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David Scott Mitchell (1836–1907)

from Daily Telegraph

David Scott Mitchell, in his early 30s, by Boake's studio

David Scott Mitchell, in his early 30s, by Boake's studio

State Library of New South Wales, 176471

Mr. David Scott Mitchell died yesterday morning at 17 Darlinghurst-road, after a long illness.

In his death New South Wales loses a fine citizen, The invaluable Mitchell Library, which the magnificent building now nearing completion by the side of Parliament House is his gift to a young nation — a gift which generations of Australians to come will more nearly appreciate at its true worth than we do to-day. It is a coincidence, and a happy one, that the site of the library should also practically be the site of his birthplace, for Mr. Mitchell was born in the officers' quarters of the old military hospital, subsequently to become, as it still is, the Parliament House. That was 71 years ago, to be precise, March 19, 1836.

When we come to consider Mr. Mitchell's parentage we are at no loss for an explanation of the subsequent character and trend of his tastes and activities. His father was Dr. James Mitchell, an army surgeon, afterwards a member of the Legislative Council. His mother was a daughter of Dr. Scott (grandfather also of Miss Rose Scott, by the way), rather a noted man in his day, having been president of the Medical Board at Bombay, a friend of Sir Charles Bell, and a friend and a disciple of the famous Jenner. Dr. Scott indeed was reputed to have been the first man to vaccinate in India. It fell to his lot at one time to attend the Duke of Wellington, then Sir Arthur Wellesley, of whom he wrote that he "considered him a very interesting young man, and he would not be surprised if he made a name for himself." That letter, as also several of Wellington's, Mr. Mitchell had in his possession along with many from other celebrated people of the time. Thus he had from the beginning a unique incentive to autograph collection. Of interest likewise, perhaps, is the fact that his grandmother used to supply paper, pencils, and paint to Sir Edward Landseer when he was a boy, and Mr. Mitchell had many of Landseer's drawings, especially his earlier ones.

Mr. Mitchell was one of the first batch of students at the Sydney University, his fellow-students of the day (1852) being W. C. Curtis, Alexander Oliver. R. Scaly, Fitz-William Wentworth, R. S. Willis, and W. C. Windeyer — now gone all but two. Mitchell did well, winning the Barker Scholarship, and afterwards graduating M.A. with honors in classics. He afterwards qualified for the Bar, but, inheriting large means, he never needed to practice and therefore did not. But neither this circumstance nor the other that he had never sat in Parliament did not prevent his being offered the Attorney-Generalship in one of the earlier Ministries — an office, however, which he did not see his way to accept.

Essentially a modest, retiring man, revealing himself only to his friends, and not always unreservedly to them, biographical details are meagre. That he was assiduous as a student may be inferred from the fact that he had such a successful career at the University. In his youth, also, we are told by Mr. Bladen, he was an enthusiastic cricketer, and often took part in matches in the old Barrack (now Wynyard) Square, and so keen was his interest in the game that in recent years, in speaking of old times, he remembered every cricket match and player. In his early years he was a well-known member of the Australian Club, and famous at that time as a whist player, and a peculiarly well read man. In later years his health was delicate and he became practically a recluse, being only seen at bookshops or other places where he might be able to pick up a literary treasure. Since 1899 he has been confined to his own house, and for the past 11 months has been in such a precarious state of health as to preclude him from giving much attention even to his beloved hobby. Mr. Mitchell's death leaves his sister, Mrs. Merewether, the only surviving member of the family. It is generally admitted that his knowledge of Australian literature and Australian bibliography was unique, and not approached by any person connected with books, whether as a professional or amateur. His charm of manner always endeared him to those with whom he was brought into contact in business relations, and he ever showed himself to be the generous patron of the bona-fide student of Australian history and literature. Though pressed by the Government to do so, he would never consent to allow a picture or bust of himself to be made, and he always forbade any attempt at portraying his personal appearance, the only picture of him known to exist being one showing a handsome young man with a flowing black beard, at the age of 30. He wished for no monument other than the great gift which he collected throughout his lifetime, and generously bestowed on his native State.

His collection began to take form while he was yet a youth. At first he confined his attention to the poetry and drama of all countries, more especially the Elizabethan age in England, but in later years Australasian books and records were his almost exclusive concern. In his researches he always interpreted "Australia" in the widest sense, to cover Australasia and the whole of the Pacific Islands, from the Philippines to the Sandwich Group. He collected all books dealing with the travels of the earliest Portuguese, Dutch, and Spanish navigators, down to the time of Captain Cook, and neglected no record that dealt with the earliest efforts of explorers to reach the long-dreamed of Terra Australis or the great southern sea, or any of its islands. He collected all books dealing with the anthropology, ethnology, philology, geology, botany, economics, and all the natural sciences referring to the whole of this vast region, his endeavor being to make the library so complete that students from all lands, wishing to study the history of any aspect of the national, political, social, or physical development of Australasia and the islands supposed to connect it originally with Asia and America, will have in future years to come to Sydney for material, as even already they are coming from the universities of Europe and the United States, to study at first-hand our peculiar social and political development, and our marvellous flora and fauna. The Mitchell Library will make our State collection more complete from an Australian point of view than any of the national libraries in the older countries of the world, for even with its 3,000,000 volumes the British Museum cannot supply to the historians of Great Britain the material to enable them to get the exact records of English history since the Norman Conquest, for many of the more valuable books printed during the last five centuries have disappeared in oblivion, while the collection made by the intelligent and loving care of this national benefactor is so complete in all the printed books and a great many of the MS. re-cords relating to the early history and development of this country, that it was rare for some years past for a fresh book of great value or a map or chart or old MS. to come under Mr. Mitchell's notice.

Mr. Mitchell's gift is not a thing which can be measured in money, but for the purpose of giving the public at large some idea of the proportions of Mr. Mitchell's benefaction, it has been stated at different times that the value of the benefaction might be put down at £100,000. But really this is the roughest of approximations for no one but himself has yet seen all the books and manuscripts embraced by the gift. It was known that he had been collecting for 45 years, that some years he spent up to £6000, and in no year less than £800. Latterly his spendings averaged about £2600 a year. This, of course, was quite apart from what he spent on material other than Australasian. He was always a very keen buyer, however. It was characteristic that he would never subscribe for any edition. "Oh," he would say, "wait awhile; I'll yet get it at half the price." And, such is the way of these things, he generally did. Yet he was always willing to pay the price to get what he wanted. Sir. H. L. C. Anderson at one time paid, on his behalf, as much as 790 guineas for a single book. He paid 30 guineas for a certain letter of Governor Phillip's; but it was a letter which threw an immense deal of light upon a certain point in Australian history. He gave 100 guineas for a diary of one of the early explorers, and 300 guineas for a bundle of letters of the second Governor. Only a short time ago he gave several thousand pounds for another Sydney man's collection, simply to get hold of the manuscripts of Sir Joseph Banks and others of our early explorers; the rest of the collection was already duplicated in his own. In his earlier days, he may have been occasionally "taken in"; but latterly never. He had a wonderfully keen scent for a fake — and needless to say he had plenty of faked material offered him on every hand. Notwithstanding his knowledge of the history of particular books — facts about them, circumstances connected with them, often more interesting than the contents of the books themselves — you never find, either on the title page or throughout the text, any annotation by him. His knowledge of the authorship of anonymous publications was unique, yet he never troubled to write in the author's name. This is to be regretted, for much interesting information is thus lost with him; but his peculiarity in this respect was only of a piece with the general reticence of his nature. In recent years he felt the competition of his great rival, Mr. Alexander Turnbull, of New Zealand, a man who is spending thousands per annum on an Australasian collection — a collection which now ranks second to the Mitchell, in point of national value.

It was in 1898 that Mr. Mitchell first intimated to Mr. H. C. L. Anderson; then the Public Librarian, his intention of bequeathing his collection to the State Library, with the simple condition that the Government should house it adequately and give students free access to it. That he was angered exceedingly at the lackadaisical way in which the Government of the day approached its part of the bargain is easily understandable; and but for the promptness of Mr Carruthers in himself determining the matter of site and getting the building put in hand, the offer would have lapsed, for such was the condition of Mr. Mitchell's health that he might have died at any time, and last year he had a condition put in his will to the effect that, failing the provision of the necessary accommodation for the books within one year after his death, the bequest to the State should not take effect. As soon as he was convinced that the Government were in earnest in their promises to proceed with the erection of a suitable building to accommodate the State collection, and to provide a wing of it for the Mitchell library, the donor intimated his intention of endowing his collection with a considerable portion of his wealth, so that by means of the income, from the capital sum to be invested it will continue to expand after the generous benefactor, will be unable personally to superintend its growth, and will in the course of years become one of the famous libraries of the world, as it already is the largest purely Australian collection in existence. 

"A century hence," said Mr. Carruthers, in laying the foundation-stone of the Mitchell wing of the Free Public Library quite recently, "When the donor and his admirers shall have passed away, when this city shall have become the rival in the southern seas of the great cities of the Old World, when science shall have realised more of its great victories, and answers shall have been found to many of the enigmas which now perplex mankind this institution will, I am confident, be found to be a treasure-house and all that is worth preserving in our national history and literature; it will have been found faithful to its duty of disseminating amongst all classes whatever is best in human thought and endeavor; and then probably a true estimate of the great benefaction which we commemorate to-day will be possible, and the citizens of New South Wales will be able to record what they owe to David Scott Mitchell."

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'Mitchell, David Scott (1836–1907)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 17 June 2024.

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