By Daniel Wee
Taking advantage of the Antipodeans’ late 19th-century interest in children's literature, New Zealand bookseller, George Hawkes Whitcombe, and printer, George Tombs, created “low-priced, paper-wrapped children’s supplementary readers” en masse (McLaren, 1984). The series became known in Australasia as ‘Whitcombe’s Story Books’. The printing of 12 million copies of original Australasian and classic literature from 1908 to 1962 is a testament to the proliferation of leisure reading amongst the masses over this time and the unyielding demand for cheap books.
These little readers demonstrated a delineation from prescribed canonised texts and inflexible school syllabuses to the 'democratisation' of education and availability of books to the masses. By creating cheap and accessible alternatives and supplements to school curriculums, Whitcombe and Tombs contributed to the cultural phenomenon of child readership. Jeff Prentice, muses in 'A History of the Book in Australia' that the 1930s and 1940s saw a movement that “reflected the needs of real child readers, and an increased willingness to address a child reader directly” (Prentice, 2001).
Unlike the rigidity of the 'School Papers' (a compulsory Education Department (Victoria) publication built into the curriculum), ‘Whitcombe’s Story Books’ amalgamated supplementary leisure reading with prescriptive texts. Whitcombe and Tombs’ encroachment into the school curriculum was met with a failed Victorian Royal Commission in 1935-36 after it was suggested that the bookseller was 'hijacking' the syllabus (Prentice, 2001).
The new acquisition of ‘Whitcombe’s Story Books’ are housed in the Lindsay Shaw Collection in the Rare Books Collection of the Library. This collection of over 12,000 items from the 19th and 20th century form one of Australia’s premier children’s literature collections.
Lindsay Shaw was the Secretary of the Monash Faculty of Education when he began to donate books to the Library in 1979. Lindsay was a major collector of Australian children's books and began his gift to Monash by donating sets of Ethel Turner and Mary Grant Bruce. As part of the development of this impressive collection, the Rare Books team posthumously supplement his collection by purchasing rare and important English, American and Australian children’s books.
McLaren, I., and Whitcombe Tombs Limited 1984, Whitcombe's Story Books : A Trans-Tasman Survey. U of Melbourne Library, Parkville.
Prentice, J 2001, ‘Case-study: Textbook publishing’, in J Arnold, A history of the Book in Australia 1891-1945 : A National Culture in a Colonised Market. U of Queensland, St Lucia, Qld , pp. 294-297.