Celebrating 110 years of OUP in Australia

In 2018, Oxford University Press is celebrating 110 years in Australia. To give that some context, when the office was opened in 1908:

  • Women had just won the right to vote in Victoria
  • Canberra didn’t exist
  • The recorded Australian population was 4,232,278, around 20 million fewer people than today.

The Australian branch now employs over 100 staff and publishes a vast array of educational books and dictionaries. The original purpose of the office, however, was to make life easier for a travelling book salesman.

The salesman was E. R. Bartholomew (initials were very big in those days), who had been recruited into the book trade from the YMCA in 1890. E. R. worked for the publisher Hodder & Stoughton (now an imprint of Hachette), selling books throughout England, Wales and Ireland in a single ‘autumn journey’.

Hodder had their sights set on a more exotic market – Australia. This faraway land was usually avoided by English publishers, mainly because it took six weeks by ship to get there. Hodder decided to minimise this problem by sending their salesman to Australia for a six-month stint, every two years. They also partnered with another publisher to share the cost of the long sea voyage. The other publisher, of course, was Oxford University Press.

So that was that. Every two years E. R. Bartholomew would set out to Australia with his supply of Hodder and Oxford books. And at the start of each trip, his boss at Hodder would bid him farewell with the words, ‘Mind you get back in good time for the autumn journey.’ Bartholomew was almost constantly on the road like this for eighteen years, the final four working just for Oxford. By that time, business was going so well that OUP decided that he should make the trip to Australia every year. E. R., who must have been exhausted by now, drew the line at nearly the whole year away from home and family, and asked if he could move permanently to Australia. The new branch opened in Melbourne in 1908.

The location decided upon was an office in the Cathedral Buildings, next door to St Paul’s Cathedral on Flinders Street. This made sense, since OUP’s main business in 1908 was selling bibles. E. R. was joined in the office by his son, E. E., and they quickly became the best known representatives of British publishing in Australia. E. R.’s sales techniques were more formal than those of 2018: he always wore a top hat while selling his bibles, and insisted that he and his customer begin business by sharing a short prayer.

The only other employees were an office boy who unpacked the boxes of books, and E. R.’s sister, Elsie. OUP’s business manager Henry Frowde employed no women in England, and looked upon Elsie quite unkindly, referring to her as ‘our typewriter’.

By 1914, the Australian branch was publishing its own books. The first was probably the Australasian School Atlas, intended for schools in New South Wales. This was followed by works such as A Short History of Australia, the Oxford Book of Australian Verse and the succinctly titled Physiographic and Economic Geography of Australia. This last book was banned in Western Australia because the author mentioned for the first time in print that Australia was mainly desert (bad for immigration apparently). The branch also had the rights to sell the books of the Australian publisher Angus & Robertson, including the classics Snugglepot and Cuddlepie and The Man from Snowy River.

E. R. Bartholomew retired in 1922, and was succeeded as manager by E. E., who stayed on until 1949. Between father and son, they were in charge of OUP’s Australian operations for almost 60 years. They’d be happy to know that the Australian branch is still going strong in 2018 and still publishing school atlases.

References

Eyre, F. (1978). Oxford in Australia: 1890–1978. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2014). ‘Australian Historical Population Statistics, 2014’. Accessed from http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/3105.0.65.001

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