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In the 1930s to 1960s many people in Melbourne relied upon private lending libraries (also known as “threepenny libraries”, “circulating libraries” or “rental libraries”) for their reading entertainment. Oakleigh had six such libraries in 1940 and eight in both 1945 and 1950, one of which was The Green Oak in Warrigal Road. This article looks at this business and its owners, the Gosneys, against the background of private lending libraries of the time.

Private lending libraries were a thriving business in Melbourne in the 1930s to 1950s. In 1900 there were just five libraries in the Melbourne CBD and two in the suburbs, but this had risen to a peak of 21 in the CBD and 387 in the suburbs in 1940. (1) Private lending libraries met the need of an increasingly educated population for entertainment and for a wider choice of reading materials than the more serious offerings of public libraries at the time.

Lending libraries became a viable business proposition with the advent of cheaper books. Small business owners could buy the large volume required for their initial stock and replenish these with new titles. (Libraries needed to hold the latest titles to retain members’ patronage.) Lending libraries sometimes bought stock from other libraries which had closed, or books which had been used elsewhere and reconditioned. As well, travellers from publishing houses visited lending libraries to promote new stock.

John Arnold suggests that single women and married couples predominated as owners, particularly during the Depression when fewer other jobs were available (or socially acceptable to women). (2) Often the owners lived in the premises attached to the business. Businesses close to shops or railway stations were more likely to thrive because of the passing traffic, as were businesses combined with other stock which might bring in customers, such as food, newspapers and toys .

Owners of private lending libraries worked long hours for their customers’ convenience, including late evenings and Saturdays. They recorded loans (on index cards) and prepared, maintained and repaired books. Part of the maintenance for a time (including during the 1950s) was to “sanitise” the returned books by placing them into a cabinet ostensibly containing a dish of a sterilising chemical. (3) Fear of contagion was real amongst customers, understandable following the “Spanish Flu” and polio epidemic.

For the paying borrowers, reading was a cheap but important form of entertainment, particularly during the Depression and during the two World Wars when there were lonely and anxious hours to fill at night. A few pence per week would give access to a book – usually light fiction – with which to escape tedium or sadness. As George Johnston said of Melbourne in “My Brother Jack”, his semi-biographical classic set between the two world wars:

An enormous “escape” thing had developed out of the Depression, a yearning desire among people to be distracted from the miseries and fears of the times…and among the urban effects of this were… a fantastic flourishing all through the suburbs of the three-penny lending libraries. (4)

Johnston’s main character, David Meredith, recalled that during his walk home along Glen Huntly Road in Elsternwick he would view the books on display in many of these libraries’ windows, open until 9.30 pm “so that subscribers could come down after their supper and select their reading at leisure”.

George and Noreen Gosney owned and managed The Green Oak, at 71 Warrigal Road Oakleigh (now Hughesdale) on the corner of Carlisle Crescent, between June 1941 and October 1952. It was a lending library and a “mixed business”. Likely evidence that the Gosneys lived in the premises behind the shop is that this address is given on a contract for purchase of a new home in August 1951.

The Gosneys had previously managed a private lending library in Northcote and they bought The Green Oak from Mrs Charlotte and Miss Dossie Living. The business was described as a “Confectionary, Cakes, Drinking and Library Business”. Included in the Agreement for Sale and Purchase were 400 library books (“to be chosen from Vendor’s library by purchaser”), equipment for storing and serving food (including ice-creams and malted milks), a cash register (aka “till”), and furniture. The business, “The Green Oak Book Club”, was registered on 3 June 1941 under the Gosneys’ names as owners. Its location was ideal because of the foot traffic from the nearby Oakleigh railway station, as well as its close proximity to the Paramount Cinema in Warrigal Road.

Photo: Book cover from The Green Oak Library.
Source: History Monash Inc collection

Photo: Notice pasted inside front cover of book from The Green Oak Library.
Source: History Monash Inc collection

The Gosneys served food as their main sideline to the library; for example, bread, cakes (some bought in; others baked by Noreen Gosney ), and treats such as sweets, ice-creams and malted milks.

Photo: Sign advertising bread sold at The Green Oak Library.
Source: History Monash Inc collection

The Green Oak was open from 8.30 am – 11 pm on Mondays to Saturdays – long hours indeed. Customers of the library paid a joining fee of two shillings, then a borrowing fee of 3 pence per book. Loans were for fourteen days, with overdue rates applying. Books could be renewed for seven to fourteen days for a fee. Those who wished to ring the business would dial UM 1518.

Photo: Nameplate kept on the counter of the lending library in The Green Oak.
Source: History Monash Inc collection

Photo: Flyer for The Green Oak.
Source: History Monash Inc collection

George Gosney rode a motor-cycle with side car and like other such riders, used ration cards for petrol during World War II. (He was a lap scorer for the Oakleigh Motor Cycle Club which held events at Moroney’s Hill in Oakleigh.)

Photo: Motor Spirit licence in the name of George Gosney.
Source: History Monash Inc collection

Mrs Noreen Gosney supported the war effort by buying War Savings Stamps at 6 pence each.

Photo: War Savings Stamps booklet in the name of Noreen Gosney.
Source: History Monash Inc collection

After eleven years of hard work in The Green Oak, the Gosneys sold the business to Max and Bella Lubicz in October 1952. The new owners signed an agreement to hire fixtures and fittings listed in the contract for £150 down-payment, then £5 per week until 27 Oct 1954. Goods included were similar to those originally bought by the Gosneys and included 400 library books, as well as library index boxes for recording books and their borrowers.

After selling the business, the Gosneys stayed in Oakleigh, building a new house at 68 Carlisle Crescent Oakleigh (now Hughesdale) from August 1951. It was a substantial cream brick, triple fronted house with a sunroom and a large rumpus room.

Photo: 68 Carlisle Crescent, before or around 1991.
Source: History Monash Inc collection

From their new home George Gosney held movie nights. He issued printed invitations to attend “Screening of Pictures” sometimes under the name of “The Carlisle 16 mm Cine Group”. The theatrette in their home is shown in photos as a timber-lined room with a billiard table, with a large screen across which was drawn curtains. Around seventeen people are shown seated behind the billiard table, ready to watch the movie.

Photo: Invitation to movie night.
Source: History Monash Inc collection

The Gosneys’ Carlisle Crescent house was sold on 26 October 1991, fifty years after they bought The Green Oak. Lazogas real estate agents advertised it as having had only one owner.

The fact that Oakleigh had eight private lending libraries in both 1945 and 1950 (5) tells us about the past-times of its former residents and the way in which such businesses were an integral part of the community. The Gosneys typified so many suburban small business owners. Their shop still stands, one of a set of four with Art Deco-style plaster work on the façade. The shop appears, however, closed up, abutting the railway line under the Warrigal Road overpass, giving no indication of its former centrality to the Oakleigh community.

Ann Nield ©2023

Acknowledgments:  Margaret Valenta (Gosney artefacts now held by History Monash Inc); John Arnold article in The LaTrobe Journal No., 40 Spring 1987 : “Choose Your  Author As You Would Your Friend – Circulating Libraries in Melbourne 1930 – 1960”; and Judy Barton (memories of the Blue Door lending library in Blackburn, Vic.).


  1. John Arnold:  “‘Choose Your Author As You Would Choose A Friend’: Circulating Libraries in Melbourne, 1930-1960” in The La Trobe Journal, No. 40  Spring 1987 p. 79, using statistics from listings in the Sands and McDougall directories. (Sands and McDougall directory for Melbourne/Victoria 1900-1974.)
  2. ibid p 80.  See footnote 4 below.
  3. ibid p 82.  The Blue Door lending library in Blackburn Vic used a sanitising cabinet.
  4. George Johnston:  My Brother Jack 1964 Imprint Classics edition p. 175.  Johnston also referred to the “elderly bookish spinsters” (p.176) who ran most of the lending libraries in Glen Huntly Road  Elsternwick.
  5. Arnold op cit p.94, using statistics from the Sands and McDougall directories.