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"I was told when leaving London that there is in Melbourne a bookshop out of the ordinary with an unusual name, something like ... let me see ... like, ah, yes, like 'The Mountain of Comfort' ... do you know such a book shop?" (Sir Winston Dugan, Governor of Victoria)

      Barry Watts senses contentment ...

A. H 'BERT' SPENCER

The Mountain of Comfort

For more than three quarters of a century, one of Melbourne's finest bookshops - The Hill of Content - has traded at the top end of Bourke Street.

Its founder and guiding light, A.H.'Bert' Spencer, trained at Angus & Robertson's famous old store in Castlereagh Street, Sydney, early in the twentieth century.

As a youth, Bert Spencer was once sacked by George Robertson for being tardy, but he was immediately rehired by another director, Fred Wymark. 'Try and keep out of G.R's sight for a couple of weeks until he has forgotten you were sacked,' Spencer was advised.

In 1921, deciding to go into business for himself, Bert Spencer wrote to H.L. White, a noted book collector living in the upper Hunter Valley, asking for an interview with him when White next visited Sydney.

In his book ' The Hill of Content ', Spencer recalled that meeting at the Hotel Australia a week later:

[White asked:] "Why do you wish to see me?"
"I want you to lend me a thousand pounds."
"Just like that, eh? All right, you can have it. What do you want it for?"
"To go to Melbourne to set up in business."
"Why go so far away? Are you known there? Isn't it risky? Why not commence here where you are known?" "That's just it.
[Spencer replied] I'm known here because of my association with Angus and Robertson, and it would be more than my conscience would allow to live on that firm's customers. I prefer to go to Melbourne, a strange city, where I am known only to one person.

White's loan was given without security. His last words on the transaction were, "Here is the money, Mr Spencer, try not to lose it, but if you do your best and fail, and lose this money, try not to worry too much about it."

Both Robertson and Wymark begged Bert Spencer to stay with them. But, observing his resolve to start afresh, George Robertson sent, at his own expense, 'one of his best men to Melbourne to design, measure, and oversee the erection of shelving and counters for me!'

Bert Spencer's bookshop opened in 1922 at 86 Bourke Street East Hill, as it was then known. Many well-intentioned people knocked on the door expressing surprise at a bookshop being opened in such an unsavory area, frequented by gangsters and drunks.

'There was so much of it about that it scared me,' Spencer wrote, 'and suddenly I realised that I must conjure up a name to kill the hoodoo.' 'I mulled it over for days, and then at last, whilst I was walking in the lovely Fitzroy Gardens, the elm-trees and the plane-trees said, "Call it the 'Hill of Content'." There was the name! Truly, I jumped for joy.'

Spencer's judgement was justified: in three years the loan from H.L White was repaid (plus seven per cent interest), and the flourishing 'Hill of Content' was building a solid reputation for the breadth of its stock and the skill of its staff.

Its name, while becoming widely known, sometimes caused confusion:

Shortly after he arrived in Melbourne as Governor of Victoria, Sir Winston Dugan attended a function at which one of the guests was that genial, lovable, and able bookman, R.H (Bob) Croll. When Sir Winston spoke to Croll the latter naturally turned the conversation to books.
Presently Sir Winston said, "I was told when leaving London that there is in Melbourne a bookshop out of the ordinary with an unusual name, something like ... let me see ... like, ah, yes, like 'The Mountain of Comfort' ... do you know such a bookshop?"

In 1928, Spencer requested his landlord demolish the original shop which had been built ninety years earlier. A new three-storeyed 'Hill of Content' was erected on the site.

Bert Spencer's 'first big job' in the new premises was to disperse the outstanding library of the late H.L. White - his original benefactor. [For more on H.L.White see 'Footnote' below]

Jim Tyrrell had been another of Bert Spencer's mentors at A&R. 'To this day,' Spencer wrote in 1959, 'I can clearly live again the nights in Jim Tyrrell's home, talking of Dickens, Scott, Thackeray, and so many more. I was fortunate beyond calculation in the quality of the men who helped me on in the world of books.'

Spencer intended that his son, Gregory, should join him in the business, but WWII intervened. Greg Spencer spent five years in the RAAF, only to be killed in a street accident in 1946. Bert's world was shattered. 'The effect the blow had upon me was, in a manner, mortal,' he wrote.

He carried on the business for four years and then decided to sell up. The purchaser was Angus and Robertson of Sydney. 'It meant that the wheel had turned full circle,' Bert Spencer said, 'that illustrious firm having trained me as a boy, youth and young man.' A&R moved the business to Elizabeth Street where Bert Spencer later joined them again. He died in 1972 aged eighty-five years.

The 'Hill of Content' is now the headquarters of Collins Booksellers, a national bookshop chain and minor publisher.


 

 

 

Portrait: 'Bert' Spencer A.H.'Bert' Spencer,
bookselling entrepreneur

 

 

Benefactor: H.L. White H.L.White
of 'Belltrees', Scone
- Patrick White's uncle

 

 

Spencer's first bookshop
The first 'Hill of Content' shop,
Bourke Street, Melbourne

 

 

portrait of R. H. Croll Robert Henderson Croll,
genial bibliophile

 

 

Jim Tyrrell, bookseller James R. Tyrrell,
esteemed Sydney bookseller

 

 

Who's Who?
in these stories



 
  'Belltrees' homestead, upper Hunter Valley, N.S.W. FOOTNOTE:


Henry White, known as 'H.L.', was Patrick White's wealthy uncle who lived at 'Belltrees', Gundy Road, Scone - part of one of Australia's most-famous pastoral holdings. 'Belltrees' homestead is a two-storey brick house built in 1907-8 on land purchased in 1853 by James White, Patrick's great-uncle.

The house features an imposing internal staircase and a cast-iron balcony verandah on both floors. Still standing in its grounds is a part of the original house, a chapel, a slab cottage, and a massive shearing shed.

Henry White's collection of birds' eggs and skins was sufficient for him to engage a full-time ornithologist for twenty years. These items ('a grand total of 11,863 eggs' and their extensive display cabinets) were bequeathed to the Melbourne National Museum. His Australian stamps collection included some pre-Federation New South Wales ones valued in the 1930s at twenty thousand pounds.

In his Old Books, Old Friends, Old Sydney Jim Tyrrell recalled:

The H.L. White collection had also in it some nice items of literary Australiana, especially on the ornithological and natural history side. I particularly remember his very fine complete set of Gould's The Birds of Australia [valued at the end of the twentieth century at around $350,000, although in late 1980s boom considerably greater prices were achieved].
In his acclaimed biography, Patrick White - A Life , David Marr backgrounded H.L. White:
'a small, reclusive and forthright man, with a strong and original intelligence. He ran Belltrees on a fuedal scale and in his hands it grew to 140,000 acres. For the 250 people on the place he built a school, post office, hall, store and church. The village celebrated Empire Day with bonfires, fielded a cricket team and sent detachments off to war.

"Who made the world?" asked a clergyman visiting Belltrees public school.

'Please sir,' answered a boy, 'Mr H.L. White.'

© BARRY JOHN WATTS 2002

 
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