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John Nicholson Mailer (1825-1892) Depository for the Religious Tract and Book Society

John Nicholson Mailer (1825-1892)[1] was born in Edinburgh to Andrew Mailer, a stone mason, and Marion Nicholson. His older brothers, Andrew and Robert, were shoemakers and John, at aged 16, was also apprenticed to that trade. John became a bookbinder, however, and married Mary Cochrane in July, 1852 in Edinburgh at St Cuthbert’s.[2] Andrew and Robert emigrated to America; Andrew in 1849 and his brother Robert and his mother Mary sometime before 1851.[3] John and Mary decided to come to Australia and arrived in the colony of New South Wales in November 1854.[4] Their eldest son Andrew (1854-1902)[5] was born in Scotland and the Mailers had four other children in Australia: John Henry (1857-1887),[6] Robert Adam Thomson (1861-1925),[7]  Mary (1862-1937) [8] and Ida Marion (1868-1868).[9]

In Sydney, John found work in his trade as a book binder[10] and became an assistant to James W Waugh in Waugh and Cox’s stationery and bookselling business in 1855.[11] In November 1862, John purchased the business operating at 286 George Street, Sydney, and advertised himself as a stationer and account book manufacturer,[12] telling potential customers that ‘his practical knowledge of the Account Book Manufacture enables him to assure those who may favour him with their patronage that nothing will be supplied but such as are of the best material, workmanship, and latest improvements.’[13] The business did not appear to prosper and by August 1864 all his assets were assigned to Trustees on behalf of his creditors[14] and by November 1865,[15] he had decided to cease trading and by December 1865, all his stock had been sold to pay off the creditors.[16]

In 1866, it had been necessary for the jointly operated bookshop of the British and Foreign Bible Society and Religious Tract and Book Society (RTS) to dismiss their depository and to seek a new appointment.[17] The Society had not been served well by its recent appointments as in 1862 the then depository, Joseph Holloway Morrison, was found guilty of embezzlement of society funds to the amount of about £600.[18] The newly advertised position attracted a salary of £250 with residence at the Bible Hall, Pitt Street, and the successful applicant was also required to post a security of £500. [19]  John Mailer applied and was appointed.[20]

No doubt chastened by the failures of their recent appointments, the Society advised the public that

Your committee have exercised the greatest caution in their selection, from a great number of candidates, of a successor to the late depositary. They would fain express their sincere belief that they have chosen a gentleman in whom they will not be disappointed. Mr. Mailer, the new Depositary has had a long practical experience in the religious book trade, and his acquaintance with the requirements of Sabbath schools will, we hope, be of use to friends in the country, who may not personally have the opportunity of selecting books. As far we have yet seen, his knowledge of, and attention to business, and deportment to customers, is all that we could desire.[21]

During Mailer’s time as Depositary, there was a steady increase in the sales of tracts and books. His time stabilised the work of the RTS and under his care, there were no further financial irregularities. Mailer remained the depository for the RTS until late 1874[22] when it appears that he decided to quit working with them.[23] His wife had died earlier in that year[24] which may have been a factor in his decision.

By 1876, and probably with his son Andrew,[25] Mailer had moved to Tahlee, Port Stephens, and remained there at least until 1884[26] and it was a place to which he would return in the late 1880s.[27] He is next heard of as living in Bathurst from 1886 until 1888, again in the company of his eldest son Andrew.[28] At Bathurst, he was appointed secretary and agent to secure new members and to collect subscriptions for the local Bathurst YMCA,[29] an organisation for which he had previously shown interest when he spoke about it at a Sydney YMCA meeting in 1874.[30] Mailer was also honorary secretary of the Bathurst branch of the Highland Society and his son Andrew the treasurer,[31] and in 1888, he was on a committee with Andrew to organise a centennial demonstration for children at Bathurst.[32] He even assisted in chairing the Hogmanay night in Bathurst in 1887, expounding at length the joys of things Scottish.[33]

By late 1889, Mailer was living near Carrington, NSW, and writing long and erudite articles on poetry and things Scottish for the local paper. These articles reveal a man who, from his youth, was well-read in poetry, who appreciated Blackwood’s magazine,[34] and who was a hero worshipper of John Wilson.[35] He was a Burns devotee who, in Scotland, was privileged to be present at the laying of the foundation of the Edinburgh Burns memorial in 1831. He was forgiving of some the work of Burns with which he could not agree, saying:

There is a small volume of letters, poems, and songs, at which ‘decency may blush, and devil cry shame, shame!’ That there are pieces in his published works of a questionable character I admit, but to the nicely sensitive in this matter I would, as a schoolmaster in Burn’s days, when in the course of his teaching came to a word he could neither pronounce or explain, said to his boys ‘Fickle (difficult) word pass over,’ so to the reading of Burn’s writings I would say ‘Pass them over’.[36]

Mailer said he had often heard Thomas Chalmers[37] preach and had walked in his funeral procession in June 1847. He had heard Thomas Guthrie,[38] George Gilfillan[39] and Lord Francis Jeffery,[40] and had shared an umbrella with Hugh Miller as they stood and watched the arrival of Queen Victoria in Scotland in 1842.[41] In 1847, he had also heard Jenny Lind sing when she visited Glasgow.[42] And Mailer had witnessed the first England v Scotland cricket match held on May 7, 1849 , when an All England XI at Edinburgh played Scotland and won.[43] He continued to write various poetic reflections with a religious flavour until a short time before his death at the home of Jones Smith in 1892. He had lived there for a number of years and was nursed in his last days by his son Andrew,[44] daughter Mary,[45] and the Smith family.[46]

Interior of Phillip Street Presbyterian Church

John and Mary Mailer became members of the Rev Hugh Darling’s United Presbyterian congregation which commenced in 1855[47] and which, in 1861, came under the ministry of the Rev Adam Thomson at Phillip Street.[48] This commitment to the United Presbyterian Church in the colony was unsurprising as John and Mary had had their son Andrew baptised at the Lothian Road Associate Congregation, Edinburgh, where Dr William Reid was the minister.[49] Mailer must have had a high opinion of Thomson as Mailer’s son, born in the year Thomson came to Phillip Street, was named Robert Adam Thomson Mailer.[50] Mailer became an elder along with John Hay Goodlet and William Morrison, all being ordained on November 22, 1868.[51] His prominence in the Phillip Street Congregation is shown by the fact that he was ‘clerk of the congregation’[52] and was appointed to be a commissioner to the Presbytery in support of Adam Thomson’s demission to become principal of St Andrews.[53] He was listed as an Elder of St Stephens in 1873 after the amalgamation of Phillip Street and St Stephen’s Church.[54]

Mailer had a deep interest in and commitment to the religious education of children through the Sunday School movement. He read an essay in 1866 to Presbyterian Sabbath School Teachers Association on the dignity of Sabbath-school teachers which was the ‘Winning souls to Christ – the noblest work in which man can be engaged on earth’.[55]  For Mailer,

there was an influence exercised by men’s actions either for good or evil on the minds of others, more especially on the young, and this influence was as potent in the unlettered as in the scholar. A good example in the Sabbath-school teacher was as powerful for good as great learning.[56]

He took an important role in the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in NSW (GAPCNSW) after 1865 being a member and then


Rev Dr William Reid

convener of the Sabbath School committee, a position he held in 1871 and 1872.[57] He was also a teacher in the Sabbath School and superintendent of the Phillip Street Sabbath School probably from around 1865, but at least from 1867[58] until 1873.[59] As a Sabbath school teacher himself he remarked to the GAPCNSW in 1870 that ‘the longer he lived , the more was the impression riveted on his mind, that they wanted a class of teachers of a more prayerful and earnest kind.’[60] Innovatively for the time, he advocated that the Sabbath School teachers should nominate their own superintendent subject to confirmation by the Session, and he argued that sometimes the elders were not well acquainted with the Sabbath Schools. He assured those interested in literature for Sabbath Schools that the

Tract Society had given instructions that every possible provision should be made to meet the wants of Sabbath Schools; and almost every well-known juvenile religious periodical including the Sabbath School Messenger, and the Juvenile Missionary Record were now to be had at the Bible Hall.[61]

John was also part of a group that overtured the 1868 GAPCNSW ‘recommending the regular religious instruction of the children belonging to this Church in the Public Schools, by ministers and elders.’[62]

He was a member of the short-lived Juvenile Temperance Association of NSW and through it advocated to the GAPCNSW that they encourage all Sabbath school children to become total abstainers.[63] In December 1871, he had printed and circulated free of charge a pamphlet of 15 pages, the substance of a talk given by a Sydney Congregational Church Sabbath teacher, George Durham, entitled “Our Senior Scholars.”[64] In advertising the pamphlet Mailer said that:

The plans adopted, and the successes gained, by judicious religious teaching, are put in forcible language. Many suggestions are thrown out to teachers by the writer, of a most valuable character; and the encouragements to diligent and persevering effort are numerous.[65]

Our Senior Scholars published by John Mailer

This was not his only publishing activity as he also published Archibald Geekie’s moderator’s address from the GAPCNSW,[66] and also Edward A Rennie’s[67] address on prophecy to the St. George’s Church, Mutual Improvement Association.[68]

Mailer was also interested in missions and in galvanising ordinary members to be engaged with mission. When addressing the GAPCNSW, he described ‘the dark, depraved, and wretched state of the heathen bowing down to gods made by their own hands.’ He criticised the lack of commitment of congregations, indicating that with the £10,500 given to missions by Presbyterians that this was a mere sixpence a head for the extension of the gospel to the heathen. On a positive note, he exhorted that

having sown the seed, they must wait patiently for the harvest. At present a haze seemed to be hanging over their mission field. But whatsoever their hand found to do, let them do it with all their might; being sure that the blessing of God would render it effectual. Let them labour and pray that the spirit of light and love may shower copious blessings down.[69]

His concluding remarks were met with cheers.

At his death, he was described, by the newspaper for which he wrote articles in later years, as a Presbyterian and a

devoutly religious man, whose earnestness and piety were conspicuous in the matter which has appeared in our columns from his pen. And he had a fine poetic vein in his nature, as those must have discovered who read his articles on Burns, Kendall, and the loveliness of nature. His endeavour in all that he wrote was to bring readers into high and heavenly regions of thought, and in this way to leave the world better than he found it.[70]

What was not mentioned was the vital role he played in the period between 1866 and 1874 as the Depository for the Bible Society and the Religious Tract and Book Society. In this role, he stabilised their activities and expanded for the Tract Society their range of publications and sales after a difficult period of instability and scandal.

Dr Paul F Cooper

Research Fellow

Christ College, Sydney

The appropriate way to cite this article is as follows:

Paul F Cooper. John Nicholson Mailer (1825-1892) Depository for the Religious Tract and Book Society Philanthropy and Philanthropists in Australian Colonial History, November 1, 2017. Available at


[1] 8 September 1825 – 15 February 1892. Edinburgh St Cuthbert’s, Midlothian, Scotland. National Records of Scotland 08/09/1825 Mailer, John (Old Parish Registers). Register of Births in 1825, 251. 28th September 1825. Andrew Mailer, Mason, No. 10 Ponton Street and Marion Nicholson his Spouse had a son born on eight current, named John.

[2] The date is probably 25 Jul 1852 but weddings on that page headed 25 July 1852 have a number of different dates and the Mailer-Cochrane wedding has no date. ‘Edinburgh St Cuthbert’s, Midlothian, Scotland. Register of Marriages 1852, 483. John Mailer, Book Binder, residing at No. 18 Fountainbridge and Mary Cochrane, residing at No. 176 same place, both in this Parish, Youngest daughter of the late Henry Cochrane, Mason Edinburgh St Cuthbert’s, Midlothian, Scotland.’ Mary’s mother was Jessie Laurie who died in Sydney at her son-in-law’s home on October 10, 1867. Sydney Mail (Sydney, NSW), October 12, 1867, 12.

[3] Mary Kay and Dan Milquet. De Pere of Yesteryear (Saving Yesteryear, Wisconsin nd), 196. Marion Mailer, John’s mother died in De Pere Wisconsin in 1875. The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser (Sydney, NSW), June 12, 1875, 759.

[4] He could not have arrived on the Ottillia as indicated on Ancestry Family Tree for John Mailer Public Record Office Victoria Unassisted passenger lists (1852-1923) Record Series Number (VPRS): 947; the ship arrived in Melbourne on 15 October 1852 (The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.), 18 October, 1852, 4) and left Liverpool on 10 July 1852. (The Goulburn Herald and County of Argyle Advertiser (Goulburn, NSW), November 6, 1852, 6). The reason this is the incorrect ship and date is that Andrew Mailer (1854-1902) the eldest son of John Mailer and Mary Cochrane was born in Edinburgh on July 2, 1854 ( Also John and his wife were added to the membership of the United Presbyterian Church, Sydney bearing a letter from the Rev William Reid dated July 25, 1854. Mailer in 1891 in an article mentions arriving in the colony in November. (The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser (Maitland, NSW), February 21, 1891, 3.) He is employed by Waugh and Cox in August of 1855. Sydney Morning Herald (hereafter SMH), August 17, 1855, 1. Therefore his most likely date of arrival in NSW is in November 1854 having left Scotland in late July or early August 1854.

[5] Andrew Mailer, Birth Date: 2 Jul 1854, Baptism Date: 16 Jul 1854, Baptism Place: Lothian Road Associate Congregation, Edinburgh, Midlothian, Father: John Mailer, Mother: Mary Cochrane. Scotland, Select Births and Baptisms, 1564-1950 [database on-line]; The Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW), June 26, 1902, 1.

[6] SMH, July 12, 1887, 12. Henry was employed as a junior clerk In the NSW Government’s Council of Education from October 17, 1873. NSW Votes and Proceedings of the Legislative Assembly 1873-4 Vol IV, 22.

[7] SMH, October 31, 1925, 14.

[8] The Katoomba Daily (Katoomba, NSW), June 24, 1937, 2. In 1897 she marries James Frame Hutton (Marriage Frame-Mailer NSW Births Deaths Marriages 116/1897) onetime Session Clerk of Katoomba Presbyterian Church. SMH, November 12, 1932, 11. Mary is mentioned but not by name in the 1892 obituary on John Mailer. The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser (Maitland, NSW), February 27, 1892, 4. Mary’s age at death is given as 75 which gives a birth year of 1862. SMH, June 23, 1937, 14.

[9] SMH, August 1, 1868, 1.

[10] Sands Directory 1858-9, 179. A theft report on October 3, 1856 would indicate he was running a shop at that time. NSW Reports of Crime October 9, 1856, No 109. See also an advertisement for letting the shop. SMH, September 19, 1857, 8.

[11] SMH, August 17, 1855, 1; December 13, 1862, 12.

[12] Sands Directory 1863, 213.

[13] SMH, December 13, 1862, 12.

[14] Empire (Sydney, NSW), August 13, 1864, 1.

[15] Sydney Mail (Sydney, NSW), November 18, 1865, 1.

[16] Empire (Sydney, NSW), December 15, 1865, 7.

[17] Sydney Mail (Sydney, NSW), November 9, 1867, 7.

[18] SMH, April 30, 1862, 5; May 3, 1862, 5.

[19] SMH, October 6, 1866, 12.

[20] He was later to seek to invest in gold shares probably hoping to improve his financial future as his salary could not have allowed much to be saved for the future. In 1872-3 he invested in some gold shares; 25 Gold shares in Phoenix Gold Mining Company, Hawkins Hill. The company was wound up in 1874. SMH, June 2, 1874, 8 and also 25 shares in the Just in Time Gold Mining Company Limited, at Meroo Creek, Avisford, NSW. New South Wales Government Gazette (Sydney, NSW), February 14, 1873 [Issue No.34], 467.

[21] Sydney Mail (Sydney, NSW), November 9, 1867, 7.

[22] Australian Town and Country Journal (Sydney, NSW), December 26, 1874, 35.

[23] New South Wales Government Gazette (Sydney, NSW), March 26, 1872 [Issue No.91], 842; February 1 4, 1873 [Issue No.34], 467. It was short lived and was wound up in 1874. New South Wales Government Gazette (Sydney, NSW), April 28, 1876 [Issue No.132], 1653.

[24] On March 3, 1874; SMH, Saturday, March 21, 1874, 6.

[25] In 1877 John Mailer and Andrew Mailer signed a request to William Johnston of Clarence Town to stand for the Electorate of The Williams an electorate that would have included Tahlee. The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser (Maitland, NSW), February 8, 1877, 1.

[26] He conducted a funeral at the Tahlee Cemetery. Evening News (Sydney, NSW), September 15, 1884, 4.

[27] Cattle brands are registered to John Mailer, Tahlee, Port Stephens. New South Wales Government Gazette (Sydney, NSW), November 18, 1876 [Issue No.415 (SUPPLEMENT)], 4727.

[28] SMH, Wednesday 16 February 1887, 1.

[29] Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal (Bathurst, NSW), June 5, 1886, 2.

[30] SMH, August 8, 1872, 4.

[31] Andrew Mailer was a member of the committee of the Society from at least 1884. Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal (Bathurst, NSW), 8 August 1885, 2; December 25, 1886, 3; September 24, 1887, 2.

[32] Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal (Bathurst, NSW), 2 Feb 1888, 2.

[33] Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal (Bathurst, NSW), 4 Jan 1887, 2.

[34] Blackwood’s Magazine was a Scottish literary and satirical magazine and miscellany printed between 1817 and 1980. It was founded by the publisher William Blackwood and was originally called the Edinburgh Monthly Magazine.

[35] John Wilson of Elleray (18 May 1785 – 3 April 1854) was a Scottish advocate, literary critic and author, the writer most frequently identified with the pseudonym Christopher North of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine.

He was the professor of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh University (1820–1851).

[36] The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser (Maitland, NSW), April 19, 1890, 3.

[37] Thomas Chalmers (17 March 1780 – 31 May 1847), was a Scottish minister, professor of theology, political economist, and a leader of the Church of Scotland and of the Free Church of Scotland.

[38] Thomas Guthrie (12 July 1803 – 24 February 1873) was a Scottish divine and philanthropist. He was one of the most popular preachers of his day in Scotland and was associated with many forms of philanthropy—especially temperance and Ragged Schools, of which he was a founder.

[39] George Gilfillan (30 January 1813 – 13 August 1878) was a Scottish author and poet.


[41] The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser (Maitland, NSW), January 25, 1890, 2.

[42] The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser (Maitland, NSW), December, February 14, 1891, 3.

[43] The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser (Maitland, NSW), September 4, 1890, 6.

[44] At the date of John Mailer’s death only two sons were living and as Andrew was unmarried and gives the information for the death certificate he is the most likely son to be present at his death. Both sons were graziers at Coonamble, NSW.

[45] Mary was later to marry John Frame Hutton in 1897.

[46] The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser (Maitland, NSW), December 14, 1889, 3; February 27, 1892, 4.

[47] Hugh Darling arrived in NSW in June 1855. SMH, June 2, 1855, 4. The Mailers are the first members listed in the membership role of the United Presbyterian Congregation, Sydney and were admitted on the basis of a letter dated 25 July 1854 from Rev William Reid of Lothian Road.

[48] James Cameron, Centenary History of the Presbyterian Church in New South Wales, (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1905), 68. Thomson began ministering at Phillip Street, Sydney on 18/4/1861. Ward and Prentice, Presbyterian Ministers in Australia 1822-1901 (Wantirna, Vic: New Melbourne Press, 2001), 212.

[49] Dr William Reid (1814-1896) was ordained and inducted into Lothian Road Associate Congregation in 1843. He had a reputation as a temperance reformer and the congregation grew to over 1,300. Robert Small History of the Congregations of the United Presbyterian church from 1733-1900 (Edinburgh: DM Small, 1904), 466.

[50] Robert would himself in 1904 commence work with the NSW Bush Missionary Society working in southern and western NSW he later joined Presbyterian Church as a Home Missionary serving at Trundle and surrounding district.

[51] Session Minutes Presbyterian Church Phillip St, Sydney 22 November 1868.

[52] He was appointed January 18, 1871. Committee of Management Minutes, Presbyterian Church Phillip St, Sydney. SMH, October 3, 1873, 6. This means he was secretary of the equivalent of a Committee of Management or perhaps less likely Clerk of the Session as in the same reference John Hay Goodlet is described in a similar expression as ‘Chairman of the Congregation’ and Adam Thomson would have been the Chairman or Moderator of Session.

[53] Empire (Sydney, NSW), October 25, 1869, 2.

[54] Graham W Hardy, Living Stones, the Story of St Stephen’s Sydney (Sydney: Anzea, 1985), 156.

[55] August 13, 1866. Presbyterian Magazine 1866, 276. Empire (Sydney, NSW), August 23, 1866, 2.

[56] Presbyterian Magazine 1866, 276.

[57] Cameron, Centenary History, 122. SMH, April 8, 1868, 5; The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser (Sydney, NSW), November 8, 1873, 595. He was one of those who signed the protest against the Rev J D Lang’s moderator’s address in 1872. SMH, October 31, 1872, 3. He was also Registrar for the Presbyterian Cemetery Haslem Creek, SMH, June 9, 1870, 1.

[58] SMH, July 10, 1867, 2.

[59] SMH, March 26, 1870, 9. Sydney Mail (Sydney, NSW), January 21, 1871, 4; SMH, October 3, 1873, 6. A presentation by the Sabbath school was made to him in 1871 ‘expressive of their affection and grateful appreciation of his labours among them.’ Sydney Mail (Sydney, NSW), January 21, 1871. 4.

[60] Empire (Sydney, NSW), November 5, 1870, 2.

[61] Empire (Sydney, NSW), October 25, 1869, 2.

[62] Empire (Sydney, NSW), October 22, 1869, 2.

[63] Empire (Sydney, NSW), October 27, 1869, 2; August 8, 1871, 4.

[64] SMH, December 18, 1871, 4. The pamphlet was anonymous except for the initials G.D. which must refer to George Durham (1829-1888) a Congregational Sunday School teacher who gave an address of the same title to the Congregational Union annual meeting on October 23, 1871. Australian Town and Country Journal (Sydney, NSW), October 28, 1871, 6. It is unknown who paid for the printing of the pamphlet. Durham was a member of the Council of Camden College. SMH, October 25, 1889, 4.

[65] SMH, December 18, 1871, 4.

[66]Geikie, Archibald Constable, 1821-1898 A sermon preached on the 29th October 1872 at the opening of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of New South Wales Sydney (Sydney: John Mailer, 1872).

[67] Edward Alexander Rennie, (1820-1911) an Elder at St Stephen’s Phillip Street who later became auditor-general and a member of the Religious Tract and Book Society from 1867-1874. He was appointed a member in the wake of the financial scandal of Mailer’s predecessor and the two are most probably related.

[68] Rennie, Edward A. The ten kingdoms: a study in the prophecies: a lecture delivered at a meeting of the St. George’s Church, Mutual Improvement Association on the 1st July, 1873 (Sydney: John Mailer, Bible Hall, 1873).

[69] Empire (Sydney, NSW), November 8, 1870, 3.

[70] The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser (Maitland, NSW), February 27, 1892, 4. His grave stone in the Carrington  Tahlee Cemetery reads “In memory of John Mailer Born Edinburgh 8th Sept 1825 Died Carrington 12th Feb 1892 O the pain- the bliss of dying This stone was erected by friends And residents of Tahlee & Carrington Who respected the above.” S & A Thompson Carrington Tahlee Cemetery Headstone Transcriptions Maitland Family History Circle, 2002.

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