State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 79 Autumn 2007


John Arnold
A Note on A. H. Spencer and the Hill of Content Bookshop

Albert Henry Spencer, always known as Bert, was born on 8 March 1886 at Balmain, Sydney, the younger son of Henry Spencer (formerly Henrik Bertelsen), a labourer from Denmark, and his native-born wife Alice Jane, née Prynne. The father having died when Bert was only two, he and his two siblings were raised under straitened circumstances by their mother.
In his memoirs Spencer writes lovingly about his mother (‘this sorely-tried woman, overborne by the responsibility of working hard and alone to keep her children in their own home’) and her influence upon him:
My mother was the inspiration of whatever I have tried to do and to be that is in any way worthwhile. She it was who introduced me to the wonders of reading, and when she recognized how avid I was for books she borrowed them from neighbours, since we had no money to buy them.
The death of Spencer's elder brother in his teenage years was a blow to the mother — ‘her grief haunts me still’ — and she died some three years later, aged only forty-five.
Spencer attended the Waverley Superior Public School where, through a school class reader and support from a sympathetic teacher, he began his life-long love of poetry, particularly that of the Romantic poets. At the age of fourteen he was forced to leave school to work in a boot factory as a ‘clicker’ — cutting out the uppers of boots. Although he later wrote that he enjoyed the work, he left after eight months to take a position as a messenger-boy with the booksellers and publishers, Angus & Robertson. It was one of the first of several lucky breaks in his life.
Alone from the age of 17, Spencer boarded with a local family and was a regular church—goer and attendee at Band of Hope and Christian Endeavour meetings. From the Presbyterian Church he appears to have inherited the faith's work ethic but he was not a strict adherent to its other trait, namely temperance. Around this time he fell in love with a girl he thought he would eventually marry. They stepped out for several years but she died in her early twenties. On 30 January 1909 Spencer married Eileen Rebecca O'Connor, an accomplished pianist, at Woollahra Presbyterian Church.
Between 1900 and 1922 at Angus and Robertson's, Spencer learned the trade from its Australian masters, George Robertson himself, and his employees Fred Wymark and James Tyrrell. One of his regular early jobs was to deliver books to the Darlinghurst home of David Scott Mitchell, whose collection became the basis for the Mitchell Library. He was once sacked by the impatient Robertson only to be re-employed a week later by Fred Wymark as
his ‘boy’. Robertson soon wanted him as his ‘boy’ and he was shared amongst the two. Robertson once, on noticing Spencer's slight frame, insisted on taking him out for dinner every night for a month.
Spencer eventually became head of Angus and Robertson's secondhand department, and the friend and confidant of Sydney collectors such as (Sir) William Dixson and (Sir) John Ferguson, Robertson's son-in-law and compiler of the seven-volume Bibliography of Australia.
Deciding to set up on his own in Melbourne, Spencer borrowed £1000 from the noted collector H.L. White. According to Spencer, the loan was obtained in the following way:
HLW: Why do you wish to see me?
AHS: I want you to lent me a thousand pounds.
HLW: Just like that, eh? All right you can have it. What do you want it for?
AHS. To go to Melbourne to set up in business.
The money was lent with no surety but Spencer was able to pay it back with seven percent interest within three years.
Spencer also had the support and encouragement of the Melbourne doctor and book collector, F. Hobill Cole and of George Robertson himself. Cole found him a shop at the top end of Bourke Street and Robertson sent down one of his men down to design, measure and oversee the erection of the shelving and fittings. Spencer was unsure what to call his business but, as he later wrote, he was ‘given’ a name during a walk in the Fitzroy Gardens when ‘the elm-trees and the plane-trees and the poplars said, “Call it the Hill of Content”’. This he did and the bookshop at 86 Bourke Street opened under that name in 1922.
The building was small (the actual shop area itself being only thirty-five feet by nineteen feet) and the family lived at the rear of the premises. In 1927, with the lease expiring, Spencer convinced the owners to demolish the old building and erect a new three-story one. While this was being done, the business was transferred down the road to the Eastern Market for several months in 1928. Very quickly the new shop emerged as a major outlet for antiquarian, secondhand and fine new books. Its visitors and customers included such luminaries as Dame Nellie Melba, John Masefield when he was here for the Victorian Centenary Celebrations in 1934, Lionel Lindsay, Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, as well as various Governors, and members of the medical and legal professions.
In the 1920s Spencer was incredibly fortunate to handle the dispersal of the libraries of Robert Sticht, F Hobill Cole and H L White. The spectacular Sticht collection — discussed elsewhere in this issue — came to Spencer in the year he opened in Melbourne and helped ensure the success of the business. The other two libraries were icing on the cake. Spencer also maintained contact with Sydney collectors, especially Sir William Dixson, and successfully attracted the custom of Melbourne's notable citizens and bibliophiles. A limited number of books were published by the business, which formed itself into a private company.

The first Hill of Content Bookshop : frontispiece to A. H. Spencer, The Hill of Content, Sydney,Angus and Robertson, 1959.

Wallace Kirsop in his Australian Dictionary of Biography entry on Spencer provides the following succinct summary of his bookselling career:
… his bookselling style was far removed from clinical professionalism …[He] asserted the strength of English tradition in his approach to the world of books. For all the sentimentalism of his decidedly avuncular stance, he remained an accomplished technician, an astute marketer of his own book, a clever advertiser and an uncompromising stickler for the right of the retailer to set his own prices. In the difficult decades between 1920 and 1950 he helped to give Melbourne and Australia a sense of the mission of antiquarian bookselling.
Spencer had hoped that his son would join the business but, after surviving five years service in the RAAF during the war, Greg Spencer was killed shortly after being demobilized when he was struck by two cars in succession on a dark and rainy Melbourne night. His death was a major blow to Spencer and although he continued to run the business for a further four or so years, his heart was no longer in it, and in 1951 he sold the Hill of Content to Angus & Robertson. Thereafter, working for his old employer, he busied himself for several months in superintending the transfer of Dixson's collection to the State Library of New South Wales, handling again many of the choice items he had sold to Dixson. He later issued catalogues and sold books privately from his Sandringham home. He also wrote his memoirs and pursued his love of bushwalking. As his health became frail, he was supported by help from friends and neighbours, but his last years were saddened by the deaths of his wife (1964) and daughter. He died at Parkville on 20 February 1971 and was cremated.
Spencer's memoirs were published as The Hill of Content: Books, Art, Music, People by Angus and Robertson in 1959 and are an enjoyable read. Like his friend R H Croll's I Recall (1939), they are at times chatty and nostalgic and reveal the pleasures and prejudices of their generation. In addition to providing an account of his bookselling career and a history of the Hill of Content, Spencer gives some good pen portraits of people he knew well such as David Scott Mitchell, George Robertson, Fred Wymark and Henry Lawson. The one on Lawson is particularly worth reading.

Caricature of A. H. Spencer by Wells. Reproduced from A. H. Spencer, The Hill of Content, Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1959.

A Hill of Content bookshop still operates at 86 Bourke Street in the same three-story building that was erected on Spencer's recommendation in 1928. For a long time it has been part of the Collins chain. The fact that it has always been — pre- and post-Spencer — one of Melbourne's quality bookshops is its founder's enduring legacy to his adopted City.