MITCHELL, David Scott (1836-1907)


MITCHELL, David Scott (1836-1907)
founder of the Mitchell library, Sydney
was born at Sydney on 19 March 1836. His father, Dr James Mitchell, had come to Australia in 1821 as an army surgeon, and two years later was appointed assistant surgeon at the military hospital, Macquarie-street, Sydney. He afterwards became the owner of 50,000 acres in the Hunter River valley which included rich coal-bearing land. He married in 1833 Augusta Maria, daughter of Dr Helenus Scott. In 1837 he left the hospital and lived in Cumberland-street, Sydney. There his son grew up in an atmosphere of culture and learning, and at the age of 16 became a student in the first year of the university of Sydney. He graduated B.A. in 1856 with honours in classics, and M.A. in 1859. He was called to the bar but did not practise, and assisted in the management of the Hunter River estates. He was quite a normal young man, a good cricketer and dancer, a skilful whist player, and a good amateur actor. He was already forming a collection of books. His health, however, was not perfect, he felt the death of his mother very much, and after his father died in 1869, there was a lawsuit over the will and a publication of family affairs very distasteful to a man of sensitive disposition. He began to withdraw from the world, and the formation of his library became his chief interest. He built up a fine library of English literature, specializing in poetry and sixteenth and seventeenth century books, and gradually began to collect early Australian books and manuscripts. Once a week he went the round of the bookshops and his enthusiasm and perseverance were unbounded. He had a fine memory and great taste and discrimination, but as time went on he saw that even the most obscure and apparently worthless pamphlet might throw some light on its time. Though withdrawn from society he welcomed genuine students such as A. W. Jose (q.v.) and Bertram Stevens (q.v.), especially if they were interested in Australian problems. He was anxious that the state might have the benefit of his collections, but was in much doubt as to the best way of bringing this about. Eventually, after a conference with the Sydney public librarian, he informed the trustees in October 1898 that he was willing to bequeath his collection to the library, if a suitable building were provided and if the books would be available to students. The offer was accepted. There was, however, a long delay in starting a building, and Mitchell felt obliged to suggest that the bequest would be cancelled if the books were not housed a year after the owner's death. In June 1905 the premier, Mr J. H. Carruthers (q.v.), instructed the government architect to prepare designs for a library, and the work was begun early in 1906. Mitchell died on 24 July 1907 and his great collection became the property of the state. In addition a sum of £70,000 was bequeathed, the income from which has been spent in adding to the collection. It has since been found possible to add much additional material to the library, and it is now invaluable to all students of Australian history and literature. In 1936, in commemoration of the centenary of Mitchell's birth, the trustees of the public library of New South Wales published The Mitchell Library, Sydney, Historical and Descriptive Notes. Written by the librarian Miss Ida Leeson, this volume gives some suggestion of the wealth of original manuscripts and books that may be found in the library.
Mitchell's retiring nature would not allow him to agree to having his portrait painted. That prefixed to the centenary volume was done from a photograph, after his death. He would never be interviewed and his kindliness was only known to the few students who had the privilege of being associated with him. He never married but was glad to think that the library would be a permanent memorial of his family.
The Sydney Morning Herald, 3 February 1869; Ida Leeson, The Mitchell Library Sydney; A. W. Jose, The Lone Hand, September 1907; Bertram Stevens, The Lone Hand, October 1907; Sydney Morning Herald, 25 July 1939.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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