The Society of Bibliophiles in Cape Town – early days


Brief review of the early days by Frikkie Botha

compiled in 1995 with some updating since then – June 2010


The idea of some organisation for book-lovers arose with a few like-minded friends in Cape Town in 1989.   Some were already members of the Association of Friends of the South African Library as well as active volunteer supporters of that historic institution, then still independent but now the Cape Town Campus of the National Library of South Africa.   The Library was fortunate in having a succession of enthusiastic bibliophiles at its head and on its staff and had attracted many beneficiaries in its 180 year old history.   They encouraged the idea of a forum for those who shared an interest in all aspects relating to the book, its history, its related arts and crafts as well as book collecting.   To establish the extent of this interest, letters were addressed to all the newspapers in Cape Town in November 1990 seeking contact with booklovers whose interest in books also extended beyond the textual content.   There were about twenty responses and a meeting was called in the Fairbridge Room of the South African Library in March 1991.   Some twenty-five prospective members were present.   All were agreed on the need and desirability of establishing an association to be named The Society of Bibliophiles in Cape Town. It was envisaged as a non-professional association of bibliophiles interested in all aspects of the book, the text as well as the context of the book.   There was agreement on a constitution for the Society which provided, inter alia, that its purposes and objects ‘shall be to promote the knowledge of, and interest in, books in general, and in particular to extend and improve interest in collecting and preservation of books and related printed material’.

Membership in the Society is open to all who share in its objectives.   Starting with twenty members in 1991, membership by 2005 had stabilised around 80, mostly in the Cape Town area but also elsewhere in South Africa and abroad.

In its endeavour to pursue the interest of members in all aspects of the book the Society organises eight to ten book related events each year.   These have over the years included visits to private and institutional libraries and book collections, symposia, exhibitions, excursions and talks on bibliophilic subjects.

The Society also publishes a quarterly journal, PHILOBIBLON which is free to all members.   The title was taken from that classic fourteenth century treatise of Richard de Bury, in the Prologue to which he writes: “Because it principally treats of the love of books, we have chosen after the fashion of the ancient Romans, fondly to name it by the Greek word, PHILOBIBLON”.

Writing in the first issue of the Society’s journal, the editor indicated that it would be his endeavour to provide a quarterly journal containing articles of lasting value and cater to the wide-ranging variety of tastes and interests in books represented by the Society’s membership.   One of its members, Neville Weller, has throughout been responsible for the layout and printing of what has become known as a production of high quality.

During its first four years the Society arranged the following activities:


1          Dr Frank Bradlow gave an informal talk on Some Aspects of Bibliophiles in South Africa at a luncheon meeting at he City Club.

2          Two illustrated talks by Frikkie Botha on the great collectors and their valuable collections which now form the foundations of the major libraries of the world at his home in Kenilworth.

3          Lt.-Cdr. Richard Geary-Cooke on collecting ephemera – Luncheon at the City Club.

4          Paul Mills, on aspects of a bookseller’s pre-occupations at his bookshop in Long Street.

5          Exhibition and talk on Africana published in North America in the 18th and 19th centuries by Frikkie Botha at his home in Kenilworth.

6          Visit to the Astronomical Observatory Library and talk by the Librarian, Ethleen Lastovica.

7          Lecture on Book Restoration by Johan Maree, Head of the UCT Book Restoration Unit at his  Workplace in Hiddingh campus of UCT.

8         Exhibition and talk on Victorian books and their bindings by Enid du Plessis at her home in Newlands.


9          Book display and illustrated talk by Walter and Ruth Middelmann on examples of 18th century architecture in old Jakarta which show a similarity with some in Cape Town.   At their home in Newlands.

10        Talk by Wikus van Heerden on “Tools of the Trade for Collectors”.

11        Address by Dr Max Sandler on Sir William Osler: His Library and his Catalogue.

12        Exhibition and talk by Dr John Rourke, Curator of the Compton Herbarium on the emergence of locally published botanical literature.   At the Herbarium.

13        Exhibition and talk on ‘Dictionaries of varieties of English’ by Dr Jean Branford at her home in Constantia Village.

14        Visit to the Parliamentary Library with commentary by Nico Smit.

15        Exhibition and talk at the South African Library boardroom, by Louis Jordaan on ‘Modern English Literature, 1913-1987’.

16        Visit to the fine library of Mr and Mrs P Corgatelli at their home at Goedehoop Homestead in  Noordhoek.

17        Luncheon talk at the City and Civil Service Club by Frikkie Botha on ‘Martin Breslauer, Bookseller Extraordinaire’.

18        Visit to the Axeage Press studios of Pippa Skotnes in Long Street, Cape Town.

19        Viewing of the Old Mutual map collection at Mutual Park, Pinelands, under the guidance of Margaret Cartwright.

20        An exhibition of selected books from a 19th Century English Gentleman’s Library and talk by Frikkie Botha at his home in Kenilworth.

21       Illustrated talk by Johann Maree on publishers’ bindings at the turn of the century, ‘Pre-Raphaelite, Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts’ at the South African Library.

22        Talk at the South African Library by the historian, Professor Rodney Davenport on ‘Reference books for an historian’.

23        Mr Maurice Chaundy spoke on his family’s 3 generations as antiquarian booksellers in London  and Oxford at lunch at the City Club.


24        Exhibition and illustrated talk by Dr Ryno Greenwall on Artists & Illustrators of the Anglo-Boer War at his home on Sparrmann Avenue Constantia.

25        Visit to the Lionel Phillips Library at the Vergelegen estate in Somerset West where the accent was on fine and trade bindings, especially those from the famous Zaehnsdorf bindery.   Talks on these aspects were given by Johann Maree, Enid du Plessis and Dr Ted Oliver.

26        Annual General Meeting of the Society in the Special Collections Room of the Jagger Library at the University of Cape Town where four members of the Society gave brief talks, Tanya Barben spoke on the Special Collections Department under her care; Rita Miller recounted how she became “hooked on books”; Andrew Lamprecht talked about a little-known best-seller of the nineteenth century, A Mystery of a Hansom Cab; and Neville Weller recounted  some entertaining anecdotes about his early days in the world of typography.

27        Joint meeting with the Cape Bookbinders Guild at the home of Patrick Cullinan with discussions by Cullinan, Judith Mason and Johann Maree about the production, illustration and binding of Cullinan’s poems in a privately published edition, limited to 50 copies.

28        Visit to the Parliamentary restoration laboratory and bindery workshop.

29        Talk by Peter Carstens and exhibition of some prime examples of his bindings at the Irma Stern Museum in Rondebosch.

30        Visit to the Library of Professor Brian Warner and a talk by him on his books of reference.

31        Exhibition & talk on ‘Books about Books’ by Frikkie Botha at his home in Kenilworth.

32        Exhibition by Walter & Ruth Middelmann at their home in Newlands on the theme ‘Books in our lives’; mainly books, but also pamphlets, illustrations from their collections dealing with origins, background, families, personal interests and activities in the course of a lifetime (80 plus).

33        Talk by Ethleen Lastovica on “Early Comic Cuts” and political broadsheets with cartoons from the 1820’s and the 1830’s at a restaurant in Queen Victoria Street.

34        Exhibition and talk on early bibliophilic publications by Tanya Barben and Frikkie Botha at the Jagger Library.


35        Talk at the SA Library on the Bodleian Library by David Vasey, Librarian of that library in Oxford.

36        Visit to Bertram House where Mary van Blommestein had mounted an exhibition of Children’s Illustrated books.   Talks by Mary van Blommestein, Tanya Barben and Johann Maree.

37        Exhibition of Kiplingiana by Tanya Barben and short talks on the theme of reference books by Brian Warner, Malcolm Murphy, Andrew Lamprecht at the Jagger Library.

38        Visit to the Bolus Herbarium Library at UCT.   Talk on the Library by the Librarian, Hilary Cochrane.

39        Talk by Maurice Line of the British Library, on the future of libraries.

40        Professor Peter Spargo on his personal library and  his own collecting interest, “Early Science Books” at his home in Rondebosch.

41        Illustrated talk by Peter Steyn, the ornithologist, on the art of bird photography.

42        Rita Miller on her collection of Private Press books at her home in Kenilworth.

43        Richard Pooler, publisher, on ‘Manuscripts old and new; the; publishing business’.

44        Exhibition and talk by Pat Slattery and Tanya Barben on the Peter Pauper Press.

45        Exhibition and talk by Malcolm Murphy on Collecting inscribed and association books, with special emphasis on books of military interest.

46        Exhibition and talk on books of the “Grand Tour – 17th & 18th centuries”, by Neil Ritchie at his home in Hout Bay.


The above review was compiled in 1995.

Since then the membership of the Society has stabilised around 90.   That includes members in Canada, the United States, The United Kingdom, Switzerland, Portugal and Zimbabwe.

The Society has continued to have from eight to ten events each year and to produce its quarterly Journal, PHILOBIBLON.

Other activities:

In 1997 the Society arranged a bibliophilic tour of Southern England for its members.   In the course of 17 days a group of eleven members visited some thirty bibliophilic venues, private and institutional.   This included the British, Wellcome and  the Royal Geographic Libraries in London, the libraries of ten colleges in Oxford and Cambridge (including the Pepys Library), the private libraries of Sir Paul Getty, Colin Franklin, Bob Levitt, visits to Hereford Cathedral and Hay-on-Wey – among others.   The tour was so arranged that it also included visits to a number of famous English gardens, hence its title  “Folios and Flora“.   These included the Saville Gardens at Windsor and those at Stourhead and Waddesdon.

In 2000 the Society published its first book,  Hidden Treasures: Irma Stern, her Books, painted Book Covers and Bookplates;

In 2002 the Society arranged the biannual Colloquium of the Association Internationale de Bibliophilie in Cape Town, attended by some 80 members from abroad.

In December  2002 the Society published a consolidated index to the articles that appeared in the 43 issues of  its Quarterly Journal, PHILOBIBLON, since it was started in 1991.

More information can be obtained from:

Published by Graham Giles

Cape History and history of families of Louw, Muller, Bowker, Giles

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