The Dictionary of Sydney is all about making Sydney’s history accessible, interesting and popular. If Charles H Bertie was alive today, he’d be right into the Dictionary of Sydney.
Charles Henry Bertie was the first librarian of the Sydney Municipal Library. But he was more than that – he was an antiquarian and book collector, a researcher and an author, who became recognised as the ‘authority on old Sydney’.
Born in 1875, Charles Bertie began working for Sydney Municipal Council in 1890 in the City Surveyor’s Department. He was an organised and ambitious youth, attending night classes at Sydney University. He began writing literary articles, and was an active member of private lending libraries and book clubs. By 24 years of age, Bertie was the chief clerk in the City Surveyor’s office, a position he was to hold for 10 years.
1909 was the year that changed him. Sydney Municipal Council inherited the Lending Branch of the NSW Public Library (now the NSW State Library) and advertised for a librarian to transform the library. Charles Bertie applied; his administrative and literary skills, along with strong vision and ambition won him the position of City Librarian.
Bertie revitalised the moribund public lending library, significantly improving its profile and facilities. Within a year, he had reorganised the cataloguing system and introduced open access, allowing readers to browse the books on the shelves. This was the start of the council public library as we know it today.
He also introduced a separate children’s library in 1918, the first of its kind in Australia.
He remained the City Librarian for 30 years, retiring in 1939. As his successors all acknowledged, ‘Mr Bertie had literally transformed the old lending branch into a modern, well organized public library’. (F. L. S. Bell, City Librarian, Journal of the RAHS, vol. 38 part 5, 1952, p.208)
Bertie’s interest in Australiana and history, and his appointment as City Librarian, allowed his interests in public history to flourish. Encouraged by his friends Ethel and George Foster, Charles Bertie joined in 1909 the recently formed Royal Australian Historical Society (RAHS). The first paper that Charles Bertie read before the Society was on Sydney’s Municipal History, and took place in 1910 a year after he had joined the society. The story of the city’s incorporation was subsequently published as a series in The Sun newspaper and then printed as a book by the Municipal Council.
Charles Bertie was a prolific researcher and writer, of both fiction and non-fiction pieces. His history pieces were aimed at a range of different audiences. His most scholarly works can be found in the Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, where he published many articles, and several books were based on papers delivered to the society. These were described as being histories in an ‘entertaining narrative form’ and were well received by the Press. These include a book on Vaucluse House, a pamphlet on Isaac Nathan, Australia’s first composer, a history of the formation of the municipal council and a history of old George Street.
These books were meticulously researched, and included not just photographs or historic watercolours, but also manuscripts, letters, foundation stones, programmes and ephemera amongst the profusely illustrated works. Charles Bertie’s grasp of historical sources and his use of illustrations as evidence, show a man deeply interested in conveying the sources of history.
Bertie’s more popularist books explored the subject of ‘Old Sydney’, presenting the histories of places and buildings in living memory. Titles included Stories of Old Sydney, Sydney Streets, Glimpses of Old Sydney, and Old Colonial Byways. He was part of a wider movement to document a rapidly modernising city in the early twentieth century. J.M. Forde under the nom de plum “Old Chum” began writing a regular column called ‘Old Sydney’ in the Truth. In 1902 an exhibition of pictures of Old Sydney was held at the Society of Artists’ Rooms on Pitt Street. By 1924 the Sydney Morning Herald reported, ‘Among our artists and writers there is a veritable cult of the past. Mr Julian Ashton, Mr Hardy Wilson, Mr Ure Smith, and others have perpetuated with pen and brush monuments and landmarks which sooner or later are doomed to disappear before the ruthless march of progress.’ (SMH 29 Nov 1924)
Bertie’s anecdotal, conversational style of writing was well suited to newspapers. He was widely published with articles in The Sun, Evening News, The Home and the Daily Telegraph. Initially his lectures were serialised, but later he had his own columns and presented series such as Highlights In Australian History, Pioneer Families in Australia, and Famous visitors to Australia. Bertie’s knowledge and prominence in the newspapers, along with his position as head librarian, gave him a public profile.
His personal papers are held in the Mitchell Library (ML MSS 157) and here we get a sense of his enthusiasm and the generosity with which he shared his knowledge. Many people wrote to Bertie to share or seek information. He happily shared references and tid-bits, always hoping to advance historical knowledge. This generosity to all researchers – be they students, journalists or the general public — endeared him to people, and won him many friends. It was a trait remembered and remarked upon by several of his colleagues.
Charles Bertie is a bit of a hero for me. He was one of the leading public historians in Sydney in the early twentieth century. And in many respects, he created a foundational layer upon which the Dictionary of Sydney is built. His curiosity and enthusiasm for sharing Sydney’s history is exactly what the Dictionary of Sydney is all about.
So I tip my hat to you, Mr Bertie. Thank you.
Dr Lisa Murray is the Historian of the City of Sydney and former chair of the Dictionary of Sydney Trust. She is the 20201 Dr AM Hertzberg AO Fellow at the State Library of New South Wales and the author of several books, including Sydney Cemeteries: a field guide. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Lisa, for ten years of unstinting support of the Dictionary! You can follow her on Twitter here: @sydneyclio