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Hugh Wright (1868–1957)

by Anne-Maree Whitaker

Hugh Wright, librarian and historian, was born on 15 November 1868 in Sheffield, Yorkshire, eldest child of Harry Wright, furnace man (1848-1873) and his wife Mary Jane Dalton (1850-19xx). His father died when Hugh was five and his mother Mary Jane remarried. Hugh emigrated to Sydney in 1883 with his mother, siblings and paternal grandfather William Wright. William had been a farmer at Ecclesall Bierlow near Sheffield, and was a rationalist by conviction, a philosophy which he passed on to his grandson. William died in 1892 and the eulogy at his funeral was given by prominent rationalist Wallace Nelson.[1]

Hugh Wright had attended Sheffield Higher Central School but it is not known which school he may have attended in Sydney after his arrival at the age of fifteen. His papers in the Mitchell Library indicate that he attended Latin classes given by the Crown Solicitor John Williams in 1887 and also a Sydney University extension course on ‘Socialism’ in 1892.[2] From 1885 he was employed at the Public Library, a fact not disclosed in two letters written over the nom-de-plume S. Dirtsg to the Sydney Morning Herald in 1890 and 1891 defending the Library from critics.[3] Wright married Elizabeth Hannah Brown in 1894. She was born at Etherley, County Durham, and was the daughter of picture framer James Brown and his wife Mary Maria.[4]

At the age of seventeen Hugh Wright began working at the Public Library when it was still in the ‘Iron Church’ adjacent to Parliament House. He described it as ‘a galvanised iron building, about the worst ventilated in Sydney’.[5] Among his fellow workers in the library basement were two young men who would also achieve fame in later life, Christopher Brennan, at one time claimed to be Australia’s greatest poet, and the future Sir Frederick Jordan who would serve as Chief Justice of New South Wales from 1934 to 1949.[6] Hugh Wright was employed as an assistant in 1889 and was promoted to second assistant librarian in 1892 and then to first assistant librarian in 1907. In 1909, at the age of forty-one, he was appointed the first Mitchell Librarian.

Wright took on huge responsibility in his new role. There were organisational issues to tackle as well as the opportunity to expand in new directions. He gathered a competent staff and began to tackle the daunting task of arranging and indexing Mitchell’s vast collection and establishing library systems. He also embarked on his significant achievement of persuading pioneer families and others to entrust him with their precious manuscripts and books. In his first year, even before the library building was officially opened, a major acquisition was 286 volumes of manuscripts from the late Chief Justice Sir James Dowling. Over the next five years daily attendance hovered around forty-five, and major acquisitions included 256 sketches by J. W. Lewin, the Wentworth papers donated by Fitzwilliam Wentworth, early editions of the Sydney Gazette and oil portraits of Edward Smith Hall, Edward Deas-Thomson, Sir Francis Forbes, Sir George Dibbs and Sir George Reid.[7]

Wright joined the Australian Historical Society[8] in 1909 and was elected to the organisation’s Council in 1912. He was to serve for forty-four years until his death. Wright’s historical writings are not numerous, comprising seven articles in the RAHS Journal published between 1917 and 1931. However they cover an eclectic range of subjects: early freemasonry in Australia, National Archives, sites of the NSW Treasury, the location of Mount Twiss, Lieutenant William Dawes, Mary Reibey and Margaret Catchpole (the two were unaccountably confused in the 1920s), and Tasman’s voyage of 1642–3.

While Wright was not a prolific writer himself, he fostered the historical writing of others. He was editor of the RAHS journal for ten years from 1924 to 1934, an exacting task in the days when there were six issues of the journal each year. He served as President in 1918 and was elected a Fellow of the Society in the following year. His other interests included astronomy and horticulture.[9] He was an active member of the Royal Astronomical Society, the British Astronomical Association, the Royal Horticultural Society of NSW and the National Rose Society of NSW. Indeed he was treasurer of the Rose Society from 1912 to 1922 while the Public Librarian, William Ifould, was its President.[10]

Wright’s article ‘The Librarian as Historian’ was first published in the Library Record of Australasia in 1902. The article noted that ‘The history of various districts is contained in a scattered manner in the country newspapers, but as country libraries cannot afford the room to house complete files of their papers … the groundwork of local histories is fast disappearing.’ To counteract this trend Wright recommended librarians keep files of newspaper clippings relevant to their district, arranged under headings such as Biography, Churches, Commerce and Social Life.[11]

In 1913 Wright set off to return to the Britain he had left as a fourteen-year-old. His trip was funded by the Public Library and his task was to examine and report on Library practice, and to negotiate the acquisition of key manuscripts relating to early Australia. He extended his stay by taking six months long service leave. Between November 1913 and September 1914 he managed to visit the following institutions: starting in London he went to the British Museum Library, Public Record Office, Colonial Office Library, Patent Office Library, the Guildhall Library and the National Portrait Gallery. At all these institutions he interviewed staff, including the redoubtable Sir Frederick Kenyon at the British Museum. Travelling around the British regions Wright inspected public libraries in Newcastle on Tyne, Edinburgh, Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham. He also visited the university libraries at Edinburgh and St Andrew’s, and the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, the John Rylands Library in Manchester and finally the Bodleian Library in Oxford.[12]

But this did not see the end of his travels. He next moved on to the Netherlands where he inspected the Archives and Royal Library in The Hague and the Amsterdam Royal Art Gallery. In Germany he visited the Royal Library in Berlin and the University Library in Leipzig, before returning via the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris. A visit to the United States in May 1914 saw him pursuing an equally exhausting schedule. In New York he visited the public library, Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University Library; in Boston he inspected the Athanaeum, the public library and Harvard University Library; in Providence, Rhode Island, he called in to the public library and also Brown University, and the trip was rounded off with appointments at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh and the Library of Congress in Washington DC.[13] At the end of his travels Wright submitted ‘a valuable report on the latest developments in library architecture, library fittings and methods’.[14] He had also fulfilled his mission to report on the Macquarie papers and other Australian-related manuscripts which the Mitchell Library later acquired.

Although Wright did not produce a large volume of writing, he was often engaged in more practical historical activities. In 1920 he participated in a heated public debate on the location of Governor Phillip’s 1788 flag-raising. The gist of the dispute was whether the site was on the west or east side of Sydney Cove. Wright had noticed that the 1806 almanac placed the flag-raising on the western side, north of the dockyard. The other protagonists on Wright’s side were Arthur Foster, recorder of the Sandhills Cemetery, and Royal Australian Historical Society research secretary Captain J. H. Watson. Their opponents were bibliophile Alfred Lee, heritage photographer Frank Walker and C. T. Burfitt, an authority on Aboriginal languages. The principal evidence in support of the eastern side was a sketch by Governor John Hunter done in mid-1788 which showed the flagpole on the shore in front of Government House. In the end no vote was taken but the issue bubbled on for several years, with both Lee and Foster going into print to argue the opposing sides.[15]

During Wright’s period of tenure as Mitchell Librarian the collection continued to grow with acquisition of unique early documents. These included First Fleet journals by Arthur Bowes and William Bradley, 1791 letters written by John Piper, an 1805 letter by Matthew Flinders on his imprisonment in Mauritius, Governor Macquarie’s notebooks on his tours, Governor Brisbane’s letterbooks, six volumes of correspondence and the Report on Roads by Thomas Livingstone Mitchell, and papers from the Wentworth, Cox, Johnston and other pioneer families. Pictorial material included Conrad Martens sketches, landscape paintings, bookplates, maps, Cyril Blacket’s architectural plans, 300 war cartoons by Hal Eyre, and portraits of Macquarie, Reverend Robert Cartwright, Captain Eber Bunker, Blaxland and Lawson. Literary material included papers and manuscripts by Marcus Clarke, Henry Lawson, Adam Lindsay Gordon and J. F. Archibald. Much of the credit for the acquisitions was due to Wright for persuading families that the Mitchell Library was a safe and proper repository for their treasures.[16]

It was after his retirement as Mitchell Librarian in 1932[17] that Wright’s connection with the RAHS blossomed. He continued to serve as a Councillor from 1912 until 1956, and spent ten years working with Charles Bertie in cataloguing and arranging the Society’s books, pamphlets, manuscripts, maps and other historical material. Every week over this period they spent two afternoons binding books and pamphlets, storing maps and other historical material, compiling card catalogues, and dealing with hundreds of small manuscripts. Wright also was a regular attender at the lectures and social gatherings, and even spent two years while in his mid-80s undertaking the tedious but vital task of indexing the journal which he had formerly edited.[18]

Hugh Wright died on 12 April 1957 at his home in Ourimbah Road, Mosman, aged eighty-eight. He was survived by his widow Elizabeth, daughters Bavina Welch and Noeline Crockett and grandchildren Richard and Geoffrey Welch and Delphine Elwin. He was privately cremated.

When Wright retired from the position of honorary librarian of the RAHS in 1954, Charles Herbert Currey, educationist and legal historian, moved the following motion:

That this Council acquiesces regretfully but with full understanding in Mr Hugh Wright’s decision to vacate the position of Honorary Librarian he has filled for so many years with such benefit to the Society. With one voice, it wishes him the utmost pleasure and satisfaction from whatever he may feel inclined to do in the hours that he formerly gave, and with unalloyed selflessness and the highest professional competence, to the books and other literary material of the Society that has been one of the dominant interests of his long and useful life.[19]

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Citation details

Anne-Maree Whitaker, 'Wright, Hugh (1868–1957)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 14 April 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

Hugh Wright, 1931

Hugh Wright, 1931

State Library of New South Wales, 862167

Life Summary [details]


15 November, 1868
Sheffield, Yorkshire, England


12 April, 1957 (aged 88)
Mosman, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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