The Hill of Content, a bookshop sited on the top end of Bourke Street East in the city of Melbourne in Australia, conjures up all sorts of pleasurable images in my mind, of a place where grace, serenity and endless joy can be found.
I have been purchasing books at this very fine establishment for many a year, when during the 70’s as a young woman I first visited the city of Melbourne discovering not only its great heritage buildings and splendid retail establishments, but also its many charms.
The Hill of Content has become an institution over the years and there are many in Melbourne who would not welcome its demise.
To say that I am a bibliophile is perhaps a mild understatement.
Those who know me well understand that at times in my life books have not only proved a godsend, but also my personal saviour.
The knowledge and wisdom they contain have helped in no small measure to forge my pathway in life, as indeed they have for many others.
They are integral to all my experiences.
My generation, while acknowledging the importance of rapidly expanding technology, do not easily want to let go of the pleasure of handling and encountering a book in print, particularly those printed by some of the special publishing presses of their day who always treated them as great works of art.
There is nothing quite like the tactile quality of an old book, particularly the smell of a bevvy of old red Morocco leather bound books with gilded edges to keep the dust their enemy away, in the morning, the afternoon or evening.
Books can also conjure up so many memories of times shared with loved ones and beyond, as well as the lessons of life. They also record happy and sad moments and defining stories of love.
The book written in hiding by a young Jewish girl during World War II, first printed in English in 1952 was sent to me from England by my sister who lived there a few years later and changed my whole outlook on life forever more. Yes, I am talking about The Diary of Anne Frank; once read never forgotten.
Highly original, the name of Mr. Albert Henry Spencer’s bookshop Hill of Content did not come from the past. It was imagined by the shop’s founding owner during a walk in the nearby Fitzroy Gardens, itself a place steeped in the history of the nation.
Albert Henry Spencer (1886-1971) desired that he would help ‘kill the hoodoo’ of the spot he had chosen in 1922 to establish his business in an area of Melbourne city considered at the time like the ‘darker’ aspects of Montmartre in Paris.
This end of Melbourne town is perhaps known best even today for when in 1920’s, it became highly infamous, renowned for its gangland connections.
Mr. Spencer decided to produce a memoir of his shop to date, which he wrote between January 1956 and June 1957, published in 1959.
This delightful missive is filled with his quirky tales about the many characters whom he encountered over the years, who also proved to be his business’s enduring currency.
A first edition of his publication ‘The Hill of Content’ came into my possession recently, and it is already a best friend.
The tales it has to tell are many and varied, despite its bottom fore-corner of boards being lightly bruised, the spine a trifle faded, the dust wrapper slightly soiled with silver fished edges and the back strip browned.
It’s all about the words, because words are how the world works.
During the heyday of the Hill of Content from the 1920’s to the 1960’s many people came to visit, including some now well known and remembered and others who were considered important in their day and are little known at all today.
Writing his story must have been in many ways both a joyous and sad journey for him to take at that time, having suddenly lost his only son R.A.A.F Flight-Lieutenant Gregory Spencer in 1946, who had been planning to join his father’s firm. It also meant the shop was sold to Angus and Robertson Ltd in 1951.
In the Australian Dictionary of Biography it reports on Albert Henry saying ‘… in the difficult decades between 1920 and 1950 he helped to give Melbourne and Australia a sense of the mission of antiquarian bookselling.
‘Life is sweet, brother …There’s day and night, brother, both sweet things; sun, moon, and stars, all sweet things; there’s likewise a wind on the heath …who would wish to die?*
Groups of scholars it seems frequented Mr Spencer’s bookshop from the first, helping to make it a centre for learning, as I am happy to report it still is today.
When it closed down a year or two ago to be renovated there were many anxious people about worried it would not re-appear. When it did, like me they all breathed a large sigh of relief.
Located in the ‘Parliament’ region of town and accessed by white and blue collar workers, as well as those like I am, willing to travel to seek it out.
The area is still, as it has been in the past, within a few blocks of the inner city and still crying out for an upgrade.
This is an establishment in the serious business of literary excellence, although not stuffy or hi brow in any way, catering to many different tastes and with subjects across the whole spectrum of human experience.
Mr. Spencer recorded he had a particular affection for English born ‘Lady Syme’ wife of the eminent Melbourne Surgeon George Syme at a time when many ladies lives were defined by what their husband’s achieved.
Lady Syme had an interest in social service and philanthropic deeds, as did many of the women of her day with an access to the funds required to support their giving.
Mr. Spencer talks delightfully about her many charms and how she ‘shone with enthusiasm’ and was always cheerful, a fine epitaph.
However perhaps the finest compliment he made was to an unnamed soul, during the 30’s, whom he affectionately calls the ‘Lady in Waiting’.
Quaint, quiet and very poor, he records how it took a whole year for her to save for the one book she purchased each Christmas as a gift to herself.
The marker for him was that it had to be about Queen Victoria and her reign as she had such affection for the former sovereign, she wanted to keep her memory alive.
Each 1st July Mr. Spencer would note in the shop’s diary ‘Find now and place aside a book about Queen Victoria for the Lady in Waiting’. It didn’t matter if it was new or old, as long as it was about her beloved Queen.
Each year the staff all contributed to making her happy.
When her end was finally announced to Mr Spencer and his staff by a friend, such was their distress and grief at her passing they shut the shop for 24 hours in her memory.
How lovely, what a compliment.
Dame Nellie Melba (1861-1931) the famous Australian soprano who had achieved so much success overseas in the world of opera overseas was another regular visitor after she arrived home in1924.
She was recommended to the shop by a friend and came often, also making a friend of its owner and his wife who visited her at her delightful Coombe Cottage.
She called to see Spencer prior to going to Sydney and hospital where she died, but he was out on business and so only saw his wife.
He said he liked to remember Dame Nellie after she had passed, as a ‘great, yet simple woman’.
Sir John Monash, Australian military commander of the First World War was blessed it seems with ‘the faculty of being able to reduce to simple terms problems apparently unsolvable because of their mass and complexity’.
It was his gift and so not surprising perhaps too, that this much decorated war hero when it came time to ‘cull’ his own collection of books, admitted to Spencer when he sent them to him for re-sale, that he could never just ‘… put a book to death’.
Australian artist Tom “Bulldog” Roberts lived up to his name and was not a man to cross when he was about, which was very different from his colleague artist Sir Arthur Streeton.
Apparently he loved to talk about music, particularly that of Ludwig van Beethoven (1712-1773) the German composer he admired, as he did the poetry of England’s smooth man of words William Wordsworth (1770-1850).
Wordsworth it seems ‘supplied the title for one of Sir Arthur’s landscapes, “Still glides the stream, and shall for ever glide”.
Spencer details information about how at one point, he possessed an original sketchbook that belonged to the young artist Sir Lionel Lindsay (1874-1961) whose brother Norman, also an artist lived in the idyllic surroundings of the Blue Mountains outside Sydney.
Victorian based, Lionel Lindsay often came in and entertained everyone eloquently in the store for hours on end with his stories speaking with a ‘voice so musical in quality, and of such compelling enthusiasm, that I have never known its equal’.
Sir Lionel was considered ‘a supremely excellent writer on art matters’ and eventually became a Trustee of the Art Gallery of NSW in 1941, when he was also knighted for his services to art.
Mr. Spencer himself had enjoyed an interesting career that led him to him dwelling and reflecting on his own ‘Hill of Content’.
As a ‘message boy and truck-pusher’ at Angus and Robertson’s, another of Australia’s premier book establishments, he delivered parcels to David Scott Mitchell, whose ‘Australiana’ library was later presented to the people of NSW. Sir William Dixson and Sir John Ferguson Sydney collectors became friends and confidants as did Henry White owner and Manager of Belltrees in Scone a noted philanthropist who also became his financial backer.
Albert Henry Spencer credited ‘books, music, art and laughter by way of books as the source of all his happiness and certainly made me wish that I had enjoyed an opportunity to meet him. We would have had a starting point for conversation as my grandfather had been head gun shearer at Belltrees in Henry White’s day.
From Collector’s Treasures to the English language Mr. Spencer in The Hill of Content reflects eloquently on his life in a factual way that is easily accessible. He devotes a chapter talking about ‘Convicts and Colonists and another on sidelights o ‘Australiana’, as well as another on the infamy and virtual cult surrounding Ned Kelly, Last of the Bushrangers.
He talks frequently about time spent with a Scottish Presbyterian minister, the Reverend James Hay Lawrie discussing ‘the inescapable truths of the Bible and reports that ‘no matter how far I strayed from uprightness and unselfishness’ how his spiritual guide always managed to steer him in a ‘gentle yet firm’ manner back onto the right path, where he would be enriched.
Books were definitely his friends, something I understand well. He reports near the end of his missive, that it was the same Mr. Lawrie who set his course.
He gifted him ‘The Bible in Spain’, a book relating the journey, adventures and imprisonment of an Englishman in ‘Attempt to Circulate the Scriptures in the Peninsula’ as he encountered people from all walks of life and backgrounds from beggars to Prime Ministers.
Written by George Borrow (1803-1881), running through several editions and becoming, heaven forbid, very popular in its day.
Borrow was reputedly adept at acquiring new languages with Spanish, Welsh and Russian a few of the many tongues he spoke fluently.
This gift also allowed Borrow to travel within societies that normally kept outsiders at bay and his lifelong fascination with the Gypsy nomads of Europe and North Africa a closed society who provided an opportunity for him to live among them for a time.
A devoted equestrian traveller Borrow recorded in his preface that he had ‘… experienced too much of the lenity and generosity of the public, both of Britain and America, to shrink from again exposing myself to its gaze, and trust that, if in the present volumes it finds but little to admire, it will give me credit for good spirit, and for setting down nought in malice’.
A lack of malice is certainly evident right throughout Mr. Spencer’s very fine publication The Hill of Content, which he ended working to the music of Beethoven played on the piano by his wife, which he relates always comforted his spirit.
It certainly did mine.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016