by Whispering Gums

A departure from our focus on Australian Women Writers to a story about a book club for rural readers that was established and strongly supported by city women for several decades.



The Bush Book Club was not a book club in our contemporary, reading-group meaning of the word, but an organisation that was founded at the end of 1909 to send books to remote areas of New South Wales, specifically to those areas lacking a School of Arts (or Mechanics Institute). It was inspired by similar work being done by the England-based Victoria League in places like Canada.

The Club was formed by Mrs. Aubrey Withers during an “informal meeting” at Admiralty House, under the auspices of Lady Poore who then became its first President. Several newspapers reported on it, including the Sydney Morning Herald (22 December), which explained that members of the first committee included women from the Women’s Branch of the Empire League (our version, apparently, of the Victoria League). The SMH added that the Girls’ Realm Guild had “been engaged in bush library work” for over a year, but “decided to join in the bigger movement” resulting in “no overlapping”. From the beginning then it was very strongly a women’s initiative and endeavour.

The SMH also reported that some very clear principles were laid, which would make for success. These included that it would be “non-sectarian and non-political”, and for both men and women. There would also be

a censorship committee to see that only suitable literature is distributed. By “suitable” is not meant only standard works or books of a “goody goody” nature, but care will be taken that vulgar, trashy, novels, and morbid, unwholesome works are not amongst those sent out.

This sort of sensibility would be typical of 1909, but the language used to describe it is also so of its time. In terms of practicalities, the SMH notes that railway authorities had “promised” to send the books without charge, and that the committee hoped that school-houses would become distribution points for the books. The actual distribution seems to have been handled by different groups depending on the location – from schools and libraries to community organisations. In Kyogle, for example, it was the North Kyogle Progress Association, while in the Mudgee area it was Erda Vale Subsidised School. The service was not to be free, with the rural readers to be charged 3d. a month (or 2s. per annum) to access the books.

The project was very much a grass-roots activity, founded on volunteering and good-will. The expectation from the start was that it would be based primarily on second-hand books. As the SMH writes, “There is hardly a household in Sydney which does not have periodical clearings out of old books and magazines, and it is mainly on these that the club will depend.” The new Club immediately started promoting the project, asking Sydney-siders to donate used (and new) books and magazines to the cause … while, the seemingly indefatigable Lady Poore organised fundraisers, for “incidental expenses”.

Lady Poore – and a little controversy

From G Vandyk Ltd, An admiral’s wife in the making, 1860-1903 (1917), via Wikipedia. Public Domain.

So, who was this Lady Poore? Ida Margaret Graves Poore (1859-1941) was, according to Wikipedia, “an Anglo-Irish autobiographer and poet”. Her husband was the baronet, Sir Richard Poore, who became an Admiral in the Royal Navy, and was posted to Sydney from 1908 to 1911.

As is clear from those dates, Lady Poore was only formally involved for a year or so, though later reports occasionally mention that she continued to ask about the Club long after she’d left. She was, though, involved in a little controversy, which many papers reported on – and which she herself managed to treat with self-deprecating humour. (She really sounds like something.) Here’s what happened …

In April 1910, Lady Poore presided over the first annual meeting of the Bush Book Club, at Sydney’s Town Hall. The Sydney Morning Herald (6 April) reported on the meeting, and noted that Lady Poore was keen to “impress … the actual need of books”. She talked about the paucity of reading matter in many remote areas, and argued against the opinion held in some quarters that people who had little leisure for reading needed nothing more than the weekly newspaper. The Sydney Morning Herald‘s report of her speech continues:

If she as a temporary, and she honestly thought, sympathetic dweller, in their midst, might be allowed to offer a criticism, she should say that what the Australian national character lacked was imagination. Commonsense was really “common” here, and she knew no quality of greater practical value but fancy, vision imagination, call it what they would, was not common, and without books she did not see how it was to be awakened, fostered, and rendered articulate. There might be in New South Wales bush-poets in embryo as powerful as Lindsay Gordon, as humorous and pathetic as A B Patterson [sic] (who she was glad to say, was one of their vice-presidents) – bush-novelists too and bush naturalists; but without the help and stimulus provided by reading they would … die full of unexpressed, because un-expressible, ideas. Apart from those who might succeed in literature, there were many whose hard, workaday lives would be made brighter and more beautiful by the reading of books.

Let’s put aside her examples of writers to emulate, and cut to the controversy chase. As you can imagine, there was quite a reaction to the idea that Australians lacked imagination, though there was some misreporting. One columnist, for example, thought she was only referring to children, and another to women. Then there was “Roseda” writing in the Wellington Times (14 April 1910) in central western NSW. She (I assume) says that Lady Poore might be right about reading stimulating the imagination but, she writes,

To me it seems the Great Silent Bush has more imaginative influences than any book. It is all inspiration and should beget the fancy monger. If it lacks this the fault is in the individual and yet not his fault either. Bush dwellers are too much occupied to have leisure for imagination. Patience say I ’twill come. Are we not producing some of the best songsters in the world? Soon there will be a need of songs for them and then poets will emerge from their slumbers. Bush bards evolve yourselves please.

I love the light tone … indeed, the interesting thing is that while the reports I saw didn’t agree with her, neither did they take severe umbrage, suggesting that she and/or her endeavour were much appreciated.

Later in April, Lady Poore attended the birthday of The Optimists’ Club (which she was encouraging to support the B.B.C.). The Daily Telegraph (27 April) reports her referencing her little faux pas. She apparently told the gathering that the press certainly didn’t lack imagination, and that

If she could conveniently take off her hat she would take it off to the press in recognition of the extraordinary kindness, not to say leniency, with which they had treated her— a stranger. A weekly publication of great literary merit likened her to a seagull. Could imagination go further? That was before she was a month in Australia, and it earned her undying gratitude, by the pretty, if unmerited, compliment. A daily paper of high standing credited her with a handsome heliotrope satin gown and a riviere of diamonds — neither of which she possessed — and she had never forgotten the inventive kindness of the writer. Indeed, the press of Australia had invariably used her with a generosity far beyond her deserts, and their recent criticisms had only whetted her appetite for information concerning a country and a people she had a good reason to love.

Ah Lady Poore, what a charmer.

More on the women …

I read many reports about the club over its first decade, many of them newspaper accounts on the Club’s annual meetings. The story was the same – the good work being done, and increases every year in the number of “centres” being supported; the call for donations of money and books to support the work; and references to the dullness of life in “outback” and the need to support the people who were “breaking the sods of our new country and bearing the burden and heat of the day away from the pleasures and comforts of civilisation” (SMH 17 April 1912). These comments sound condescending at times, but many remote people were desperate for reading matter, all the same. No mention, of course, of First Nations people. It seems that the patron was always a “Lady” – like Lady Poore, Lady Chelmsford, Lady Strickland – most of them, vice-regal. The role was presumably passed on as each arrived with her husband, but there is a sense from the reporting that they took on the role with relish.

However, while the vice-regals came and went, Australian women continued with the work, and none moreso than the founder, Mrs Aubrey Withers, who was involved up to her death in Sydney in 1923. Brisbane’s Daily Mail (14 July 1923), reporting on her death, called her “an earnest and energetic social worker.” It also noted that the last 13 years of her life had been “devoted to the welfare of the community in general” and that “it was partly due to her interest that the Queensland Bush Book Club was founded in 1921”. Indeed, in 1922, the year before her death, the Daily Mail (18 October) reported that she had visited the Club in Queensland. She appears in many newspaper reports of the club over the decade or so after its founding, but perhaps the best description of her comes from a long obituary in Sydney’s Sunday Times (23 July 1923) which described her as “a woman of poise without pose”.

The Lady patrons and Mrs Aubrey Withers were just part of the endeavour. Many women worked on committees over the life of the club, and were also regularly named in newspaper reports of their meetings. It is unclear just when the Club ceased, because my research ran into the time period which is still under copyright and so not well covered by Trove. However, it was still going in the 1950s with references to books being sent by the Club to floodstricken areas in 1955 and to lighthouse stations in 1959. Fundraising by women – via flower shows, bridge afternoons, and the like – was still being regularly reported on during the 1950s.

The main change that seems to have occurred by the 1950s is that books were being sent to individuals rather than to “centres” as had been the original practice. My research also suggests that recipients were by then paying for freight. What hadn’t changed, however, was the Club’s importance. Here is the Sydney’s Sun on 10 June 1950:

Secretary Beulah Bolton has learned a lot about life on the job. Women she’s found, prefer a “real good love story”; men tend to go for the western, the thriller and the adventure tale. One woman wanted works on poetry and fiction, and a chap from west of the Darling sought as an antidote to the dryness and the heat “only books on polar exploration.” He didn’t mind which pole, he added. Incidentally, the correspondence to the club is quite moving. The number of people who say they’d go mad if it weren’t for the books they get is quite startling.

Miss Beulah Bolton was another of the Club’s stalwarts, having been its secretary from inception until she retired in 1952.

The Bush Book Club was clearly an impressive women-run program that served people of the outback – in eastern states at least – for decades. Its story seems not to have been well documented, beyond newspaper reporting, but would be well worth further research and analysis.


Whispering Gums, aka Sue T, majored in English Literature, before completing her Graduate Diploma in Librarianship, but she spent the majority of her career as an audio-visual archivist. Taking early retirement, she engaged actively in Wikipedia, writing and editing articles about Australian women writers, before turning to litblogging in 2009. Australian women writers have been her main reading interest since the 1980s.