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Edward William Cole (1832–1918)

from Argus

With the death of Mr. E. W. [Edward William] Cole, on the threshold of his 87th year, at his home at Essendon yesterday morning, Melbourne loses a distinguished and unique personality. Only during the last few months had his health been so indifferent that the founder and owner of Cole's Book Arcade was unable personally to attend to the business that he made familiar to all Australians. From the utmost penury he rose to comfort, if not actually to affluence. In his character were goodness of heart, domesticity, the reforming instinct, shrewdness, and simplicity all mixed inextricably. His business was not his business only – had it been so he would have made much more money than he did – it was his hobby, the medium by which he spoke to his fellow citizens of the ideas which stirred his consciousness. Most businesses own their proprietors, but Mr Cole owned his establishment, and impressed himself upon it until through the shop one could read the man.

Mr Cole was born in the little village of Woodchurch, Kent, in January 1832. His father, a humble agricultural labourer, died when Mr. Cole was a baby, and his mother married again, the Wesleyan clergyman of the village, the Rev. Mr.Watson being her second husband. Very early young Cole left home and fought London from a losing position, arriving in this greatest of the world's cities, almost uneducated to learn there the truth that a doorstep makes a hard, cold bed. Once, driven by the desperate necessity of hunger, he went to the barracks of a line regiment and offered himself as a soldier. They measured him, and told him that he was too short by about half an inch. If he slept in the barracks, they would measure him again in the morning when the resilient vertebral cartilages had added, not a cubit but the necessary half inch to his stature. He slept and breakfasted with the soldiers and, warmed by the food, he decided that the army was no place for him, and went out again to fight against the millions of competitors in the grey city by the Thames-side. At the age of about 18 he went to South Africa and did little good for himself there. And in 1853, he came to Australia in a small schooner, entering the Heads in the very wake of the Great Britain, which brought the other two great booksellers of Melbourne, George Robertson and Samuel Mullen.

The lure of gold caught him as it caught thousands of others, and he went to the goldfields. In that life he played many parts. He prospected, he was a carpenter, a bush photographer, and at Castlemaine he sold soft drinks and fruit. At the first land sale in Castlemaine he bought a block, the only piece of land he owned until he became the proprietor of the present Arcade. He let a man live on it for nearly 50 years, rent free and then made him a present of the title. This was an example of his heterodoxy as a business man. In 1866 he left the country, and for two years we find him in the public libraries of Sydney and Melbourne, determined upon making up his educational deficiencies. Study whetted his appetite for literature. He was an omniverous reader, his tastes being perhaps a little too catholic, and his reforming instinct leading him a little to regard the teaching itself rather than the technique. But his taste was, nevertheless, remarkably sound and clean, and if, in his compilations he included some indifferent though highly moral productions, he certainly also included the best which literature can offer.

After this two years' pilgrimage through literature he opened a small business in "Paddy's Market" in 1868. His first shop was in the middle of this lively place, but later he took another on the corner of Bourke street. The story he told of his early venture is interesting. "Paddy's Market" was on the site of the present Eastern Market and it was the only fruit and vegetable market of the city. Mr. Cole began by supplying the market gardeners with early morning refreshment, and to enable them to while away the waiting hours he tried the experiment of lending them books which he had bought secondhand. He found them very responsive to the enterprise and he developed it by adding secondhand books to the stock in his shop for general sale. He kept an "open shop" in the full sense of the term. Anyone could enter and read any book, and leave without buying. He knew human nature thoroughly and relied upon the "tasting" of a book to promote its sale, with the result that his business expanded considerably. He remained in his first shop till 1873, and there Mr. W.T. Pyke, who now manages the business, joined him. Two years later he married Miss Eliza Frances Jordan on August 9, 1875. He became acquainted with her through the medium of a matrimonial advertisement which he inserted in the press, and though the means were unconventional the marriage was thoroughly happy. She was a native of Tasmania. The first Arcade was in Bourke street, just above Russell street, and a secondhand department was housed in Dwight's old building near Parliament House.

On Cup Day 1883, Mr. Cole opened in the present Arcade. He had then only the Bourke street frontage, with a depth of about 200ft., to the fernery. The bursting of the boom came to him as an opportunity for extension and the rainbow sign arched the Collins street entrance. In his youthful days Mr Cole had a bent towards theology, and published a book on the "Real Place in History of Jesus and Paul", showing the analogies between the various founders of the world's religions and the real affinities between Christ and Buddha and Mahomet and Confucius and other prophets. For this he received the condemnation of the strict churchmen of the time and his business fell off a good deal but the storm of dis-approbation wore itself out and the business thrived again. His chief work was, however, as a compiler. Some of his compilations were enormously successful. "Cole's Funny Picture Book" for instance, has run into over 400,000 copies, all printed in Melbourne. His "Fun Doctor" has reached half as many copies. Other good sellers are the "Thousand Best Poems", and the "Intellect Sharpener". Mr Cole was a man of strongly combative nature when struck by a reforming or improving idea. He always, for instance, held to the idea of the brotherhood of man, and that the coloured races should be allowed in peaceably to Australia. They must come, he argued, and it were best to have them come in peace. One of his ideas cost him about £10,000. Every afternoon for 40 years he had paid a band to discourse music in his Arcade. One of the conditions made was that they were to play a certain number of hymns at each sitting. Mr Cole leaves three daughters and two sons. His wife died on March 15, 1911. The Book Arcade was closed yesterday. The funeral will leave Mr Cole's late home, Earlsbrae, Leslie road, Essendon, this morning at 10 o clock for the Boroondara Cemetery.

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Citation details

'Cole, Edward William (1832–1918)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 25 June 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Edwic

4 January, 1832
Tenterden, Kent, England


16 December, 1918 (aged 86)
Essendon, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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