The Elizabeth Bay House 'lost' library project

Following an extensive hunt, almost 300 volumes from the long dispersed Macleay family library have been returned to the bookshelves at Elizabeth Bay House.

While laying the foundation stone of the Australian Subscription Library in February 1843, Alexander Macleay, former Colonial Secretary of NSW, declared that ‘I believe it is pretty generally understood that my collection of books on Natural History is tolerably extensive and that my library is accessible to all my friends who study that science.’1 It seems almost shocking that less than two years after making this boast Macleay’s library of almost 4000 volumes, the most substantial science library in Australia at the time, was hauled down from his harbourside mansion at Elizabeth Bay to a Sydney auction house, and sold. Macleay, like many others in the colony, had struggled during the Depression of the 1840s but it was his reckless spending habits that had finally taken their toll.

Alexander Macleay’s books comprised the first of three large collections maintained in the library at Elizabeth Bay House during the nineteenth century; the others were acquired successively by his son, William Sharp Macleay, and his nephew, Sir William John Macleay. Despite evidence showing that thousands of books had been stored at the house, until recently only a handful of volumes once belonging to Alexander and his family had been identified and none of these were held in the collections of Museums of History NSW (MHNSW). Since 2014, staff at the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection (CSL&RC) and research volunteer, Tracey Gibbons, have been on the hunt for examples of this ‘lost’ library and researching the details of its content and dispersal.

The Elizabeth Bay House ‘Lost’ Library Project is part of a broader program cataloguing and interpreting the domestic book collections managed by MHNSW. In the age of mass digitisation, interest in the history of books as objects has flourished and there is now a greater focus on the context of individual texts, such as who owned them, how they were acquired, read and used in a specific setting. MHNSW holds domestic libraries indigenous to their historic locations at Rouse Hill House & Farm, Rouse Hill, and Meroogal, Nowra, while the house library from Throsby Park, Moss Vale, is cared for by the CSL&RC, at the Mint.

The ‘Lost Library’ project has exceeded our expectations and we have not only physically located over 150 volumes belonging to Alexander Macleay in a number of institutions, such as the State Library of NSW, the University of NSW and the University of Sydney, but we have also identified many titles belonging to his son and nephew – all books once housed in the Elizabeth Bay House library.

Books on the move

In late 2014, the research team identified 250 scientific volumes associated with Sir WJ Macleay among uncatalogued items held at Charles Sturt University Library (Wagga Wagga campus). These books had been acquired some decades earlier following the dispersal of the scientific library of the Linnean Society of NSW and were closely tied to the Elizabeth Bay House estate. The Society had been founded by WJ Macleay in 1874 and accommodated in a custom-built hall in the grounds of the estate, constructed in 1885. Upon his death, in 1891, Macleay bequeathed not only his own library to the Society, but also many volumes in his possession that had once belonged to Alexander and WS Macleay. The University has kindly agreed to transfer the remnants of this significant collection to MHNSW and they have been conservation cleaned, catalogued and returned to the house.

In a final twist, the research team unexpectedly discovered that the Parliament of NSW had purchased over 80 volumes at the auction of Alexander Macleay’s books in 1845. Sources in the parliamentary archives reveal a transaction that has long been forgotten and librarians from the CSL&RC and the Parliamentary Library have worked together to locate almost all the original Macleay volumes purchased. In March 2016, 40 volumes once belonging to Alexander, consisting of Scottish histories and the political journal ‘The Pamphleteer’, were transferred from Parliament to the shelves of the library at Elizabeth Bay House after an absence of 171 years.

While these new additions to the library at Elizabeth Bay House represent only a small percentage of the many books which passed through the house, their existence, along with the volumes identified in other institutions by the project, demonstrates the importance of meticulous and collaborative heritage research. Not only has this study contributed to our knowledge about life at Elizabeth Bay House, but it provides the opportunity for a better understanding of the importance of this early information source and its contribution to scientific activity in colonial New South Wales.

Further Reading

M. Stephens & T. Gibbons, 'The Fate of the Library of Alexander Macleay', Australian Book Collectors, edited by Charles Stitz, Third Series, Woollahra, NSW Green Olive Press, and Melbourne, Book of Kells, (in press, 2016).

View the list of Elizabeth Bay House books recently acquired on the CSL&RC library catalogue.


  1. 'The Australian Subscription Library', Sydney Morning Herald, 15 February 1843, p. 3.
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Dr Matthew Stephens

Dr Matthew Stephens

Research Librarian

Matthew Stephens is research librarian at the Caroline Simpson Library & Collection. He is particularly fascinated by early book, musical instrument and sheet music collections in NSW and the stories they tell. Addicted to the historical research process, Matthew has reframed the biography of the eighteenth-century British cross-dressing soldier, Hannah Snell, rediscovered the lost library of explorer Ludwig Leichhardt, and completed a PhD on the early history of the Australian Museum Library and the origins and use of scientific literature in nineteenth-century New South Wales. More recently, Matthew has led the interpretation of the history of domestic music in MHNSW house museums. Since 2015 he has been MHNSW’s representative in the Sound Heritage network (UK) and is co-author and co-editor of Sound Heritage: Making Music Matter in Historic Houses (Routledge, 2022). In 2019, Matthew curated the Songs of Home exhibition at the Museum of Sydney, which examined the musical landscape of NSW during the first 70 years of European settlement. He has collaborated with the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, University of Sydney, on numerous projects including as Partner Investigator on the Australian Research Council Discovery Project ‘Hearing the Music of Early NSW, 1788-1860’ (2021-23). Two research projects led by Matthew on the reinstatement of part of the dispersed Macleay family library at Elizabeth Bay House and the Dowling Songbook Project have received National Trust Heritage Awards.