Sit John Alexander Ferguson

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					           Putting the
       Ferguson Collection
           on the Map
        Yellowing auctioneers' bills of land sales and dusty plans
    of suburban lots bring the past to life. Penelope Layland delves
    into the secrets and memories held in the Ferguson Collection,
               in the National Library's Maps Collection

S       it John Alexander Ferguson
        was a passionate collector, a
        man who believed that many
of the things which people regard as
the ephemera of their daily lives—
newspapers, pamphlets and so on—
might be crucial to future historians
trying to build a picture of the past.
      Ferguson, who was born in
1881 and died in 1969, is probably
best remembered today as the
bibliographer who undertook the
mammoth task of recording all the
monographs that had been published
in Australia since the time of
European settlement. He was
associated with the bookseller
George Robertson (of Angus and
Robertson fame) whose daughter he
married in 1906. His name might be
familiar too to lawyers poring over
historical judgments of the New
South Wales Industrial Commission,
where Ferguson was a judge.
       Books were one passion of
Ferguson's life, and one which never
palled. But deep under the Ground
Floor of the National Library of
Australia is a third and equally
important reason to remember
Ferguson. It is here that his vast
collection of rare maps and real
estate sales plans are stored.
       Ferguson's interest in history was
primarily one in social history, not the
political intrigues and wars which
shape countries, but the shifting
boundaries and subdivisions which                      In 1881, Sylvania was a 'townlet' on the Georges River.
shape cities and which transformed                 The poster's condition shows the fragility of paper from this period
Australia around the turn of the            Fron the Ferguson Collection, the Maps Collection. Photographed by NLA Photographics

M   A Y   1993                                                                                                                     7
                                                                                                     South Wales. The second is made up
                                                                                                     of more than 7000 real estate plans,
                                                                                                     again mostly of Sydney or nearby
                                                                                                     towns, though some of the plans are
                                                                                                     for places as far afield as the then
                                                                                                     fledgling city of Perth.
                                                                                                           Precisely why, or how,
                                                                                                     Ferguson collected his maps is not
                                                                                                     clear—the file which might have
                                                                                                     given clues was destroyed in a fire at
                                                                                                     the National Library some years ago,
                                                                                                     but many of them were apparently
                                                                                                     traced at his request, on to
                                                                                                     membrane-thin butter paper, which
                                                                                                     the years have dealt with harshly.
                                                                                                     Many are so brittle they can scarcely
                                                                                                     be moved and many of the most
                                                                                                     fragile ones have undergone some
                                                                                                     preservation, being backed by linen
                                                                                                     or fine, Japanese tissue paper, or
                                                                                                     stored in transparent sleeves made of
                                                                                                     mylar, a clear inert film developed
                                                                                                     for use in the 'windows' in yacht
                                                                                                     sails. The light is kept low in the
                                                                                                     map store and the collection is
                                                                                                     hidden away in metal drawers to
               Some notices of land sales, detailing allotment and auctioneer                        keep dust levels down: dust and light
      From the Ferguson Collection, the Maps Collection. Photographed by NLA Photographics
                                                                                                     are the two big killers of paper.
century. The October 1991 issue of                     The Ferguson Collection is                           Of the five major rare map
National Library of Australia News ran            divided into two parts. The first is               collections held by the Library,
an article on the collecting activities of        made up of 900 or so cadastral maps                Ferguson's is the only one to
John Ferguson, in particular his                  (maps which show landownership)                    concentrate on cadastral maps. His
enormous contribution to the Library.             of Sydney and surrounding New                      career as a lawyer might have had

                             A public notice of real estate to be auctioned. Sketches show the location to advantage
                               From the Ferguson Collection, the Maps Collection. Photographed by NLA Photographics

8	                                                                                               NATIONAL Library of Australia News
much to do with his fascination with      drapers which would make life in                 pergola, the laundry and bathroom
maps. Some might have been                these nascent suburbs a vision of                were tacked on to the back. Roughly
acquired in the course of his             convenience and modernity. Many                  half the sales plans have been bound
profession and reveal his interests in    of these subdivisions ultimately did             (badly, unfortunately, upon cheap
mining and industrial development,        not proceed, for one reason or
as well as church history. A              another, and there is a certain                   These are plans of
comparison of maps in the same area       poignancy in that too. These are
drawn over time reveal much to            plans of what Sydney, or other towns              what Sydney ...
family historians and those               might have been but never became.
researching local history of the shift          Some of the sales plans are
                                                                                            might have been but
from rural to urban life, of the          embellished with sketches of                      never became
subdivision of vast properties, the       contemporary dwellings, providing
transition from estate to suburb, of      invaluable information for people in             paper even more fragile than that on
farm to industrial tract.                 the last decade of the twentieth                 which the plans were printed). But
      Many of the maps contain            century who buy an old home for                  slipped between the pages of these
painstakingly drawn, miniature            restoration and wonder what it                   volumes one can occasionally come
renditions of the stately homes and       looked like before the extension, the            upon auction pamphlets, listing, in
mansions which once reared above
the sheep paddocks which are now
Sydney suburbs, or sketches of town
halls, churches and other prominent
buildings, many of which once stood

Many of the names
of the estate agents
are familiar
on the site of today's freeways, office
blocks and shopping malls.
      Some of the maps bear the
signatures of their draughtsmen,
including that of James Meehan, one
of the first surveyors in Sydney, who
plotted and measured and set down
for future generations what Sydney
looked like when it was barely more
than a convict settlement.
      But if the maps are interesting,
the real estate sales plans are equally
so. Here, on cheap paper, in garish
ink, are the suburban dreams of
millions of Australians. How many
families stood and stared at these
simple posters in the windows of
turn-of-the-century real estate
agencies, dreaming of their own
quarter-acre block of land or city
terrace house, their own, brand-new
home in which to bring up their
families? Many of the names of the
estate agents are familiar, and the
sales pitch is the same as one would
hear today—close to amenities,
trains, schools, clean air...
       Occasionally, the plans even
detail the shopping centres to be
                                                            A sample of promotional material for land auctions—
found nearby, listing the butchers                          `the sales pitch is the same as one would hear today...'
and bakers and haberdashers and                From the Ferguson Collection, the Maps Collection. Photographed by NLA Photographics

MA Y 1 9 9 3	                                                                                                                         9
some instances, the entire contents               looking at a piece of paper they            of land, and many more seeking
of a deceased estate of the era, from             once held.                                  information about specific buildings
drawing boards and wash stands to                       People researching family or          in historic Sydney. Other inquiries
writing desks and cabinets.                       local history make up much of the           come from government agencies, or
      Also to be found slipped                    business of the National Library's          from publishers.
randomly through the decaying                     Maps Collection—about 60 per                      Though it may be a while
pages of these volumes are whole                  cent. The Ferguson Collection is            before the collection is properly
plans of actual houses. Gazing at                 particularly important in this              catalogued, the Maps Section of the
these leaves from history, it is easy             respect. Many people eventually visit       Library has developed pointers
to understand the passion which                   the places they have identified
grips those researching their family              through their search of library
history. Flimsy pieces of paper they              material, and even for those who do
                                                                                              Many people
might be, but they bring history                  not, just identifying a plot of land,       eventually visit the
alive, almost bring back the dead, to             locating it spatially, can mean much
smile once more as they                           more than simply reading about the          places they have
contemplate the plans of the home                 land in a council document. The
they intend to build, not for an                  Library has received calls from the
                                                                                              identified through
instant believing that one day a                  National Trust and numerous other           their search of
great-grandchild might stand in the               heritage organisations wanting to
basement of the National Library,                 know the history of particular pieces       library material
                                                                                              which can guide users to the
                                                                                              information they need, including
                                                                                              geographic access, references to
                                                                                              prominent landowners, the titles of
                                                                                              pieces of land, or the author of a
                                                                                              particular map.
                                                                                                    The sales plans have not yet
                                                                                              been catalogued. But they have been
                                                                                              grouped into suburbs and towns and
                                                                                              an index is being developed to the
                                                                                              half of the set which Ferguson had
                                                                                              bound. The loose half of the
                                                                                              collection is currently being filmed
                                                                                              and indexed.
                                                                                                    The Ferguson Collection is not
                                                                                              available for inter-library loan,
                                                                                              because of its fragility and the
                                                                                              difficulty of transporting items
                                                                                              which are not only flimsy but one-
                                                                                                    Flimsy they might be, but
                                                                                              Ferguson's huge collection of scraps
                                                                                              of paper, carefully spread maps and
                                                                                              diligently pasted sales plans are part
                                                                                              of Australia's history since European
                                                                                              settlement. They make you long to
                                                                                              have known Ferguson himself, the
                                                                                              man who spent years clipping and
                                                                                              pasting and storing what most
                                                                                              people of his age would have tossed
                                                                                              in the garbage, a man who must have
                                                                                              known that what he kept would
                                                                                              bring pleasure, knowledge and a
                                                                                              vivid glimpse of a nation-building
                                                                                              past to those who came after him.

             These vignettes are a detailftom plans promoting a block of land.
         Setting and features of the area were often shown by meticulous drawings              PENELOPE LAYLAND            is a Canberra
      From the Ferguson Collection, the Maps Collection. Photographed by NLA Photographics     journalist and poet

to	                                                                                          NATIONAL Library        of   Australia News

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