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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Taylor, Alfred Joseph (1849–1921)

by Michael Roe

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

Alfred Joseph Taylor (1849-1921), librarian and publicist, was born on 24 March 1849 in Hobart Town, son of Thomas Joseph Taylor and his wife Emma. His father, son of Rev. Thomas Taylor, Witney, Oxfordshire, England, was transported from Sydney in 1842 under a life sentence for forgery; in 1849 he was a schoolteacher but from 1853 served as under-keeper at the New Norfolk Hospital for the Insane, and died in 1881 aged 69. In New Norfolk as a child Alfred suffered an accident which crippled him for life. He received little formal education but enthusiasm for books won him a post as librarian at New Norfolk in his teens. In January 1874 he became librarian of the Tasmanian Public Library which had been constituted in 1870. The appointment caused some stir, but he held it until his death.

The extreme financial stringency imposed on the library made any great success impossible, but Taylor gave of his best. A grant from Andrew Carnegie prompted the transfer of the library to a new building on the corner of Argyle and Davey streets in 1907, and a lending section then began operations. He used the new library as a centre for lectures and entertainments. 'Despite a forbidding exterior Taylor was a soft-hearted man', Edmund Morris Miller remembered; 'but in his control of the library he was adamant'. As early as the 1880s he had aroused hostility by insistence on determining the library's opening hours and by refusing to house an ultra-Protestant journal; but bigger controversies developed in 1914 when, as an opponent of capital punishment, he criticized the Supreme Court for sentencing J. H. Belbin to death and fought for his reprieve. The library trustees disapproved and instructed him not to express opinion on public issues. A compromise was reached but in July 1915 Taylor again commented on a court decision, to the anger of most trustees. Debate on both occasions concentrated on the right of civil servants to engage in public controversy. Labor politicians (in the second case the Labor government) supported him with considerable vehemence and helped him win out.

Free, compulsory and secular primary education; technical training; dispensary services; land redistribution; wider franchise, workers' organization and self-betterment through trade unions; sexual purity: all these causes received support from Taylor's tongue and pen. He anchored them in a Spencerian-cum-Unitarian faith that promised no eternity for individual personality, but irrepressible betterment of all human kind. Moncure Conway, the American deist, included Taylor among 'that circle of aspiring spirits in Hobart' congenial to himself. A. I. Clark and R. M. Johnston were others of 'that circle'.

Science, especially medical science, was Taylor's other great interest. He claimed to have cured himself of consumption by inhaling sulphur fumes and to have anticipated the germ theory of disease. He wrote of Tasmanian fauna, flora and Aboriginals, and built up an impressive museum at his home, 28 D'Arcy Street. The Tasmanian School Journal, which he edited and largely wrote in 1901-03, presented these interests in their most attractive light; when more ambitious, he sometimes showed the arrogance and naivety of a self-made scholar. He early visited, publicized and invested in silver-mining on the west coast, only to lose heavily in the Van Diemen's Land Bank smash in 1891.

On 31 December 1874 at Hobart Taylor married Mary Anne Forde (d.1920); their only child was stillborn in 1875. Taylor travelled overseas in 1905 and suffered ill health from 1919. He died of heart disease on 9 October 1921, leaving an estate valued for probate at £3770.

Select Bibliography

  • M. D. Conway, My Pilgrimage (Lond, 1906)
  • Library Opinion, 2 (1954)
  • Tasmanian News, 21 July 1893
  • Mercury (Hobart), 10-12 Oct 1921
  • Illustrated Tasmanian Mail, 13 Oct 1921
  • Tasmanian Public Library, scrapbook (State Library of Tasmania).

Citation details

Michael Roe, 'Taylor, Alfred Joseph (1849–1921)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 27 October 2020.

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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