Sir John Alexander Ferguson (1881–1969), who was the son of a Presbyterian minister, was born in Invercargill, New Zealand. His family moved to Sydney in 1894 and he was educated at the William Street Superior School and the University of Sydney. He was admitted to the Sydney Bar in 1905. He developed an active practice in most branches of the law, but gradually he came to specialise in industrial law. He appeared in appeal cases in the Supreme Court of New South Wales and the High Court and chaired a number of wages boards. In 1934 he became the first lecturer in industrial law at Sydney University and in the following year was appointed a judge of the New South Wales Industrial Commission. He retired in 1951.

As a young man, Ferguson became deeply interested in Australian history He was twice president of the Royal Australian Historical Society. His interest in history was closely linked to his passion for bibliography and book collecting. In 1917–18 he published A Bibliography of the New Hebrides and in the following years he embarked on bibliographies of imaginary voyages, works ascribed to George Barrington, the Pacific Islands, Australia in World War I, John Dunmore Lang, Queensland and the Australian Aboriginal people. In the 1920s he started work on his magnum opus, The Bibliography of Australia. The first volume, covering the years 1784–1830, was published in 1941 and the seventh volume, bringing the work up to 1900, appeared shortly after his death in 1969. He was knighted in 1961 in recognition of his achievements as a bibliographer.

Ferguson began collecting books at an early age and over the years he extended his collecting to manuscripts, maps, printed ephemera, newspapers, paintings, drawings, prints and photographs. He was encouraged by his father-in-law, the publisher and bookseller George Robertson, and he enlisted the help of many acquaintances in the Presbyterian Church. For instance, ministers in country towns often supplied him with local and church histories and obscure pamphlets, while missionaries in the Pacific Islands were the source of many of the publications in his formidable Pacific collection. Much of his early Australiana was purchased from antiquarian booksellers in Britain and North America, most notably Francis Edwards in London. The great period of Ferguson’s collecting was the 1920s when his legal practice was flourishing, he had acquired a large house, and he had the energy and resources to deal simultaneously with an extraordinary range of booksellers, collectors, librarians, writers, editors and printers, as well as the descendants of notable figures in Australian history. In later years, he was faced with a lower salary, the needs of a young family and rising prices for early Australiana, while the demands of the Bibliography reduced the time that he could spend on his collection. Nevertheless, he continued to collect books, and occasionally other materials, until the last years of his life.

A Bibliography of the New Hebrides

The Bibliography of Australia


Ferguson first visited the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library in 1910 and after World War I he was in regular touch with the Library, exchanging duplicates and checking bibliographical details. In 1937 he proposed that the Ferguson Collection be established within the Library and the offer was promptly accepted. He began transferring his sociological pamphlets in 1938 and they were followed by newspapers, World War I journals, maps and prints. In 1954 the Library purchased his poetry collection and thereafter the numerous instalments were sold rather than donated. In 1970, following his death, the remainder of the collection, including the voyages, early Australiana and manuscripts, were purchased from the Ferguson family.


The Ferguson Collection is the largest and most diverse collection ever acquired by the Library. It was said to contain about 32 000 items, but this figure almost certainly excludes issues of journals and newspapers or the items within manuscript collections. A short description can do little more than highlight some of the strengths of the collection.

Printed Materials

Early books on Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific form the core of the Ferguson Collection. It is extremely strong in accounts of Pacific voyages in several languages, in imaginary voyages to the South Seas, and in the books listed in the Bibliography of Australia. For instance, of about 1500 books listed for the period 1784-1830, Ferguson held copies of about 480, a very high proportion for a private collector. Many of these works are extremely rare and in some cases the only known copy is in the Ferguson Collection. The following are a few examples of rare editions in the collection:

Bond, George, A Brief Account of the Colony of Port Jackson (1803)

Burney, James, A Chronological History of the Discoveries in the South Sea or Pacific Ocean (5 vols, 1803–17)

The Genuine Life and Trial of George Barrington [1790?]

The History of New Holland from its Discovery in 1616 to the Present Day (1808)

Hawkesworth, John, An Account of the Voyages Undertaken by the Order of His Present Majesty, for Making Discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere (Dublin, 1773)

Hume, Hamilton, A Brief Statement of Facts in Connexion with an Overland Expedition from Lake George to Port Phillip in 1824 (1855 [only known copy of 24-page edition])

King, Phillip Parker, ;Narrative of a Survey of the Intertropical and Western Coasts of Australia (2 vols, 1826)

Parau no Iesu Christ te temaidi no te Atua (1814 [first dated work in Tahitian])

Parker, Mary Ann, A Voyage Round the World in the Gorgon Man of War, Captain John Parker (1795)

Pelsaert, Francisco, Ongelluckige voyagie van het schip Batavia (1648)

Phillip, Arthur, Copies and Extracts of Letters from Governor Phillip (1792)

Puteshestvie v iuzhnoi polovinie zemnago shara ivokrug onago: uchinennoe v prodolzhenie 1772, 73, 74 i 75 godov… (5 vols, St Petersburg, 1796–1800)

Slater, John, A Description of Sydney, Parramatta, Newcastle, &c. (1819)

The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay (Dublin [1790?])

Wallis, James, An Historical Account of the Colony of New South Wales and its Dependent Settlements: In Illustration of Twelve Views (1821)

Zimmermann, Heinrich, Dernier voyage du Capitaine Cook autour du monde (Berne, 1782).

Ferguson attempted to collect Australian books and pamphlets generally, at least up to 1900, but he recognised that in the twentieth century collectors needed to specialise. He identified 30 fields of collecting, of which the following are the most substantial:

  • Australian and New Zealand poetry
  • sociology and economics
  • church history (especially the Presbyterian Church)
  • publications in the vernacular languages of the Pacific Islands
  • publications of Angus & Robertson
  • publications relating to Australia at war
  • Australian local histories.

Other fields included Pacific Islands history, New Zealand history, convicts and transportation, history of Federation, fine art books, bibliography, standard English authors, James Cook, law, general science, R.L. Stevenson, Scottish material and biography.

Like the Petherick Collection, the Ferguson Collection is extremely strong in pamphlets, booklets, leaflets, broadsides and other kinds of printed ephemera. For instance, there are 3010 poetry pamphlets, 1044 religious pamphlets, 3296 local and church history pamphlets, 535 biography pamphlets, 3010 sociology pamphlets and about 750 World War I pamphlets. ‘Sociology’ encompassed a wide range of subjects, including political parties, elections, socialism, communism, fascism, nationalism, civil liberties, women’s rights, economic theory, employment and unemployment, industrial regulation, trade unions, international trade, social services, public health and education. The Pacific Islands imprints, which date from about 1840 to 1966, are mostly pamphlets. The strongest holdings are in Maori, Fijian and the languages of Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. Another category of ephemera in the collection is the numerous cutting books, including the 79 volumes compiled by the librarian and writer C.H. Bertie.

As well as books, pamphlets and printed ephemera, the Ferguson Collection contains lengthy runs of numerous magazines, periodicals and other serials. There are several sets of law reports and the transcripts of proceedings of the Industrial Commission of New South Wales (1936–51). The following examples illustrate the variety of periodicals:

Annual Register (1789–1826)

Australia To-day (1911–29)

Australian Journal (1866–79)

Australian Philatelist (1891–1921)

Bookfellow (1911–15)

Communist Review (1935–61)

Hermes (1895–1929)

Home (1920–42)

Messenger of the Presbyterian Church of New South Wales (1904-1923)

Metal Trades Journal (1947–70)

Le Néo Hébridais (1909–22)

New South Wales Presbyterian (1926–65)

United Aborigines Messenger (1931–54)

Wesleyan Chronicle (1865–74)

Wesleyan Methodist Magazine (1822–91).

Similarly, the collection is extremely strong in newspapers. Examples of newspapers in the collection are:

Empire (1852–69)

Common Cause (1921–54)

Direct Action (1914–16)

International Socialist (1908–20)

One Big Union Herald (1918–25)

Revolutionary Socialist (1919–22).


The Ferguson Collection contains 415 manuscripts or manuscript collections, making it the largest of the formed collections within the Manuscripts Collection. They range in date from 1772 to about 1950 and are remarkably diverse: ships’ logs, letters, diaries, literary manuscripts, addresses, lecture notes, vocabularies, petitions, title deeds, land grants, indentures, wills, minute books, ledgers, local histories, memoirs, cutting books and currency. They predominantly relate to Australia, in particular New South Wales in the nineteenth century, but also include documents concerning Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, the New Hebrides, Tonga and other Pacific Islands. There is also an important group of papers concerning the New Australia settlement in Paraguay, including papers of William Lane and a set of Cosme Monthly (1894–96).

One of the outstanding items in the Ferguson Collection is the journal kept by James Burney in 1772–73. Burney, a member of a distinguished artistic family, was a midshipman on HMS Adventure on Cook’s second voyage to the Pacific. The collection is extremely strong in ships’ logs, journals kept by naval officers, and shipboard diaries of emigrants and travellers. A few examples are the log of Lord Byron on HMS Blonde in the Pacific (1824–26), journals and papers of Phillip Parker King on HMS Adventure in South American waters (1826–30), the log of Samuel Swain on the whaling ship Vigilant (1831–35), and the diary of an emigrant S.E. Roberts, kept on a six-month voyage to South Australia in 1848.

Another strength are records concerning New South Wales in the nineteenth century. They include minute books and other records of the Wesleyan Missionary Society in New South Wales (1817–74), papers of the Reverend Samuel Marsden and the families of Simeon Lord and Sir John Dowling, correspondence of the journalist Edward Smith Hall (1815–41), an order book of the New South Wales Military Police (1834–41), the journal The Collegian (1834–35), a letterbook of the politician Sir Stuart Donaldson (1835-56) and autobiographical notes of the zoologist Gerard Krefft. In addition, there are papers of several Presbyterian ministers, such as John Dunmore Lang, John Kinross, T.S. Forsaith, and Ferguson’s father, the Reverend John Ferguson.

Ferguson acquired manuscripts, letters and other papers of several notable writers of the nineteenth century: Henry Kendall, Charles Harpur, Rolf Boldrewood, James Brunton Stephens and Victor Daley. He extended the collection well into the twentieth century, with manuscripts of Christopher Brennan, Roderic Quinn, Mary Grant Bruce and Seaforth Mackenzie.

Other examples of Australian manuscripts include Tasmanian convict documents; the diaries and papers of John Pascoe Fawkner in Melbourne; a diary of John Ward, a convict at Norfolk Island (1841–42); letterbooks of the Reverend F.A. Hagenauer, the superintendent of an Aboriginal mission in Victoria (1865–85); correspondence of the economist and jurist William Hearn (1862–86); papers of the journalist and socialist R.S. Ross (1907–27); a minute book of the Socialist Labor Party of Australia (1909–16); and letters of the actress Nellie Stewart (1924–31).

The collection has a number of Maori documents and vocabularies and grammars of Pacific Island languages. Apart from naval journals, most of the Pacific manuscripts consist of letters and other papers of missionaries, particularly Presbyterian missionaries in the New Hebrides.


The Ferguson Collection contains about 1000 maps and plans, both published and unpublished, the great majority being cadastral plans of New South Wales. They mostly date from the period 1830–1920 and include plans of counties, towns, villages, parishes, sections, estates, land grants and building allotments. Many were published by the New South Wales Surveyor General’s Department, while others are the work of private surveyors. There are a much smaller number of plans for the other states, with Tasmania being the best represented. Among the Tasmanian holdings are a useful group of maps produced by the Van Diemen’s Land Company in 1827–31.

There are a small number of general maps of Australia, the various states, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and the New Hebrides. There are also charts of ports and maps of railways, goldfields, exploration and local government. The growth of Sydney is well documented, the earliest map in the collection (F306) being a survey of settlement in New South Wales, with manuscript notes by Arthur Phillip dated 2 December 1792.

In 1920–23 Ferguson purchased from W.H. Pritchard, a real estate agent, a remarkable collection of about 7000 real estate sale plans, dating back to the 1840s. They are generally of poster size and are often in colour. They provide a detailed record of the growth of the suburbs of Sydney and, to a much lesser extent, several country towns and cities such as Katoomba, Blackheath, Gosford, Newcastle, Moss Vale, Bowral, Dalgety and Wollongong.


Music forms the smallest component of the Ferguson Collection. It comprises eight albums and about 210 sheet music items, almost entirely published in Australia or written by Australians. They include nineteenth-century salon songs, patriotic songs, anthems, waltzes, quadrilles, polkas and other piano pieces. The most substantial group are the songs and other compositions of Isaac Nathan, published between about 1815 and 1864.


Ferguson was not an active art collector, but paintings and drawings occasionally came into his possession. There are 28 items in his collection, including five pencil and wash sketches of Sydney by George French Angas (1852–53), a watercolour of Mount Wingen by Conrad Martens (1865) and a watercolour of SS Coonabaraby Frederick Garling (1866). The outstanding work in the collectionis a sketchbook which was previously attributed to Sophia Campbell, but was actually created by her brother-in-law, Charles Edward Close (1790-1866). Close was a capable sketcher and watercolourist, army engineer, landowner and magistrate at Morpeth on the Hunter River, NSW. The title of this very interesting volume is, Sketchbook of scenes of Sydney, Broken Bay, Newcastle and region, New South Wales, and it records, in meticulous detail coastal scenery, buildings and people in Sydney and Newcastle in the period 1817 to 1840.

On the other hand, Ferguson collected a wide range of engravings, lithographs and other kinds of prints documenting New Zealand and the Pacific as well as Australia. The earliest of the 750 prints in his collection are the works of William Hodges and John Webber on Cook’s voyages. There is a good representation of the artists on French voyages such as Nicolas Petit, Jacques Arago, Alphonse Pellion and Louis de Sainson. The largest group of prints are by the leading artists of the early and mid-nineteenth century including Joseph Lycett, Augustus Earle, John Skinner Prout, S.T. Gill, Eugene von Guerard, Ludwig Becker and Conrad Martens. There are many portraits of public figures in Britain and Australia in the late nineteenth century and city panoramas, streetscapes and bush scenes, some of them from illustrated newspapers.

The collection contains 25 photograph albums and many hundreds of loose photographs, the bulk of them dating from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The principal subject is Sydney and its surroundings, including panoramas and photographs of streets, buildings and the harbour. Among other cities depicted are Newcastle, Melbourne, Hobart and Rockhampton. Another strength is the New Hebrides (Vanuatu), with many photographs of the landscape, villages and villagers, ceremonies, houses of planters and the recruitment of labourers. There are also photographs of New Zealand, Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Hawaii. The photographers include Anson Brothers (Hobart), Alfred Burton (Dunedin), Charles Kerry (Sydney), Henry King (Sydney), J.W. Lindt (Melbourne) and Charles Nettleton (Melbourne).

Personal Papers

The papers of Ferguson are extensive, occupying 106 boxes, but very few have survived from before about 1918. From then onwards, there is an extensive correspondence with booksellers, collectors and librarians, mainly dealing with the Bibliography of Australia and Ferguson’s collecting activities. There is a small quantity of family correspondence. Other papers include invoices and financial records, drafts of articles and other writings, cutting books and loose cuttings, photographs, printed ephemera, and drafts and proofs of the Bibliography of Australia.


The books, pamphlets and periodicals in the Ferguson Collection are kept together as a formed collection within the Australian Collection. They have been catalogued individually and are arranged in a number of sequences. For instance, items covered in the Bibliography of Australia are shelved by the bibliography number, others have been given Dewey numbers, and others form a numerical sequence (7782 items). The poetry, biography, religion, sociology and local history pamphlets each form a separate sequence. On the other hand, the Pacific Island pamphlets have Dewey numbers and the World War I and World War II pamphlets are shelved in the numerical sequence. The abbreviations JAF, FC or FERG in the call numbers or catalogue entries denote that the items are part of the Ferguson Collection. Many of the pamphlet runs, such as the Ferguson Bibliography Pamphlets and the World War I pamphlets, as well as broadsides and other ephemera, have been digitised and are available online.

A small number of pre-1800 non-Australian books, including imaginary voyages, are held in the Rare Books Collection. The call numbers have the prefix RB JAF. The newspapers in the Ferguson Collection have been integrated in the Newspapers Collection.

The manuscripts are kept together within the Manuscripts Collection at MSS 3201–3624. They have been catalogued individually. A small number, such as the diaries of Rolf Boldrewood, have been microfilmed. The journal of James Burney was published by the Library under the title With Captain James Cook in the Antarctic and Pacific: The Private Journal of James Burney, Second Lieutenant of the Adventure on Cook’s Second Voyage, 1772–1773 (1975). It was edited by Beverley Hooper.

The personal papers of Ferguson are also held in the Manuscripts Collection at MS 3200. There is a partial listing, but they have not yet been fully arranged or listed.

The maps and plans are kept together as a formed collection within the Maps Collection. They have been catalogued individually and the great majority have been digitised and are available online. The call numbers of the maps have the prefix MAP F. The majority of the sale plans are arranged alphabetically by place and are bound in volumes; they are also accessible on microfiche. The call numbers of the loose sale plans, which number about 2800, contain the abbreviation LFSP.

The music in the Ferguson Collection is kept together within the Music Collection. It occupies nine boxes. The items have been catalogued and the call numbers have the prefix MUS N JAF. Many of the Isaac Nathan scores have been digitised and are accessible on the Library’s website.

The paintings, drawings and prints are held in the Pictures Collection at various locations. Only a portion of them have been catalogued and the catalogue entries often do not refer to the Ferguson Collection. A small number have been digitised, including the Sophia Campbell sketchbook. The photographs are also held in the Pictures Collection. The 25 albums are not kept together but are integrated in the main run of photograph albums. The majority of loose photographs are kept together as a collection, while the others are filed under geographical names and other subject headings.


Baker, D.W.A., Bibliographer and Collector: The Legacy of Sir John Ferguson, National Library of Australia News, vol. 9 (6), March 1999, pp. 13–15.

Else-Mitchell, R., Ferguson, Sir John Alexander (1881–1969), Australian Dictionary of Biography Online

Fanning, Pauline, The Ferguson Collection, Australian Library Journal, vol. 19 (10), November 1969, pp. 341–9.

Ferguson, James, John Alexander Ferguson: preserving our past, inspiring our future, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 2011.

Powell, Graeme, The Great Bookmen: E.A. Petherick and J.A. Ferguson, in Peter Cochrane (ed.), Remarkable Occurrences: The National Library of Australia’s First 100 Years 1901–2001, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 2001, pp. 41–59.

Richardson, G.D., The Instruction and Good of His Country: Sir John Ferguson, Libraries, and the Historical Record, John Ferguson, Sydney, 1977.