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


Spencer 1998.267.85Walter Baldwin Spencer while he was at Oxford 1998.267.85 (part)Walter Baldwin Spencer, after he moved to Melbourne, Victoria in Australia in 1887, met Lorimer Fison and Alfred William Howitt (possibly with a letter of introduction from Edward Burnett 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 on this page, see Part 2 of the correspondence here which covers letters from 1900 to 1906, see also here for undateable letters from the 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.


2000 15 7-OLorimer Fison 2000.15.7Fison to Spencer letter 14


23 April 1893

My dear Spencer,

You see the wisdom of the Didymus. I am enjoying his blessedness, & possessing my soul in patience. My obligation to you is no whit lessened by the lamentable error of the Ballarat folk which has brought upon them such grievous loss. I am full of a tender sympathy on their account.

Thou art the man! It was you who wrote that par. in the Argus. Thy speech betrayeth thee. It was very kind of you, & I have written your name in the fleshy tablets of my heart.

Not all the hooks, combined with all the crooks in the Universe could avail to take me to Oxford. [1] It would be good for me in many ways, I know, & the delight of it would be unspeakable, but it is impossible. It is a question--a great many questions--of ha'pence, & I am not going to send round the hat, or to have it sent round on my account. I would cheerfully spoil some bloated Philistine, if he were to be spoiled, but I am not going to tax my own friends!

Poor old Moses! There's the good land. Take a good look at it. Behold the whiteness of the flowing milk: sniff the fragrance of the abundant honey--& now come along, & get into your grave.

Yours sepulchrally

Lorimer Fison

Notes by transcriber

[1] Tylor had invited Fison to attend the British Association for the Advancement of Science's meeting in Oxford in 1894. See here, Fison 44.



Fison to Spencer letter 15


21 April 1894

Most noble Professor

Your kind letter fell upon us like the gentle rain from heaven, & filled us with a blessing which is the portion of its writer also. But, like the practical minded Thomas, we hold our full belief in reserve until full confirmation, & thereby enjoy the further blessedness of the man that expecteth nothing. Whether the thing comes off or not, however, your kindly interest is the same, & we shall not forget it. I speak for the whole tribe.

I shall be absent from Melbourne during May, attending our General Conference in Adelaide, but after that month I can go to Ballarat at any time. There is nothing in my course to which a whole boarding school of girls might not be introduced without danger; but I will look carefully again at all the thin ice, & see if I cannot go round it.

I have received from Oxford an invitation, signed by the Vice Chancellor, the Mayor, & the three local secretaries, to attend the meeting of the British Association in August as their guests, & forthwith I entered with full sympathy into poor old Moses' feelings when he looked upon the good land from the mountain top. But the invitation is a great honour & after all, my not being able to go will leave the folk at home in their delusion that I am somebody, which my presence would probably dispel. All I have been able to do seems to me so ridiculously small & imperfect, that an honour such as this makes me feel like a humbug. [1]

Yours most sincerely

Lorimer Fison

W. Baldwin Spencer Esq

P.S. I wish Howitt & I were young enough to go with you to the McDonnell Ranges [2]. I should have been of great service as the Gibesmite [?] of the party--a hewer of wood & a drawer of water--if there were any to draw. Bear in mind the Baron's "token of amity": it may be useful.


[1] Fison did attend the British Association for the Advancement of Science [BAAS] meeting in Oxford.

[2] Spencer was obviously just about to leave on the Horn Scientific Exploring Expedition travelling through South Australia to Alice Springs.



Fison to Spencer letter 16


Nov 30 94

My dear Professor,

Your eyes most certainly did deceive you if they saw me promenading the streets with any sort of "unction" about me. It is a standing reproach against me that I am grievously lacking in that grace, & I have been taken to task therefor [sic] by more than one anointed elder.

What theology has failed to develope, [sic] I am sure anthropology cannot have brought to the surface from the hidden depths where the rich supply of grace is kept strictly for home consumption.

I had so good a time at home that the English language does not possess an adverb capable of doing justice to the adjective; & I finished up at Cambridge in a perfect blaze of glory: &, with the wisdom of the shooting star, which takes care to clear out of the way before the planets have time to discover that it is not one of themselves, I bolted from the seats of learning ere the men who really know things would find out how little I know. It was Howitt who should have gone home, & I told the Brishersociation [sic] so.[1]

It is like you--in other words, it is kindness itself on your part--to put me forward as a lecturer on the great occasion & in such august company. I may, however, be useful as a foil to the great professors with whom I am to be associated. 

I must go & see Howitt before I give you the title, & I would go this evening but for an abominable "reception" which has been arranged for here. I will make no delay in settling upon my subject, & will let you know the title as soon as may be.

Horne, [sic][2] who sent out your expedition is not a savoury person. He went home with me in the Aruba, & what little I saw of him did not make me hanker arter him.

I hope to see you at Queen's on Tuesday, & look forward with great delight to our meeting.

Yours sincerely 

Lorimer Fison


[1] Fison had been in the UK to attend the 1894 BAAS meeting at Oxford, see previous letter.

[2] William Austin Horn



Fison to Spencer letter 17



June 13, 95

My dear Professor

Who am I, & what is my father's house, that this great thing should be done unto me? I have done so little, & I get so much, that really & truly I feel that I must be, without intending it, one of the most errant impostors on earth, & I think of enjoining on my executors--if they have anything wherewith to execute--to engrave on my tombstone "L'imposteur malgré lui."[1]

I have had a letter from Sayce, [2] asking whether the epistles written by Tylor, Max Müller, [3] Boyd-Dawkins [4] & himself, have had any effect on the R. Sy of N.S.W. [5] Boyd Dawkins wrote direct. Did you send the other letters? I most sincerely trust that they will do some good. In the meanwhile Fraser [5] has written to me asking for a paper for "our Section" to be read at the meeting of the Australian Ass: in Sydney. I have replied that it is most unlikely that I shall be able to be present; & I repressed a strong inclination to tell him that, if I did go, it would be to attack him. True wisdom is shown by what one does not say. 

I wish I could have a talk with you about your expedition. [6] Where & when are you most likely to be found without some urgent work on your hands.

Yours sincerely

Lorimer Fison


[1] Presumably a reference to the contents of Fison letter 18, see on, it seems that the Royal Society of Victoria had helped Fison out in some way (or honoured him), I have not been able to identify the event. 

[2] Archibald Henry Sayce (1845-1933) he was professor of Assyriology at Oxford from 1891. In 1890 he had moved to Egypt where he spent much time. 

[3] Friedrich Max Müller (1823-1900) Professor of comparative philology at Oxford.

[4] William Boyd Dawkins (1837-1929) Professor of Geology, Owens College, Manchester

[5] John Fraser with whom Fison carried out a feud. John Fraser (1834-1904) is described here as 'Born in Scotland (Perth) and educated at the University of Edinburgh, Dr John Fraser migrated to Australia and lived at Maitland, where he established a High School c1861 at Sauchie House on Church St. (now Maitland Boys High School). An ethnologist, linguist and advocate of Christian missions, Fraser authored numerous scholarly articles, including an essay on "The Aborigines of NSW" that won the 1882 Royal Society of NSW Prise. His crowning achievement was a comprehensive and authoritative edition of Reverend L.E. Threlkeld's language studies, An Australian Language, published in 1892 (Fraser 1892), a monumental work "hampered by his peculiar theories of racial and linguistic origin" (Gunson 1974, I: 1). Fraser died in the New Hebrides in May 1904.'

[5] The letters were presumably testimonials to the Royal Society of Victoria rather than New South Wales? Fison 18 is a letter from Fison to Tylor dated 13 June 1895 (not marked private so presumably written at the same time as an 'open' letter) which thanks him for the honour which the Royal Society of Victoria has done him, Spencer was then the Honorary Secretary of the Royal Society.

[6] Possible reference to the 'Engwura' ceremonies fieldwork Spencer and Gillen carried out in late 1896 and early 1897? However it might have been another, field biologists, expedition he is referring to.  



Fison to Spencer letter 18

Essendon 13 June '95

My dear Professor Spencer,

I cannot express my grateful sense of the kindness shown to me by the Royal Society, for the simple reason that the English language, with all is full resources, is incapable of doing justice to the subject. [1] That kindness is one of the most disproportionate things that have ever come under my notice. The gift is so great, & the merit of the receiver is so small. What have I done that so much should be given to me? I am rarely able to attend the meetings of the Society, & I fear that the little work I have done will not have any great addition to it.

Believe me,

Yours faithfully

Lorimer Fison

Professor W. Baldwin Spencer

Honorary Secretary

Royal Society of Victoria


[1] It seems that the Royal Society of Victoria had helped Fison out in some way (or honoured him), I have not been able to identify the event. Fison had been a member of the Royal Society of Victoria from 1889 so it is not accepting his membership.



Spencer to Fison letter 8 [1]

Alice Springs

Nov 21.96 [NB second page dated Nov 20.96]

My dear Fison

Just a line to say that after a most miserably uncomfortable time I reached Alice Springs a little more than a week ago & at once got into the middle of work. The Engwurra or Fire Ceremony was in full swing or rather the preliminary ceremonies attendant on it & Gillen had managed to persuade the old head man that I was his younger brother & under these circumstances they allowed me to come in & see everything & we are now seeing things which no white men have ever seen before or are likely to again for some time. How ever Gillen persuaded them to let me in I cant imagine but the first night I got here the old head man came up to me & of his own accord said "you Bultharra Udnirringita" which meant I was a Bultharra man of the Udnirringita or large grub totem the same as himself & then he called me "Weteey-aitcha" which means my younger brother.

After that I went in & out amongst them & they took no more notice of me than if I were one of themselves which in fact I now am.

Gillen they call the "Oknirrabata" which means "Great teacher" & they seem really anxious to let us know all about them.

This Engwurra turns out to be a great gathering of representatives of the tribe from far & near & at it are performed ceremonies of the most sacred character concerned with the different totems. These ceremonies deal with different incidents in the past history of the members of the totem. The whole ceremony is concerned with the latter & the distinctions concerned with the "classes" Bultharra Paninga etc scarcely enters at all for the reason that no totem is restricted to any one of the classes. It is difficult work but we are getting a great deal of information though as you might imagine just when we want to get further we are brought up dead against the "Alcheringa" or dream-times. [insert] The natives say "It was as in the dream-times", just as a Fijian says "Our fathers said, or did, so". When the enquirer gets to that point, he need not try to go any further. [end insert]  

The thing that is most impressive is the way in which the blacks really reverently deal with their churinga (sacred sticks & stones). 

This morning for example we had a new lot--there are hundreds of them piled up on a special section in camp carefully hidden from sight--brought in from one of the secret 'store-houses' & the chief old man of the group to which they belonged in dead silence opened them out & showed them. Each one represents some actual person & in handing them round the old men whisper to the younger ones telling them who they belonged to & all about their former possessors. Then they press them against their stomachs (there is a definite order of precedence in doing this) & once this morning in the case of the churinga of an old man dead not long ago there was a dead silence for some minutes while the men most closely related to the dead man literally shed tears on his churinga.

The whole thing is absolutely real to the blacks & though we get tied up in knots every hour we are gradually getting a good deal deeper & are carefully noting down on the spot everything that takes place.

Luckily now Gillen knows the language deeply enough to understand most of what they say & we have one or two genuine blacks who can speak English enough to help us so that I dont think we miss much & there is no doubt but that the blacks have implicit faith in Gillen & trust me because I am his younger brother. It would take reams of paper to give you any idea of what we are seeing but if there be any points which have struck you & Howitt that we ought to enquire into--though I think we are on the look out for most things--send me a line before the Adelaide mail leaves next Wednesday as the mail only comes here once in 6 weeks.

Gillen sends his kind regards to you & Howitt. He is simply mad with anthropologic enthusiasm.

Yours very sincerely

W. Baldwin Spencer

A rather curious thing is that in 5 of the ceremonies we have seen the performers are engaged in eating their own totem.

If only McLennan were here we could convince him in 10 minutes with regard to terms of address.

The Engwurra ceremony lasts about 3 months--how long exactly depends on the old men who are simply supreme & rule the young men with a rod of iron


[1] It is my belief that WBS wrote out almost all his letters twice because these and other letters from WBS to correspondents came from Spencer's own filing system via his daughters to the Pitt Rivers Museum. In other words I do not think that they are the actual letters sent to Howitt or Fison, but copies kept by Spencer for reference--of course, I could be wrong. AP



Fison to Spencer letter 19

Essendon Dec 4 '96

My dear Spencer,

Your letter of Nov 21st reached me today by midday post. I was in the midst of a sermon which I have to present tomorrow, & I grieve to say that I dismissed it from my mind & turned to carnal thoughts. How are the mighty fallen!

I read your letter with great delight. You are a born anthropologist, & as for giving you advice, the only word it is necessary for me to say is "Go on, & prosper." With Gillen you are now doing a unique work & you are just the man to do it. [1] Thousands of men would see nothing, or only a blurred jumble, where you get to the root of the matter by a keen instinct -- such as is frequently observed in the lower animals. I have been trying to get myself into a proper frame of mind for rebuking you for the scandalous deception you have practised upon those poor simpleminded savages, but the carnal nature prevails, & I can't. Moreover conscience comes in, & reminds me that I have done much the same myself. That however does not excuse you, & I trust you will have grace enough to repent -- not however before you have let the deception have its perfect work. Premature penitence might spoil many things. [2]

But seriously, the only thing I can think of is to suggest that an inquiry should be made as to the connection between the stones [3] & the bull roarers. I have a notion that the stones are the "originals", so to speak, & that the "sticks" derive their virtue from them. This of course is only conjecture -- what the grand old Baron [4] used to call a "suggestion" -- but one gets light sometimes by following up a conjecture. At all events, if there is nothing in it, he finds out that there is nothing, & that is a gain.

Of course, I can think of many other things, but it would be folly to write them down, because you know them as well as I do, & you are on the way to know them a great deal better. If I had time to read Gillen's paper, [5] which came by the same post with your letter, I might find something to say; but I am writing this note at once & in haste, so as to catch the mail, & there is no time to spare. I am going out of into the country this even'g, & cannot defer writing till my return. Gillen's paper opened on a page which is full of evidence of descent through the father. The line of descent wants printing out for the sake of students whose attention has not been called to the difference it causes. Men accustomed to the other line will be puzzled by many things which are seen at once to fall into orderly sequence when the initial fact is known. I also at the first glance saw that the knowledge Mr Gillen subsequently attained will make valuable additions to some of his statements. I cannot write to him now -- as soon as I have finished this note I must go back to that sermon again -- but I beg that you will give him my hearty thanks for his paper & my congratulations on the splendid work he is doing. [6] Accept my blessing on you both. It is most delightful to an old battered fogey to see you going on from conquering and to conquer. You will smite the Philistine hip & thigh with your facts -- I was going to say "like Samson", but I remember his weapon & refrain. [7]

Howitt came to see me at my office last Wednesday to tell me he had had a telegram from you; but the wretched office-boy told him I was not in, & so I did not see him. I have named that boy Magor-missabib, because he is a terror to himself & his friends. Your intimate knowledge of Scripture will at once take your mind to the passage concerned. [8]

I shall post your letter this evening to Howitt's address. It is no use posting earlier, for this is Saturday & the last post is gone. He will not get it till Monday evening.

With kindest remembrances to Mr Gillen

Yours sincerely

Lorimer Fison


[1] Spencer had obviously asked Fison (and Howitt) for advice about what to investigate during his upcoming fieldwork in central Australia. Spencer and Gillen carried out their 'Engwura' (Angkwerre) fieldwork in Alice Springs in late 1896 and early 1897, which resulted in their 1899 publication, Native Tribes of Central Australia. See Philip Jones, 2005 ‘Reflections on Spencer and Gillen’s respective roles in 1896–97’ in P. Batty, L. Allen and J. Morton (eds.), The Photographs of Baldwin Spencer, Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, pp. 32–5 for the timing of Spencer's visit, the Angkwerre lasted from September 1896 until February 1897 (Spencer was there from 10 November 1896 to January 1897; Gillen was present throughout).

[2] Fison must be talking here of Spencer and Gillen's fostering of the belief that they were "initiated men". See Gibson, 2013: 65 et seq. Fison's own deception is discussed in Gibson, 2013: 64-5.

[3] Tywerrenge or (as Spencer and Gillen then called them) churinga.

[4] Ferdinand von Mueller (1825-1896) botanist. 

[5] Francis James Gillen, 1896 ‘Notes on some manners and customs of the Aborigines of the McDonnell Ranges belonging to the Arunta tribe’ in W.B. Spencer (ed.), Report on the Work of the Horn Scientific Expedition to Central Australia, vol. 4 (Anthropology), Dulau and Co., London. 

[6] In Gillen's letter 16 to Spencer, dated 20 December 1896 [See Mulvaney et al, 1995: 89 et seq; PRM ms collections Spencer papers Box 2] it is clear that Fison wrote fairly quickly to Gillen as he writes 'I felt cocksure that had learnt everything there was to know about these ceremonies but Mr Fison's question, 'Are you quite sure you have learnt everything? It is so difficult to know when one gets to the bed rock with these people', started me making further enquiries and these notes are the result.' 

[7] The jawbone of an ass.

[8] Magor-missabib -- Hebrew, literally 'fear on every side' from Jeremiah 20:3



Fison to Spencer letter 21



My dear Spencer,

It will give me great pleasure to come to you next Wednesday, but I cannot avail myself of your kind offer to stay all night. [insert] * See P.S. [end insert] I have two weddings on the following day, one of which is my son's, & there are many things I must do in the morning, preparing for the double infliction.

I wrote a long letter to Frazer the other day. You will see from his own epistle how intensely interested he is in your work. [1] I told him I laughed when I read his entreaty to me to "keep pegging away" at you, that no pegging was required, because you were &c &c &c. I refrain from repeating what I said, because it is only decent to keep up the fiction that you have some remnant of modesty that ought to be respected.

In my former letter to him I told him something of the work you were doing, because he is an influential man & may have weight with publishing firms. [2] His last letter gave me an opportunity of saying something on the general subject apart from your own facts, & I put in a good bit which will be pleasing to his friend Dr Jackson of Trinity, [3] who also is a man of weight. My design was to get them both thoroughly interested. I will tell you more when we meet.

I have also written to Sir John Lubbock with whom I forgath [forgathered?] at Oxford, [1 and 4] & who was very friendly. He wanted me to come & see him at his house, but he was going abroad, & I had no time after he returned. I did not write at any great length or go into details, but contented myself with saying enough to show how highly your work is to be prized.

I hope Howitt will be able to come to you on Wed. If not we must, I suppose, make some other arrangement. I forgot the name of the street & the number of the door. The S. Yarra tram, if I remember aright, passes the corner of the street. Will you send me a p. card [postcard] with directions, lest I turn my feet not of the way & wander in the wilderness.

Yours sincerely

Lorimer Fison

P.S. My missis says I am to stay all night.


[1] This suggests that the letter may be earlier than the letter, Fison to Spencer 5 which seems to mention the same people. If I am right that that letter dates from around October 1898, then this letter must date from earlier than October 1898? However, it probably actually dates from middle to end 1897. Frazer wrote to Fison in the middle of 1897 asking for details of Spencer and Gillen's work, and Spencer replied directly to Frazer on 12 July 1897 (presumably answering the letter that Fison is referring to here from Frazer?)[PRM ms collections, Spencer papers Box 5 Frazer letter 1] On 13 January 1898 Gillen wrote to Spencer saying that he had replied to John Lubbock, who had written to him by early December 1897, saying that James Frazer could give information about Spencer and Gillen's work. Which suggests that Lubbock was following up on Fison's letter (mentioned in para 4 of the above letter) and that therefore this letter from Fison and his earlier ones to Lubbock and Frazer (which prompted all the interest) must date from before December 1897. The most likely date is around July 1897.

[2] This is the second reason to think this letter must date before 1899, indeed before Spencer and Gillen obtained agreement for Macmillan's to publish Native Tribes of Central Australia. I would not make sense if it were any later.

[3] Henry Jackson (1839-1921), fellow of Trinity college, and classist. 

[4] It sounds as if this was written following a recent visit to England but, so far as I am aware, Fison only travelled to England in 1894, so that must be when Fison is referring to.


?1896 or 1897

Fison to Spencer letter 25

[Spectator headed paper dated 189 ..]

My dear Spencer,

I have been turning over the Noa question in my mind since our pleasant evening at your house, & have had a talk with Howitt about it. [1] The conclusion we have come to is that the Pirauru custom seems to be a restriction of the Noa right [NB this word was crossed out and substituted by another word which has been heavily crossed out and is now illegible, the word 'right' is then underscored with a dotted line which I take to mean it has been reinstated by Fison] -- i.e. that the Piraurus are a certain number of women allotted out of those who have that qualification. It seems to me that the Noas must include every woman in the tribe. This does not alter the fact of group-marriage. It, however, needs further inquiry, & I think it might be well to get Gillen to make special inquiry. [2] If a man has a Noa all her tribal sisters must have the Noa qualification towards him -- i.e. must be his possible Noas -- & I expect Gillen will find that it is from them his Piraurus are selected.

I got from my wife the other evening the letters I wrote to her from England when I went home to the British Ass. They are all arranged in order under the consecutive months. I looked up the August letters for the name of the Oxford Don who said he was "on the other side of the house," & whose name I could not remember. It is Gardner, & I think he is Professor of Greek Archaeology. [3] At all events he was a very fine fellow.

Kind regards to Mrs Spencer, & my young friends -- especially to the younger who honoured me by taking me to see her ringtailed possums. I grieve over her incredulity about the fairies. Please tell her & her sister that the next chance I have I will tell them the story of Brother Mike [insert] & the little fairy [end insert] which our old nurse used to tell us in the far off days & which a sister of mine has published. [4] Therefore it must be true. 

Yours truly

Lorimer Fison


[1] I have placed this letter under Fison letter 21 as that refers to Howitt and Fison visiting Spencer at his house (just in case  it is the same meeting that is being referred to). The later reference to the opossums mean that this letter must surely predate letter 22 which refers to one of the possums dying. Spencer and Gillen started asking about Noas in 1896 (see Spencer to Gillen letter 17, dated 31 January 1896. I think it most likely that this letter dates to 1896 or 1897.

[2] It is possible that this letter actually dates from January 1896 as Gillen says in letter 17, 'There is one question in your letter that puzzles me a bit ie “What are the equivalents of the Noas where the latter exist”' which may be the special inquiry Fison asks for. A lot of letter 17 [see Mulvaney et al, 1997: 93 et seq] concentrates on what Gillen calls 'Piraungaru' and Fison 'Pirauru'. Later letters also reference it. 

[3] Percy Gardner (1846-1937) who was Lincoln and Merton Professor of Classical Archaeology at Oxford from 1887.

[4] 'Brother Mike: An old Suffolk Fairy Tale' by Lois A. Goyder, published by Jarrold and Sons, London in 1893.



Fison to Spencer letter 22


We. even'g

My dear Spencer,

I am returning thanks in quite a number of languages, though I never had any very grave doubts as to Macmillan's taking the book after we heard that Fraser [sic] had gone in enthusiastically for it. [1] I shall be delighted to meet you & Howitt. But as to the term "classes", we used it only for want of a better, because phratria suggests paternal descent. But the suggestion is only in the connection of the word, not in the word itself, & there is no philological reason why it should not be applied to a tribal section with descent through females. [2]

Personally I always preferred phratria, or rather its Anglicised form phratry, & sub phratry. If this is all, there is no difficulty, for I am sure Howitt will agree. The question is an important one, & now is the time to settle it. In all probability the term will be accepted by the anthrop's in general if you adopt it.

If there is any other points "when found, make a note of", & we can turn it over in our minds. There is no need for any delay on your part. Use the term & we will follow. But what will you do with the totemic subdivision of the subphratries? They are the difficulty. Virtually they are Υενη [?], but the anthrop's howled at me for calling them such. The Roman "gens" wh. is more convivial than Υενος, was not an exact equivalent to it -- it had developed more, & there is a hitch to using it. But phratry is beyond question.

I suggested once to Tylor that we should use "totemy", & he approved. Phratries, sub-phratries, & totemies would be clear enough. But perhaps joint tobacco, combined with a modest quencher, might lead us in the way of wisdom.

I grieved to hear the other day of the death of one of the possums which your little daughter showed me. Please convey to her my tearful sympathies.

With kind regards,

Yours sincerely

Lorimer Fison

Excuse these smears. Something went wrong with the wick of my lamp, I knocked off the burnt portion, & behold a lot of little blacks descended on this paper. My youngest -- & most impertinent daughter, who was with me, commanded me to write the letter over again, but I rebelled, & didn't, & won't.


[1] This letter must date after September 1897 when a letter from James Frazer to Spencer dated 19 September 1897 confirms that Macmillans are interested in publishing Native Tribes of Central Australia, [PRM ms collections, Spencer papers Box 5 Frazer letter 2] but by April 1898 when a letter from Gillen to Spencer discusses negotiations with Macmillan's [PRM ms collections, Spencer papers Box letter 37], the most likely is that it is around September 1897.

[2] Gillen uses the term 'class' or 'classes' from 1895 in his letters to Spencer, it seems Spencer was attempting to check with Howitt and Fison whether that was the correct term before publication in Native Tribes



Fison to Spencer letter [1, dated by evidence in letter to around October 1898, certainly before February 1899]

[Printed 'Memo from Editor Spectator' 'Spectator Publishing Co. Proprietary Limited, 270 Post Office Place, Melbourne']

My dear Spencer, 

I have no other papers handy, so I write on this, & implore your forgiveness. I hope your flight to England is not caused by any hitch arising out of Tylor's proposal. [1] What I wrote when I was in England [2] & he being then in a parlous state raises a suspicion in my mind that Mrs Tylor may have something to do with that. I observed that she sat by us when we were talking, & supplied a word whenever Tylor was at a loss for one, which was of frequent occurrence, & a painful symptom of his malady, which I hear has come upon him again. I have given up writing to him, & have heard nothing from him for the last three years, excepting once--a few lines on a p-card. I think it most likely that Mrs Tylor does most of his thinking for him now.

I can hardly realise your "shyness" at the thought of interviewing Frazer. [3] It never occurred to me to tremble before him, or that there was anything to tremble about, & I am quite sure that my freedom from your complaint did not arise from excessive self-estimation. I assure you I seem to myself to be a perfect humbug, thought not of my own manufacture. What I know is so very little that I never cease wondering at folk for making much of it. I should not object to import to you a reasonable portion of my size if it were possible & if the gift wd do you any good; but as for any of my "age", what in the world do you want with it? Surely you do not delude yourself with the notion that you are a young man? I did until I was about 40, but that arose from my native humility. I used to look upon myself as a youth, & bow before the elders. You are not built that way.

As for Frazer's theory, it will be of great interest to me to hear it, & to turn it over in my mind--things of that sort want a lot of turning over. But I have come to care very little about theories. If I had money & leisure, I should spend the rest of my days in gathering facts, & other folk might theorise on them to their hearts' content. My own theorising brought me anything but peace of mind, & I always kick myself when I think of it.

Frazer has earned my undying gratitude by his steadfast opposition to Tylor's proposal. [see 1] I went to see old David Blair [4] the other day. He modestly informed me that Providence had endowed him with a "preternatural gift of insight into men's minds & qualities", I lay no claim to such a miraculous gift for myself, but when a man [illegible - paper torn] me the impression that Frazer did, I have generally--[illegible - paper torn] always--found it confirmed by experience. I may be mistaken sometimes--indeed when I tell you that you yourself--but I will pursue the subject no further.

If you tell Dr Jackson of Trinity [5] what you say in your book about the point I put to you when we were at Howitt's, which falls in with his (Jackson's) theory about the origins of the class-divisions, he will rejoice, & he may be useful, though I don't think you will want any more allies. Frazer is a host in himself, & will prevail.

You will go to Oxford of course. Do pray, I beseech you, when you are there, call on my kind hostess Miss Weld, of "Conal More", 5 Norham Gardens. [6] I owe her a long letter but when I shall pay it I cannot tell. My work is getting harder & harder with the hardness of the times, & it faut vivre before paying epistolary debts to one's friends. She was very kind to me--& wrote about me to the Master of Trinity, the Vice chancellor & others & did all she could for me. Au revoir, & with kind regards to Mrs Spencer and your little ones

Yours sincerely

L. Fison


[1] This letter actually precedes Fison to Spencer 1 though it is undated. This is confirmed later on when Fison obviously for the first time asks Spencer to visit Miss Weld of Oxford whom he met during his attendance at the BAAS meeting in Oxford in 1894. It must therefore have been written before February 1899. Spencer returned to England in October 1898 to see Native Tribes of Central Australia through publication, and also to ascertain whether it would be worth applying for the Lineacre professorship at Oxford (he didn't). [Mulvaney, Morphey and Petch, 1996: 243] I think that the reference to Tylor's proposal must refer to this: 'Tylor, to whom second proofs of your book have been sent by mistake, has proposed to Macmillan and me that the part of the book dealing with the Intichiuma ceremonies from p. 180 onwards should be abridged by the omission of what he calls "tedious and disagreeable details". This proposal I absolutely refused to entertain, and on two grounds. First, I have no authority from you to make any such change ... [and] I regard the chapter to which Tylor takes exception as of the utmost importance, indeed as the most valuable in the book.' [Frazer to Spencer, 15 September 1898, PRM Spencer papers, Box 5/15][quoted in Mulvaney et al, 1996: 245]

[2] Fison had been persuaded to travel to the UK for the BAAS Oxford meeting in 1894 when he had met Tylor face-to-face for the first time.

[3] Of course by this point Frazer had been kindly helping with the publication of Native Tribes for Spencer and Gillen, but Spencer would only meet him, for the first time face-to-face, on this trip back to the UK.

[4] David Blair (1820-1899) Australian journalist, his ADB biography [follow the link] gives an idea of what Fison is writing about here. 

[5] Possibly Henry Jackson (1839-1921) Classicist, Praelector in Ancient Philosophy from 1875.

[6] Miss Weld lived at 5 Norham Gardens, Oxford and had attended the BAAS meeting. Other reference to her hereCharles Richard Weld (1813-1869) is recorded as having lived in Conal More, Norham Gardens, Oxford and may have been related to her, indeed his daughter is very probably the right Miss Weld. If so, then it seems her mother and she lived in Norham Gardens after his death (they are recorded as attending a funeral of a fellow Norham Gardens resident in January 1892). her mother was Anne Sellwood (1814-1894). She was Agnes Grace Weld (1849-1915), and she was photographed by Lewis Carroll in childhood as Red Riding Hood in Croft Rectory on 18 August 1857 and also by Julia Margaret Cameron with another little girl [1866-1870)(photographed owned by the National Media Museum). She was the niece of Lord Alfred Tennyson's wife and also related to Sir John Franklin, the Arctic explorer. She travelled a good deal each summer with her parents. She was an author of 'Sacred Palmlands, or the journal of a Spring tour' [1881], 'St Agatha and her festa' [1884], 'Glimpses of Tennyson and of some of his relations and friends' [with others][1903].



Fison to Spencer letter 1

Spec. [Spectator] Office

Tuesday [Added Feb. 6/ 99][1]

My dear Spencer

All hail!

Your letter came this morning as I was on the point of going into town, & I brought it with me, Now, while the devil (printer's) is quiet for a time, I write a few hurried lines in reply, ere a batch of linotype proofs comes in.

If I were capable of so unangelic a disposition as envy, I should envy you your nights with the anthropological gods at Trinity. [2] As it is, I can see & almost hear them as I read your letter.

When I read Tylor's absurd paper on Totemism [3] I felt very indignant, & began a letter forthwith to Frazer about it, but when I had written a page or two, I laid the letter aside for two reasons--first, because I was angry, & it is a good rule to cool down before inkshedding--& second, because it came to my mind that you would be out in a few days. Tylor, as you say--the real Tylor--is a thing of the past. Frazer will be glad to hear of the proof I can give him of the existence of the totem in Samoa--or rather of what was a totem. Turner, whom Tylor quotes, knew nothing of Totems, & uses the word 'god' as equivalent to the Samoan atua. Now what the atua was may be gathered from this fact. A chief, whose atua was the domestic fowl, & who therefore could not eat chicken, was told by somebody, when he lotu'd, that he ought to eat a fowl by way of demonstration & testimony. He plucked the fowl carefully & put it in the pot & then blew the feathers away as an offering to the atua. 

I am horribly afraid that you did not go & make my peace with Miss Weld. If you failed to do what I implored you to do at 5 Norham Gardens, it will be necessary for me to lay anathemas upon you. The duty will be a painful one.

I admire your discernment as to the Macgregor. [4] But when you get thoroughly inside him, your find all that dourness to be only skin deep, though it must be confessed that the skin is a long way through.

He was quite snappish with me some years ago when I told him he would find, sooner or later, the exogamous totem class in N. [New] Guinea. He had written to me asserting that there was nothing of the kind, & he was angry with me for hinting that he was mistaken.

In his last Report he had to announce that the exog. t. class is there. By the way the N.A. [North American] Indian totems also are exogamous. I will get Macgregor to make inquiries--or get them made--among their tribes back of Lagos.

I don't remember meeting Ridgway. [sic] [5] I was only a very short time at Camb., for my brother in Yorkshire claimed my last 10 days which I had arranged to devote to Camb. & Oxford. He showed such grief when I told him that I must bid him good bye, that I had to cave in, & content myself with just a flying visit, & then back again to Yorks. However, it was £100 in my pocket, for he valued his gratification at that sum, & I was only sorry that I could not have another opportunity of gratifying him at the same figure.

With kindest rememberances to Mrs Spencer & my young friends in your house. [6] 

Yours rejoicingly

L. Fison


[1] I think this date was added by Spencer

[2] Spencer was in England, he was presumably visiting Frazer at Trinity College, Cambridge. He left Australia in October 1898 and arrived in England in early December. He stayed a little under a month and left England to return to Australia on 28 December 1898. On December 14 Spencer talked at the Anthropological Institute.

[3] 'Remarks on Totemism, with especial reference to some Modern Theories respecting it'. Anthropological Institute, May 24, 1898 Journ. Anth. Inst, 28: 138-148.

[4] William Macgregor (1846-1919) Colonial administrator, who had worked in Fiji [when he presumably met Fison], the British New Guinea, leaving in 1898, and then Lagos from 1899. Spencer travelled with him on the boat (the Ville de Ciotat) back to England.

[5] William Ridgeway (1858-1926) Classical scholar, Disney Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge. 

[6] Presumably Spencer's two young daughters.


1897, 1898 or 1899 [1, 9, 11]

Fison to Spencer letter 23

[Memo paper from the Spectator with printed top]

There are some stones on the Yorkshire moors with the Churinga markings on them. I saw two or three of them at Ilkley near my brother's place. They had been set up in an enclosure there --- a churchyard if I remember right. They may be like Lang's find. [2]

My dear Spencer,

You altogether misunderstood my position as to the totem. I have no theory whatever as to its origin. Nor, any more than yourself, do I "see the essential connection between totemism & exogamy." I only see that they are connected almost everywhere in Australia, in all the N.A. Indian tribes [insert] that I know anything about [end insert] in New Guinea also & elsewhere. How they became connected I do not know, & I am not going to form any theory about it. Of one thing, however, I am quite sure -- no blackfellow on the face of the earth ever sat down & reasoned out his totem in the way set forth in Frazer's letter. The process may have been as you say -- who deniges of it, Betsy? [3] -- but the most you can show is a "may be", & there are such hosts of "may bes". My own have come to such ignominious ends that I have sworn a solemn oath not to hatch any more; & "shall I lay perjury upon my soul?" [4] But I quarrel with no man because of his theory, if only it is a reasonable one -- a real satisfactory "may be" -- & not an absurd "isn't & can't be" like that fellow [insert] (Sydney) [end insert] Fraser's book.[5]

I was greatly taken with Balfour [6] when I was at Oxford, [7] & should have been glad to see more of him. He went away for his holiday as soon as the Ass: [Association] meetings closed. I called upon him when I visited Oxford just before I left England, but he was out, so I did not see him then, & I saw very little of him while the meetings were on. Miss Weld [8] had garden parties & dinners for me, &I never was so hard wrought in my life. When you are writing to Balfour, please remember me to him. [9] I hope you gave him a good character of me.

Miss Weld's invitation to de Rougemont [10] is just what might have been expected from her. She is not a strong-minded woman; but to me she was kindness personified -- with a touch of deafness -- & I shall always feel grateful to her for the immense trouble she took to make me comfortable. I have not written to her for two years & more, & I tried to make up for my neglect by inveigling Chief Justice Way [11] & yourself to call upon her with my tenderest remembrances. I grieve to say that the Chief Justice was as deaf to the voice of the charmer as yourself. [insert] Anathema! [end insert] [12]

To return to the totem -- this is my last word thereupon. What I hold is simply this. In very many tribes there are exogamous classes divisions, regulating the laws of marriage & descent, & causing the classifactory system of relationship. In most of these cases that I know of, the divisions & their subdivisions are distinguished by totems. "Merely this & nothing more." [13] How those exogamous divisions came into existence, & how the totems became connected with them, this deponent sayeth not. [14] I said when addressing the Anth. [Anthropological] Section at Oxford [15] that "My own conviction is that we shall never be able to arrive at certainty as to the origin of exogamy, & that our best place is to accept the fact, confessing our inability to account for it." I say the same about the totem. At all events, I have no theory "to account for it." 

With kind regards

Yours sincerely

L. Fison

Howitt today was talking about a meeting at his house. When I left him I found out I have to undergo a surgical operation, the results of wh. is doubtful. This may interrupt what ... [illegible as written over edge of page] ...secting -- at least for the present. [16]


[1] There is a reference in this letter to a letter from Frazer. This could be the letter to which Spencer replies on 12 July 1897; a letter written to Fison originally asking about Spencer and Gillen's work (of which Frazer had heard) which was passed to Spencer by Fison and replied to directly. [Spencer's reply is held at ] Or it could be another untraced letter directly to Spencer, but shown to Fison. If I am right that it is related to this first letter to Spencer via Fison then this letter must date to between July and September 1897 when Frazer wrote two letters about totemism to Spencer [PRM ms collections Spencer papers Box 5 Frazer letter 2 dated 19 September 1897 or letter 3 dated 27 September 1897] though neither of these letters mention totemism and exogamy directly. Because the first letter from Frazer has not survived (so far as we know at this stage) it is not possible to check whether that mentions totemism and exogamy. Another and much more likely date for this letter relates to a letter held in the PRM ms collections Spencer papers Box 5 Frazer letter 15 dated 15 September 1898 when Frazer explains his theory of totemism. On the third side of this letter Frazer does discuss the implications of totemism for exogamy. If I am right then this letter must postdate the 15 September 1898 when and was probably written by Fison in reply to a letter from Spencer wondering how he might reply to Frazer's suggestions. At no point in this letter, however, does Frazer write, "see the essential connection between totemism & exogamy", so if I am right this must be Fison quoting Spencer. But see also note 9 and 12 for other possibilities!

[2] There are many carved stones on Ilkley Moor in West Yorkshire, however one of the candidates for Fison's stones are these, which are in a metal fenced enclosure just across from St Margaret's church in Ilkley. Fison must have seen them during his 1894 visit to the UK, and these stones were originally a mile away, 'but were found to be ‘in the way’ of the development of 19th century Ilkley and were bought and removed by a Dr. Fletcher Little in 1890 who paid £10 for them. They were then moved to their present positions around 1892'. It is highly likely that a tourist would be shown these stones two years later in 1894 when Fison was visiting. The carvings, shown on the website, do resemble some tywerrenge from central Australia. Fison's brother may be William Fison who owned a mill in the town and a brewing company (judging by a google search). 

[3] Quotation from Martin Chuzzlewit chapter 49 by Charles Dickens

[4] Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare, Act 4 scene 1.

[5] John Fraser of Maitland, NSW, who published 'An Australian Language in 1892 (see back), which must be the book referred to. 

[6] Henry Balfour, Curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford and Spencer's friend from Spencer's time working on the transfer of the Pitt-Rivers collection.

[7] When Fison visited Oxford for the British Association for the Advancement of Science [BAAS] meeting in 1894.

[8] Fison stayed with Miss Weld during the Oxford BAAS meeting (see above).

[9] A list of the surviving letters between Henry Balfour and Spencer at the PRM is given here, there doesn't seem to be a particularly relevant one listed (unless it is Spencer papers Balfour letter 2 December 1897, from Spencer to Balfour. If this is correct then this means that this letter from Fison must date from 1897! but it is not a definite link (the letter just mentions Fison).

[10] Louis de Rougemont (1847-1921)

[11] Samuel James Way (1836-1916) Chief justice and lieutenant-governor. Way visited England in 1897 when he took his place as a colonial judge on the judicial committee of the Privy Council. 

[12] This must surely refer to the visit Spencer made to England in early 1899 when he visited Oxford among other places and might therefore have met Miss Weld? Which would suggest that this letter from Fison could actually be from 1897, 1898 or 1899!

[13] Quotation from Edgar Allan Poe, 'The Raven'.

[14] See here for a discussion of this quotation.

[15] BAAS meeting in 1894

[16] Dating the operation would of course mean being able to date the letter, but a search could not identify a definite date for this.



Fison to Spencer letter 26

c/o Rev Dr Brown

Gordon NSW [1]

June 3

My dear Spencer, 

I brought your letter over here with me together with others, intending to do a marvellous work of correspondence, but hitherto I have done nothing at all excepting eating & sleeping -- living the life of a Moth, & enjoying it. I have only been in to Sydney twice since my arrival. During the first week, I sat all day in the sun reading old familiar novels, & last week's constant rain, which still continues, kept me at the same work indoors. I am good for nothing better, but the absolute rest is doing me a heap of good. What will come when I get back again, I cannot say -- but sufficient unto the day &c.

My brain is doubtless considerably weakened by the abominable experience through which I have passed, but I have not yet become so utterly insane as to ask this Sydney Frazer [sic] for a paper. [2] I meant Frazer of Trinity -- the Frazer -- [3] & I have had the cheek to ask him for a short paper on the light [illegible word looks like Mirowa] upon the origins of totemism by your book, or on any other point therein which may present to his mind a subject suitable for such a paper. The Sydney Fraser! I pray thee have me excused!

It is very kind of you to offer to do the secretarial work of my section, but you have too much to do with your other work, & it would be impious of me if I were to plague you with mine. [4] Can you send me Roth's address. [5] I wrote to him addressing simply "Brisbane" but have had no reply. I am very anxious to get a paper from him.

There is a man in N. Britain who is almost sure to give us a valuable paper. His name is Crump, & his nature is missionary, but in spite of that drawback, he has already caused quite a sensation in Scotland with skulls. He has got on to the trepanning operation as performed by the natives. [6] Dr Brown [7] will give us a paper. [insert] By the way did you not see Crump's skulls at the Aust. Ass. here? Brown sent them to Professor Wilson. [end insert] [8] 

If I am attacked by the Sydney Fraser or the Melbne [Melbourne] Mathew [9] on the subject of papers proposed to be furnished by them, I shall plead serious illness, resulting from shock to the system, & tell them that Professor Baldwin Spencer has kindly consented to look after my secretariat -- & will they kindly enter into communication with him?

I hope Gillen will take your offer, but where will you put the things? [10] A long while ago I pointed out to the men at the Museum in the P.L [Public Library] utter absurdities of location in the cases. Some of these were rectified, but I am sure there is more to be done. I wish we cd [could] get Dr Brown to go over the S. Sea [Pacific] collection with you.

I am not well up to letter writing yet so excuse this scrawl. [11] With kindest regards,

Yours sincerely

L. Fison

Dr Brown has a fine collection of island weapons, implements, decorations &c. It is a great pity that it is not made public property. [12] Lang's difficulty in giving up the conviction that the totem & exogamous subdivisions -- or primary divisions for that matter -- are not necessarily connected is quite intelligible to me, for have I not had to grapple with that difficulty myself? But, though your facts compel me to the "not necessarily" -- & I have never set myself against proven facts. [insert] I still think that the two are generally connected, we have been so in the past. [end insert][13]


[1] Gordon is now a suburb of Upper North Shore, Sydney. Fison was staying with George Brown.

[2] Papers were being sought for the 1900 Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science meeting which was to be held in Melbourne. Although Gillen was the president of the Anthropological section, and gave the presidential address (written by Spencer), Fison seems to have been responsible for the section. The 'Frazer' referred to here is John Fraser, Fison's bête noire. It is clear that this letter predates Fison letter 10 as it refers to earlier discussion on the same points, so it must be dated to June 1899 (see also note 10 which confirms the identification of the date of this letter to June 1899).

[3] That is James George Frazer (1854-1941).

[4] Fison seems to have been given responsibility for the anthropological section of the AAAS 1900 meeting, and Spencer was the Congress Secretary.

[5] Walter Edmund Roth (1861-1933) physician and anthropologist, he had been a fellow student with Spencer at the Oxford University Museum and is shown in the group photograph on the home page of this site.

[6] Reverend John Arthur Crump, missionary to New Britain from 1894 to 1904. Author of 'Trephining in the South Seas',& The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 31, (Jan.-Jun., 1901), pp. 167-172. The earlier sensation referred to may be referred to in his opening sentence, 'About 18 months ago I wrote a short article on "Native Surgery in New Pommern" (New Britain) to a small monthly periodical issued by the Missionary Society of which I am an Agent. That article has excited so much interest in the colonies -- and even in Europe -- that perhaps I am right in assuming that a more detailed account ... [would be welcome]'

[7] George Brown again.

[8] The 1898 meeting of the AAAS was held in Sydney. Professor Wilson is James Thomas Wilson (1861-1945), University of Sydney Challis professor of anatomy from 1890. 

[9] John Mathew, (1849-1929) an Australian Presbyterian minister and anthropologist, another anthropologist (among quite a few) whom Spencer, Howitt and Fison did not agree.

[10] Gillen sold part of his collection of ethnographic objects from Central Australia via Spencer to the National Museum of Victoria in 1899 and it must be this to which Fison is referring. Spencer was appointed the Honorary Director in May 1899 the month before this letter.

[11] Fison's handwriting is noticeably worse in this letter than any of the other letters to Spencer, normally his handwriting is very legible.

[12] George Brown's collection of Pacific objects was acquired by the Bowes Museum in 1917 after his death and then transferred to the University of Newcastle, it was bought by the National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka, Japan in 1985 where it has remained, see here and here.

[13] Andrew Lang was someone whom Fison, Howitt and Spencer also disagreed with (in print). Lang published very often on the issue see for example his 'Mr. Andrew Lang's Theory of the Origin of Exogamy and Totemism' Folklore, Vol. 24, No. 2 (Jul., 1913), pp. 155-186. It is not clear to what Fison is referring to, but it could have been a letter from Lang as there does not seem to be a relevant Lang publication in 1899. Lang did write to Spencer, these letters are held in the Pitt Rivers Museum ms collections Spencer papers Box 3 under Lang, it seems likely that Spencer had shown or copied part of the letter to Fison (one of the most likely candidates is the letter dated 8 April 1899, see here under Lang)



Fison to Spencer letter 10

Essendon Nov 8 [1]

My dear Spencer,

It was like your fiendish malice to tell that woman, Georgina King, that I would communicate with her. But happily you did not send me her address, so I am absolved. Is she Mrs or Miss? [2]

I am sure that your proposal about Gillen's address is a good one, only it will be necessary for you to do the composing of it. [1]

The only papers that have come in hitherto are Field's (Rev. J.T.) Exogamy at Tubetube, [insert] happily discovered by you [end insert][3] another of his on Burial customs there, & one on the Annual Harvest Festival in Kiriwina, Brit. N.G. by Rev. S.B. Fellows [4] -- (very good) -- Mr F. left two with George Brown in Sydney, [5] who has only sent on one of them. I have written to him for the other.

The only other papers I know of up to date are one from Dr Brown, another from Howitt & perhaps one from Siebert. [6] These have not come to hand yet. Of course there is also Georgina's valuable contribution.

J.B. Walker of Hobart was to have furnished a short paper on a point connected with the Tasmanian blacks, but I grieve to say that he has gone over to the majority. [7]

No replies have come from Roth, [8] or the W.A. man  you or Howitt told me of, or Dr McKinley of Bogong. Mr Crump of N. Britain will probably furnish a paper on the trepanning [?] practised there, perhaps accompanied by a skull or two. [9] If I get the skulls, it would be well to hand them over to you for the Museum. [10] Thus I propose to return good for evil.

Are my dear friends, your little ones, gone home with their mother? We are all wishing "bon voyage". [11]

I have not heard from Frazer (the great F., of course, I mean) [12]

Accept my benediction,

Yours sincerely,

L. Fison

I will see that a precis of each paper that comes in is prepared.


[1] This letter can be dated as it obviously predates the 1900 meeting of the Australiasian Association for the Advancement of Science held in Melbourne. Spencer was Congress Secretary and wrote Gillen's presidential address for the Anthropological Section. [See Mulvaney & Calaby, 1985: 181-2]

[2] Georgina King (1845-1932) Amateur geologist and anthropologist. Some of her views were unorthodox and by 1900 the ADB describes her as 'increasingly cast[ing] herself as a persecuted genius'.

[3] The small island of Tubetube is in the Bwanabwana district of Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea. Field appears to have accompanied William Edward Bromilow on the Australian Methodist mission to south-eastern British New Guinea from 1891, see here.

[4] Samuel Benjamin Fellows (1858-1933) was another member of the Australian Methodist mission to south-eastern British New Guinea from 1891, accompanying Field [qv] and Bromilow. He established the mission station at Kiriwina in 1894. 

[5] Reverend George Brown (1835-1917) Methodist missionary.

[6] Otto Siebert

[7] James Backhouse Walker (1841-1899) Solicitor and historian. 

[8] Walter Edmund Roth (1861-1933). 

[9] Reverend John Arthur Crump.

[10] Spencer was Honorary Director of the National Museum of Victoria from May 1899.

[11] Spencer's wife sailed home to England for a visit in November 1899. This confirms the date as November 1899.

[12] James Frazer



Fison to Spencer letter 24

As soon as I can I shall visit the P.L. & look with interest at your re-arrangement. [1]



My dear Spencer

I have written to Roth & SFretch [sic][2]

Your paper and the afternoon of the P.L. will be capital. I cannot tell whether you write "and" or "or", so I put on the more liberal interpretation.

I did not see Fraser's [sic, he means James Frazer] arts. [articles] in the Fortnightly, [3] but I have just received a long letter -- 8 quarto pages -- in reply to a letter which I wrote to him soon after I had been carved. [4] It was a commentary on what he calls "my little book", which I must have read at that time. The curious thing about it is that I have no recollection whatever of reading the book -- I can't even remember what the book is -- but here & there in his letter I find references to things I [insert] must have [end insert] written to him, but I cannot remember writing the letter although I remember writing him another letter in which I asked him to send me a paper on your work in Central Aust. as bearing upon Totemism for the Aust. Ass. [2] I certainly wonder at my cheek.

Of course you can use my name about Miss Howitt's ms. I fully agree with you that it is of real value. [5]

You will be glad to hear that the doctor overhauled me on Saturday & pronounced the operation to have been "completely successful", but my old friend bronchitis seized upon me, & as usual rends me before hi [corner of letter torn off] after ... [illegible] [4]

With kind regards,

Yours sincerely

L. Fison


[1] After Frederick McCoy the Director of the National Museum of Victoria died on 13 May 1899, Spencer was appointed Honorary Director on 25 May (he had previously served on the Board of Trustees of the Public Library, Museum and National Gallery of Victoria and on the National Museum Committee. The Museum Committee had previously agreed that the National Museum should move into the centre of Melbourne to the Library building. The old Museum at the University closed on 15 July and by December 1899 the move was completed. Spencer may have used the expertise he gained in 1885 transferring the Pitt-Rivers collection from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to the Pitt Rivers Museum to good effect. [Mulvaney & Calaby, 1985: 243 et seq] It is presumably this that Fison is referring to, the new displays in the new museum adjacent to the main Public Library in central Museum? He continued to amend the displays over the coming years so if Fison's addendum does not refer to the first new displays it must refer to other museum developments later though this seems less likely. In 1900 Spencer published a Guide to the Australian Ethnographical Collection.

[2] This may be other references to papers for the Australasian AAS meeting in 1900 for which Fison was collecting papers for the Anthropological Section (for which Gillen was president). Spencer was the Congress Secretary.

[3] Fortnightly Review, this is probably a reference to the articles called 'The origin of totemism', Fortnightly Review, April and May, 1899

[4] This letter must therefore postdate Fison letter 23 above as it makes reference to the operation which Fison had had to undergo.

[5] M.E.B. Howitt, Legends and Folklore ms. This is cited in Howitt's 1904 book The Native Tribes of South-east Australia, London: Macmillan. Howitt had written to Tylor on 12 June 1897 referring to this manuscript and asking Tylor's advice about publication in England, part of it was published in Mary E.B. Howitt "Some Native Legends from Central Australia" Folklore vol 13 no 4 (Dec 1902): 403-417.


1899 or 1900

Fison to Spencer letter 2


Friday evg [1]

My dear Spencer,

It was very kind of you to write about Ray [2] upon Mathew [sic]; [1] but I have thankfully noted that you occasionally exhibit marks of grace, which kindle within me a trembling hope that you will not turn out an utter castaway.

Between you & me -- tell it not in Gath -- Ray knew something of Mathew's work before he saw the book. I told him about an absurd paper I heard from M. at the Royal Society, [3] & showed him specimens of the methods employed by our friend. Ray & I had a long talk about him & that ass Fraser of Sydney.[4] This was when I went to England in 1894.[5]

I have not read M's book. I looked into it at the P.L. [Public Library] soon after it came out, & saw at a glance that it was exactly as you call it. So I shut it up, & turned to better work. It will be a lasting disgrace to our University if the authorities give him a degree for that rubbish.

Matthews of Parramatta [6] has written to me offering to send me another photo he has. The other he sent before has nothing in it which has not been figured over & over again. You said you would send his MS back to him. His address is Hassall St, Parramatta, N.S.W. 

Can I get at my [insert] own [end insert] papers? [7] I want to cut out two passages--intended to do it before I handed the papers to you, but forgot. A little editing also is wanted in one of Field's papers. This also I forgot. I don't want to trouble you to send the papers to me, Mahomet could go to the mountain when he knew where it was.

I most sincerely trust that your hopes about Ray will be fulfilled. It would be a great thing to get him out here, & turn him out to grass on the Papuan & Australian languages. [2] I fear, however, that the news is almost too good to be true. Couldn't we make him a Fellow of Queen's? Say a Bye-Fellowship. That wd. not bring him into the Governing Body, but it wd. give him some sort of a stand [8]

Orient Line / The Pacific Steam, Navigation Co. ... [printed]

Aghast I find, on turning over the leaf, that this is a sheet of the Orient Steamer's note paper, one of the relics of my trip to England. But I suppose the letter will be none the less legible. Please give my kindest remembrances to your little girls, & tell them that a sister of mine has sent me three more of the fairy tales our old nurse used to tell us when we were little children.

And so, farewell

Yours sincerely

Lorimer Fison


[1] Presumably John Mathew, (1849-1929) an Australian Presbyterian minister and anthropologist, another anthropologist (among quite a few) whom Spencer, Howitt and Fison did not agree. The book was presumably Eaglehawk and Crow, published in 1899, which means this letter probably dates from 1899 or 1900. The ADB entry for Mathew, linked to above, suggests that Spencer wrote a scholarly criticism of the book but Fison attacked the book, suggesting he was 'provoked by Mathew's challenge to his own theories of group-marriage, and perhaps also by his amateur status.'

[2] The only person I can think might be 'Ray' is Edwin Ray Lankester, though he is not a linguist. However, Fison would have met him in Oxford in 1894 as a later sentence suggests.

[3] Presumably Mathew's 1889 paper 'The Australian Aborigines', for which he won the prize and medal of the Royal Society of New South Wales.

[4] John Fraser of Maitland, NSW, who published a book An Australian Language in 1892.

[5] Fison attended the 1894 British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Oxford in 1894.

[6] Robert Hamilton Matthews (1841-1918), surveyor and anthropologist, who moved to Parramatta in 1889. Spencer, Fison and Howitt were to disagree with his findings too.

[7] This may be a reference to the papers written by Fison for the 1900 meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science [Mulvaney and Calaby, 1985: 181-2]

[8] If I am right and they are referring to E Ray Lankester he took the post of director of the natural history departments and keeper of zoology at the British Museum, South Kensington. However, he came into conflict with the principal librarian, Sir Edward Maunde Thompson and it may be that he had been considering taking an academic or museum post in Australia in 1899 or 1900. He did not take it, if he was.


1899 or 1900

Fison to Spencer letter 20

"Saga" is used for historic tales as well as legends I can't draw the line between it & Märchen. Saga, I suppose is Norse *sagur). Märchen I suppose is German. But you are right about it as applied to Aust. legends.


Wednesday [1]

My dear Spencer,

Your letter is, like yourself, most kind & considerate. You act wisely in leaving out the reference to us, & the dedication is overwhelmingly more than enough. [2] Your facts speak for themselves, & Hartland's remarks show that our views are making their way. I have always possessed my soul in patience, feeling sure that we were right, & that our facts would sooner or later prevail against the adversary. [1] At first they were pooh-poohed -- it was even hinted that I had evolved them out of my own inner consciousness

By the way group-marriage is not Morgan's theory -- it is mine. I corresponded with him for several years before he published his Ancient Society, & sent him three papers of which my Chapters on Group Marriage & Relationship [insert] in K & K. [end insert] are simply an elaboration. He had these published in some American magazine -- I forget its name -- & I am thankful to say that its editor paid me six guineas for them. Morgan did not perceive that the Classifactory Terms are the outcome of exogamous intermarrying divisions, & when I pointed it out to him he was wild with delight. I have his letters somewhere stowed away -- a great pile of them -- & in that which was written when he had read mine about the exogamous divisions he grew perfectly rampant, & called me names. he actually called me "a genius". "I was immersed in the facts", he said, "& did not perceive what lay behind them."

I don't remember enough of the Perseus to recall the application of the group-theory to any of its passages. I only remember the shower of gold which was instrumental in his birth -- as it has been in others -- his sea-voyage in the chest, his stealing the one eye & one tooth of the wretched Gracae, & his cutting off the Gorgon's head, together with two or three of his subsequent capers.

By the way, in the smoke room of the Athenaeum yesterday after a lunch (shouted by an admirer) I made half a dozen hard headed business men roar with a story about the anointed villain whose saying Hartland quotes. When I have a chance -- if ever I have one -- I will tell that tale to Mrs Spencer & yourself. At least I will tell it to you as he told it to me. I had a great liking for him. He was a unutterable scoundrel, but a most amusing one. He was nominally a Roman Catholic; but when he was dying he would not let the good old Marist priest near him, & ordered his He told him to "Go to blazes", & ordered his big half caste son to "shove him out", which the young fellow was perfectly ready to do only the Fernchman prudently decamped. Charley -- the "old hand" -- sent for me some days after that. "If there's any man can put me through, its Mr Fison," he said. His son told me this when I arrived. It was a good long day's boat journey to his place, & I was too late. He died several hours before I could get to him.

Will you give the enclosed note to Mrs Spencer?

Yours sincerely

Lorimer Fison


[1] From the contents of this letter it is possible to infer that this letter dates to an unknown month and day in 1899 probably post-dating the publication of Native Tribes of Central Australia (published and distributed by March 1899) and also either the publication in the journal Folklore by E.S. Hartland in June 1899 [pp. 233-9] where he says: 'The result of the investigation, alike of the Urabunna and of the Arunta and allied tribes, is to establish the general accuracy of the theory of group-marriage as a mode of social organisation among the Australians, formulated by Messrs. Fison and Howitt and Mr. Morgan, and strongly, even bitterly, opposed by McLennan.' [p. 234] or 'Eaglehawk and Crow: A Study of the Australian Aborigines, Including an Inquiry into Their Origin, and a Survey of Australian Languages by John Mathew' Folklore March 1900 where he says 'The author sets himself in opposition on this point to the opinion of Messrs. Fison and Howitt, whose arguments, reinforced by Messrs. Spencer and Gillen, seem to me to be conclusive.'

It certainly dates from around 1899. 

[2] It is not known what reference Fison is referring to, but the dedication is from Native Tribes of Central Australia where Spencer and Gillen write: 'To A.W. Howitt and Lorimer Fison who laid the foundation of our knowledge of Australian anthropology this work is dedicated by the authors'.

See Part 2 of the correspondence here.

Transcribed by AP August and September 2013

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