Plotting History: Stella M. Barber

Plotting History: Stella M. Barber

SMB-8405zI have been a member of the PMI for so long I can hardly remember how I came to join. I think I joined in 2001, by which time I had been working as a freelance historian for 3-4 years. Prior to that I worked for Coles Myer, managing its archives, records management and art collection. That seems such a long time ago. Being retrenched when Coles Myer went through a series of restructures forced me to take the leap into what I had always wanted to do – write history. Since that time, I seem to have had a steady stream of commissions and worked on some wonderful projects with some equally marvellous clients. When I last wrote for the PMI about my work in 2009, I wrote about juggling the work of an historian with being a mother to my two sons. Goodness, time has flown. Those boys are now in their early 20s and, while I am as busy as ever, I do have more freedom over my working day now than I did back then. The only thing that hasn’t really changed in that ten years is my reliance on the PMI as a valued repository for historical sources (and my passionate support for the Collingwood football club.)

Since 1997, I have researched some 14 books and practically all of my work has involved the use of the wonderful PMI collections. At the moment I am writing up my PhD on which I have been working for the last three years. My thesis is focused on the role of women who filmed the rocket tests at Woomera during the Cold War. Even though this research is South Australian based I have used a number of items at the PMI including a history of the Woomera area school and some of Len Beadell’s books. For those who do not know, Beadell was a famous ex-army surveyor who surveyed the original land for the Woomera township and built the roads leading into it. He is known as the last Australian explorer. Many of his books are held by the PMI, in addition to a biography.

kinetheodolite woman
A woman operating a kinetheodolite on the Woomera rocket range c 1960.

While working on the PhD I was also working on a book that looked at the history of the timber industry in Australia. This book, A Sharp Vision, is held by the PMI and tells the story of John Sharp and Sons, once the largest timber business in Victoria and situated in Lorimer Street.

sharp tiff (002)
The Sharp works, c 1900.

The site is now home to the Herald and Weekly Times business. This was a fascinating book to write and alerted me to the dearth of sources on the Victorian timber industry, but once again the PMI came to the rescue and I was able to find a number of helpful works. At the same time, I have been working on the history of Kew mansion. It was once lived in by Amy Castles, who was sometimes known as “the next Melba.” A very useful biography of Amy is held by the PMI.

Most of my other books have most certainly drawn on PMI collections. My history of the Goulburn Valley Grammar School, Something Quite Noble, used a large number of the PMI’s holdings on Shepparton and the Goulburn Valley. My book on the Prahran Library, The Pride of Prahran drew on both PMI secondary sources and archives as the story of the first Prahran library service and the PMI are inextricably linked. Another of my books, A Club for Life, a history of the Elwood Lifesaving club also used PMI holdings on the suburbs of Elsternwick and Elwood.

Whenever I begin a new project the first thing that I do is consult the PMI catalogue or send an email to the wonderful PMI staff asking for their assistance. This is always worthwhile as they will think outside the square and often make recommendations one may not have thought of. I especially love using the special collections that used to be in a locked case when the PMI was in High Street, and are now held in Stacks at the PMI, they are fabulous for any project involving colonial research.

I imagine that as long as I am working as an historian, the PMI will be a precious resource for my work. I just can’t recommend it and its staff more highly.

Stella M. Barber

August 2019

Meet The Volunteers: Patrick Galvin

Meet The Volunteers: Patrick Galvin


Patrick (Pat) Galvin AM has been a member of the PMI for almost 20 years and a volunteer for nearly ten. A former senior career Commonwealth public servant (Secretary Department of Arts, Heritage and the Environment , Chairman Australian Heritage Commission etc) his work as a volunteer at the PMI in recent years has involved the preparation of an index of the many items in the Institute’s Minute books. These books contain the minutes of meetings of the Committee and General meetings of the Institute from its founding in the 1850s to the present. He is presently reviewing and auditing the index from the beginning to 2012 for consistency in presentation and correctness before moving on to more recent years. He was made a member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 1991 for public service especially for heritage and the arts.

The minute books (for many years handwritten) record the history of the Institute through the formal decisions of its Annual meetings, its Committee and sub-committees. Pat’s index will point the way for the researcher wishing to pursue the authority for activities and their changes over time e.g acquisition of land and buildings, rentals of premises; price of admission to events, particularly in the early years of ‘penny concerts’, popular entertainments and balls. The minute books also answer all sorts of questions. When did the PMI initiate formal ‘technical education’ in Prahran? Why was a Secretary Librarian sacked, (and what happened when he refused to move from the residence provided?) How was the PMI affected by the establishment of a free public library service? How did the Institute fare during the World Wars and depressions? Was its relationship with Government and the Council always an easy one? Questions like this are fascinating in that they illuminate not only the place of the PMI in its community but the changes in that community itself from the mid-19th century to the 21st.

Collection Spotlight: Books on Music

Collection Spotlight: Books on Music

books.jpgMusic is the most important thing in the world to me. Without music of any kind, the universe has no colour. The right song can teach you about yourself and about the people around you; the right song can influence your mood; the right song can bring people together or tear them apart. There is a certain power and magic to music that cannot be found in anything else, and it is individual to every person.

I don’t know if it’s just me, but I feel as if a good portion of the most well-loved and enduring music was released in the one decade: the 1980s. (With a little bit of spill-over in the late seventies and early nineties.) My favourite artists are bands like Queen and The Bangles, and singer-songwriters like Billy Joel and Elton John, all British and American musicians. But around the same time there was also a lot of new, transformative music coming out of Australia.

Perhaps, like me, you don’t know a lot about Australian music, and you would like to learn more. Maybe you know a lot already, and you would like to look at some material to consolidate your knowledge. Or, possibly, you have a lot of knowledge about the other decades, but somehow missed out on the eighties. Whatever your purpose, wherever you have come from, there is something of interest to you in the PMI collection.

Try a book like Australia Rocks! by Lucy Desoto, for example: an overview of Australian rock music and rock bands from the 1950s to the 1990s, with plenty of photographs, quotations, first-hand accounts, and scans of posters and tickets; organised and divided by decade and then by artist. Flipping through this book, you may find yourself saying, “Wait, they were an Australian band?” The number of Aussie bands that were successful overseas in the eighties is surprising compared with today’s figures.

There are books which offer more in-depth looks at specific bands. Such as Midnight Oil by Michael Lawrence, focusing on the rock band Midnight Oil, who were active and popular during the eighties, and later. Contained in this book are detailed accounts of the band’s genesis and development, up until their more recent history (as of 2017). Included in the back of the book is a detailed discography.

Australia’s Most Comprehensive Vinyl Record Guide by Thomas Balacco is a great resource for finding information on vinyl records with data such as the format, value in Australian dollars, record label, et cetera, displayed in an easy-to-read table format. If you have an interest in buying or selling records, or just want to see what’s out there, it is well worth a perusal.

And there are more than just those three examples; whatever your interests are, you will be able to find something to devour.

by E. R. Gray (current industry placement student)

Book Review: Paper emperors: the rise of the Australia’s newspaper empires by Sally Young

Book Review: Paper emperors: the rise of the Australia’s newspaper empires by Sally Young

Review by Steven Haby PMI Secretary Librarian


Australia’s newspapers, like many across the world, have been at the crossroads for some years. Declining circulation and revenue, mass retrenchments of journalists and staff, closure of titles and changing owners have painted a generally bleak picture for the newspaper.

Before the digital age, a newspaper whether it was a capital city daily or rural weekly was the source of news and information. Melbourne had at one point had up to five daily papers including an afternoon edition. Who remembers the Saturday afternoon Herald with the VFL football scores in the days when nearly all football was played on a Saturday afternoon.

Paper emperors presents a fascinating history of the introduction of newspapers from around 1803 until 1941. The author, Sally Young, chronicles the rise and influence over government, the economy and indeed Australia’s social fabric by a handful of incredibly powerful owners. Despite the number of owners, the limits of communications technology and the dispersal of the population, a newspaper could bring down a government or destroy a reputable business or person of note. Furthermore who would have known that many newspapers were owned by disgraced land boomers, bankrupts, mining magnates and even criminal elements!

Sally has divided the book into three parts which enables the reader to get an excellent contextual understanding of the history of newspapers in light of Australia’s socioeconomic development. Part one covers the gradual rise of the newspaper across Australia and their influence. Some interesting points are included such as the campaigning of newspaper owners to obtain concessions from the postal service and railways to deliver their product across the continent. Some of these particularly around the postage of journals or ‘printed material’ are still in force today.

Part two is a biographical account of the newspaper owners including Hugh Denison and Keith Murdoch among others and how newspapers were used by them to support their business interests or political causes. For example the owners of Broken Hill Smelters used their newspapers to pressure unions and governments on various industrial matters which divided the city of Broken Hill for years.

The final part covers the legendary battles between the owners or barons and all aspects of Australian life. For example the owner’s of the Hobart Mercury ran a consistently anti-Labor campaign for decades in Tasmania with the exception of one election campaign. Indeed Sally delves into the downfall of Robert Menzies who blamed the press for his political demise.

Paper Emperors is an incredibly detailed account of newspaper publishing – and covers not only the influence the papers (and owners) wielded but also the technical aspects and challenges of newspaper production.

Sally is currently writing a follow up to this book covering 1941 onwards.

A highly entertaining and informative book.

It can be found in the library at


Collection Spotlight: DVDs

Collection Spotlight: DVDs


Did you know that the PMI has a DVD collection? It’s nonfiction (so no Australian movies) but there is an interesting array of Australian stories. In particular, there is a lot of railway material so if that is something that you’re interested in the DVD collection is worth exploring. The collection covers a very wide range of topics from ballrooms, to gold mining, to street and town histories and both the wars. These resources can give real insight into the history of any area you are researching and video footage of a place or people is always undeniably valuable.

They do pose a problem as DVD moves in the direction of becoming an obsolete format, but we’re working on ensuring that they remain accessible.

One of the more interesting social history DVDs in the collection is about Leggetts Ballroom. The PMI is just round the corner from where the ballroom stood, and it can be hard to get your head around just how big the ballroom was and how important a social institution it was.

The DVD begins with life in Melbourne in the early 1900s and the background of Harry and Emily Leggett who founded Leggetts Ballroom. They were vaudevillians, originally, who became dance teachers, first holding dances in Collingwood Town Hall, but by 1917 they’d moved to Prahran Town Hall. If a gentleman attended a dance without gloves he’d be refused entry or he was able to hire a pair. This lasted until the 1920s when Prince Edward attended a dance and refused to wear gloves and everyone copied him.

In March 1920 the Leggetts opened their ballroom right next to Prahran Station. When Harry and Emily retired the ballroom was taken over by their son Phil and his wife Beryl. It was ordinary people who attended the balls, learning dances and hopefully meeting romantic partners. In its heyday Leggetts was teaching and entertaining 60 000 people a year and could accommodate 6000 people at once. They had 30 teachers and four bands.

The ballroom always kept up with the latest trends, for example introducing the Charleston to Melbourne. They were right at the forefront when microphones were introduced in the 1930s and huge theme nights took off. They had everything from camels and lion tamers (with real lions) to pirates. In fact, during a pirate night, a magician who was playing the lead pirate accidentally put a steel spike through the leg of an audience member.

By World War II they were broadcasting the dances on the radio and holding dance competitions with cars as prizes. Phil and Beryl studied the latest dances from the movies and taught them in the ballroom.

With changes to music and as time moved on the ballroom became less popular and it was put up for auction twice but didn’t sell. It was arson that finally ended the Leggetts era. On the 16th of April 1976 the building was set alight, sadly the ballroom was mostly destroyed and ultimately pulled down for development, but it has left a lasting legacy.

The DVD takes you through the story of Leggetts and the PMI also holds a book on the ballroom. The DVD has some spectacular footage of dances in the ballroom and some home movies of the Leggett family, including footage of Graham Kennedy who spent a lot of time with them at their Sorrento beach house.

The Leggetts Ballroom is only one example of the many fascinating resources that the PMI holds in our DVD collection.

Town of the Month: Maldon

Town of the Month: Maldon

Maldon ath
Maldon Athenaeum (established in 1863 but much of the building dates from the 1930s following several fires). Image © Steven Haby

Located within the Shire of Mount Alexander about 20 km from Castlemaine and 136 km from Melbourne, the town of Maldon has often been described as being entirely classified by the National Trust of Victoria. In fact that is not too far from the truth as in 1966, the National Trust declared Maldon as ‘Australia’s first notable town’ on the basis of its many surviving buildings, the variety of architectural styles and its ‘nineteenth century atmosphere’.

Indeed a visit to Maldon does seem like a step back in time particularly as many of the commercial buildings have managed to retain their original identity. Furthermore Maldon featured regularly in numerous National Trust publications in the 1970s about historic towns and places of Australia – the black and white photographs adding to the aura of history and heritage. It has been described as an example of ‘conservation in practice’.

Maldon’s gold mining history is of significance as, for example, the Beehive chimney near the railway station is one of the last remaining examples of mining archaeology from the 1860s to have survived and is one of the more prominent features of the town. Quartz gold mining played a significant role in the economic development (and decline) of the region. Interestingly many of the mines suffered due to the shareholder’s impatience for dividends to be paid out rather than reinvestment in equipment and further exploration.

Today Maldon is a popular tourist destination with drawcards such as the Castlemaine & Maldon Tourist Railway (known as the Victorian Goldfields Railway) which operates to Castlemaine, numerous heritage themed walks, the museum and archives and of course the historic buildings and other features of the town. Maldon is home to the Tarrangower Times newspaper first published in 1858 and is the oldest continuously published newspaper in Victoria. The film Romulus, My Father featuring Eric Bana was shot on location in and around the town. Famous residents included Henry Handel Richardson who spent some of her childhood years in Maldon when her mother was the postmistress. Her experiences are outlined in her memoir.

By Steven Haby: Secretary Librarian

Maldon post office
Maldon post office (1870). Image © Steven Haby
Maldon train
Locomotive K class no. 153 at Muckleford, the intermediate station on the Castlemaine & Maldon Railway (also known as Victorian Goldfields Railway). Image © Steven Haby

Further reading

The PMI has numerous sources on Maldon and its heritage including:

Blackman, Grant and John Larkin. Maldon: Australia’s first notable town (Hodder & Stoughton, 1978).

Bulletins 1-62 and Memoirs 1-31 of the Geological Survey of Victoria (Department of Natural Resources and Environment, 2000).

Carroll, Brian. Historic gold towns of Victoria. (Quest, 1986).

Creek, Christopher.  A rich vein: the early days of Maldon’s north and the area known as Eagle Hawk. (Christopher Creek, 2015).

Crick, Malcolm. Heritage and planning in Maldon: a brief retrospect (Maldon Museum and Archives Association, 2002).

Flett, James. Old pubs, inns, taverns and grog houses on the Victorian gold diggings (Hawthorne Press, 1979).

Hallett, Keith. Maldon & Shelbourne railway 1884-1976 (Keith Hallett, 2018).

Henry Handel Richardson in Maldon. Peter Cuffley [et. al.] (Peter Cuffley, 2010).

Indexes to the Tarrangower Times and Maldon District Advocate (various date ranges) published by the Maldon Museum and Archives Association.

Maldon conservation study. Jacob Lewis Vines Architects (Town and Country Planning Board, 1977).

Maldon Muse [journal of the Maldon Museum and Archives Association].

Patterson, A. J. Goldfields of Victoria in 1862 (Wilson & McKinnon, 1862).

Rhule, Brian. Maldon: a new history 1853-1928 (Exploring History Australia, 2019).

Shire of Maldon. Trees and gardens from the goldmining era: a study of the Maldon landscape (Shire of Maldon for the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne, 1981).

Williams, A. J. A concise history of Maldon and Tarrangower diggings (Maldon Museum and Archives Association, 2003).

Book Review: The Nameless Names

Book Review: The Nameless Names

Book review by Heather Redmond

nameless names

I had 3 great-uncles who died in the first World War but I came of age protesting the Vietnam war.  In recent years, I have followed with interest discussion around changing attitudes to the Anzac legend.   Now I am retired, my interest in family history extends to understanding the lives – and deaths of my ancestors.   Scott Bennett’s book made me consider also the impact of their deaths on the families and communities who loved and missed them.   If you are looking for a textbook description of the battles of the Great War, ‘The Nameless Names’ isn’t for you, but if your interest is in people then it will be on your list of best books ever.

Scott Bennett’s instinct for telling a story is excellent.  There is a clear sense of purpose to ‘The Nameless Names’.    This author understands how a story should unfold in coherent stages that balance the delivery of facts with building up a sense of the grief and horror of it all.  Don’t be tempted to skip over the introductory chapter as it lays out the motives and structure of the book in a most moving way.   It is a thoughtful device to focus on 3 families; that their lost sons were embedded in loving families and  tight-knit rural communities heightens the tragedy of their nameless state once they are bodies lost on a battlefield.

Bennett writes beautifully, for example, when describing Coolgardie on page 13, “The town’s fortunes surged and tumbled on flighty rumours of gold strikes”.   He uses the words of soldiers themselves to describe the impact of battles and bodies.  This strategy of integrating quotes from soldiers’ diaries and letters serves well and although the book focuses on a handful of particular men and their loved ones, Bennett casts a wide net for material and uses the words of many others, building up a sense of the universality of the devastation.    When he quotes the words grieving families used for ‘In Memoriam’ notices, we appreciate the genuine sentiments behind the conventional words because he has led us to a deeper understanding of the grief of those families.

The breadth of research provides fascinating journeys into the times.   There is a section on how families turned to spiritualism, and the lecture tours of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.    Another brief section on the gardeners at war cemeteries highlights a forgotten corner of commemorating the dead.

Bennett shows how courage takes many forms, and details the work of those, mostly women, who traced the last resting place of fallen men.   He describes Red Cross workers visiting comrades of the fallen, and talking to grieving families. He shows the suffering of German migrants – my great-grandfather was one such – who experienced harassment and internment, while sending strong young sons off to fight.  He describes the awful work in the early post-war years of digging up and re-burying bodies on the former battlefields.   He shows the peasant farmers of France and Belgium struggling to rebuild their farms, as well as Australian mothers and widows struggling to continue life after the war.

This is a book, not to spark joy, but to savour and treasure and share and reflect upon.   You won’t regret reading it, although you will often feel overwhelming sadness as you do.