Philip Sydney Whelan (1873–1943) was born in Warwick, Queensland, and moved to Sydney with his parents in 1879. At school he met Christopher Brennan and he was later friendly with Henry Lawson, A.B. Paterson and Roderic Quinn. He ran away to sea at the age of 14 and spent years travelling throughout South America, the United States, England and Europe. In 1900 he returned to Australia and worked at the Mount Kosciusko Observatory for nearly three years and then transferred to the Weather Bureau in Brisbane. He later worked at the phosphate fields on Ocean Island and, at the time war broke out in 1914, he was managing a coconut plantation in the Solomon Islands. Whelan enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces and embarked overseas in June 1917. He was severely wounded at Villiers Brettoneaux in April 1918 and in November was discharged from the Army as ‘totally and permanently disabled’.
While convalescing at the Prince of Wales Military Hospital in Sydney, Whelan became acquainted with Mary Gilmore, who encouraged him in his hobby of collecting autographed books by Australian authors. He devoted the rest of his life to this task, corresponding with many literary figures and acquiring manuscripts as well as books. As he became better known, he no longer had to buy books but received them as gifts from a growing number of writers. By the time of his death, he had assembled over 300 books, all with autographs and many with much longer inscriptions.
Whelan donated his original collection of books and manuscripts to the Library in 1937. With the encouragement of Kenneth Binns, he continued to add to the collection for the next six years, by which time there were 579 books, 41 manuscripts and 177 letters. Following his death in 1943, W.G. Cousins of Angus & Robertson in Sydney and J.K. Moir of the Bread and Cheese Club in Melbourne, who had both been friends of Whelan, undertook to add books to the collection. Consignments were received regularly in the 1940s, and occasional donations were made by writers in later years. The last books to be added were presented by Florence Whelan, the sister of Whelan, in 1968–69.
The Whelan Collection contains about 1050 books by Australian authors, nearly all of them autographed and many containing lengthy annotations. Writers would often describe how the books came to be written and refer to influences on their writing, where the scenes of a story were really set, and on whom the characters were based. The books were published between 1892 and 1967, with the bulk of them dating from 1920–50. They form an extraordinary record of Australian publishing in those 30 years.
Novels and volumes of poetry make up a significant part of the collection. Among the writers represented are Christopher Brennan, Eleanor Dark, Frank Dalby Davison, Fred Davison, C.J. Dennis, James Devaney, Edward Dyson, Miles Franklin, Mary Gilmore, Jeannie Gunn, Xavier Herbert, Rex Ingamells, Marion Knowles, Henry Lawson, Will Lawson, Norman Lindsay, Hugh McCrae, Leonard Mann, Alan Marshall, Alan Mickle, Nina Murdoch, John Shaw Neilson, Will Ogilvie, Vance Palmer, A.B. Paterson, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Roderic Quinn, Steele Rudd, Kenneth Slessor, Charles Souter, Douglas Stewart, E.V. Timms and Arthur Upfield.
Whelan was interested in all kinds of Australian writing and collected books by historians, biographers, travel writers, war correspondents, aviators, politicians, ornithologists, entomologists, photographers, literary critics, essayists, artists, anthropologists, cricket writers and others. The following examples give an idea of the breadth of the collection: Charles Barrett, C.E.W. Bean, E.J. Brady, Neville Cayley, Alec Chisholm, Frank Clune, R.H. Croll, Charles Daley, A.P. Elkin, C. Brunsdon Fletcher, Ernestine Hill, W.M. Hughes, Frank Hurley, Ion Idriess, George Johnston, Arthur Jose, Victor Kennedy, Keith McKeown, R.G. Menzies, A.G. Moyes, Walter Murdoch, Eris O’Brien, Nettie Palmer, Colin Roderick, Alfred Searcy and P.G. Taylor.
Manuscripts and Personal Papers
The collection contains a number of literary manuscripts, including a substantial number written by E.J. Brady and single or small groups written by Mary Gilmore, Edward Harrington, Hugh McCrae, Walter Murdoch, Pixie O’Harris and others. Among the personal papers are a brief autobiography, correspondence with the Library and Angus & Robertson, and letters from many writers, particularly Mary Gilmore. There are also letters, cuttings, photographs and other material relating to the history of Cobb & Co.
The Whelan Collection is kept together as a formed collection within the Australian Collection. The books have been catalogued individually; the call numbers have the prefix WHELAN. The manuscripts and personal papers are held in the Manuscripts Collection at MS 2449. A finding aid is available online at https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-252827023/findingaid.
Bartlett, Norman, Ex-soldier’s gift to nation, n.d., Norman and Evelyn Bartlett papers, MS 6884
Lindsay, H.A., National Treasury of Australiana: The Whelan Collection, The Age, 1 September 1956, p. 20.
Lindsay, H.A., The Whelan Collection, Australian Letters, vol. 3 (1), July 1960, pp. 45–6.
W. Farmer Whyte, Philip Whelan’s Collection of Australian Authors, The Herald (Melbourne), 1 March 1941, p. 21.
First posted 2008 (revised 2019)