September 28, 2021

Old Places

Where we study the past to define our future

Old Library books

What happened to the Wallan Free Library books?

Wallan Free Library, the beautiful brick front section of the Wallan Hall, was opened on 28 August 1877 with a celebration at the Rechabite Hall1. The Wallan Hall was added later.

Books were donated to the library, and funds were raised through council grants and ongoing social events. Locals became members of the library through a subscription scheme. It’s reported that by 1891 Wallan had over 1000 books on its shelves.

Fundraising for Wallan Free Library
Kilmore Free Press, 7/8/1890

We know the library was well used in the beginning but by 1895 subscriber numbers were reported to be dropping. However, the committee still organised social events to fund the purchase of more books and probably to help with maintenance costs.

Library subscriber numbers dropping
Kilmore Free Press, 3/5/1894

There is very little mention of the Wallan Library in the early days of the 1900s. The room had become a venue for meetings and in 1912, had repairs made to its roof.

By 1915, Upper Plenty and Darraweit Guim were ready to open their own libraries and the Wallan committee threw their efforts into supporting those communities raise funds.

It all goes quiet for the next few years…

The next mention is in 1926, when there are records of fundraising and donations of books to what is now called the ‘new Wallan Lending Library.”

What happened in those intervening years? Where did the original books from the Wallan Free Library go? They seem to have disappeared.

Let’s look at what was happening in the world around that time.

By 1919 the war had ended, and soldiers were returning home. Along with them came Spanish Flu, later known as pneumonic influenza.

This epidemic spread quickly across Australia along with hysteria. The government moved to limit the spread of the disease by closing the borders between the states. When the infection was discovered in Victoria, we were quarantined. (Sounds familiar right now doesn’t it?)

Public meetings were prohibited, travel in long-distance trains was restricted, social events and cinemas were closed down. Events with more than twenty people were banned.

Most people were more interested in not catching the disease than they were in socialising. Instead of promoting dances and shows, local papers were filled with ads for medicinal cures and public inoculations.

Pneumonic influenza
Kilmore Free Press, 20/2/1919

There was even an application to the local council for the opening of a new private hospital at Tower House in Wallan.2

private hospital Wallan
Essendon Gazette, 7/6/17

By about April, it seemed the disease had passed but it hit back powerfully in June. Almost all of 1919 was spent either repatriating local soldiers or dealing with the Spanish Flu.

The flu affected Wallan and there are a number of graves in the local cemetery dating to this period.

In Victoria, schools did not resume after the Christmas holidays until 18 March and were closed again later in the year.

Closure of Wallan State School due to pneumonic influenza
The Age, 30/4/1919

So, what does this have to do with Wallan’s missing books?

Locals have the answer but there is very little evidence of the facts. The minutes of the Hall committee only go back to 1932 so what happened before that is not recorded.

Here are some hints.

This is an extract from a letter to the Courier Mail in Queensland.

“I would like to know if anything is being done in the matter of disinfecting public libraries and their contents. Books and papers, handled by so many hundreds daily, should, to my mind, receive early attention“. (Brisbane Courier, May 8, 1919)

This shows the level of public concern felt around the country.

Now, leap ahead to 1925 and the only mention I can find of the absent books. It’s a column in the Age newspaper commenting on the destruction of Wallan’s library books.

The destruction of Wallan's books
The Age, 27/3/1925

My third hint comes from Pretty Sally’s Hill by J.W. Payne and a 1929 letter from the Hall Committee discussing the books of record, which said, “When Secretary some years ago, Mr Cameron had the books and rubbish in the library destroyed as they were in a filthy state…”

This is the only evidence I have to support the story given to me by an elderly and long-term resident of Wallan, who told me that the books were all burnt in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease in the area. It was not made public because the local authorities wanted to stop the rising level of panic in the community.

She showed me a book and it was marked as being from the Wallan Free Library. She explained that she was given this book as a child by Mr Manthorpe who had some in his cupboard.

George Manthorpe was a member of the Hall and Library committees, so perhaps he ended up with books which were late being returned to the library?

The burning of the books wasn’t the end of the library.

By the late 1920s, fundraising Wallan had a new “lending library,” however, the Depression was arriving and soon afterwards came WWII. Life had dramatically changed since the library opened 50 years earlier.

new library open
Kilmore Free Press. 10/12/1925
Donation to Wallan lending Library
The Argus. 20/3/1926

Despite the donations of books and more fundraising events, the library never seemed to regain the same level of use or popularity. After the early 1930s, there is very little newspaper reference to the library at all.

Which in some ways brings me back to my original question…?

What happened to the books from the new Wallan Library?


[1] The Rechabite Hall seems to have been Wallan’s only public hall. Its foundation stone for the building was laid in 1871.

[2] Tower House seems to be the old Tower Hotel. The Kilmore Free Press of June 1926 says “The building known as Tower House which was de-licensed some years ago, was destroyed by fire on Monday morning…”