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History of the State Library of South Australia: Mortlock

Details the Library's interesting history from 1834, its buildings, legislation, Board membership, staff and exhibitions.

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Mr John Andrew Tennant Mortlock (1894-1950) was the eldest son of William and Rosin ('Rosye') Tennant Mortlock, a wealthy pastoralist family, whose residence at Mintaro near Clare was Martindale Hall, made famous through the movie Picnic at Hanging Rock.. He was educated at Glenelg Grammar School and St Peter's College in South Australia, and at Jesus College, Cambridge University. After his father's death in 1913 he took over administration of the family estates, worth over half a million pounds. The family also had properties in Victoria, Western Australia and England. 'Jack' was loved by his workers on his rural properties - his employees and neighbours spoke of his 'charm' and 'kindly disposition'.

Jack Mortlock had many interests. He was an amateur film-maker – the Library has some of his films in its collection, and he was an orchid exhibitor. He was a keen sportsman. He drove fast cars, owned racehorses and greyhounds, and spent time at Port Lincoln on his yacht Martindale – which later served in World War II. The Australian Rules Football competition in Port Lincoln is played for the Mortlock Shield. 

But he was quite shy and bookish. He only married late in life to Dorothy Beach, also bookish. A  benefactor in her own right, Dorothy Mortlock was a longstanding member of the Friends of the State Library. She gave an annual donation to the Library for children's books and her support enabled the Friends to purchase many rare books. With her generosity numerous significant publications were acquired, including many fine engraved editions throughout the 1970s and posthumously in the 1980s. Subjects of the gifts, which helped give national standing to the State Library’s collections, ranged from poetry to Australian flora, thoroughbred horses to paper mills, and French fairytales to book illustrations

John died childless in 1950, a few years after his marriage, and left his estate to his wife, who on her death in 1979 fulfilled his wishes to bequeath Martindale Hall to the University of Adelaide and $1.8 million to the State Library. 

JAT Mortlock : Australian dictionary of biography entry

Mortlock Wing

The Mortlock Chamber photographed in 2004

The Mortlock Wing, formerly known as the Jervois Wing, was opened on 18 December 1884 as a Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery for the colony. It opened with 23,000 books and a staff of three. A grand plan was envisioned for the cultural precinct with this being the first of three buildings planned.

Construction of the building took over 18 years to complete after the initial foundations were laid in 1866. At least three different sets of foundations were laid, due in part to political indecision and delays, design changes and to the fact that the building was situated over an underground stream, which rendered the foundations unstable.

The foundation stone was laid on 7 November 1879 by Sir William Jervois and the building was constructed by Brown and Thompson at a total cost of ₤43,897.

The building is French Renaissance in style with a mansard roof. The walls are constructed of brick with Sydney freestone facings with decorations in the darker shade of Manoora stone. The original entrance is on the south-east corner facing North Terrace. The interior is considered one of the finest examples of a late Victorian library in Australia. There are two galleries, the first supported by masonry columns, and the second by cast iron brackets. The balconies feature wrought iron balustrading ornamented with gold while the glass-domed roof allows the chamber to be lit with natural light. Two of the original gas 'sunburner' lamps survive in the office space located on the second floor at the southern end, as does some of the original wallpaper in a room off the ground floor.

Restoration of the building occurred in 1985 as a Jubilee 150 project by Danvers Architects, consultant architect to the South Australian Department of Housing and Construction. The $1.5 million project was jointly funded by the government and the community.

In honour of a substantial bequest from John Andrew Tennant Mortlock, the Libraries Board of South Australia (LBSA) resolved that a percentage of the South Australiana Collections would be housed in the wing and named the Mortlock Library of South Australiana. The Mortlock Library was opened in 1986.

A chronic shortage of storage space for the Library prompted the 1999-2004 building redevelopment and saw the functional use of the Mortlock Wing change again. The redevelopment brought with it an assessment of collection storage requirements. The efficiencies and environment required for heritage storage dictated the relocation of the small percentage of South Australiana collections in the Jervois wing, together with the rest of the South Australiana collections, to the newly developed Spence Wing in state of the art storage facilities. Of particular specialist need was appropriate storage for ever growing non-print AV heritage collections. 

All this material is now accessible through the Information Desk, with co-located services that include family history, newspapers, government publications, indexes, microfilm and fiche reader printer equipment, public PCs, photocopiers and, for rare heritage material, controlled access in the Somerville Reading Room.

As part of the naming of buildings after the redevelopment in July 2004 the LBSA approved retaining the name Mortlock for a building rather than a collection. The Jervois Wing was consequently renamed the Mortlock Wing and the Mortlock Collection recognised as part of the heritage collections of the State Library of South Australia; thus ensuring a strong presence of the name Mortlock on North Terrace. The name Jervois is used for the southern room of the Mortlock Wing. 

The Mortlock Wing now accommodates a range of public functions and services, including exhibitions, conservation and reformatting services, study spaces on the first gallery with wireless internet access, the Crawford Room and the Sir Josiah Symon Library - a fine example of a 19th Century gentleman’s library. The Mortlock Wing also provides a home to the Royal Geographical Society of South Australia Library. 

Virtual tour

360 images of the Mortlock Wing at the State Library of SA

360 image of the Mortlock Chamber at the State Library of SA.

Read more about the history of the Chamber in our Library Guide.

The Mortlock Chamber closes to the public on occasion, view restricted hours of the wing.

Mortlock bequest

When John Mortlock died in 1950 his estate was left jointly to his beneficiaries, the University of Adelaide and the Libraries Board of South Australia. These bequests were to be made on the death of his wife, Dorothy.

Mrs Dorothy Mortlock was a longstanding member of the Friends of the State Library, and was a benefactor to the Library in her own right. She gave an annual donation to the Library for children's books and her support enabled the Friends to purchase many rare books. Dorothy died in 1979 and a major bequest of $1.8 million came to the Libraries Board, with the University of Adelaide acquiring Martindale Hall. The usable interest on the bequest has funded over $9.8 million worth of projects to the end of the 2010-11 financial year. The bequest has enabled the State Library to develop in directions which would not have been possible within government funding. These funded projects are documented in the annual report of the Libraries Board.

Mortlock exhibitions

The exhibition bays in the historic Mortlock Wing open a window into the history and culture of South Australia, featuring the people, places, issues and events that have contributed to the state's development. The exhibition bays showcase the richness and breadth of State Library collections, with historical and contemporary materials used to illustrate particular themes.

Comprising nearly 1,000 items, the exhibition bay themes highlight areas of particular relevance to South Australia, and largely reflect State Library collection strengths providing an entree into those collections. The themes include:

A trunk full of books (State Library) 

A rich tapestry (communities)

Wooden walls & iron sides (shipping)

South Australia's Christian heritage (religion)

Taking it to the edge (exploration)

To be a child (children's literature and games)

The radical dream (social and political reform)

This sporting life (sport)

State of the arts (arts and culture)

Wine literature of the world (wine)

From the ground up (architecture)


The State Library aims to ensure the permanent preservation of its collections both in storage and within exhibitions. Every effort has been made to house exhibited items within international standard showcases and the appropriate environments to enable the longevity of items for future generations.

As well as housing the themed exhibitions, the main chamber is also available for hire. Other spaces in the Wing include the Sir Josiah Symon Library, an example of a 19th Century gentleman's library and the Crawford Room.

Mortlock Bookplate

John Mortlock had his own bookplate with the family Coat of Arms which has the motto "Hic labor hoc opus", translated as "This is the difficulty, this the task".