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George McArthur, Collector & Baker (1842-1903)

A.G. Hodgson Token Halfpenny

Image: A.G. Hodgson Token Halfpenny

Source: Museum Victoria

George McArthur, the 'Baker of Maldon', was born in Linlithgow, Scotland, in 1842. Ten years later he migrated to Australia with his parents and three siblings. His father was a baker, and apparently resumed his trade on arrival at the Bendigo diggings. George probably attended a local denominational school.

In 1854 the family moved to Maldon, a town of some 18,000 gold prospectors. Most of the wealth generated on the goldfields was accumulated by those providing provisions and services, and the McArthur family was well-positioned to profit. George then went to work in the bakery, but continued to read with enthusiasm, encouraged by a bookish family environment. He taught himself to read Latin and developed a wanderlust that saw him travel around in the world in his early 20s. When he returned to Maldon in 1870 he found his father in financial difficulty, having invested heavily in unsuccessful gold mines and suffering from Maldon's dramatic population decline. George took over his father's mortgage and ran the business successfully for the next 15 years. He gradually began to build a collection of books and ephemeral documents, including handbills, miners' licences and even blank forms.

In 1886 George sold the bakery to his brother and again travelled. He visited New Zealand, North America, Europe, the Middle East and Sri Lanka, sending home letters that were published in the Tarrangower Times. He began to collect coins and curiosities on his journeys, a passion that continued after he returned home the following year. He married Mary Burke a month after his return, but 17 months later was off again, voyaging across the Pacific. Again he sent correspondence for publication by the newspaper. On his return his collection continued to grow, and he added early printed books such as a 1480 hand-decorated Bible. In 1886 he lent his collection of miners' licences and other goldfields documents to the Melbourne Public Library. When John Walter Gregory, Professor of Geology at the University of Melbourne, visited him in 1903 he found McArthur had amassed some 2,500 books and items of documentary ephemera, as well as a large collection of coins, weaponry and other artefacts. McArthur was very impressed by Gregory, and revised his will to leave the books to the University of Melbourne and the coins, weapons and other objects to Museum Victoria.

In October the same year George committed suicide.

There are several theories as to why he died. According to one of his relatives, he had visited South Africa during the Boer War. When he returned to Maldon he expressed his views about the war and was persecuted by the locals. They painted his dog red, white and blue. Perhaps as a result of this persecution, he committed suicide by drowning. Curator Ian Morrison claims that George also had a form of bipolar disorder, which may have made him more susceptible to this extreme response.

Unfortunately, little is known about him: his personal papers went to the Maldon Atheneum, which burnt down in 1933.

References:
Mary Lugton. The Library of a Victorian Pioneer, George McArthur, 1842-1903: an Exhibition of Books from his Bequest to the University of Melbourne. Baillieu Library, October, 1985. University of Melbourne
The Baker of Maldon. A Baillieu Library Exhibition, curated by Ian Morrison. University of Melbourne 2003.

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