In 1887, Thomas Bride, Chief Librarian of State Library Victoria (at the time known as Melbourne Public Library), found himself with a vexing problem. Someone was stealing soap from the Library’s public rest rooms.

It had become such an issue that Mr Bride developed a plan to thwart the thieves.  Library attendant Arthur Barber was assigned to an undercover role. Within ten minutes he observed a youth named Thomas Gleave surreptitiously placing the soap under his coat and then attempting to escape.

Gleave was hauled before the court where the Police Magistrate threatened to make him eat the soap, but settled on sentencing him to three days prison.

Cartoon from Melbourne Punch 13 January 1887 p.3

Attendant Barber restored the soap, but, remarkably, within a few minutes it had been stolen again. Another young man, Dudley Lovett, was promptly apprehended and remanded in jail awaiting court.

This was proving to be a very sought after lump of soap because later the same day it was stolen for a third time by Joseph Collins.

The magistrate had lost patience. Lovett was jailed for 14 days and Collins for seven.

The satirical journal Melbourne Punch had a lot of fun with the thefts, including a full page illustration of Thomas Bride fishing for the soap thieves. The cartoon was accompanied by a poem.[1]

BRIDE, LL.D., of Melbourne,
By all his volumes swore
That his classic institution
Should lose its soap no more.

Meanwhile a scrubby fellow,
An unclean misanthrope,
Came sneaking to the wash-hand stand,
And putting out his lawless hand
He snavelled Tom Bride’s soap.
Another, evil minded,
Came up his thirst to slake,
Then cast his longing eyes upon
The tempting little cake.

“Lewis and Whitty’s brand,” he said ;
“I much admire their wares;—


Lewis & Whitty’s Sun Soap

Then came the third soap-stealer
The tempting morsel spied,
Slipped on the soap and captured
Was he by Dr. Bride.
The three received their sentence
And all cleanly persons hope
That henceforth our institutions
Will be “well off for soap.”
And hail to Bride the doctor,
Who with these thieves can cope
By getting them “upon a string”
When he tries on “soft soap.”

Thomas Bride’s capture of the successive soap thieves was but a minor footnote in a successful career.

Irish born Bride arrived in Melbourne in 1858 with his parents and 8 siblings, aboard Young America. After schooling at St Patrick’s, East Melbourne he attained a law doctorate from Melbourne University and commenced his career in librarianship at the University Library. In 1881 he was appointed Chief Librarian at our Library, a position he undertook with distinction until 1895.

His contribution to the Victorian community was wider than his library career. He was a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, a member of the council of the University of Melbourne and was on the Working Men’s College Council.

He was an establishing member and secretary of the Referendum League. Formed in 1919 the League sought to promote more direct engagement of the public with government decisions.

Thomas Bride died in 1927. An obituary noted that “Dr. Bride was widely known as a man of high attainments and of genial disposition ….Never lacking in courage, he was always the soul of honour and a warm-hearted friend.”

The Bride building, on La Trobe Street near the Russell Street corner, is named for him.


[1] The Punch poem parodies the popular 19th century poem ‘Horatius’ by Thomas Babington Macaulay

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This article has 3 comments

  1. Juliet O'Conor

    Brilliant blog!

  2. Maybe the thieves didn’t like the then well known Melbourne Public Library rule that visitors to the library must have clean hands! Great piece Andrew.

  3. Elizabeth Pocock

    Fast forward 2020 … COVID19, people are now desperate for ‘hand sanitizer’ along with ‘toilet paper’ … makes you wonder if in a very small way history is not repeating itself!

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