Bookbinding (2)

Rivals and Arrivals

The eighteen thirties saw an expansion of bookbinding activity in Van Diemen’s Land and the arrival of at least two skilled free workmen, GEORGE HOWARD and GEORGE ROLWEGAN. New entrepreneurs entered the field and Andrew Bent returned to it. Bookbinders, both bond and free, moved around and jostled for position. The printers advertised aggressively for custom and for obviously scarce workmen. Bookbinding for the colonial departments was put up for tender. The printers squabbled with each other and with their servants over assignments. By February 1834 there were, according to the Colonist, four book binding establishments in Hobart, and the following year HENRY DOWLING established another at Launceston.

In May 1831, soon after becoming free by servitude, ROBERT DRYSDALE (whose early career was described in Part 1) advertised a bookbinding and book repair service. Orders could be left at Mr. John Philip Deane’s, Elizabeth-street. There were no follow-up advertisements, so the success of this initiative remains unclear.

James Wood and Andrew Bent

It is possible that Drysdale went to work for JAMES WOOD, who the following month advertised ‘bookbinding in all its branches’ almost as an afterthought to a long list of goods recently landed for his store in Liverpool Street. Wood was a former Clerk of the Supreme Court. He and his wife had imported a lithographic press in 1829. Later, after moving to Launceston, Wood became well known as the publisher of Woods Almanack and Royal Kalendar. A more lavish advertisement for bookbinding appeared on 15 June 1832.

Hobart Town Courier 15 June 1832

Just three weeks later Andrew Bent advertised in very similar vein, as he reopened his printing business with newly imported and expensive equipment, the arrival of which had, as was so often the case, been subject to significant delay. Competition was hotting up.

The Colonist 6 July 1832
The Colonist 6 July 1832

Bent continued to advertise bookbinding throughout the remainder of 1832 and 1833, but it was fairly low key and it is not known who he employed up until December 1833 when he had a run of luck.

George Howard (Free bookbinder)

According to his obituary, Howard, the son of an Essex physician, arrived in Hobart at the age of twenty-one (so probably sometime in 1832) and his first job was in the Government Printing Office. This may have been so, but although he was obviously working for Dr. Ross by July 1834, there is evidence that he worked for both Wood and Bent before then. He may well have been with Wood from the time of his arrival.

On 26 November 1833, Howard, ‘late of Mr. Wood’s’ advised that he had made new arrangements with Mr. Bent to carry on his trade at his printing office.

Bookbinding of every description; blotting, card, cigar, and miniature cases; also, portfolios, treasury boxes, and draftboards, made to any size or pattern; torn charts, or leaves of books, neatly repaired; charts, &c, lined with canvas, and old books furbished.

It is not clear what might have induced Howard to move, or exactly what his arrangements with Bent were. Within a fortnight Bent had also secured the services of a recently arrived and probably highly skilled convict bookbinder.

Ernest Elsnor (Convict)

Elsnor, thirty-one, was a Polish born Londoner under a seven year sentence. His Old Bailey trial suggests he was unlucky to have been transported. He was convicted of stealing money left in the trousers of his wife’s lover when that gentleman, surprised by the irate husband threatening murder, attempted to flee without them. Elsnor arrived in Hobart on the John (2) on 1 December 1833 and was immediately assigned to Bent. In an advertisement the following March Bent boasted that the Colonist office now employed ‘some of the best workmen in the colony.’

The Colonist 4 March 1834

The good times were not to last. By July 1834 Howard had obviously defected to Dr. Ross. Ross had by this stage lost the services of one of his convict binders, the troublesome EDWARD SIMCOCK (see below) but had acquired another promising free workman in recently arrived GEORGE ROLWEGAN. Elsnor’s conduct record indicates he was bad mouthing both Howard and Rolwegan to their employer (Ross) at this time.

Meanwhile HENRY MELVILLE, scrambling to keep up, advertised regularly for a bookbinder throughout the first half of 1834, and Wood, on 14 March, presumably because he had lost the services of Howard, advertised that his stationery business was for sale. The equipment, most of it specially imported from England, included

gold paper borders and ornaments, morocco and embossed papers; various leathers (Morocco, black Spanish, roans, bazils, rough and smooth calf and red Russia); Standing presses, cutting presses, ploughs and knives, sewing presses, pressing and cutting boards, sets of letters, fancy rolls, pallets and tools, burnishers, agates and leaf gold, binders’ thread and vellum slips, large shears, beating hammers and stone.

A veritable treasure trove for the (unknown) purchaser.

George Rolwegan (free bookbinder)

Rolwegan was born in Glasgow in 1812 and arrived in Hobart with his wife on the Othello in February 1834. Until 1837 he was employed by Dr. Ross and his successor as Government Printer and proprietor of the Courier newspaper, W. G. Elliston. Rolwegan went on to become the best known bookbinder in colonial Van Diemen’s Land. Some of his bookbinding tools (probably from later in his career) were acquired by Dr. Crowther and are now in the State Library in Hobart.

George Peck

By early 1834 George Peck, teacher of the violin, had also established himself as a ‘carver, gilder, ornamental drawer, binder and designer’ and a purveyor of stationery, prints and tasteful ornaments from a shop in Liverpool Street. It is not clear how much bookbinding he may have done at this time, or whether he had a bookbinder working for him. George Howard had an association with him later.


Mrs. Fletcher’s music albums

These three volumes of sheet music, beautifully half bound in red and handsomely decorated with gilt tooling, are held in the Allport Collection in Hobart.

Bound folio of sheet music belonging to Mrs William Fletcher (1 of 3 volumes) Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, Libraries Tasmania. E 786.2 FLE

They were obviously bound in Hobart in 1834, given the date on the labels and the presence of some old newspaper from the Colonial Times of 1833, revealed by the broken spine of one of the volumes. Their fascinating provenance, and the detective work involved in discovering it, is described in a Libraries Tasmania blog post.

The binding is of outstanding quality in comparison with earlier colonial bindings. The Libraries Tasmania blog speculates that the binder may have been George Peck. This is quite possible. But as we have seen there were a number of entrepreneurs and binders active in Hobart at this time who had access to coloured leathers and gold leaf. James Wood’s establishment is possible if the work was done in the early part of the year (although he had lost Howard to Bent by then). Bent’s establishment is perhaps more likely, given that he employed George Howard in the early part of 1834 and Ernest Elsnor for the entire year. Both these men were, it would seem, binders of some talent. Rolwegan, obviously another skilled workman, was already in town, working for James Ross. And we do not know who purchased the materials and equipment offered for sale by Wood in March – Ross, Melville, Peck and even Henry Dowling in Launceston are all possibilities. Bent, with ample supplies of his own, probably could not afford to buy more.


Henry Dowling Jnr (1810-1885)

After the arrangement with Howard terminated, Bent continued to advertise his excellent workmen. He bickered constantly with Elsnor whose services were now actively sought by Launceston printer and stationer Henry Dowling. Dowling, far more respectable than Bent, was the son of a Baptist minister of the same name. He had a brief association with James Ross in 1830 and then took over Fawkner’s Launceston Advertiser newspaper. In 1834 he established a stationery business in Brisbane Street.

Henry Dowling Jr (1810-1885) Archives Office of Tasmania LMSS754-1-39

Elsnor was not the only person keen to leave Bent’s service around this time and Bent suspected he was encouraged by certain government officials. Bent had been flouting the law by paying Elsnor wages instead of rations, but Elsnor objected to being paid less than a free man. In April 1835 Elsnor charged Bent with ill-treatment and these accusations being ‘not disproved,’ he was returned to the public works. Bent retaliated by accusing the bookbinder of embezzlement but the charge was dismissed with a recommendation that Elsnor be sent to the other side of the island. Bent created a storm. He refused to return to Elsnor a suit of clothes the man had purchased with his own (illegal) wages, and complained to the Colonial Secretary about the dire state of convict discipline.

Although Elsnor was temporarily sent to a road party at Westbury, the return of convicts on 31 December 1835 (HO10/50) shows him assigned to Dowling. Bent said he knew for a fact that Elsnor was so employed despite all the talk about road parties. Elsnor’s conduct record suggests that Governor Arthur himself may have had a hand in the decision. It was probably no coincidence that on 4 June 1835 Dowling advertised that he had commenced bookbinding with the services of ‘the best workmen in the colony.’ He may, of course, have had more than one binder.

Pickwick Papers

In 1838 Dowling published a pirated edition of Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, initially, like the original, issued in parts. The following year Dowling offered to bind these in boards with the addition of locally produced lithographs. Early in July an illustrated edition, bound in embossed cloth, was announced as ‘just published’ although there were to be some subsequent delays associated with the illustrations. Surviving copies of the bound work, the most ambitious publication thus far in Van Diemen’s Land, exist in two different types of contemporary binding. Some are in brown half-calf with marbled boards and end papers. These have a gold-lettered leather title label (black or red) on the spine. At least one of these has Dowling’s binder’s label affixed; another includes a publisher’s note dated 27 June 1839 stating that the volume was ‘entirely the product of colonial industry – the printing, engravings, and the binding.’

Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania. This copy has Dowling’s publisher’s note bound in. Photo courtesy Libraries Tasmania

Binder’s label in William Walker copy, W. L. Crowther Library. Photo courtesy Libraries Tasmania

Other copies, slightly taller, are in a brownish cloth described variously as moire (watered) or whorled. These copies have a printed paper label on the spine.

Elsnor received a ticket of leave in 1837. He probably returned to the south of the island before these bindings were done, although I have been unable to discover where he was working. In 1840 he was described as a ticket of leave bookbinder when, obviously still a natty dresser, he appeared before the Hobart Police Court for misbehaving in church. His sentence expired later that year. The return of convicts as at December 1841 shows him as free and still in the colony, but does not specify his whereabouts. I have been unable to trace him further.

Another bookbinder who worked for Dowling from about 1849 was the free Scottish immigrant ALEX THOMSON. He later conducted his own business in Charles Street in Launceston and did a substantial amount of work for the Launceston Mechanics’ Institute Library.

Declining business

After losing Elsnor Bent continued to offer binding services. In the first half of 1836 Robert Drysdale was back with him – the careers of both obviously on a steady downward trajectory. In February Bent advertised in bad grammar for the owners of several books ‘as the book binder does not know who they belong to’. The titles were an eclectic mix – Summer’s Rambles, Cowper’s Poems, Western Songster, Psalms of David, Church Catechism, and the Wesleyan Hymn Book.

Drysdale soon afterwards decamped (it was thought either to Launceston or Sydney) strongly suspected of having perpetrated a robbery at the Ship Inn. He may have gone to Port Philip in 1841, but I have been unable to trace him further. Bent continued to advertise for a replacement. In the early part of 1837 he and Henry Melville were both seeking bookbinders. Bent also, early in 1837, advertised ‘Book binders’ Leather of all sorts, Gold Leaf, Mill Boards, Marble and Coloured Paper’ for sale in his grocery shop, so his bookbinding business may not have been doing too well.

Edward Simcock (Convict)

Simcock, a native of Wigan, was originally transported to New South Wales for seven years per Bussorah Merchant, the indent recording him as a twenty three year old bookbinder. He escaped but was caught after returning to England and sentenced to death. He arrived in Hobart per Strathsfieldsay early in 1831, now under a life sentence, and was at various times in the service of Ross, Bent and Elliston. In October 1833, while on loan to Ross, he was sent to Port Arthur, ostensibly for two years, for attempting to escape from the colony. Ross may have exerted some influence for his return (the Colonial Times obviously thought so), for Simcock was back with the good doctor by March 1834 when, under suspicion of assisting another would-be runaway, he was sent to the Constitution Hill Road Party. For a subsequent offence he was again sent to Port Arthur. Ross must have been very relieved when he secured the services of free workmen Howard and Rolwegan.

Edward Simcock’s conduct record. TAHO CON/31/1/39

Simcock was probably assigned to Bent towards the end of 1836. He was, in Bent’s view, ‘a superior workman’ despite his bad character. At least that was how Bent represented him when he offered to transfer him to Elliston. Elliston already had three bookbinders and did not want to take him. It was a different story in November 1837 when Elliston became aware he was about to lose the services of his best bookbinder, Rolwegan. The pig-headed Bent opposed the transfer although he was prepared to release Simcock to any other printer, or to George Howard, who was by then running his own bookbinding business. Bent accused Elliston of tampering with Simcock, and the binder of all sorts of conniving tricks to secure a placement of his own choosing. Rolwegan and Howard, both innocent bystanders, got drawn into the squabble.

After Simcock was tranferred, Bent, probably out of spite, charged him with pilfering a book from the printing office and the bookbinder was sentenced to twelve months in a chain gang. Bent regarded this as far too lenient and, railing against the evils of the ‘new transfer system’, engaged in a very public spat with Elliston who, of course, felt obliged to defend his reputation. Neither printer emerged with much credit, especially the resentful and carping Bent who rambled on interminably. The affair took up far more space in the newspapers than it deserved, but it provides a lively picture of some of those involved in bookbinding at the time. It also shows that skilled bookbinders were a valuable commodity, and they knew it. (Bent’s News 11 Nov and 9 Dec; Hobart Town Courier 23 Dec; Bent’s News 23 Dec; 30 Dec)

Simcock’s conduct record is very hard to read but the authorities may have interfered once more as he appears to have been returned to Elliston. He continued to get into trouble, so there was very little joy for Elliston in this arrangement.

Howard and Rolwegan: Later success

In 1836, the year he married Matilda Pattie, George Howard advertised that he had received a large supply of bookbinding tools and materials. Bookbinding could be arranged by application to Mr. Peck’s music and stationery warehouse. ‘Music books bound from 5s. 6d. to 8s. 6d. per volume.’

Howard later conducted his business in Harrington Street next to the Freemasons Hotel, and in November 1837 entered into what was to be a short-lived partnership with Rolwegan in premises opposite Mr. Wilkinson the chemist in Elizabeth Street. In January 1838 they received an additional supply of bookbinding materials ‘of the very best description’ and Howard at the same time acquired a new patent ruling machine, the first in the colony. They also sought a good workman.

Two months later the partnership was dissolved by mutual consent, with Bent as a witness, and it was not long before Howard advertised that he was moving to Sydney. During his time there he for several years did all the binding work for the School of Arts library. He returned to Hobart in 1843, then worked in Melbourne and again in Sydney before moving to Queensland in 1853. He pursued diverse interests in the Maryborough district, and died in 1883, highly respected as the ‘Father of Maryborough.’

Rolwegan remained in Hobart and built up a successful bookbinding and stationery business in Collins Street. He was also a bookseller and occasional publisher, including the monthly religious periodical the Tasmanian Messenger. He and his workmen produced quality bindings such as this music album, which appears to have once had a label on its cover, perhaps similar to the one on Mrs. Fletcher’s album, and has Rolwegan’s binders label.

Album of music scores bound by Rolwegan. W. L. Crowther Library, State Library of Tasmania. CRO.Q 786.4 MUS

Colonial publications bound by Rolwegan in locally prepared skins and decorated with gold were sent to both the Crystal Palace exhibition of 1851 and to the Paris exhibition of 1854.

In later life Rolwegan suffered from cataracts. He went to London for treatment and died on 10 January 1866 when the ship on which he was returning, the London, sank in the Bay of Biscay. An obituary testifies to the esteem in which he was held.


Thanks to Libraries Tasmania for generous assistance.

Further reading

Carol Mills. ‘Bound for Australia.National Library of Australia News, Dec. 1998.

Clifford Craig. The Van Diemen’s Land Edition of the Pickwick papers: A General and Bibliographical Study with some Notes on Henry Dowling. Hobart: Cat & Fiddle Press, 1973.

For Rolwegan: Paul Fenton. James Fenton of Forth: A Tasmanian Pioneer 1820-1901. (2001) Chapter 6.

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