Andrew Bent’s seven almanacs, published annually from 1824 to 1830, collectively comprise some of his most significant printing. Their survival rate has in general been better than that of his newspapers and other pamphlets. While all early Van Diemen’s Land almanacs are greatly prized by collectors, Bent’s have always taken pride of place because they are the earliest and copies are so rare. Several very determined collectors fell short of obtaining the full set they so obviously desired. Most of the surviving copies are now held in Australian institutional collections, with a few overseas or in private hands.
It has been a privilege and a joy to have been able to examine many of these volumes. Many of them retain their original covers, sometimes inside a later rebinding. While some are damaged or faded, they still exert a charm. Ownership inscriptions read like a who’s who of early Hobart Town society and annotations provide interesting glimpses into the way the volumes were used, and social life in Van Diemen’s Land in the 1820s.
In this post, written with the general reader rather than the specialist bibliographer in mind, I will focus on Bent’s first two almanacs, those for 1824 and 1825.
1824: Van Diemen’s Land Pocket Almanack
Copies of George Howe’s New South Wales Pocket Almanack had been sold by Andrew Bent in Hobart from at least 1818. Bent must have been well aware of the usefulness of such a publication and yearned to produce a local version, but his tiny press and meagre supply of antiquated type made it impossible. Although he managed to print a surprising number of pamphlets during this early period, only two of the thirteen surviving examples printed prior to 1824 exceed 24 pages. Even Michael Howe only had 36 tiny pages. In mid-1823 Bent obtained two new presses and his first serious supply of modern type. At last able to realize his dream, in September he notified his intention of publishing an almanac.
A new Almanack, calculated for the meridian of this Island, under the sanction of Government, will, it is expected, make its appearance in Van Diemen’s Land next year. If published, it will contain the Civil and Military Departments, with a Directory, comprising an Alphabetical List of the names, residences, and professions of the most respectable persons residing on the Island (HTG 13 Sep 1823)
The words ‘if published’ seem to indicate some uncertainty about whether the project would proceed. Although he had probably been collecting material together for some time, the actual printing depended on the completion of his new printing office, which was still under construction. By late November he had moved in and the first pages of the almanac had been struck off.
We have it now in our power to state, that a New Almanack will make its appearance in this Island on New Year’s Day ; one sheet having been already put to press.-As it may appear strange to some of our Readers why such a publication was not printed in Van Diemen’s Land ere this, it would not perhaps be improper here to mention the cause, namely, a want of materials in our typographical department, which was only a week or two since completely fitted up, so as to enable us to undertake the execution of a work of this sort to any kind of perfection. (HTG 29 Nov 1823)
Publication was announced on 2 January 1824:
This advertisement shows how useful the almanac must have been, especially to new settlers, although Bent’s hoped-for town directory was not in the end included. The informative section on colonial gardening commenced in this volume was continued, incorporating some modifications, every year until the final almanac in 1830. The main contributors to this section appear to have been Coal River settler James Gordon (who annotated his own copy of the 1828 almanac with copious horticultural notes and obviously had a very productive garden and orchard) and a gardener by the name of J. W. Scott. In 1837 Scott, perhaps jealous of relative newcomer Daniel Bunce who had just published a book on colonial gardening, stated ‘the Colonial Almanack was written by James Gordon, Esq, from theory, and by Scott [presumably meaning himself] from practice of twenty years in the Colony—and as a proof, apply to Mr. Bent, Printer.’ (Colonial Times 7 Apr 1837) Perhaps Bent’s good friend Bartholomew Broughton contributed to the copious notes on viticulture.
Bent’s preface is worth quoting in full, as it describes the challenging circumstances under which the book was produced, reveals the printer’s naïve pride in his little work and his gratitude to those who had assisted him. The last weeks of 1823 must have seen a frantic pace of work, especially as the Gazette was undergoing modifications and would appear substantially enlarged in size and scope from the beginning of 1824.
ADVERTISEMENT. The Compiler, in publishing the first Almanack that has been yet printed in Van Diemen’s Land, conceives he may be allowed to claim the indulgent consideration of his Readers.
The difficulties in the first attempt of any new work are numerous; and it must be reasonably admitted that some must have been experienced in this. The compiler has nevertheless taken every means to make it as perfect as possible, though he does not presume to flatter himself that it is entirely free from imperfections;–But, as this publication will in all probability appear before the Public next year with many improvements made in it from the suggestion of friends, whose correspondence has already been kindly promised, the Compiler trusts that the severity of criticism will be somewhat softened; and the more so, when it is considered that it has this year been unavoidably compiled and printed chiefly in those hours which he has been able to snatch from the perplex duties of a laborious profession.
It is however a pleasure for him to declare his obligations individually to each of the Gentlemen who have favored him with their assistance in the completion of the work.—And, without any desire of boasting, either in the collection or arrangement of the matter, yet in the typographical execution of it, the Compiler feels confident he may claim a superiority over every other little work hitherto issued from the Derwent Press; and in the Public liberality he has reason to hope it will meet with that approbation he has endeavoured to make it deserve. Should it however fail in meeting that from a FEW, it is hoped it will be found useful to MANY; and with that expectation the Compiler respectfully sends forth into the world, for 1824, the Van Diemen’s Land Almanack.
Gazette Office, Hobart Town, Jan. 1, 1824
The finished volume of 96 pages was small enough to fit in a pocket. The title page was attractively laid out, showing off the printer’s newly acquired expanded range of type, and some pages have decorative ornamentation.
Most copies appear to have been issued in plain blue covers, some stiffened, with a cream back strip, although examples of marbled paper bindings also survive. On 22 January, the Sydney Gazette, announcing the arrival of copies for sale there, opined that they were well worth the small price of one dollar. Reflecting the mixed currency in use at the time, copies were later advertised for five shillings.
Of the 16 copies I have traced (see bibliography for details) many bear the inscriptions of well-known Van Diemen’s Land identities. The most notable is Lady Jane Franklin whose signature (dated 1837) appears in a copy later acquired by D. S. Mitchell. This volume was probably among the books and papers presented to the Franklins by Bent himself soon after their arrival in Hobart. An 1828 almanac in the same collection is also inscribed ‘Jane Franklin.’ Other notable early owners of Bent’s first almanac were Edward Abbott, pilot James Kelly, Colonial Surgeon James Scott (annotated copy), surveyor Thomas Scott, solicitor Robert Pitcairn, and Rev. Ralph Mansfield. John Linney, the original owner of the Allport copy, must have bought it hot off the press as he signed it on 1 January 1824. He took the volume with him when he left for London on 16 May of that year, annotating it with details of the voyage.
Equally well-traveled was a volume presented to the Royal Society of Tasmania by John Abbott, who, as his inscription reveals, ‘took it to England in 1825 and it came out in 1849.’
There is not enough space here for a detailed analysis of prices. In 1956 Dr. Crowther told how Bent almanacs could once be obtained on the black market in Hobart for a gold sovereign, although this amount was considerably more than was needed to secure one printed by Melville or Ross (Biblionews Sep. 1956). Crowther, as he told Ferguson, paid £5 for his own copy of the Van Diemen’s Land Almanack purchased from London dealer Francis Edwards around 1930. He did well. Ferguson’s bibliography notes that in 1929 a Museum Bookstore catalogue listed a copy for five times that amount. At the famous Clifford Craig sale in 1975 a Bent 1824, rebound but preserving its original blue wrappers, sold for $480. Subsequent sales (which are of course very infrequent) reported in Australian Book Auction Records were $320 (1988/9) and $2,420 (1992/3). Wilson (Collecting Old Tasmanian Books, p. 86) estimates that a good copy would sell today for around $7,500.
1825: The Tasmanian Almanack
By October 1824 Bent’s thoughts were turning towards the next almanac. He encouraged contributions from the public, seeking both practical information and, perhaps influenced by his then editor of the Gazette, Evan Henry Thomas, original poetry. He obviously had no plans at this point, or even as late as 17 December, to change the title to the Tasmanian Almanack.
How anybody could possibly have a use for TEN almanacs boggles the mind. I will return to the poem in due course.
On 19 November Bent found it necessary to chivvy the dilatory government departments to hand in their information ‘as those Pages which are devoted to the Civil Establishment of the Colony must positively go to Press on Monday next.’ A month later, with time now pressing, it was the turn of local business people the publisher begging ‘to receive the most accurate Information [for the directory] from all the Parties alluded to, immediately.’
Bent was now at the height of his powers as a practical printer and at the peak of his business success. The arrival of yet another new printing press in October 1824 – a state of the art Columbian iron press no less – allowed him to move to a considerably larger format, although there were slightly fewer pages than the previous year. He had also received a further supply of ‘various Founts of elegant Type’ which were all exuberantly displayed on the title page and throughout the work. The price was unchanged from the previous year – one dollar, although in late January, with only a few copies left, a special deal offered the 1824 and 1825 volumes together for seven shillings and sixpence. Bent sent a complimentary copy to Robert Howe who commented favourably in the Sydney Gazette: ‘On looking into it we find that it contains a good deal of information, and will be found of great use as a book of reference for many matters – as such we recommend it.’
Bent, always inclined to draw attention to his innovative ideas, and to how much money he had to spend to implement them, informed prospective customers of the ‘expensive copper plate’ purchased specially so that a ‘beautiful copperplate illustration’ of the telegraphic signals could be included. The engraving was done by Thomas Bock. Although much simpler than the illustrations Bock later provided for the almanacs of James Ross, this folded plate was the first book illustration in Tasmania. Unfortunately in several surviving copies it is either damaged or missing altogether.
Bent’s long wished for directory also appeared in this almanac – another Tasmanian first. Its 149 names paint a fascinating picture of the social fabric of Hobart Town in 1825, with an amazing variety of trades and occupations represented. Prominent were Government officials and publicans – twenty-seven of these although only one solitary shop selling spruce and ginger beer. Merchants, shop keepers, the building trades and lawyers were also well represented. Lawyers, with their clerks, numbered fourteen altogether including those who were government appointees. Also listed were humble washerwomen and manglers, milliners, dressmakers and straw bonnet makers. There was a parchment and glue manufacturer, two botanists, a shorthand writer (Thomas), a portrait painter and engraver, no less than three watchmakers, nine butchers (although only one fisherman), four auctioneers, midwives, physicians, schoolmasters, engineers and shoemakers, a stonemason, a cutler, a wheelwright, a musician, a hairdresser and even a pianoforte maker (Mr. J. W. Stapleton of Elizabeth Street.)
The 1824 almanac had been published ‘under the sanction and patronage’ of then Lieutenant Governor Sorell. The 1825 volume was the first and last to make the same statement about Arthur. Bent and Arthur were already at loggerheads over the proprietorship of the Gazette. Arthur had strenuously opposed Bent’s audacious move to free his newspaper from government control, but was thwarted by decisions made in Sydney when Bent appealed to Governor-in-Chief Sir Thomas Brisbane. Ignoring, for the time being, the insulting gibberish printed in Bent’s paper of 8 October, dubbing him a ‘Gideonite of tyranny,’ Arthur concentrated instead on establishing another newspaper – not an easy task in Hobart in 1824. We probably have to conclude that Arthur did consent to the form of words used on the title page. Perhaps he did not wish to appear churlish by withholding his support from what was an obviously praiseworthy and useful publication. The compiler and publisher was, after all, still Government Printer, even if living on borrowed time. In November there had been a brief exchange of correspondence between Bent and Arthur on the subject of the almanac. It is not clear exactly what Bent asked. We only have access to a rather stiff reply, recorded in the Private Secretary’s letter book. ‘… the Lieut Govr does not wish his name to be recorded in the Van Diemen’s Land Almanack for next year otherwise than is connected with his official appointment.’ The entry is crossed through so perhaps this note was never sent.
Although Bent himself must have been largely responsible for the compilation and arrangement of the 1825 almanac, Evan Henry Thomas, the Gazette editor, may well have contributed to its design, and the correction and arrangement of its contents and thus to the generally high standard achieved in this volume. The idea for a new year’s poem certainly would have emanated from this vain young man, who rather fancied himself as a litterateur and whose poetry had already featured in the Gazette. Perhaps no readers were tempted by the prize of ten almanacs, or perhaps that offer was just a hoax. Either way, the ‘Original Stanzas’ which adorned page 8 of the almanac, while anonymous, bear all the hallmarks of Thomas’s own inimitable style. The poem has some interest as an early piece of Tasmanian verse and to the best of my knowledge, has not been noted elsewhere. The Gazette printed a different poem, purportedly an original work by ‘D’ but actually by the well-known English poet Cowper!
It was probably the puffed-up Thomas himself who arranged for his own name to appear, not with his employer Bent and the assistant printers at the Gazette Office, but in a far more exalted position under the Judicial Department. As ‘Stenographist to the Hobart Town Gazette’ Evan Henry Thomas ESQUIRE kept company with the Chief Justice, the Attorney-General and officials of the Supreme Court. The unblushing effrontery of ‘this dealer in pot-hooks and hangers’ (and mercenary ally of Bent to boot) did not escape notice, especially in George Terry Howe’s new Launceston newspaper, the Tasmanian. (read article)
In a copy once belonging to Sir William Dixson, but with no early ownership inscription, somebody has substituted the word ‘Spooney’ (meaning a foolish sentimental person) for ‘Stenographist’. I believe, from the handwriting and from other markings on the same page which look very much like printer’s mark-ups, that the person who so clearly had the measure of Thomas, although perhaps only after he had dispensed with his services, was Andrew Bent himself. He seemed to have a pretty poor opinion of one of the law clerks as well, although I have been unable to identify the individual designated ‘Jerry Sneak.’
Early owners of the 1825 Tasmanian Almanack whose volumes survive include Edward Abbott, Joshua Fergusson, James Belbin, solicitor Thomas Young, Thomas Anstey and Ralph Mansfield. Another volume is inscribed ‘John Allen late assigned servant of Mr Curling [now?] overseer of the Road[?] Gang’. Anstey’s copy is one of several Bent almanacs owned by the prominent Oatlands land owner, magistrate and member of the Legislative Council who arrived in Van Diemen’s Land with his family in 1823. Anstey’s almanacs are now in the Royal Society collection. In every volume he has made detailed daily weather notes in the calendar section. I grew up in Oatlands and remember it as a cold place. It is interesting to note that Anstey records frosts in the middle of March, one of which damaged his potato crop.
A priceless moment
Out of all the Bent almanacs I have examined, my favourite would have to be the other copy of 1825 in the Royal Society collection in Hobart. This volume, presented to the society in 1854, has the name ‘J. Gresley’ inscribed on its still bright yellow cover.
I had no idea who this man was, so did not get very excited until I looked inside the volume. There, recorded on the flyleaf, was an extraordinary provenance. The inscription is self-explanatory, and that moment, for me, was absolutely priceless!
This information is critical to appreciating the importance of the work of Andrew Bent in colonial Australia.