Sir John Alexander Ferguson

Ferguson, J.A.  Honorary Member.  The Australian Library Journal, vol. 8, no. 1, January 1959, pp. 33-34. Our new Honorary Members. 

John Alexander Ferguson, Australia's foremost bibliographer, was born in lnvercargill, New Zealand, on 15th December, 1882, the eldest son of the Rev. John Ferguson. The family moved to Sydney.  The father, as minister of old St. Stephen's from I894 to 1925, carried on the long tradition of outstanding Presbyterian divines: he was Moderator-General of the Presbyterian Church of Australia, 1909-10, and with the Rev. John Flynn one of the founders, and first chairman, of the Australian Inland Mission.

J. A. Ferguson graduated Bachelor of Arts in the University of Sydney at the age of 19 with honours in Latin and the University medal in Logic and Mental Philosophy.  Logic went with law and in 1905, with a long list of prizes to his credit, he graduated Bachelor of Laws with honours.  Just fifty years later the University conferred upon him the degree of Doctor of Letters in recognition of his outstanding record of scholarship.

In May 1905 he was admitted to the Bar where he practised in all jurisdictions but particularly in equity and constitutional law, and in industrial arbitration.  His first mature published work was an article in the now defunct Commonwealth Law Review in November, 1905, on "A defect in our commercial law".  He lectured in industrial law and became recognized as a leading figure in it, and his practice led him to appear before the High Court and the Privy Council.  In May, 1936, he was appointed a justice and member of the Industrial Commission of New South Wales and remained on the Bench until his retirement in 1952.

Meanwhile, however, in the midst of a busy life that included a period from 1921 to 1936 as Procurator of the Presbyterian Church, he was developing a taste and an aptitude for bibliography, for historical research, and for the collecting of Australiana. The first volume of his Bibliography of the New Hebrides and a history of the mission press was published in 1917. Then over the years followed books and articles, original contributions to history and to bibliography, ranging from  "George  Peat and his Ferry" to "Edward Smith Hall and the Monitor”; from ''The Reverend Samuel Marsden"  to "Studies in Australian Bibliography" and "The Howes and their Press".  These alone established his reputation, but far above them came, in 1941, the first volume of the great Bibliography of Australia, now with its fourth published volume bringing Australian bibliography to 1850 in something more than 6,000 entries.  It remains the only work yet published that every serious historian of the period must use.

He became a Fellow of the Royal Australian Historical Society in 1927 and in 1940 crowned a second term as president of the Society by a munificent gift of the furnishing and equipment of the Society's council room in its headquarters at History House, newly acquired under his leadership. With his learning in the law and in Australiana he was appointed a trustee of the Public Library of New South Wales in October, 1935, and in the following M arch was elected to the Trustees' Mitchell Library Committee, becoming a member of the Standing Committee when it replaced other committees in 1953. In 1957 he ·was created an Officer of the Order of the British Empire.

He has been an active and interested member of the Library Association of Australia since its inception and has readily given expert advice and help from his great store of learning.  His collection of Australiana, great enough even in 1928 to make a substantial contribution to the Bibliography of Captain James Cook contains much that is unique and more that is very rare.  Much of it has already been transferred to the Commonwealth National Library.

Patient, courteous, and unassuming, he has nevertheless given a lifetime of service to Australian bibliography, to libraries, and to the Australian community, that few can hope to equal.