Geoffrey Remington

Obituary Geoffrey Cochrane Remington 1897-1968

The Australian Library Journal March 1968, pp. 57-59

Geoffrey Cochrane Remington was born on November 27,  1897,  when he died on January 20 1968 he was, amongst other things, President of the Trustees of the Public Library of New South Wales, Chairman of the Library Board of New South Wales, Executive Chairman of the Royal Institute of Public Administration in New South Wales, an honorary member of the Library Association of Australia, Chairman of Directors of Rolls Royce of and head of Remington & Co solicitors.

He first became known to me as a well dressed man in a brown or blue-toned suit with tie and homburg hat, both matching, and all impeccably worn. I remember calling on him very early one morning, at home, to find him clipping his hedge, impeccably dressed, for hedge clipping.  He has presence, was neither thin nor fat, and close cropped hair looked older in 1933 than his well matured thirty-six years, mine being an immature thirty-two; if the thirties are old for youth they are young for middle age, and in his company at any age it could be a joy to be alive. He had come to what seemed a blank wall of books, then through a hidden entrance he was in the room where I worked overlooking Phillip Lane, now running through the Black Stump.  I well remember learning for the first time from him of the concealed door of the British Museum Library gallery.  He talked about books, and in my alarm as I was tossed about in the surf of his enthusiasms I tried rather snootily to put him off with a forced loan of Snooty Baronet by Wyndham Lewis, just out.  He returned it with some disparagement of fiction in the general scheme of things, and I did not learn until later how well read he was in poets ranging from Shakespeare through Shelley to Kipling and Eliot.

He had been impressed by some quoted lines with which Keynes ended his Economic Consequences of the Peace;
The good want power but to weep barren tears.
The powerful goodness want: worse need for them.
The wise want love; and those who love want wisdom;
And all best things arc thus confused to ill.

No one could tell him their source so he wrote to Keynes, who replied.  He also wrote to T. S. Eliot about Kipling as a poet, to the Webbs about the Russian revolution and to others equally great. And he put his penetrating questions so well that usually they replied.

Shelley's lines arc in his Prometheus Unbound in the account of the people of the Earth with which the Furies tormented Prometheus, and their interest for Remington in the Depression helps to explain him.  He had a deep sense of privacy, did not like being slapped on the back and called by his christian name, and once when he had been promoting the interests of another, with complete self effacement, as he so often did, this time of an entrant into federal politics, I asked him why he had not gone in himself, since obviously he could have achieved at least Cabinet rank; his reply was that he did not like being caught in public with his pants down,  and with all his eagerness, enthusiasm and ebullience, he never lost his dignity, and he was never so caught. But probably he would not have found it possible to choose between the parties.

He had no self-interest in his manifold interests outside his business, though the ignoble thought he must have.  He certainly enjoyed the exercise of thinking out something to a point of conclusion, in what he often said he was pleased to call his mind, and proving in action that he was right, even though he might not appear right for many years, during which he had to put up with the scepticism, the patronage and even the suspicion of others, particularly those of his own class.  But there was some­ thing more than the exercise for its own sake. Harry Storey who helped in the launching of the Free Library Movement called it noblesse oblige, and with this after thirty years of reflection I still agree.  In Australian terms he was of the noblesse; he was one of the right people, who knew the right people, but in addition he had a sense of obligation. Of course he was not unique in this, even in Australia, but he was different from some others in freedom from mere sentiment and in depth of thought; though when it suited him he could use the sentimental phrases 'the grass roots', and even 'the little people'.

Apparently through some trial and error in youth and early manhood he had become a solicitor in private practice; with this he enjoyed social life, apparently without much concern for society in the wider sense until the Depression. Then Shelley's compacted aphorisms expressed what he observed; he pondered ills and remedies much deeper than the froth and bubble oratory of the pervading All for Australia movement. But the AFA did mix people whose social path might otherwise never have crossed. He was generally influenced by the emerging philosophy of Roosevelt's New Deal, and more  particularly Leonard White, an American writer on public administration, and one of his conclusions was that the despised clerks, the public servants, must play a much greater part in a socialist economy, must be made more conscious of their emerging role, cohesive and co-operative, whatever the areas of their service, federal, state or local. And so with time on his hands, he was tramping the streets and haunting offices with the result which is the Royal Institute of Public Administration in Australia, and of the New South Wales regional group, he, a layman, remained executive chairman   until death. It was on this that he found his way to me, the newly appointed Deputy Principal Librarian of the state library; he looking for middle rank men who could be associates or a kind of younger set in his public administration association.

About the same time he was a leader in a group of well-to-do young men who wanted some means of studying social and political problems, and solutions, above the level of shooting coal miners. The outcome under the guidance of R. W. G. Mackay was the Australian Institute of Political Science, with W. G.  K.  Duncan, later President of the Library Association Australia, as its first director of studies.   Early in 1935 Remington was in Melbourne seeking Carnegie assistance for the AIPS and saw Frank Tate, retired Director of Education in Victoria, and President of the Australian Council for Educational Research.  But in the meantime there had been library development. After the dormancy and extinction of a Library Association of Australasia after 1902, an Australian Library Association was established in 1928 on the initiative of the Institutes Association of South Australia in 1926. At a conference in  Melbourne in 1933 it was resolved that the Carnegie Corporation be asked finance a survey of Australian libraries; Frank Tate was already well and favourably known to the Corporation, and on his representations it agreed to finance a survey, and report, with a possibility of further assistance.  Hence the Munn-Pitt report, published by ACER,  and fresh  from  the press when Tate saw Remington in 1935. Tate (1863-1939), then about twice Remington’s age is reliably reported to  have said to him,  so you want to help poor suffering humanity do you,  well get your teeth into this, handing him a copy of the Munn-Pitt report; and probably far more that rugged old man expected  of the polite young man, he did get his teeth into it. The subscription library dominated Australian Library Association was so shocked by the Munn-Pitt report that it became dormant and extinct without ever meeting to receive or consider it. A committee, the  Library Group, consisting of the state librarians of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, and the librarian of the Commonwealth  Parliamentary Library, with Tate as Chairman, was to formed to advise the Carnegie Corporation; and in Sydney after organization by Remington the constitution of the Free Library Movement was adopted at a meeting in the Dixson Gallery of the state library on November 25, 1935.

What followed cannot be detailed or even outlined here. Remington worked mainly in New South Wales, but made missionary visits to Victoria, Tasmania and Queensland, as well as throughout New South Wales. The formally constituted Free Library Movement was not of course the whole story for the whole of Australia. But it got Carnegie assistance for a purely propaganda effort in favour of the present systems of local free libraries, though not without some resistance from the Library Group. There was in it and around it suspicion of Remington as some kind of go-getter, and the interest and imagination of the Group's members did not go much beyond extension of state and national services as they were, with perhaps a gradual conversion of institutes or schools of arts on a points system, so much subsidy for a trained librarian and so on. There wasn't a pushover as I well know from participation, and in my opinion there would not be even now the clear cut free library systems there are; there would certainly have been a patchwork quilt of assistance to schools of arts and voluntary bodies, and a state library extension, with perhaps a few regional branches; if there had not  been Remington's efforts, sometimes in opposition to librarians,  the efforts of a layman, and their success.  Even the present Library Association of Australia would not have been so well established and endowed by the Carnegie Corporation as it was in its formative years without his services as its Treasurer.

I have tried to represent the man as I knew him, as I worked with him. We worked, as others did, but there was leisure too if only enforced, as we trundled over  the countryside in railway box carriages before the days of air transport, or after a day's campaigning in one town drank 'carouses to the next day's fate'.  I say this because there seems to be an idea that it is not possible to be all au go-go or au yo yo, or whatever the phrase of the moment is, and to enjoy life whilst doing the kind of voluntary work he did.  But, after all, we were contemporary with Bonney and Clyde, and if ever there was a Ulysses who drank life to the lees, it was Geoffrey Cochrane Remington.