50 Treasures: Rose Popham's Autograph Book

This treasure is being featured in 50 Treasures Revisited – Celebrating 50 Years of James Cook University, which is on display at the Cairns Museum from 24 June to 28 October 2023. The exhibition is a collaboration between Cairns Museum and JCU Library, featuring 17 of the 50 Treasures from JCU Library Special Collections which most resonate with Far North Queensland.  

Our tenth treasure is a brilliant example of an autograph book created in the 20th Century. From the Library Archives comes Rose Popham's Autograph Book.

Liz Downes answers the question "why is this significant?"

Now largely forgotten, autograph books have a long history in Australia, and an even longer one in Europe. Though we might now associate them with girls and young women, their use originated centuries ago among university students who, of course, would have been exclusively male. Bound in leather, these little books stored comments and sentiments from friends, tutors or patrons. If the comments were favourable, and from respected sources, they might even have served as character references for their owners.

Rose Popham's Autograph Book. Photograph by Michael Marzik

While the books’ popularity fluctuated in the intervening centuries, advances in printing and book-binding saw them surge back into favour in the 1800s and by the 1830s they were becoming popular in Australia. It was common for contributors to include sketches or cartoons in ink, charcoal, pencil, crayon or even watercolour, as well as words of wisdom or humour, encapsulated in one or two lines: “Laugh and the world laughs with you / Weep and you weep alone”, or in verses of varying length and literary quality.

By the second half of the twentieth century their popularity was found chiefly among schoolgirls who circulated the albums among friends, teachers and family. Inscriptions could range from sentimental—in the style of “Roses are red/ violets are blue”—to philosophical, and from witty to risqué. The writer had considerable freedom, not only in what to write, but in where to write it. Some would seize the chance to write “By hook or by crook I’ll be first (or last) in this book” on the appropriate page. As pop culture blossomed, star-struck teens would use their books to gather the autographs of their celebrity heart-throbs.
Page from Rose Popham's Autograph Book. Photograph by Michael Marzik

Rose Popham’s autograph book is included in the Joseph Skinner Popham archive held in Special Collections, which also contains diaries and letters of her older brother. Their father Jesse Popham had arrived in Brisbane from the west of England as a 19-year-old in 1870. He married ten years later and lived in Ipswich before moving the family to Townsville in 1894 and establishing a sawmill and joinery in Ogden Street. One of a large brood of children, Rose grew up in the family home in what was then Roberts Street (now North Street) in West End. At seventeen she was one of the first staff to be taken on at the new Flinders Street drapers store when it was opened by John Inglis Smith in 1903.

Of over 120 entries in Rose’s book, covering the period from 1913 to 1935, roughly two-thirds were made during the years of the First World War. At least some came from families who had husbands, sons or brothers embroiled in the conflict. Townsville was a small city then and undoubtedly some of those who did not return would have been known to Rose and her family; none more so, perhaps, than her employer’s son and fellow worker in the store, John Inglis Smith Jr. He died at Gallipoli in August 1915, barely 20 years old.
Page from Rose Popham's Autograph Book. Photograph by Michael Marzik

 Some entries reflect these dark times, most movingly the stanza quoted from Pilgrims, by Scottish-Canadian poet Robert Service, an ambulance driver in the war. In more light-hearted vein, two irreverent verses from H. and A. Mahoney sound like typical soldiers’ humour, and may have been brought back from the front. A dramatic six verse poem, The Wreck of the Yongala, contributed under a pseudonym in 1914, reminds us that one of Australia’s worst maritime disasters was still fresh in the minds of Townsville people. Occurring in March 1911, this tragedy ripped the heart from one of the city’s best-known families, the Rooneys, and left many others bereaved. It is possible that this not insignificant poem only survives in Rose’s book.

Despite such darkness, laughter is frequently found in the cartoon-like sketches and the wry, cheeky or sardonic comments. One writer takes a shot at sharp practice, real or imagined, in the dairy trade: “Little drops of water poured into the milk/ Makes the milkman’s daughter dress in pure white silk”, while it sounds as if it were a smart young lad-about-town who came up with the toast, “Champagne to my real friends¬¬—Real pain to my sham friends”, and perhaps a jaundiced senior citizen who defined a policeman as a “Never present help in time of trouble”.
Page from Rose Popham's Autograph Book. Photograph by Michael Marzik

But, judging by the verses they chose (and few would have been original) Townsvilleans valued the simple virtues: kindness, friendship, faith and love of family. They believed in counting one’s blessings, living for the present and having hope in the future.

Fittingly, the last contribution, dated October 1935, was about endings: “May there be enough clouds in your life to make a glorious sunset”. But the most succinct comment on the nature of autograph books themselves must be the 1917 entry: “Your book is like a garden patch/ Where any old hen can have a scratch.”

Over the course of 2020, JCU Library's Special Collections unveiled 50 Treasures from the collections to celebrate 50 years of James Cook University.

JCU Library is fortunate to have collections of unique and rare resources — including artworks — of regional and national significance, describing life in the tropics. We hope you are inspired to explore further by visiting all of our digital treasures and their stories at NQHeritage@JCU. 

Author Biography
Liz was employed at JCU library from 1975-2011 and also studied for a BA, specialising in English literature and Australian history. She now volunteers with Special Collections, writing blog posts about collection items. Apart from keeping up with the lives of her two grandsons, Liz’s major interest lies in wildlife conservation. She is currently vice-president of the local branch of Wildlife Queensland (WPSQ) which tries to raise community understanding and appreciation of the natural environment as well as undertaking practical projects and conservation advocacy with all levels of government. Before retirement made life too busy, she sometimes wrote poetry.

Australian War Memorial. Guide to the Autographs and Autograph Books Collection.
Fahey, W. (2006). The history of the autograph book.


This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.