Associated Booksellers of Australia and New Zealand and the Publishers' Association of Great Britain and Ireland, 1924-5 (Syd, 1926)
  • J. Holroyd, George Robertson of Melbourne (Melb, 1968)
  • L. Slade, ‘Melbourne's early booksellers’, Victorian Historical Magazine, 15 (1935)
  • Age (Melbourne), 24 Mar 1898
  • Argus (Melbourne), 24 Mar 1898.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

J. P. Holroyd, 'Robertson, George (1825–1898)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 27 September 2020.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

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