Originally published as five short stories in the American edition of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-20), Old Christmas is Washington Irving’s later, illustrated version of the work, portraying the good old-fashioned customs of Christmas.

The youngest of eleven children to Scottish parents William and Sara Irving, Washington was born in 1783 after his family had immigrated to America. Settling in Manhattan, New York, the Irvings quickly became part of the city’s lively merchant class. Though Irving developed an early interest in literature, he was reportedly uninterested in school and regularly left class to attend the theatre.[1] At the age of fourteen, the outbreak of yellow fever in Manhattan prompted his parents to send him to stay with friends in Tarrytown, New York. Located near the town of Sleepy Hollow, the place would later become an important source of inspiration for him.

By the age of nineteen, Irving had begun submitting commentaries to the New York Morning Chronicle on the city’s theatre and social scene, under the pseudonym ‘Jonathan Oldstyle’. It was the first of several pseudonyms he would use, and the articles brought him a degree of early fame. By 1807 Irving had established, with his brother William, the literary magazine Salmagundi. In it, he poked fun at New York politics and culture, again using pseudonyms such as William Wizard and Launcelot Langstaff, all the while continuing to build his reputation as a short story writer. In its seventeenth issue he used the name “Gotham”, meaning in Old English ‘a homestead where goats are kept’, to describe New York City. The nickname stuck, and has since found its way into many a comic and movie, the most notable being Batman.

Irving had a wicked sense of humour and in 1809 he put it to good use promoting his first major book. A history of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty (1809), was a satire on local history and politics, written under his next pseudonym, Diedrich Knickerbocker. Just prior to its publication, Irving started a hoax, placing several missing person advertisements in New York newspapers seeking information about ‘Diedrich Knickerbocker’, a crusty Dutch historian who had allegedly gone missing from his city hotel.[2] Continuing with the prank, he placed a notice, purporting to be the from the hotel proprietor, advising readers that if Mr Knickerbocker refused to return to the hotel to pay his bill, he would publish a manuscript Knickerbocker had left behind. Unsuspecting readers followed Knickerbocker’s story with growing interest. Concerned city officials even considered offering a reward for information about the missing Dutch historian.[3] Irving rode the wave of public curiosity with delight and in December 1809 published A History of New York… under his newly adopted pseudonym, Diedrich Knickerbocker. It was an instant success.

Just three years later, the War of 1812 began and it had a profound impact on Irving. For many American merchants, his family included, it was disastrous. By 1815, he had left for England in an attempt to salvage the family trading company. He spent the next two years trying, in vain, to bail out the firm financially but eventually had to declare bankruptcy; with little in the way of job prospects, he stayed on and resumed writing. He remained in Europe for the next seventeen years, during which he produced some of his best work. In 1819, he sent a set of short stories to his brother in New York, asking him to publish them as The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Among them was “Rip Van Winkle”. Published in the first instalment, it was immediately popular; so too were his other stories. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, inspired by Irving’s earlier stay at Tarrytown near the quaint village of Sleepy Hollow, with its history of local ghost stories, was published in the sixth instalment. In total, The Sketch Book… contained thirty-four essays and short stories, published serially throughout 1819-20 – as seven instalments in the American edition and as a two-volume set in England. From a literary standpoint, the book was significant, for its contents have often been cited as the earliest examples of the genre we now know as the ‘short story’.[4] It also marked the first use of Irving’s pseudonym, ‘Geoffrey Crayon’, which he continued to use throughout his career.

The Sketch Book… also included five stories, published in the fifth instalment (1820), about the English traditions of Christmas. Set at ‘Bracebridge Hall’, a location based loosely on the Holte family’s Jacobean mansion, Aston Hall, the stories recounted the warm-hearted festivities that Irving experienced whilst visiting Abraham Bracebridge, husband of the last member of the Holte family to live there. The first of the stories was simply titled “Christmas”. It in, Irving reflected on the meaning of Christmas, and described the services of the Church as extremely tender and inspiring during the season of Advent, until they broke forth “in full jubilee on the morning that brought peace and good-will…”.[5] He lamented the “havoc made among the hearty old holiday customs” by modern refinement, and wished instead for a return to traditional “games and ceremonials”.[6] The second story, “The stage coach”, saw ‘Crayon’ travel by public coach on Christmas Eve, surrounded by excited children, anticipating their reunion with family and pets. Disembarking at a small village, where he determined to pass the night in the local inn, he was surprised to see a young Frank Bracebridge, with whom he had once travelled. He was invited back to his house, the Bracebridge family mansion, to catch up on old times and enjoy the Christmas festivities. Christmas Eve, also the title of the third story, was passed with much frivolity, the sounds of music and bursts of laughter echoing throughout the building. There were candles “wreathed with greens” and a table abundantly spread with wheat cakes and minced-pies.[7] The fourth story, “Christmas Day”, saw Crayon awake to a choir of small voices, singing at his chamber-door. He mused “Everything conspired to produce kind and happy feelings in this stronghold of old-fashioned hospitality.”[8] He enjoyed family prayers, a breakfast of true old English fare, an erudite sermon on the rites and ceremonies of Christmas, and then dancing back at the mansion. All the while, his “heart seemed over-flowing with generous and happy feelings.”[9] In the fifth and final story, “The Christmas dinner”, Crayon enjoyed a banquet in the great hall, next to a crackling fire. The family prayed, told stories and sang and danced. Everyone was merry. It was in this final instalment that we learnt the true purpose of Irving’s story, as he concluded: “… if I can now and then penetrate through the gathering film of misanthropy, prompt a benevolent view of human nature, and make my reader more in good humour with his fellow beings and himself, surely, surely, I shall not then have written entirely in vain.”[10]

In 1876, these five stories were brought together and published as Old Christmas, a tribute to the memory of Washington Irving. Bound in green cloth, the cover pictorially gilded, the book contained more than 100 festive illustrations designed by Randolph Caldecott and carefully arranged and engraved by J. D. Cooper. The Rare Books & Special Collections copy of Old Christmas is this first edition. It is the only copy to be held by a South Australian library.

Cover of Old Christmas, 1876The Sketch Book… solidified Irving’s literary reputation. He became one of the first American writers to earn a living solely by the pen, and his portrayal of old-fashioned celebrations reportedly sparked the revival of Christmas customs, especially in the United States. Likely inspired by his work, the Christmas ‘gift book’, with its short pieces of poetry and prose by well-known authors, also began to emerge as early as 1825. Even British author, Charles Dickens, credited Irving as an influence on his own work, including the 1843 classic, A Christmas Carol.

So, as the festive season approaches and we enjoy many of the customs revived as a result of Irving’s stories, let us celebrate the man who passed away on the night of November 28th, 1859, only eight months after completing the final volume of his namesake’s (George Washington), biography. Under a modest headstone, he rests peacefully in the cemetery at Sleepy Hollow, New York.



[1] Hedges, William L., “Irving, Washington: 3 April 1783 – 28 November 1859”, American National Biography, published in print 1999 and online February 2000. Accessed 27 November 2018,

[2] “Washington Irving”, Wikipedia, last updated November 2018, accessed online 29 November 2018,

[3] “Washington Irving”, Wikipedia, last updated November 2018, accessed online 29 November 2018,

[4] Hedges, William L., “Irving, Washington: 3 April 1783 – 28 November 1859”, American National Biography, published in print 1999 and online February 2000. Accessed 27 November 2018,

[5] Irving, Washington, Old Christmas, London: Macmillan & Co., 1876, p. 3

[6] Irving, Washington, Old Christmas, London: Macmillan & Co., 1876, p. 11

[7] Irving, Washington, Old Christmas, London: Macmillan & Co., 1876, p. 60-61

[8] Irving, Washington, Old Christmas, London: Macmillan & Co., 1876, p. 79

[9] Irving, Washington, Old Christmas, London: Macmillan & Co., 1876, p. 105

[10] Irving, Washington, Old Christmas, London: Macmillan & Co., 1876P.158-9


Lee Hayes
December 2018

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Born in 1849, naturalist and geologist Richard Lydekker was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he earned second place in the first class ‘Natural Science Tripos’ of 1871.  Three years later he joined the Geological Survey of India, one of the oldest government organisations in the world responsible for conducting geological surveys and presenting earth science information to government, industry and the general public.  He spent much of 1877 exploring the mountains north and south of Kashmir, and undertook the arrangement and description of an extensive series of tertiary vertebrate fossils.  Lydekker remained in this post until 1882, with the results of his work on the Siwalik palaeofauna published in Palaeontologia Idica.

Although widely known as a naturalist, he was influential in the science of biogeography too.  In 1895 he delineated the biogeographical boundary through Indonesia, now known as Lydekker’s Line, which separates the eastern edge of Wallacea on the west from Australia-New Guinea on the east.  The Line essentially defines the easternmost extension of oriental animals into the new zone of mixing between the Oriental and Australian faunal regions.  The corresponding western limit of the zone is known as Wallace’s line, and marks the maximum extent of marsupials in that direction.

His scientific activities carried on well into his later years of life, during which he catalogued in ten volumes the fossil mammals, birds and reptiles housed in the British Museum, collaborated with Sir William Henry Flower in eight volumes of The Royal Natural History (1893-1896) and co-authored, with Henry Alleyne Nicholson, A manual of palaeontology (1889).  He wrote a number of articles for Encyclopaedia Britannica and produced three titles for Allen’s Naturalist’s Library, one of which was the 1894 A hand-book to the marsupialia and monotremata.  He also produced books on horses, sheep, whales, deer, oxen, goats, porpoises and dolphins, and in 1902 was awarded the Lyell Medal from the Geological Society of London for his extensive contribution to science.

A hand-book to the marsupialia and monotremata is one of Lydekker’s earlier works.  Comprising 302 pages, it was much more affordable and readily available than Gould’s Mammals of Australia and provided a scientific, yet popular, account of Australian mammals.  Lydekker, in the book’s introduction, modestly describes its contents as little more than an abridgement of Oldfield Thomas’s Catalogue of the marsupialia and monotremata in the collection of the British Museum.  Yet, Lydekker’s hand-book included descriptions of several new species, such as the Marsupial Mole, which represented a type of the Order previously unknown.  Its plates also warrant a mention, for each one was particularly well-coloured from actual specimens held in the British Museum.

Part of the Allen’s Naturalist’s Library series, this beautiful 19th century handbook was one of the first to be restored under the Library’s Adopt-a-Book program in 2013.  To learn more about its conservation visit the condition report, where you will also find some interesting ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs.


Lee Hayes
November 2018

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The Magus, or Celestial Intelligencer is Francis Barrett’s compendium of occult knowledge and ceremonial magic.  An important 19th century grimoire, the book remains one of the rarest and most sought after primary sources for those interested in natural magic, magnetism and cabalism.

About its author, we know very little. Most sources put Barrett’s date of birth at 1774, citing a parish register in St. Marylebone, London.  He married and had a son, and the family lived in London where Barrett worked as an apothecary and began compiling The Magus.   He likely trained under physician and astrologer, Ebenezer Sibly, who published his own works on the occult and prepared one of the most important medical works of the 18th century, his edition of Culpeper’s English physician and complete herbal (1789).  Though Sibly was well read in medical and scientific literature, drawing upon both unpublished and esoteric works, he also sought truth in the allegories of the alchemists.  Literary consensus suggests that Barrett was influenced by the astrologer’s penchant for alchemy and eclectic theories, particularly those relating to animal magnetism.

Francis Barrett’s main work, known by its short title, The Magus, or Celestial Intelligencer, included one of the longest title pages of its era.  Its significance at the time was two-fold; not only did it offer an exhaustive list of contents (The Magus was essentially three books in one volume), it also acted as an important medium for Barrett’s self-proclaimed credentials.  As “Professor of chemistry, natural and occult philosophy, the Cabala, &c. &c.” – a declaration for which there still exists no proof- Barrett appeared to have indulged in more than just a little self-aggrandisement.   Bolstering his reputation, at the very least, the pseudo-qualifications seemed an attempt to justify his teaching advertisement, inserted at page 140 of the second book:

The Author of this Work respectfully informs those who are curious in the studies of Art and Nature, especially of Natural and Occult Philosophy, Chemistry, Astrology &c. &c. that… he gives private instructions and lectures upon any of the above-mentioned Sciences; in the course of which he will discover many curious and rare experiments. Those who become Students will be initiated into the choicest operations of Natural Philosophy, Natural Magic, the Cabala, Chemistry, the Talismanic Art, Hermetic Philosophy, Astrology, Physiognomy, &c. &c…

Over the years Barrett has attracted criticism from those who felt The Magus consisted largely of English translations of the German occultist, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim’s, Three books of occult philosophy and the Fourth book of occult philosophy, also attributed to Agrippa.  Most now agree that it is a ‘compilation’ of works only, albeit improved by Barrett’s slight modifications and modernised spelling and syntax.  In fact, The Magus, went largely unnoticed until the mid-19th century.  It was not until the 1860s, when the French occult writer, Eliphas Levi, and English novelist, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who had joined an occult study group where they talked of the book with interest, that others began to embrace it for what it was – a compendium of magic in a very practical vernacular.

By the late 1800s, The Magus had not only found its market, it had influenced an important paradigm shift.  Magic in England during the Renaissance period had centred around complex rituals, intended to gain control over the natural world; its foundations lay in a resurgence of the writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus and in Neoplatonic versions of ceremonial magic of the 15th-16th centuries.  There existed three dominant theories which were used to explain how magical effects took place.  The theory of correspondence proposed that nature ‘spoke’ to humankind in a language of mysterious signs, essentially a network of symbols, decipherable by the magician.  The power to perform magical effects relied more on the operation rather than the operator; the magician simply demonstrated the power which already existed in nature.  The second theory, that of spiritual intervention, stated that non-physical agents inhabited creation and could be used by the magician to induce change (good or bad) through will – not their own will but that of God’s.  Lastly, this connection between the theory of correspondence and spiritual intervention, the ‘doctrine of subtle medium’, explained how the physical body was connected to the soul via spiritual links.  These theories, based on the works of ancient authorities, provided the foundation for all magic of the period. Moreover, those who studied and applied magic were highly educated men who practiced alone or in tightly knit heterodox communities, and whose efforts to understand nature were subsequently restricted to institutions such monasteries.[1]

These Hermetic theories continued to form the basis of ceremonial magic well into the 19th century.  Gradually, however, the deciphering of nature’s secrets lost its focus and magicians began to turn their attention toward the concept of personal spirituality.  Symbols, once considered real signs for magical use, were increasingly employed as tools for training the imagination; God the creator was replaced by an independent nature, and the doctrine of subtle medium was transformed into an indeterminate ‘otherworld’ which linked inner and spiritual reality.[2]  Now based on the powers of the psyche, magic enjoyed a whole new approach – traditional techniques morphed into psychological techniques designed to build mystical consciousness.

At the forefront of this paradigm shift was The Magus.   As a compilation of carefully selected Western works of aforementioned authors, Barrett’s handbook acted as a hybrid reinterpretation of English magic, written in a very pragmatic way.  It recast theoretical treatises on how magical effects operated in the world into a book on how to actually ‘do’ magic; it was the first modern dissemination of Renaissance magic works, and its text rendered occult learning much more practical and accessible.  As a relatively inexpensive manual, it allowed both men and women of the upper middle class to learn and apply the magic outlined.  They became less inclined to work alone, practicing instead in magical and Masonic lodges and participating in group rituals.  Personal enlightenment was their goal, and Barrett’s remake, aligned more closely with contemporary notions of science and magic, obliged.  In truth, his legacy lay as much in the bringing together, in one volume, of an entire program of occult learning (taking into account his offer of tuition), as it did in reducing the exclusivity of magic knowledge dissemination and thereby inspiring a new generation of occultists and paving the way for movements such as Wicca.

The Magus consisted of three separate books, further divided into multiple parts.  The first book defined natural magic, examined occult operations in animals, minerals and vegetables, and explored the history of alchemy, or the “true secret of the philosopher’s stone.”  The second book considered magnetism and its role in practices such as the curing of wounds.  It discussed Cabalistical magic, in the process uncovering the secret mysteries of the Tables of Cabala, and it analysed divine numbers and dreams, plus much more.  The final book, Biographia Antiqua, was a bibliography of sorts, providing an account of the works and lives of the ancient magicians, as well as an essay “proving that the first Christians were magicians.” The Magus was illustrated with twenty-two plates, six in the first book and sixteen in book two.  Six of these were hand-coloured.  Startling and almost grotesque in their appearance, the engravings of fallen angels, spirits and demons combined perfectly with Barrett’s chosen text; the result – a practical, accessible, inspirational and thoroughly interesting handbook, indicative of a transitional period in English magic.

For those interested in learning more about The Magus and its revival of occultism, Robert Priddle has authored a superb thesis on the topic, More cunning than folk: An analysis of Francis Barrett’s The Magus as indicative of a transitional period of English magic. (2012)



[1] Priddle, Robert A., ‘More cunning than folk: An analysis of Francis Barrett’s The Magus as indicative of a transitional period of English magic, thesis, The University of Ottawa, August 2013
[2] Priddle, Robert A., ‘More cunning than folk: An analysis of Francis Barrett’s The Magus as indicative of a transitional period of English magic, thesis, The University of Ottawa, August 2013, p. 11


Full citation:

The Magus, or celestial intelligencer; being a complete system of occult philosophy. In three books: containing the ancient and modern practice of cabalistic art, natural and celestial magic, &c.; shewing the wonderful effects that may be performed by a knowledge of the celestial influences, the occult properties of metals, herbs, and stones, and the application of active to passive principles. Exhibiting  the sciences of natural magic; alchymy, or hermetic philosophy; also the nature, creation, an fall of man; his natural supernatural gifts; the magical power inherent in the soul, &c.; with a great variety of rare experiments in natural magic; the constellatory practice, or talismanic magic; the nature of the elements, stars, planets, signs, &c.; the construction and composition of all sorts of magic seals, image, rings, glasses, &c.; the virtue and efficacy of numbers, characters, and figures, of good and evil spirits. Magnetism, and cabalistical or ceremonial magic; in which the secret mysteries of the cabala are explained; the operations of good and evil spirits; all kinds of cabalistic figures, tables, seals, and names, with their use, &c. The times, bonds, offices, and conjuration of spirits. To which is added Biographia Antiqua, or the lives of the most eminent philosophers, magi, &c. The whole illustrated with a great variety of curious engravings, magical and cabalistical figures, &c. By Francis Barrett, F.R.C. Professor of chemistry, natural and occult philosophy, the cabala, &c. &c. London: Printed for Lackington, Allen, and Co., Temple of the Muses, Finsbury Square. 1801


Lee Hayes
October 2018

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Born in Yorkshire, England, on 5 May 1882, Douglas Mawson was the son of cloth merchant, Robert Ellis Mawson and his wife, Margaret Ann. Mawson’s family immigrated to Australia in 1884, settling at Rooty Hill, New South Wales. Douglas was a talented student and in 1902 graduated with a Bachelor of Engineering from the University […]

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Lorenz Heister was born at Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, in 1683 to a lumber and wine merchant, and his wife, also the daughter of a merchant.  He attended the Gymnasium there, whilst receiving private lessons in French and Italian, before going on to study medicine at the University of Giessen in 1702.  In 1703 he followed Georg […]

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Written by the father and son team, William and John Halfpenny, Rural Architecture in the Chinese taste is a beautifully illustrated 18th century instruction or pattern book, designed to assist those erecting Chinese structures in regional areas. Of William Halfpenny’s personal life very little is known.  His earliest paid work was for a 1723 design […]

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The work of one of Britain’s most popular authors of the Victorian era, The Devil’s motor is a fantasy, dramatically illustrated by Arthur Severn, son of the famous English portrait painter Joseph Severn. For someone so famous and highly paid, surprisingly little is known about the childhood of Mary Mackay, who wrote under the pseudonym […]

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Visitors to the Library in 2017 may recall the exhibition, Cover to Cover: Exposing the Bookbinder’s Ancient Craft. Capitalising on the success of the physical display, Lee has now converted her exhibition into Rare Books & Special Collections’ first, major online exhibition. To learn more about this fascinating craft, including the connection between a book’s binding […]

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This month Rare Books & Special Collections pays tribute to those engaged in military service, past and present, by taking a closer look at Lieutenant Will Dyson’s book, Australia at war. The ninth of eleven children, Dyson was born in 1880 at Alfredton, a suburb of Ballarat, Victoria. Though largely self-taught as an artist, he […]

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The tragedy of William Kinmont In 1891 the 24-year old William Kinmont left his native Scotland to try his luck in the dominions. A recent M.A. graduate from the University of Edinburgh, William had distinguished himself as Senior President of the Students’ Representative Council and editor of the student magazine. Armed with excellent references, he […]

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