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Spencer papers, PRM ms collections Box 1: Fison papers Part 2


Walter Baldwin Spencer, after he moved to Melbourne, Victoria in Australia in 1887, met Lorimer Fison and A.W. Howitt (possibly with a letter of introduction from Tylor?). There are a set of letters from Fison to Spencer in Box 1 of the Spencer papers at the PRM ms collections together with some letters from Spencer to Fison. These have all been arranged in date order, see Part 1 of the correspondence here (1893-1899), see here also for undateable letters from the same correspondence. Note that the archival order of the Fison correspondence is not (mostly) chronological, I have therefore arranged the letters below in chronological order, but they are not now in number order. Note also that the notes to the letters were added by the transcriber.

Find scans of the original letters here.

Find other letters from Fison to Tylor starting here.


See back to end of Part 1 to see a letter which may well date from 1900.

Fison to Spencer letter 8



Jan. 10 1900

My dear Spencer,

There are occasions on which the ordinarily safe maxim about the enticement of sinners may, on high moral grounds, be set aside; & your invitation to dinner on Friday is one of them.

I enclose a formal acceptance, but wish to accompany it with this note to you, asking you to explain to the rest of the hosts, if I am not there, that my absence is caused by illness. I have not been myself lately, & get utterly wearied out with a very little work.

I shall certainly be with you if I can.

Yours faithfully 

Lorimer Fison



Spencer to Fison letter 1


Aug 6. 1900

My dear Fison

I send you herewith a short note written some time ago to the J.A.I. [1] Its crudity may perhaps be partly accredited to the fact that it was rolled out of me during rather rough weather in the Mediterranean to the uttermost depths of which I have no doubt but that you will suggest it would have been better advisable to consign it as in the case of another theory. [2]

However here it goes and you need not trouble to read it.

Have you heard lately from Frazer: Once more a 'suggestion' of yours has borne fruit. F. writes me to say that he is getting up a petition addressed to the powers that be requesting them to grant Gillen & myself the necessary leave of absence to go up north to study the tribes between Alice Springs & Port Darwin. [3]

He is however seized with a "ghastly dread' as to whether after all G. & I would care to go. I have written him a line easing his mind on this point and now when it comes to hand I shall have to rely upon you for the customary testimonial from 'some clergyman or other reputable individual' to state that the said petition was not, sub rosa, got up or at least suggested by myself; otherwise the domestic hearth may have its peace disturbed.

Yours very sincerely

W. Baldwin Spencer


[1] Journal of the Anthropological Institute [of Great Britain and Ireland]

[2] Spencer had travelled to England and back in October to January 1898-1899. It is not clear which note he is referring to. It could be this

[3] This petition was circulated by James Frazer, see Mulvaney and Calaby, 1985: 189 et seq.



Fison to Spencer letter 3 [1]

Memo from Editor Spectator 

Spectator Publishing Co. Proprietary Limited,

270 Post Office Place, Melbourne.

Saturday evening

My dear Spencer,

I have been away at Bendigo for a fortnight, & have just returned. Your letter has been read, marked, learned, & inwardly digested. I have not heard from Frazer. When I wrote to him about the immense desirability of giving you an opportunity of following up your researches, [1] I had only the faintest hope that anything would come of it. I have only a very hazy recollection of what I said, but it is well that he has been stirred up to action. It is really a matter of of amazement to me that men like Frazer are influenced by what I say to them. It almost frightens me, for it makes me feel like an imposter. However, I comfort myself with the thought that I have never claimed anything like what they seem to give.

With kind regards,

Yours sincerely,

Lorimer Fison.


[1] Internal evidence in this letter suggests that it must have been written around April-July 1900. See Mulvaney and Calaby, 1985: 189, 'At this juncture James Frazer made another unexpected intervention on their behalf, which brought their proposal (to travel across Australia anthropologizing) into prominence and ensure that they spent twelve months in the field'. Mulvaney quotes a letter from Frazer held by the PRM ms collections, 'Some little time ago Fison sent me a letter of yours in wich you expressed a wish that the Government would order you to go and work among the tribes ... and Fison suggested that we at home should get up a petition'. [PRM ms collections Frazer to Spencer 4 June 1900 Box 5 Spencer papers Frazer 32]



Fison to Spencer letter 9

Sep. 8 [1]

My dear Spencer

Your letter does me proud. I showed it to my friend Frank Stuart today, [2] & he said, "Put me down for £20, & write to the papers. I authorise you to use my name, & I'll get you another £100." Now I think we should get a Committee to take the matter up. This some others of your friends must do. It is impossible for me to attend to it. But I will do what I can. Before your letter came I had taken action that may possibly bring in some money. I am smitten with awe, & respect that I must be an unconscious humbug. Why should men of note stir at my urging?

Don't build upon my may. It is only a chance, but even the remotest chance is worth a trial. If nothing comes, one is no worse off.

I sent you a copy of that luminous periodical, the Spectator, that you might be profited by what I have said about the expedition. [1] 

I think I had better not write to the papers. That should be done by two or three influential men forming a committee. As for myself I am "little & unknown", & my instincts are to keep myself in the background.

With all good wishes,

Yours sincerely

L. Fison

I don't think this is a thing for which University men & other such workers should be bled. Men like Horn [3] ought to take it up.

Will you send me three or four copies of the circular I used up the one you send.

Stuart's £20 is sure, but I don't look upon the £100 as cash in hand. Blessed is the man that expecteth nothing.


[1] I am assuming that the hints that Fison gives in this letter refer to letter Fison sent to Frazer [see note to Fison 3], but they may not do so. If so then this letter is about getting funding for the 1901-2 Spencer and Gillen expedition, see Mulvaney & Calaby, 1985: 192 et seq. The only argument against is that September sounds a bit late, as Spencer had already received at least one letter from Frazer confirming Fison's approach. The later reference to the 'expedition' confirms that this letter must be about the 1901-2 expedition, I think.

[2] Francis ('Frank') Stuart (1844-1910), politician and manufacturer.

[3] William Austin Horn (1841-1922) mining magnate, pastoralist and politician, he funded the Horn Scientific Expedition to Alice Springs of which Spencer was a member and through which he first met Gillen in 1894.



Fison to Spencer letter 11



Dec. 5/ 1900

My dear Spencer,

I have read Roth's letter with the greatest pleasure. He is evidently a fine fellow, & I hope he may be of service to you. [1]

For my own part, I have no fear of your getting through all right. I lived so long among savages that I really believe I acquired a sort of savage instinct, & I am conscious of a feeling that if I were a member of the tribes among whom you are going, I should look upon you with reverential awe as an almost divine personage, handed on as you will be from tribe to tribe with your acquired credentials. This I say in all seriousness, & I have no doubt that your fame has gone before you long ere now.

Your reference to the Hobart meeting of the Ass. made me heave a sigh. [2] There is no prospect of my being able to attend. But I shall rejoice with them that rejoice, even though this too solid flesh will be absent from you.

I return Roth's letter with many thanks.

Yours sincerely

L. Fison

I hope to meet you on Saturday at the Beefsteak Club.[3]


[1] W.E. Roth, see part 1 for biographical details. According to Mulvaney & Calaby, 1985: 195 Roth offered Spencer some notes on Queensland Aborigines which were rebuffed. 

[2] Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science

[3] The Melbourne Beefsteak Club is described by wikipedia as 'The oldest dining club in Australia is the Melbourne Beefsteak Club, established in May 1886, when merchant John Deegan,  City Councillor William Ievers, solicitor James Maloney and manufacturer Frank Stuart gathered with friends for regular lunches. Their motto was "Beefsteak and Brotherhood", and the membership was made up of gentlemen from business, the professions, and academia. It held its 300th dinner on 14 October 1916 and its 400th on 11 August 1928, in the Hotel Windsor.' Fison and Spencer were obviously both members, as were several other men mentioned in these letters.



Fison to Spencer letter 6

Memo from The Editor "The Spectator"

My dear Spencer

I find that Tuesday Mar 5 [1] is the evening for our Foreign Mission Mg, wh. I am bound to attend & report. Monday & Wednesday are clear nights.

Mr Rashleigh tells me he gave you a price for some printing, & asks me to inquire as to whether there is any hope of getting the work.

With kindest regards

Yours sincerely

L. Fison

Excuse scrawl & office memo paper & envelope.


[1] Tuesday March 5th occurred in 1901, and 1907. 1901 seems the more likely year.



Spencer to Fison letter 2

[Added] We are in first rate health -- I have gained nearly a stone since leaving Melbourne & its worries & we are hopeful of doing some really good work. Kind regards to Howitt as I shant probably have time to write to him this mail. I hope you keep well.

Alice Springs

Ap. 26. 1901

My dear Fison,

Just a line to say that we are once more back again in our old hunting ground. [1] After a journey made somewhat tedious by flies, heat, sand and other discomforts -- the first being preeminently the chief -- we reached here last Monday evening. If my recollection of childhood serve me aright the Egyptian of old were treated to a plague of flies and many a time & oft during the past month have those ancient sinners had my sincere sympathy. Possibly they deserved the infliction but what two simple minded ethnologists -- let alone their poor horses -- should be treated in this way is more than I can realise. 

Any how I have had a severe & possibly a wholesome chastening together with four bung eyes. The only relief one has is that in this part of the world language does not count [2] -- there is no one whom you can possibly demoralize in that respect and for days we travelled surrounded I fear by a bluish haze.

However here we are in the heat of the Macdonnells where the cold nights -- it was down to 32 [degrees] in camp last night -- are killing off the brutes in millions.

We have had all of our time fully occupied working at one thing and another from before sunrise to late at night.

So far I am most intent on getting phonograph & cinematograph records. The former we finished off at the Charlotte [3] & sent back to Adelaide for safe keeping. The latter I did some of them and am starting to work at it here today when we are to have a corrobboree. I dare not take the instrument further north & after all the records we can get amongst these natives will answer our purpose very well as all ceremonies are much alike in principle. Unfortunately the sacred ones which are the best are the least showy.

Last night after dark the natives came to us and told us that they were going to initiate two young men & wanted us to come. Accordingly we rolled up our rugs and went off. It was a mysterious kind of procession as we walked in single file & silence through the hills to their camp. The night was spent by them dancing & yelling & singing round their fire and performing sacred ceremonies for the benefit of the novices. Just before sunrise they performed one and then at the base of the nurtunja (which will henceforth reside in the Museum) [4] they performed the operation of sub incision.

It was a ghastly sight which I shall not trouble to see again. If only one could get to the bottom of the meaning of this initiation one would find the key to a good deal but it seems hopeless for us to do so & I am afraid that it is buried in the far away misty days of the Alcheringa.[5]

If you should feel 'so disposed' write me a line here as it will reach me sooner or later & letters are welcome


[1] Spencer means Alice Springs where he and Gillen carried out their 'Engwura' fieldwork.

[2] Spencer means swearing, bung eyes were eye infections caused by fly infestation.

[3] Charlotte Waters. The phonograph records are some of the earliest sound recordings made in Australia, to find out details go here.

[4] Spencer means the National Museum of Victoria (now Museum Victoria).

[5] Altyerrenge, roughly 'Dreamtime'.



Fison to Spencer Letter 12


18 May, 1901

My dear Spencer,

I was most agreeably surprised by receiving your letter of April 26th, which the postman brought this morning. I sympathise with you in your torment from the flies. [1] They are not very discriminating insects, & have no respect for professors. They may perhaps have been sent with merciful intent, but I can find no sign in your letter of the peaceable fruits of chastening. A tone of hardened impenitence sounds from it.

I am very glad that you are benefitting physically by your journeyings. A stone in weight is a great gain if the additional flesh is kept clear from added iniquity. I need not tell you that we follow your expedition with more than good wishes, [2] & I am sure you will not be other than pleased & thankful to hear that at the last meeting of Queen's Coll: Council the Master asked us all to follow you & Gillen with our prayers. You have somewhere about you a spark of grace, which will cause you to appreciate Sugden's request to us.[3]

There is nothing to tell you of by way of news from this suit [?]. We have been keeping frantic holiday during the visit of the Duke and Duchess, & everything has been turned topsy turvy. [4] But Melbourne has really done admirably well, & everybody who came out with our Royal visitors is fervent with praise. They say with one voice that our welcome will be highly appreciated in England.

Last Wednesday I dined at Howitt's to meet the Bishop of Tasmania. [5] He has got the queerest notion into his head, & he wanted to talk to Howitt & me about it. He has a plan for raising them blackfellows by marrying them to white folk! You need not be told that he got very poor comfort from us.

You are doubtless right in saying that if we could get at the bottom -- meaning of the Initiation sub-incisions -- we should find the way to a great deal, but the if is a very bit and hopeless one. All we can do is to go on collecting & collating facts. Perhaps the key to them will turn up some day. If it is never found, it doesn't matter much as long as men keep from trying to manufacture the master-key out of their inner consciousness.

It is good to hear that you have secured a number of good records already, [6] & I trust that they will be kept safely for you in Adelaide. 

I told you, did I not, that sub-incision is used in some parts of Fiji as a remedy for wasting sickness? The Fijians in other parts of the Group, spoke of it with amazement, & declared it was not indigenous. Would it not be well to seek for traces of it elsewhere? I am over head in bread & cheese work. Have not written to my own folk in England for an age. No time for anything but just to keep my head above water. God bless you & bring you safe home again. Yours very sincerely

L. Fison


[1] Spencer was then in central Australia on his expedition from South Australia to the Gulf of Carpentaria with Gillen.

[2] Spencer was writing regular updates about the expedition for David Syme, editor of The Age, who had provided funding for the expedition. These were published regularly.

[3] Edward Holdsworth Sugden (1854-1935), first master of Queen's College (University of Melbourne), founded by the Methodist Church. Fison, Howitt and Spencer were all honorary fellows. See here

[4] Duke and Duchess of York, he was presumably later George V. 

[5] Henry Hutchinson Montgomery (1847-1932) 

[6] Spencer and Gillen took several sound recordings during the early part of their expedition. Because the wax recordings were so fragile they were sent to Adelaide for safe keeping as soon as they had been recorded.



Spencer to Fison letter 3

If you have time send me a few lines to Powell Creek via Port Darwin. Letters are most welcome.

Barrow Creek

July 15 1901

My dear Fison

Just a line to report progress. We have pretty well finished with the Kaitish & Unmatchera tribes [1] -- not but there is plenty else which we could find out if we had more time but we have worked out I think the main features which differ enough from those of the Arunta to make it of interest to understand them. In many respects of course their ideas are fundamentally similar to those of the Arunta but in regard to totemism we have got a little further on in one respect. [2] It is abundantly clear that in the minds of the Kaitish the men of the totem are entirely responsible for the ...nation of the totemic animal or plant. [3] The head man must perform the ceremony to cause its increase and then the others must bring him in a little of it to eat and then be given their permission to eat it freely whereas if he does so [insert] i.e. eat it fully [end insert] it will prevent him being able to increase it and they will bone him up as they say. No one can eat the man's totem without his permission. To make more of the matter of course we have tested several totems and as you will understand it is the finding of the detail which takes the time.

We have been at it practically daily for 6 weeks and never a day without adding something of more or less value to our note books. I am beginning to tremble as to what would happen if by any chance the "official record" got lost in a river or met with an accident & am posting home my rough notes so as to be on the safe side. We have also been hard at work photographing and are getting excellent records of ceremonies etc & I am glad to hear from Melbourne that the last batch of 1900 ft. of cinematograph film has turned out well. The only thing is that one needs at least two years work instead of one for even the bit of work which we have in hand.

So far we have had success & excellent health & I trust that it may remain so until the end.

We are grateful to you for your kindness at Queens & much appreciate your thoughts for us. As you can imagine home friends are very often in our thoughts and deeply interesting though our work is we shall be thankful once more to see home again and find all well there.

You may perhaps have heard of the sudden death of my Father: it was of course a great shock to me as he took, apart from everything else, the greatest interest in our work and was as pleased with it as if he were doing it himself. I was much looking forward to seeing him once more when it was over & published but now that is not to be.

I hope you are well and not over-worked or worried. Give my kindest regards to Howitt if you chance to see him. I dont think that I shall have time to write to him this mail. 

In two days we go north to Tennants Creek to work the Warramunga & probably the Waagai also. [4] This is an awfully monotonous dreary kind of country where everything save man is vile.

Yours very sincerely

W. Baldwin Spencer


[1] Kaytetye and Anmatyerre.

[2] Arrernte

[3] Please note that this letter is very blotched with drops of something dark brown which has obscured certain words hence the unreadable section in this sentence.

[4] Warumungu and Wakaya.



Spencer to Fison letter 4

Powell Creek

Sept 30 01

My dear Fison,

We are gradually getting northwards. I forget whether or not I sent you a line from Tennants Creek. [1] We finished our work amongst the Warramunga about a fortnight ago, it was rather a rush all the time that we were there and we were not sorry of a little break as 9 weeks ceremonying on end -- day & night often -- gets a little bit wearisome. However we got some really good results. In the main of course all of these tribes are much like one another but there are sufficient variations to make them interesting. I don't think that there is much of importance in regard to the organisation & totemic system and many other things amongst the Warramunga which we do not know.

At the present time we are having a few days spell at Tennants Creek Powell Creek where things are sub tropical but where there is a lady at the station wherefore things are really comfortable.

The Chingilli tribe here is very closely similar to the Warramunga: [2] we are not working very much amongst them mainly because we have not the time to spare as we must press on so as to get down to the Gulf before the heavy rains set in. In two days we start north along the line [3] for about 60 miles & then turn off eastwards and go right across to the McArthur River. We are wondering what luck we shall have amongst the natives there as we know nothing whatever about them. That man Mathews (R.H. not the Rev.) has been plying everyone all along the line with questions. Fortunately most of the people have taken no notice of him but he has got some information of a certain kind from one or two people some of which we know to be erroneous. He is a nuisance & will do more harm than good.

It seems a long time since we started and we have seen a good many strange things. If only we can secure good results in the Gulf district we shall be more than content to turn our faces homewards but already what we have got fully I think justifies the expedition & I feel sure that you will all be content.

You can think of us as plagued by flies during the day and mosquitos by night. Of all the horrible places invented Tennants Creek is the most so & I am simply longing for a little bit of pretty scenery -- anything save ant hills mulga scrub & porcupine grass.

However it is most comfortable here and the few days rest & change are most refreshing. After all there is a good deal in a civilized meal & a smoke in a lounge chair afterwards. I trust that you are well.

Yours very sincerely

W. Baldwin Spencer.


[1] Now known as Tennant Creek, Northern Territory.

[2] Jingili, Warumungu.

[3] Telegraph line



Spencer to Fison letter 5


Nov 12 01

My dear Fison,

At length we have got across to the Gulf. It was rather a monotonous kind of journey and we are glad that it is over. En route we came across two more tribes -- that is after leaving the Chingilli at Powells Creek. One of them comprised about the most villainous looking set of men I have seen in Australia. Gentlemen who would cook & eat you with pleasure. However they were quite friendly with us and did not attempt to interfere though it is not more than two or three years since they speared [?] a white man eat him and rolled his bones carefully up in a heap where the white men could find them. These tribes here all are all cannibals and we have a very interesting account of the final burial ceremony which I should much like to see. Also we secured some of the bones of a dead man who had been eaten & was awaiting final burial which takes place about a year after he is eaten. It is very suggestive to find that the bones are placed in a hollow log which is carefully decorated with the design of the dead person's totem.

And yet it is amongst tribes like this that Roth says no totems exist. [1]

There is at bottom a wonderful agreement in custom & organisation amongst all the tribes right through from the Arunta to the Gulf. We have been able to trace an interesting transition from the higgledy-piggledy kind of descent among the Arunta to strict paternal descent in regard to both "class" and totem amongst these Gulf tribes.

We have seen some of their sacred ceremonies in now 10 distinct tribes and in a few days are to see some here where there are members of three tribes.

They are all wonderfully alike and all of them refer to the totems.

If the railway be carried right through the continent as seems likely now to be the case in the course of a year or two we shall have once more been just in time. The old Aruntas had changed very rapidly and so will all of these other tribes.

In about a month we are hoping to be able to leave this place which is a deadly dull uninteresting spot and then go direct to Port Darwin [2] whence we shall if there be time go south a little so as to touch one or two tribes whom we want to see and then shall thankfully turn home.

I hope that things have been going well with you. It seems ages since we started and we are looking forward much to seeing you all again. Gillen won't be long in Melbourne but you must span an evening for us while he is there.

Yours very sincerely

W. Baldwin Spencer


[1] W.E. Roth

[2] That is, Darwin.



Spencer to Fison letter 6

Many thanks for your letter of July 15 received here on Dec. 11.


Dec 24.01

My dear Fison,

I cannot remember whether or not I have written to you from this most miserable corner of the globe. Here we are simply stranded waiting for something in the way of a steamer or sailing boat to take us round to Port Darwin and it looks much as if we should have to wait for some time yet.

This letter goes if the mail route be yet open across to Cammoweal in Queensland & so south travelling overland just now is out of the question as any day we may have a great flood and if not washed away with all our belongings into the Gulf might be stuck up for goodness knows how long. The steamer which 4 times a year should call here is now at the bottom of the ocean and no one seems to be in any hurry to replace her.

We have done pretty well all that we can do in this tribe except a few odd things and indeed it is rather too hot to work. We vary between 100 & 109 [1]  in the shade every day and everything is sticky & muggy and generally uncomfortable.

The slightest exertion makes you perspire by the quart -- even that of sitting down to think.

However we have got off some good results here amongst these tribes all of them closely allied & also unfortunately not very different from the tribes whom we met on the way over.

We have worked out their organisation & totemic systems & many other things. Right through from the Arunta in the south to the Gulf tribes there is the same idea of reincarnation. In this part of the world each totem originates from one great animal [illegible section crossed out] (or plant) which wanders about the country leaving spirit children in various spots. When an individual dies he or she finally goes back in spirit form to the spot and sooner or later undergoes reincarnation. There is a very pretty & suggestive final ceremony in connection with mourning. The dead person's bones (the flesh is eaten by relatives previously) are brought into camp where a large number of natives are assembled. They perform ceremonies relating to the dead man's totem and at the close the bones are collected and placed in a hollow bough of a tree the outer surface of which is all covered over with a design in red & white down which belongs to the dead person's totem. Here instead of "being gathered unto his father" he is clearly "gathered unto his totem". From the Arunta northwards there is a gradual transition from the higgledy-piggledy manner of descent of the totem to the strict descent in the paternal line. I am inclined to think that in totemic matters the Kaitish and Unmatchera tribes right in the very centre are the most primitive but this is merely theory and so had perhaps better be chucked overboard. [2] We are very anxious to get on to the Larrakia tribe near Darwin amongst which there are said to be no class system nor initiation rites. [3]

Xmas day The most horrible unnatural kind of Xmas day. We wish we could transport ourselves into the bosoms of our families. There is no mail & we hear the route is closed by drought. If so goodness knows when you will get this. Best wishes for the New Year 

Yours very sincerely

W. Baldwin Spencer


[1] Farenheit, 37.7 degrees to 42.7 degrees centigrade

[2] Anmatyerre. 



Fison to Spencer Letter 13


Saty night

May 1902

My dear Spencer,

I should be ashamed of myself for not answering your letter of Apr'l 24th ere now, if I had had any time to write to anybody. This Simultaneous Mission has kept me on the go both day & night. [1] I am a miles emeritus senex [2], & yet I have to go on fighting as if I were a young recruit.

My sentence is "Bother the Science Libraries!" Why should you pay for them? If things had turned out otherwise, it might have been another affair. [3]

The Town Hall scheme, I am sure is a good one; but there are difficulties & I'm sorry to say I can give you no help. Some experienced agent, who would run the show on business lines, is wanted, & I don't know how to put you on to him. [4]

Then there are the undress views. The only way to deal with them I can think of is to say in plainest terms before hand [insert] in the paper & ads. [end insert] what they are, & tell the women not to come unless they are prepared in the interests of science to witness painful sights. [5] I think that this would fill the Hall. If you give your lecture, I think the undiscriminating slides ought to appear, & I don't see what anybody can complain of it if they are told plainly beforehand what to expect. On the other hand there may be a legal difficulty, & I think you would do well to have a talk with the Mayor. 

As to being heard, I think you could manage that. Your voice has a melodious note of a penetrating squeak in it -- not a whole squeak, but a bit of one -- which ought to carry far. Two things must be attended to. First, say no word while you are facing the screen -- you might, perhaps, have a disciple to do the pointing. Second, speak only one word at a time, & let there be a perceptible interval between word & word. 

Fix your eye on some one at the other end of the Hall, & speak to him for a sentence or two, till you get the pitch. [insert] Your ear will tell you when you have got it. [end insert]

But I must stop the flow of my words of wisdom, & get this letter into the post -- which means a walk of 1 1/2 miles there & back.

with kindest regards, 

Yours sincerely 

Lorimer Fison

Have you heard from Frazer yet? T.O [turn over

Did I not send his letter on to you? That letter in which he said he "hoped to have the privilege", of reading your proofs. [6]


[1] In 1901 the National Council of Evangelical Free Churches initiated a united mission 'in an attempt to stem the growing tide of secularism and bring the masses back to church'. Derek J. Tidball, “‘A Work so rich in Promise’: the 1901 Simultaneous Mission and the Failure of Co-operative Evangelism,” Vox Evangelica 14 (1984): 85-103. [See here

[2] Quoting part of a letter from John Wesley, dated 22.6.1765 to a Mr Venn, '... miles emeritus senex, sexagenarius', a worn out warrior of sixty.

[3] The University of Melbourne was suffering financial hardships and Spencer (and other academics at the university) donated part of his salary in 1902-4 towards alleviating the worst effects. [See Mulvaney & Calaby, 1985: 222 et seq.]

[4] This is presumably reference to Spencer's lecture about the 1901-2 expedition at Melbourne Town Hall which brought in takings of £208. 

[5] Possibly references to Spencer's lecture slides which will have included shots of Aboriginal people in central Australia and would have been similar to the photographs included in Northern Tribes of Central Australia? It may have been thought that this slides may have offended the more prudish viewer.

[6] James Frazer had kindly proofread Spencer and Gillen's first book, Native Tribes of Central Australia and had presumably offered to proof read the second book, Northern Tribes of Central Australia too. The books were published by Macmillan in London and sending proofs back and forth was problematic, whilst Frazer, based in the UK, could do it more easily. Spencer papers, PRM ms collections Box 5 Frazer letter 45 dated 14 July 1902 asks Spencer directly if he can proofread their second book. Frazer Letters 49 15 April 1903 and 52 dated 21 June 1903 makes it clear that Frazer did proof read the volume.



Spencer to Fison letter 7


Aug 23.06

My dear Fison

By today's mail I have written to Frazer and am indebted to you for opening the door of repentance. The fact is that routine work in connection with the University, Public Library, Museum [1] and in later months the School teachers Registration Board has occupied, and more than so, every spare minute of my time & it is at least two years since I have been able to do anything in the way of research work.

Apart from going carefully over a series of papers which Howitt has sent home in reply to sundry very clever but utterly misleading & unscrupulous criticisms of his work published by Andrew Lang in his "Secrets of the Totem" [2] I have had no time for ethnologic work.

Howitt has simply got Lang tied up in a knot out of which I do not think that he can extricate himself though his power of wriggling is enormous.

Most unfortunately for himself Lang has attempted to show that there is no such thing as "group marriage" in Australia, that what we call "group marriage" is merely a "sport" added on to individual marriage.

On this point I think that Howitt shows the utter incapacity of Lang to judge of evidence. Lang is an ethnologic charlatan who does not care in the very least about the truths but is only interested in upholding any theory which for the time being he favours.

You did not tell me what you thought about Frazers theory of "conceptional totemism" as laid down in his article in the 'Fortnightly'. It is very suggestive & the point which he makes in regard to the time which elapses between intercourse & that at which the woman knows that a spirit has entered her or that she is pregnant is a strong one. In as much as all women amongst savages have such intercourse they naturally can have no idea of the result of the same from comparing cases in which married women have children & "unmarried" do not.

I am expecting Howitt down again some time in September. He is now busy in writing his address as President of the A.A.A.S. [Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science] at Adelaide in January next. I fancy that they will have rather a warm time there.

As soon as I can get a chance I will see you--meanwhile every minute of my time is occupied--just now especially so as we are very busy with the school teachers registration.

We have no fewer than 8000 applications to go through & examine & grade as primary or secondary. When this will be done is hard to say & when it is I fear that there will be very many heart burnings.

Two weeks ago to my surprise I had a letter from Tylor written just in his old style. He sounded perfectly well & says that he is writing another look at primitive mankind which will be his last work.

I am now a lone bachelor with Mrs Spencer & my two girls away in Europe where they are having a delightful time. As you can imagine I very much miss the companion of my Sunday walks but she is a most charming letter writer. At the present time the two girls are in Paris where they have gone into residence at a kind of school to learn French & I fancy enjoy themselves at least I hope so. If there be a cat & a dog Chappie will be happy. [3] 

I had almost forgot to convey to you the kind regards of Sir George Le Hunt [sic] whom I met in Adelaide two weeks ago. He asked particularly after you. [4]

Yours very sincerely

W Baldwin Spencer 


[1] As well as a University Professor, Spencer was Honorary director of the museum (and library?) at Melbourne. 

[2] "The Secret of the Totem" 1905 London: Longmans, Green and Co.

[3] Chappie was Alline Spencer, the youngest of two daughters of WBS.

[4] George Ruthven Le Hunte (1852-1925) Governor of South Australia from 1903 to 1908. He had previously served in Fiji from 1875 where he had presumably met Fison.

Transcribed by AP March 2013 / August and September 2013.

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