Henry Ling Roth Papers

Scope and Content

Papers of the ethnologist and museum curator Henry Ling Roth. Most of the material in the collection relates to his research for the second edition of his best-known work The Aborigines of Tasmania . The book was first published in 1890 with a small print run of 200 copies; Roth compiled a much expanded second edition, which was published in 1899.

Roth's method was to analyse very closely available sources of information, summarise views on a particular subject, indicating their strengths and limitations, and then offer a judicious overview of the current state of knowledge. Consequently, The Aborigines of Tasmania consisted of extensive citation of other writers, as well as the views of experts Roth had consulted on specific matters. He mostly avoided theorising and speculative opinions. Overall, his approach to the Aboriginal Tasmanians was to study them as analogous in culture to Paleolithic Man, in line with prevailing ethnological views of the time.

As Roth never visited Tasmania, he was dependent on local correspondents for information and the supply of objects. Chief among these were James Backhouse Walker and James Beattie, both of whom were knowledgeable about aspects of Aboriginal Tasmanian history and culture. Correspondence from both men is present in the collection (Walker, HLR/1/1 and Beattie, HLR/1/2). Walker advised on the Tasmanian language and distribution of tribes, and offered his often trenchant opinion on previous writers on the subject. Beattie helped with the supply of artefacts (usually copies) and photographs (the second edition of The Aborigines of Tasmania included photographs). Also present are letters from the distinguished anthropologist E B Tylor (HLR/1/3), who wrote the prefaces to both editions of the book, and advised on the interpretation of aboriginal tools, and the anatomist Sir William Turner who advised on cranial analysis (HLR/1/4).

The collection includes some of Roth's notebooks (HLR/2) and draft illustrations and copies of photographs which were used in the second edition of the book (HLR/4). there are also cuttings relating to The Aborigines of Tasmania and The Natives of Sarawak and British North Borneo (HLR/3).

Although small, the collection is an important source of information about the study of Aboriginal Tasmanians, and about the methods by which ethnological research was undertaken in the late Victorian period. Although most of the information supplied to Roth was reproduced in his book, these archival items may also include unpublished material. The content of his archive is testament to the thorough and imaginative nature of his research, which was recognised when the second edition of the book was published.

Administrative / Biographical History

Henry Ling Roth was born in London on 3 February 1855, the son of Mathias Roth (d.1891), a physician, and his wife Anna Maria, née Collins. Matthias was born an Austrian subject, but moved to Britain following his involvement in the 1848 revolutions, and naturalised as a British citizen in 1855. Roth senior practised as a doctor firstly in London, and latterly at Brighton.

Henry Ling Roth was educated at University College School in London, followed by studies in natural science and philosophy in Germany. He then went into business, which provided opportunities for travel. Henry visited British Guiana, followed by Russia in 1876-77 where he worked in the timber trade.

This was followed by a more extended period in Australia, where Roth worked in the Australian sugar industry, and was honorary secretary of the Mackay Planters' Association from 1881 to 1884. Roth published two studies of the industry: A report on the sugar industry of Queensland (1880) and The sugar industry in Queensland (1883).

Roth left Australia in 1884, and by 1888 was established in business in Halifax, West Yorkshire. Here, he was instrumental in reorganizing the Bankfield Museum, firstly as its part-time curator from 1890 and then as full-time keeper from 1912. Roth built up important collections in ethnology and for the local textile industry, and he published twenty three issues of Bankfield Museum Notes.

Roth is however best-known as an ethnologist. Despite his early travels in Russia and Australia, his knowledge in this area was based largely on extensive reading and correspondence with other experts. In 1890, Roth published The Aborigines of Tasmania which the anthropologist E B Tylor praised for its 'absolute completeness' on the subject. This was a comprehensive study of the culture, language and history of the aboriginal peoples of Tasmania, and was for a long period the standard work on the subject. Although Roth's study spent much time interpreting aboriginal Tasmanians as a 'primitive' people, comparable to Palaeolithic man, he also had a genuine interest in their culture and was critical of the prejudice and persecution they had suffered. Roth concluded from the available anatomical evidence and from cultural practices that the Tasmanians were racially different from the Aboriginal Australians, and may have represented the last remnant of the people who formerly inhabited the Australian continent until displaced by Neolithic invaders (subsequent research reached different conclusions).

Roth also published The natives of Sarawak and British North Borneo (1896), and Great Benin: its customs, art and horrors (1903), which was partly based on information supplied by his brother F. Norman Roth, who had been medical officer to the Benin punitive expedition (1897). Roth also presented numerous papers to the Royal Anthropological Institute, and wrote a memoir, Sketches and reminiscences from Queensland, Russia and elsewhere (1916). Another of Roth's brothers, Walter Edmund Roth (1861-1933) also had interests in Aboriginal culture, and published Ethnological studies among North-West Central Queensland Aborigines (1897). Walter Roth was appointed as the first northern protector of Aboriginals and later became chief protector of Aboriginals.

Roth retired in poor health in 1924 and died at Leeds on 12 May 1925, survived by his wife Nancy Harriette, née Haigh, whom he had married in 1893, and two sons. One of his sons, George Kingsley Roth (1903-1960) became a civil servant in Fiji, and shared his father's interest in ethnography and anthropology.


The Ling Roth papers have been arranged into series 

  • HLR/1 - Correspondence
  • HLR/2 - Notebooks
  • HLR/3 - Cuttings
  • HLR/4 - Miscellaneous

Access Information

The collection is open to any accredited reader.

Separated Material

Roth's research notes on tattoos are held by Canterbury Public Library, Christchurch, New Zealand. A scrapbook relating to the Queensland sugar industry is part of the Royal Commonwealth Society Library, at Cambridge University Library.

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies and photographic copies of material in the archive can be supplied for private study purposes only, depending on the condition of the documents.

A number of items within the archive remain within copyright under the terms of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988; it is the responsibility of users to obtain the copyright holder's permission for reproduction of copyright material for purposes other than research or private study.

Prior written permission must be obtained from the Library for publication or reproduction of any material within the archive. Please contact the Head of Special Collections, John Rylands Library, 150 Deansgate, Manchester, M3 3EH.

Custodial History

The collection was donated to Manchester Museum by Roth in 1919. It was transferred to the University Library in 2014.


None expected.

Related Material

Ling Roth's letters to James Backhouse Walker are part of the Walker collection at the University of Tasmania Special Collections (W9/C1).

E B Tylor's papers are held at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford and the British Library (Add MS 50254). Sir William Turner's papers are held by the University of Edinburgh Special Collections (Coll/519).


For biographical information on Ling Roth, see Helga M. Griffin, 'Roth, Henry Ling (1855-1925)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/roth-henry-ling-8278/text14505 . See also Russell McDougall and Iain Davidson. (eds.), The Roth family, anthropology, and colonial administration (Walnut Creek, Calif.: Left Coast Press 2008).

Geographical Names