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They had no Shelf Control: book thieves in colonial Sydney

Opened book, Photo by Su Westerman, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) Photo by Su Westerman, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
For as long as we have had books, books have had value. Intellectual value, sentimental value and, of course, cash value. Sydneysiders have had access to books since the arrival of the First Fleet. These items were, of course, scarce and, although some books were printed locally, the bound volumes we take for granted today were in generally short supply until regular book importations began in the 1820s. For some, such a rare commodity conferred prestige and privilege. For others, it was a commercial opportunity.   

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The first case – may I call it a bookcase? – I want to talk about today is that of book thief James Newt who stole some scientific texts in late-1805. The victim was a 'Medical Gentleman', one who drew significant sympathy from the press. Indeed, the newspaper report of the day was scathing of Newt: In the commission of the crime there was certainly a presumption of wantonness difficult to be paralleled: — The prisoner had never endured scholastic discipline, and could neither write nor read, so that as all authors were equally unintelligible, the size alone could stamp the value of each work. Newt orchestrated this heist on his own, but he did manage to entangle a female companion in his crime. In a move that would place his wrongdoing on full display, Newt rewarded a woman – who was 'just as learned as himself' according to the Sydney Gazette – for commenting on the beauty of the books: he gave her, to recognise such good taste, a 'valuable set of plates mercilessly torn from a book of Anatomy.'
Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 10 November 1805, p2, via TrovieSydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 10 November 1805, p2, via Trovie Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 10 November 1805, p2, via Trove
Now, Newt and his friend could have carefully hidden this terrible crime. A bit of careful talk with a potential buyer behind a pub. A surreptitious sale. Instead, the crime went on display. Literally. The woman who received the Anatomy plates was enamoured by the wonderful images and used them to decorate her apartment. Then, in 'the course of his professional routine' the Medical Gentleman 'accidentally visited the house, and in every corner had the mortification to be presented with a mutilated relick of his irreparable loss.' The book was never recovered, and Newt was sentenced to three years of public labour, a severe and terrible punishment at the time. Lawyer Sydney Stephen was the victim of a partnership between two 'ancient worthies' when he had a book stolen from his offices in December 1831. Bridget (Biddy) McMahon did the actual thieving. She passed the book – volume two of William Russell’s Crimes and Indictable Misdemeanours– to Hugh MacAvoy (McEvoy or McIvoy or Boyd). If only they had taken some time to review the contents of Russell’s work, valued at 7s. Instead, MacAvoy took the book and tried to sell it at Hawthorn’s public house on Cumberland Street. To his credit, he tried to fetch a reasonable price by seeking to exchange the text 'for half a pint of rum, and some money.' Police were soon onto the pair (with no need to go under cover), as Hawthorn, the publican, had MacAvoy all stitched up. Hawthorn could see the name 'Mr. Sydney Stephen' written in the front, though partially erased. Hawthorn challenged MacAvoy. Then, in a move that took a bit of spine, MacAvoy asserted the book had been 'in his possession for twenty years'. Yet, the title page of the book clearly revealed that it had been printed only five years before. The game was up. MacAvoy admitted McMahon had given him the book to sell: the book had not been in his possession for even 'ten minutes'! He claimed that, 'being himself somewhat intoxicated at the time', he simply did as McMahon asked, not stopping to think that she might have actually acquired the book 'dishonestly'. And if he had known the book  was law he 'would as lief had to do with the devil'. Not all was lost for our tiddly handler of stolen goods. He was able to secure some respectable character witnesses who were only too willing to tell the Court that he was a good person (though, they admitted, he was 'unfortunately addicted to excessive drinking, which has reduced him from a state of comparative affluence'. Both prisoners were bound to be found guilty, and they were; but the Jury strongly recommended MacAvoy to the mercy of the Court. McMahon was sentenced to six months imprisonment in the Sydney Gaol, while MacAvoy was given a much lighter sentence: a six week stay in the same institution. We can only hope they both turned over a new page once they were out of gaol. We can all borrow or buy books quite easily today, with many books also now available to read online for free. So, don’t be a Newt. (Oh, and don’t cut up books either.) Do you have a Library card? While our libraries are closed at the moment, you can still use your card to access your library's digital resources, including books, magazines and more in many cases.  You can still apply online for a card at the State Library of New South Wales for access to their e-resources too. There are also lots of booksellers in Sydney who would be delighted to take your order remotely and deliver or post your books to you. Apply online for a State Library of NSW card here. Dr Rachel Franks is the Coordinator, Education & Scholarship at the State Library of New South Wales and a Conjoint Fellow at the University of Newcastle. She holds a PhD in Australian crime fiction and her research on crime fiction, true crime, popular culture and information science has been presented at numerous conferences. An award-winning writer, her work can be found in a wide variety of books, journals and magazines as well as on social media. She's appearing for the Dictionary today in a voluntary capacity. Thank you Rachel!  For more, listen to the podcast with Rachel & Alex here, and tune in to 2SER Breakfast with Alex James on 107.3 every Wednesday morning to hear more stories from the Dictionary of Sydney. REFERENCES 'No Title.' The Sydney Monitor (Sydney, NSW), 21 January 1832, p5 'Sydney.' The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (Sydney, NSW), 10 November 1805, p2 'Police Report.' (1832, January 5). The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (Sydney, NSW), 5 January 1832, p3 'Sydney Quarter Sessions'. The Australian (Sydney, NSW), 20 January 1832, p4 'Sydney Quarter Sessions.' The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (Sydney, NSW), 19 January 1832, p3 'Police.' The Sydney Monitor (Sydney NSW), 21 Jan 1832, p5 The Sydney Monitor (Sydney NSW), 21 Jan 1832, p5 'Sydney Quarter Sessions.' The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (Sydney, NSW), 3 March 1832, p3 Webby, Elizabeth. 'Colonial Writers and Readers.' The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature, edited by Elizabeth Webby. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000, pp. 50–73.
Blog 2SER Breakfast Alex James anatomy biblioklept book thieves Bridget McMahon crime James Newt John McAvoy law books medical books men sydney history women