Australian Children’s Book Illustration

Australian Children’s Book Illustration

The work of our favourite children’s illustrators stay with us indelibly. Everyone will have favourite illustrators, even if they don’t realise it. It might be May Gibbs with her adorable gum nuts (I was always afraid of the banksia men) or my personal favourite Alison Lester (I’m currently drinking tea out of a mug with illustrations from Magic Beach). These books and their illustrations will always be cornerstones of our childhood.

Children’s book illustrations have a long history in Australia, and this post is not going to go into immense detail. We have two excellent books on the subject and, when the library opens again, I highly recommend borrowing them if you’d like to know more.

children's books

I’m going to go through some of the history of the origins of Australian children’s illustration, and then I’ll have a look at some of my favourites.

I want to begin by saying that Australia already had a rich tradition and history of storytelling before the colonisation. Indigenous Australians were the original storytellers, well before children’s stories began to be written in books. I believe it is worth remembering that tradition as the bedrock on which Australian storytelling is based.

Western children’s illustrations depicting Australia began early, before Australia was colonised. The expeditions of early explorers such as Cook were made into stories for children. As Australia was ‘discovered’ by Europeans, children’s books began to be set here, usually written and illustrated by people who has never set foot in the country. This led to illustrations that bore little resemblance to any real Australian landscape. The first children’s book set entirely in Australia was Alfred Dudley published anonymously in London in 1830 and telling the story of a father and his highly intelligent son settling in Australia. There were 8 copperplate engravings; none of which greatly resemble Australia at all.

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Adventure stories set in Australia were very popular in the UK by the mid to late 1800s. Like the early illustrations these tended to be overly romanticised and have very little to do with a real Australian landscape. You can see the Adventures of Ned Nimble in the image below. thumbnail_IMG_8475

Eventually, though, books illustrated by people who had actually been to Australia, or in fact lived in Australia began to emerge. Some of the early works include the Australian Christmas Story Book published in Melbourne in 1871 and the Australian Picture Pleasure Book published in Sydney in 1857. Both had actual Australian animals, looking vaguely like Australian animals. Interestingly, one of the first books for children published in Australia that really took off was Cole’s Funny Picture Book– the first edition of which was published in 1879. It was still in print 112 years later when I received a copy of a reprinted edition in 1991. You can see my copy and the PMI’s copy in the photo below. It wasn’t a narrative illustrated book, but more of a compendium pulling together scraps from all over the place.


We have just received a new book about EW Cole, so I’m going to write a post about him and his book arcade in the next couple of weeks.

As more books began to be written in Australia the ‘bush’ became an almost mythical place and was the setting for the majority of stories. Probably the best known from the late 1800s and early 1900s are the illustrations of Frank Mahoney in Ethel Pedley’s Dot and the Kangaroo in 1899, May Gibbs’ Gum Nut Babies in 1916 and Dorothy Wall’s Blinky Bill in 1933. You can see all three in the images below. They continue to have a longevity through to today, with TV series and in the case of May Gibbs a whole plethora of things, from mugs to tea towels.

Dot and the Kangaroo was actually published the year after Edith Pedley’s death, the story she created was one of an almost mythical Australian bush, Dot gets lost in the bush and finds the kangaroo which guides her home. It is reminiscent of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland which had been published less than forty years before and left an indelible mark on western children’s literature. Frank Mahoney’s illustrations were realistic depictions of the Australian bush, without the European bent that many earlier books depicted.

You can find out more about Dot and the Kangaroo here

May Gibbs first wrote and illustrated stories about a little girl called Marmie amongst the chimney pots of London. During the war years in Sydney she produced bookmarks, calendars and pictures and created postcards featuring gum nut characters for Australian families and the Red Cross to send to Australian soldiers. But it was when she published Gum-Nut Babies and Gum Blossom Babies that her career really took off, and her illustrations remain some of the most recognisable today. You might have seen one of her Spanish Flu illustrations making the rounds recently on social media.

When she died in 1969, Gibbs left the copyright of all her works to the NSW Society for Crippled Children (which is now known as Northcott) and the Spastic Centre of NSW (now known as Cerebral Palsy Alliance). You can find out more about May Gibbs here

Blinky Bill wasn’t Dorothy Wall’s first book. She started out with Tommy Bear and the Zookies, which was published in 1920. Tommy is the beginnings of Blinky Bill, with some of his cheekiness and rapscallion nature. She went on to illustrate a collection of stories examining the origin and characteristics of some specific Australian plants and animals. She wrote and illustrated other books as well, including several fairy stories, but it was with Blinky Bill that she really made a connection. He first appeared as a side character in her illustrations for Brooke Nicholl’s Jacko the Broadcasting Kookaburra in 1933, but came out with his own adventures later in the same year. Subsequent stories followed over the years and Blinky became embedded in the Australian psyche. I think I can still sing most of the theme song of the 1990s television show. You can find out more about Dorothy Wall here

These books, and ones like them, began to feature Australian creatures and Australian landscapes with increasing accuracy (anthropomorphic animals and vegetation aside), and the foundation of Australian children’s book illustrations was formed.

This is a brief overview of the antecedents of children’s book illustrations in Australia. Now I want to have a look at a few of my favourites.

I’m starting with Mem Fox and Julie Vivas because their book Possum Magic, is probably the best selling Australian children’s book with more than 5 million copies sold. You can see my copy in the photo below.

For anyone who doesn’t know, Possum Magic tells the story of Grandma Poss and Hush, two possums. Grandma Poss has made Hush invisible to keep her safe, but Hush decides she wants to be visible again and together they travel all over Australia to find the foods that will break the magic spell. It’s a delightful tour through Australia with a plethora of Australian food, such as “they ate Anzac biscuits in Adelaide, mornay and Minties in Melbourne, steak and salad in Sydney and pumpkin scones in Brisbane.”

In the end it’s a Vegemite sandwich, a piece of pavlova and a lamington that does the trick. It was originally written as a university assignment about mice who travelled the world to make Hush visible, but Omnibus requested a rewrite with possums and and Australia. The result was illustrated by Julie Vivas and published in 1983 and the rest, as they say, is history.

You can find out more about Mem Fox here

Alison Lester has been writing and illustrating children’s books since 1979. I’m including her in this discussion purely because she is my favourite Australian children’s book author and illustrator. I can still recite large parts of Magic Beach from memory. You can see my copy in the photo below

Alison has written and illustrated more than 40 books for children. Most are set in Australia, and often have a strong emphasis on landscape. Magic Beach was first published in 1990 and tells the story of a group of children and their imaginative explorations of a beach. The beach is actually real, and you can find it at Walkerville near Wilson’s Promontory in eastern Victoria. You can listen to an interview with Alison about the ‘magic beach’ below.

You can find out more about Alison here

Bob Graham is another Illustrator and author who has made an enduring mark on the Australian illustrated children’s book scene. He actually studied as an artist first, at the Julian Ashton School of Art, and then travelled to the UK, but he returned to Australia in 1969 and began writing and illustrating children’s books. He’s won the CBCA Picture Book of The Year Award an astounding six times and his book A Bus Called Heaven has been endorsed by Amnesty International. My favourite of his books is The Red Woollen Blanket.

It tells the story of a little girl called Julie and the red blanket she is given when she was born. As she gets older she takes the blanket everywhere; until it is little more than a scrap, which she loses at school and then discovers that she’s grown up so she no longer needs it. You can find out more about Bob Graham here.

So that brings me to the end of my exploration of Australian children’s illustrated books. I’d love to go into more detail about the many fabulous books you can buy now, and which have shaped the minds and imaginations of Australian children over the decades, but that would be a book rather than a blog post. I’d love to know what your favourites are, so leave a comment and we can hopefully highlight some more of our fabulous children’s authors and illustrators.


Bottersnikes and Other Lost Things: A celebration of Australian illustrated children’s books by Juliet O’Conor

A History of Australian Children’s Book Illustrations by Marcie Muir

The Red Blanket by Bob Graham 1987

Possum Magic by Mem Fox 1990

Magic Beach by Alison Lester 1990

The Complete Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie by May Gibbs 1990

Cole’s Funny Picture Book No.4 1991

Cole’s Funny Picture Book No.1 72nd edition

The Complete Adventures of Blinky Bill by Dorothy Wall 1956

The photos are all mine except for the images from Alfred Dudley and Ned Nimble which come from A History of Australian Children’s Book Illustrations by Marcie Muir and the May Gibbs Spanish Flu image which comes from here

Collections Under COVID 4

Collections Under COVID 4

We’re at the end of another day, at the start of another working week so I thought it was time for another Collections Under COVID.

The highlight of last week was our first ever virtual trivia night, we had 60 people attending which was absolutely fantastic. Congratulations to our winner, Helen, who got to claim the kudos (no prizes unfortunately), but everyone seemed to really enjoy themselves which was the main thing. I had fun as quizmaster, it’s always great to have the chance to talk history, and putting together the trivia quiz (working from easy to evil) was an interesting exercise as well. We will be running future online events, so keep an eye on your email and our social media. We’ll also be posting some of the questions from the trivia on Facebook this week, if you’d like to follow along.

Today though, I’m going to talk about some of the books I’ve been cataloguing, both new and donated. As usual the idea is to give you a snapshot of some of what will be available for loan, or examining, once we’re open again in the hopefully not too distant future.

So to begin with a bit of a mystery….

Australasia 1Australasia 6

This book was donated to us some time ago anonymously. It hasn’t been in the collection because it was damaged, and one of our volunteers had just finished repairing it before this most recent lockdown. It came across my cataloguing desk today because of its size, I needed the space to store more catalogued books, but it is a book that has always had a bit of a puzzle to it. The book itself is beautiful and is a general history of Australasia written in 1879, it is very much of its time with the inherent biases and racial attitudes that comes with that. Though it is an excellent example of what thinking was like in the time and some of the images of early Australasia are stupendous. In this case though, what is most interesting about this particular book is the family tree inscribed in the opening pages. You can see it below.

Australaisa 2Australasia 3Now this is a family tree of the Cooke Family. We have no idea why it was inscribed in this particular book- using a bible for this sort of thing was much more common. Nor do we know which Cooke family it was. There are only two other clues. The book was presented to someone by a Mrs Hooper.

Australasia 5

And it was given as a present in 1912 in Benalla. Possibly to a member of the Cooke Family- but no surnames are used. Australasia 4

I love finding these sorts of things in books (though we did know about this one before I catalogued it today) and even if we never discover which Cooke Family this belonged to, I just like that the Cooke Family are indelibly a part of this book’s history. Though if someone out there does know, we’d love for you to get in touch at

So, putting the mystery aside for a little. I thought I’d briefly highlight some of the new books I’ve been working on. There’s a bit of a mixture today, this is by no means everything I’ve catalogued, but it does illustrate the variety of subject matters we handle. I’m going to start with Madame Weigel. Madame Weigel was a dressmaker who ran a fashion journal from Melbourne and was the first person to make and sell paper patterns in Australia. These patterns enabled women to make their own clothes in far wider varieties, and she adapted European fashion to the much warmer Australian climate. We already had the book on the life of Madame Weigel you can see it in the catalogue here: so when the author, Veronica, got in touch to say she’d put out books of the patterns themselves, I was delighted. You can see the two new books below.

Weigel 1Weigel 2

These patterns are the small scale history that can and should be essential to telling broader narratives and they are a lynchpin of women’s history. They can also be practically useful if you ever wanted to make some of your own clothes.

So now to something not totally different, but in a different area. The Lithographs of Charles Troedel


Like Madame Weigel Charles Troedel was part of the fabric of 19th century Melbourne and Australia. He was a professional lithographer and his work could be seen on a massive variety of 19th century printed material from posters to product labels. This book looks at Troedel’s work and places it in the context of the time it was printed. These lithographs are a fascinating social snapshot into the era, illustrating what people were seeing, using and experiencing in 19th century Australia. The lithographs are also reproduced in beautiful full colour. Just flicking through the book is a treasure trove; everything from advertising posters for the Druid’s Friendly Society, to wedding gowns from Robertson and Moffat, to quackery like Ralph Potts Well Known Magic Balm: Sure Pain Relief. You can see some examples below.

Tro4Tro3tro 2Tro1

I wanted to finish with one of the our local histories, or histories about a local area anyway. Kangaroo Grassland to Geelong Botanic Gardens and Eastern Park is a chronological pictorial history of the Geelong Botanic Gardens. It takes us right through the history of the gardens which were first gazetted in 1876. The book takes you through the development of the gardens, from the very first plans of the area and garden layout, right up to the introduction of Uki the Giant Blowfly for White Night in 2017. It is a fascinating history of the gardens, but it is also an excellent portrait of Geelong as you can see the city developing alongside the gardens. You can see the book in the photo below.

Geelong Bot

And that brings me to the end of today’s Collections Under COVID. I hope everyone is doing OK, and if you’ve got any questions about any of today’s books feel free to email me at



Collections Under COVID 3

Collections Under COVID 3

Another working week done and the first full week since we have not been able to be onsite at the PMI.

Last week I packed all the to be done cataloguing into my car, along with some indexing and brought it back so I could work from home. You can see my car and my new set up in the photos below. You might notice my trusty companion my Highland Cow Clementine on top of the bookshelf. In fact Clementine was such a hit from the newsletter that people have been emailing their work companions; including Wally the Wombat who goes on adventures.



So it’s been a week of cataloguing, some ordering and the most exciting thing: setting up a trivia night.

In this new lockdown, we can’t visit the library so we can’t scan or post material to patrons. Therefore, we wanted to make sure that we were staying in touch with everyone, and provide some form of the event program we would normally be running. We’re starting with a trivia night, which we’re quite excited about. So I’ve spent some of this week putting together trivia questions. I had a lot of fun putting together the power point; there’s 31 questions in four sections: Easy, Medium, Hard and Evil. You can see the opening slide in the  photo below.

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We ran a quick test with some of our volunteers yesterday, to iron out any technical kinks, and it gave us the chance to have some virtual contact with the volunteers which was lovely. I was also able to have my first go at playing Quiz Master, which was quite fun. We’re not playing for prizes, just for bragging rights, but we expect competition to be fierce 🙂

It’s the first online event we’ve run, so I’m sure there will be some teething problems, but it will be really nice to be able to connect visually with our members. We miss having you in the library.

The quiz will be at 7:30 pm next Wednesday the 19th of August. If you’d like to join in email and we’ll send you the zoom link and the downloadable score sheet. Hopefully see some of you there. Each question has a picture clue as well, and the first one is below- to whet you appetite so to speak.


We are looking at undertaking more trivia in the future- so if you have any inspired Australian history trivia questions feel free to email them to us at

Working completely remotely has been a big shift. The PMI staff meets on zoom at 10 each day Tuesday-Thursday. We discuss what we’re working on, and in this case how we are going to run the trivia. It’s a good way of staying in touch and capturing some of the bonhomie that you miss when you’re not working face to face with people. Also Steven and I have had a few longer discussions about British comedy, I’ve been listening to Fawlty Towers while I’m working, which has also been nice.

It has been hard not being able to answer queries, because we do not have access to the hard copy collection. We do however, when the server is holding up, have access to the electronic resources, so if there is any material you want from those please feel free to let us know. You can search by electronic resource on the catalogue.

In periodicals news, this week has seen us subscribing to Lighthouses Australia and their journal Prism. We’ll be collecting it in hardcopy going forward, so you’ll be able to borrow it from the library once we are open again, and there’s more than ten years worth of back issues to index, work we’ll be splitting between staff and volunteers. The cover of the most recent issue can be seen below. It will be key word searchable on our catalogue in the coming weeks.

2020-02 Light Houses Australia Prism

Speaking of the volunteers, some have continued working from home on everything from sourcing heritage studies, to indexing garden history journals, to scouring university repositories for theses and indexing our vertical file. As always their work is invaluable and we look forward to being able to welcome all the volunteers back into the PMI in the hopefully not too distant future.

The final aspect of this work week I wanted to talk about was ordering. Due to a grant, we have been able to begin ordering books again, on a small scale, for the first time since April. This has meant going back through the lists I’ve been keeping (which I’ve discussed in previous posts) and determining which are the most important, but also which are accessible. Some places- like the Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery can’t send us their book because like us they can’t access the site- but we will receive a copy after lockdown ends.

The biggest order I’ve done is from a local bookstore, we always try to support local retailers where possible, but I’ve begun ordering some individual books as well. For example the Encyclopaedia of Adam Lindsay Gordon, of which there were only 45 copies printed, is on its way, as is Kangaroo Grassland to Geelong Botanic Gardens and Eastern Park: A chronological history. So we’re back to collecting the small stories, which I’m pleased about. For anyone wondering about the Bunbartha Tennis Club book I mentioned in an earlier post that also ended up in the newsletter- it’s on my list for next week (one of our members found a phone number for me).

So that’s the working week in Collections for the PMI at home. I want to finish with my favourite book from today’s cataloguing. Just because I love the title.


Maybe stalking could be a good iso activity, as long as we do it in under an hour and with in 5km of our home (and stick to animals not people).




Western Port Bay

Western Port Bay

IMG_8229In this post, which is the third in a series of more in depth articles using material from the PMI’s collection, I’m going to look at the history  and ecology of Western Port Bay. We have a number of books on the Bay and its surrounds and I’ll provide a reference list at the end. Western Port Bay, is the lesser known cousin of Port Phillip Bay, and together they form the Mornington Peninsula.

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To begin with the basics; Western Port Bay is formed by the heads of Flinders and Phillip Island. You can see the view looking over the ‘Nobbys’ at the tip of Phillip Island in the photo below.


The tides are much higher than Port Phillip, partly because the heads of the bay are much wider. There are also two major islands in the Bay; Phillip Island, which as I said forms part of the heads, and French Island. I’m not going to discuss either in detail, but we have a number of books on both if anyone wants to learn more. There are a number of smaller islands in the Bay as well.

To return to Western Port Bay itself. Before European colonisation Western Port Bay was, and remains, the land of the Boon Wurrung Indigenous people of the Kulin nation. They lived around the bay for thousands of years, using its bountiful resources including shellfish, birds, animals and plant life. When Europeans arrived, food sources were depleted, Boon Wurrung were removed from the land, disease spread, some were captured by whalers and sealers, some were incorporated into European society, some were rounded up and sent to missions, where culture and language was forcibly stamped out. Today the Boon Wurrung are rebuilding their language and continue to live and share their ancient culture. It is vitally important to note that this was not unoccupied land when the Europeans arrived. You can find out more about the Boon Wurrung at the Boon Wurrung Foundation 

The map below, which dates to 1940 and can be viewed as part of the PMI’s collection, gives you an idea of the scope of the Bay itself and especially the channels in the Bay.


There are a number of deep shipping channels in Western Port, which weave their way through equally shallow mud flats. This allows big ships to come into Hastings, and Cerberus (which is a navy training base), but lots of little boats make use of the many channels, waterways and even creeks that run around and in Western Port Bay.

The ecology of Western Port Bay is unique, the salt marshes are home to a vast array of migratory birds and Western Port boasts the southern most mangroves in the world, (Corner Inlet at Wilson’s Promontory might argue with that designation). The mangroves help prevent erosion, are fish nurseries,  have aerial roots and produce seeds which the tides take and you find scattered along the surrounding beaches. You can see some of the mangroves in the photo below, with Hasting’s white elephant the HMAS Otama.

IMG_7292It’s a slight diversion, but the Otama is worth explaining. In 2001 the Otama, a 1610 ton Oberon Class submarine, was purchased by the Western Port Oberon Association. It was intended to be the centre piece of the Victorian Maritime Centre in Hastings and they had it towed from Fremantle. Sadly, over the years the Maritime Centre has got very close to planning approval and the funding to build it, but it has never succeeded. In 2008, the Otama was put on eBay unsuccessfully. Hopefully, one day it will come out of the water as part of a state of the art Maritime Centre, but for now it sits waiting in Western Port Bay.

IMG_7971Putting the Otama aside, the ecology of Western Port Bay goes beyond the mangroves. There are salt marshes and seagrass beds of immense importance. The seagrass meadows are the driving force of the bay, they produce seed and and are pollinated wholly underwater, they provide protection and food for a wide variety of sea life. While it might not look so pretty when it is washed up on the beach, seagrass is the bedrock on which the ecology of the underwater world of Western Port is built.


Seagrass is not the only plant found in the bay, there is an extensive assortment, including some truly striking seaweed. IMG_8178

The creatures of Western Port are as versatile and varied as their plant companions. The Bay is home to numerous fish, and other creatures including dolphins, seals and sharks. There is multitudinous birdlife, with masked lapwings, pacific gulls, oyster catchers, ibis, swans, white faced herons and cormorants (amongst many others) being regular visitors. You can see some of the cormorants below.


There’s also many smaller creatures, usually found around the rock pools, including sea stars and crabs, along with many many different types of shellfish.


So Western Port Bay supports an interconnected web of life, including the humans who have come to live around its edges. So I’m going to finish with a little of the human history, post colonisation. George Bass was, arguably, the first European to ‘discover’ Western Port Bay.  He missed Port Phillip, coming from the wrong direction, and being short of supplies on the 5th of January 1798 sailed into Western Port. He described it as “I have named the place, from its relative situation to every other known harbour on the coast, Western Port. It is a large sheet of water branching out into two arms which end in wide flats of several miles in extent, and it was not until we had been here some days that we found it to be formed by an island, and to have to outlets to the sea- an eastern and a western passage.” He goes on to describe the tides, and the mud and is complementary of the surrounding land and soil, but goes on to say they had great difficulty finding good drinking water. Bass did not stay long in Western Port, leaving in the 18th of January to head back to Port Jackson.

So that was the beginning of European involvement with Western Port. The next encounter was when Lieutenant James Grant sailed into Western Port on the 21st of March 1801. It was stormy so he anchored in the lee of Phillip Island and went on to cultivate the land on Churchill Island, just off Phillip Island, planting Victoria’s first garden.  Grant spent 6 weeks in Western Port Bay taking an extensive survey, the botanist on the the trip also gathered new plants.

The English were not the only ones to survey Western Port, the French spent eight days in the Bay in 1802 surveying and determining if it would be viable place for settlement. The expedition was led by Captain Hamelin, this surveying is most likely where the name French Island comes from. They reported back that there was good anchorage, and it had potential, but fresh water might be an issue.

Formal settlement of the area took place in 1826 when the government decided to establish an official settlement. The Dragon under the command of Captain Wright was sent to Western Port. They came ashore near Rhyll, on Phillip Island and on December 3rd the flag was raised and a 21 gun salute was fired, officially announcing the first European settlement.

As time went on settlements came and went around the Bay, many not really taking hold. There were also fishermen and sealers aplenty and eventually  actual townships did develop around the Bay. There were also squatters moving into the area and large areas of land were sold off by the government as pastoral runs. The Bay has also been the site of industry, especially in Hastings which has an oil refinery and a reasonable sized port.

Today Western Port Bay is surrounded, for the most part, by small towns. Thankfully much of its natural beauty has been retained, and will hopefully continue to be valued into the future.



This is by no means a comprehensive look at the history of Western Port Bay, but hopefully it has given you a good idea of its importance from an ecological  and historical standpoint and if you’d like to know more, the books in the photo below have a wide range of information.

thumbnail_IMG_8232The photos are all mine.

Australian English- our idiosyncrasies of speech

Australian English- our idiosyncrasies of speech

There’s lots of words that Australians use, that are peculiar to the country or even the state. I’ve got into several good natured arguments over whether it is a potato cake or a potato scallop (it’s a potato cake, but I’m a Victorian so I have to say that), for example. Beyond rivalries over bathers vs togs, and devon vs stras and don’t even get me started on family words (I thought ‘zapper’ was a perfectly normal word for the TV remote for a long time), there is a lexicography that is Australian and has come about because of our mixed and fascinating history.

The PMI has a number of books on Australian words and Australianisms, including the Australian National Dictionary- which you can see below.

Australian national dictionary

We also subscribe to and index OzWords the journal of the Australian National Dictionary Centre. You can see the index on our catalogue here. 

Words come and go from the common vernacular, often shaped by events. For example I suspect ‘zooming’, in the context of online meetings, is going to be a new word for 2020. Probably along with isobaking- it was in true Australian tradition that isolation was almost immediately abbreviated and then added to other words. So I’m going to go through some of the books that the PMI has on the Australian vernacular, because as the Collections Librarian exploring the collection is always going to be a good thing, and explore some of the phrases and words contained within. I’d love if anyone has some other words they’d like to talk about if they could comment, and hopefully we’ll get an interesting discussion going.

Before I go any further I want to discuss the fact that English was not the first language spoken on the continent of Australia. There were hundreds of different languages, spoken across Australia for more than 60 000 years, before European settlement.

You can explore the indigenous languages of Australia visually through AIATSIS’ map,

You can also use AIATSIS’ AUSTLANG- which is a language database which covers not just the languages spoken, but all the other names they are known by. Both are worth exploring

Returning to English, I wanted to say a little bit about the The Australian National Dictionary (AND) which you saw in the photo above. The PMI holds the second edition, which was published in 2016. The AND is an historical dictionary, which means that each entry begins with “the oldest sense of the word and moves through to the most recent sense”. This differs from a general dictionary, which will begin with the most common usage of a word and move to the less common. The AND is modelled on the Oxford English Dictionary, in the historical model. The AND is essentially a biography of the language and the people who speak it, which means it contains both some fabulously obsolete words alongside new and modern words, it also contains a lot of slang, and as it’s an Australian dictionary- this means a lot of abbreviations.

For example: Aggie- an agapanthus- first mentioned 1988 in the Sydney Morning Herald ‘the aggies are coming into bloom’

I also like Ballarat lantern- a makeshift lantern formed by removing the base of a bottle and inserting a candle end first through the bottle into the neck. The first mention is 1875 from Wood and Lapham in Ballarat, but by 1887 it was being used in the Brisbane Courier, which just shows how, even what would seem to be a localised geographical word, can travel.

Another phrase which caught my eye, is emu bob:  the act or process of picking up litter, a group of people doing this, the act or process of searching an area of the ground for something. I particularly like this one, because it is so Australian and so evocative. You can just so easily visualise how it would look.

Modern political concepts also make an appearance  such as Pacific Solution- which dates from 2001 and outlines government policy in regards to Asylum Seekers.

It’s very easy to get lost in these dictionaries, scanning through them, and discovering new words, old words and everything in between. I wanted to finish my exploration of the AND with some rhyming slang: Pat Malone. The phrase it usually gets used in is, ‘on one’s Pat Malone’ meaning alone- it feel appropriate for our current isolating circumstances. Its earliest mention the AND can find is from 1900, when it is used in a Hobart newspaper. It’s possible the phrase comes from an Irish ballad about a Pat Malone who suffered a series of misfortunes, but no one is entirely sure.

So, to move beyond the dictionary; the other books I’m using to discover words and phrases are:

All these books look at much more specific realms of English in Australia.

So I thought I’d start with Lily on the Dustbin, which looks at slang of Australian women and their families. I picked this one, because ‘women’s words’ can sometimes be seen as less important, or frivolous. So I’m glad there is a book dedicated to them, and there are some real gems:

Putting make up on: “to put on your face”

Annoying children: “a pain in the pinny”

Trying to get children to behave: “birds in the their little nests agree”

Describing unkempt hair: “hair like a birch broom in a fit”

A blunt knife: “you could ride to Bourke and back on that knife and it wouldn’t cut your bottom”

A lot of the idioms are around house, family and domesticity, but not always, and some were shaped by the concept that women were not meant to swear, so they came up with more inventive but not invective phrases.

The 1819 Dictionary of Criminal Slang has a whole new gamut of words, this one is really interesting because it is the start of where a lot of our Australianisms are born.

I particularly like:

Go-alonger: A simple easy person, who suffers himself to be made a tool of and is readily persuaded.

Morning-Sneak: Robbing private houses early, by slipping in the door when the servants or shopman are occupied getting ready for the day.

Resurrection-Cove: Stealer of dead bodies

Cat and Kitten Rig: A game of stealing pewter pots from public houses.

Blow The Gaff: To reveal a secret.

Now I can’t see much use for some of these in today’s speech, but I could see Go-alonger making a comeback

Furphies and Whizz-Bangs: ANZAC slang from the Great War, has some other excellent examples, some which have become common now and others which have been completely forgotten.

Bumf: Now used to mean essentially useless stuff, it comes from bumfodder, slang for toilet paper and the ANZACs used it to mean official forms, paperwork and bureaucracy.

Furphy: Still used today to mean a rumour, or a lie it comes from the Furphy made water carts in World War One where soldiers would gather to swap tales and stories.

Hop the bags: To go over the top

Flybog: Jam- comes from the idea that it attracted flies. (probably not one condiment companies will be trying to revive)

Clefty: To steal, probably comes from the Arabic word kalifa which means to become brownish-red in the face.

Lost For Words brings together words that Australians once used everyday but have since fallen out of favour.

Strike me pink, yellow and blue, I’m an Irish cockatoo: Surprise

Wake up, Australia, Tasmania is floating away: Pay attention

It’s money for old rope: A no brainer

The creaking hinge creaks the longest: Someone who is always sick- essentially ‘they’ll outlive us all’

If his brains were dynamite they wouldn’t blow his hat off: Stupid

The final book we’re looking at is The Pronunciation of English in Australia. This one is much more technical and seeks to explain things like vowels, diphthongs, stress and rhythms. So I’m not going to go into detail about that here, but I will discuss briefly the ‘general impressions’ of Australian speech it outlines- keep in mind it was written in 1947

They do outline that these are sweeping generalisations and largely criticism.

Australian speech is “ugly, lazy and slovenly, nasal, drawling, not clear (lots of mumbling), cockney, marred by lip laziness.”

This is often how Australian, or really ocker (to use another Australianism), speech is viewed from outside Australia, I’d actually also throw in uncultured. None of this is true of all Australians and the way we speak and these assumptions have led to some truly awful Australian accents on movies and TV. It also leads to pejorative assumptions about a person before you’ve actually listened to what they’re saying, which is something to be avoided.

I think what all the books make clear, is that even if the ‘tone’ of Australian speech may be a bit grating to some, the words and phrases that have come to be uniquely Australian  are certainly filled with colour, history and for me a really vivid visual layer.

I want to finish with a brief discussion about a phrase that has gotten me many a blank look. Making a wigwam for a goose’s bridal- essentially you use it when someone asks you what you are doing, and it’s blindingly obvious. It isn’t in common usage these days, I picked it up from my family and when I use it automatically I’ve had some very odd looks. It probably originates from Britain or Ireland in the 16th or 17th centuries, there’s arguments over exactly what, if anything, it means. The ‘goose’ is possibly a term for a prostitute, or it might be mother goose of fairytale fame. Wigwam, seems to be a bit interchangeable with wing wong, or whim wong, or whim wham, it is also debatable whether it was originally bridal of bridle- bridle possibly making more sense. Whatever its origins or usage, I love that in one form or another this completely random phrase has been a part of Australian language, it typifies good Australianisms for me; colourful, visual, arguable origins and not always making complete sense.

You can see all the books I used on the PMI Catalogue. The links are below

Lily On The Dustbin:

1819 Dictionary of Criminal Slang:

Lost For Words:

Furphies and Whizz Bangs:

The Pronunciation of English in Australia:

The Australian National Dictionary











Collections Under COVID 2

Collections Under COVID 2

Another week done, so it’s time for another Collections Under COVID.

Although the book budget is still frozen, we’ve been lucky enough to receive some brand new books as donations in the last week or so, and I wanted to highlight them and discuss how they fit into the collection.

I’m going to start with In The Name of Theatre: The history, culture and voices of amateur theatre in Victoria by Cheryl Threadgold.

Theatre Heritage

This book came out of Cheryl’s PhD thesis and she actually did quite a bit of research for the book at the PMI. It’s always wonderful to see the outcome when PMI resources have been used, it reinforces for us why the collection is so important to so many people.

In The Name of the Theatre covers the full gamut of amateur theatre in Victoria, from the goldfields right through to COVID-19, so in itself it is a valuable addition to the PMI’s collection. This is the small scale of history and I love some of the stories, like Lola Montez being so well received for her spider dance in 1856 in Ballarat that gold nuggets were thrown onto the stage. The book covers amateur theatre from all over Victoria and with its excellent index will be a vital resource for anyone researching theatre history at the PMI in the future. We also really appreciate Cheryl’s inscription in the front of the book. in the name of the theatre


Books like In The Name of the Theatre  are important to the collection because resources about entertainment are part of the cultural touchstones that make up our society. You can read more about the entertainment resources at the PMI in the Collection Corner in our February 2019 newsletter

The other two books I wanted to discuss are Bundjil and Barraeemal which you can see below.


These two books are both stories by Boonwurrung elder Carolyn Briggs, told with the Balnarring Bubups, the children of Balnarring Preschool.

They’re both gorgeous publications in their own right, with photos of the kids interwoven through the story, but the PMI collects this sort of material for another reason. Books telling Indigenous stories, especially including Indigenous language in Victoria are rare, and many of them are now being produced with or for children as part of teaching the new generations. This makes them vitally important parts of the PMI’s Indigenous collection, as we move to expand it and ensure that the Indigenous history of Victoria is at the heart of the PMI’s collection.

In this case the stories of the children as also valuable, as they are exactly the small scale of history we want to preserve at the PMI.

All three of these books will be for loan, when we are open again.

See you all in the library in the not too distant future (hopefully)


The origins of Port Fairy

The origins of Port Fairy

As part of the lockdown, we thought that bringing you some more informative blogs could be fun. We’re all about sharing our love of Victorian history, so to begin with we’ll be looking at Port Fairy. This is not intended to be a full history of the town, but a discussion of its origins. The PMI holds a number of books on Port Fairy and I’ll provide a photographic bibliography at the end of the post for those who want to learn more.


The area that is now Port Fairy was the country of the Gunditjmara people before European settlers arrived to colonise the land and ultimately lay out the town. It was not unoccupied. There is a memorial in Port Fairy which states “In memory of the thousands of Aboriginal people who were massacred between 1837 and 1844 in this area of Port Fairy. Today we pay our respect to them for the unnecessary sacrifices they made. Your spirit still lives on within our people. Wuwuurk.”

I am not going to discuss the massacres in detail, mainly because people much better qualified than me have done so, and for more information on massacres the University of Newcastle map has more detail.

It is vitally important in any examination of Victorian history that the Indigenous past is not forgotten.

The colonial origins of Port Fairy date to the 1839 when Governor LaTrobe sent the Government Surveyor to the area to “go and see what people are doing there.” The settlement of the area until this point was largely informal with whalers and sealers, squatters and the odd settler, but there wasn’t a town of any substance. The name for the town comes, probably, from the ship the Fairy which was a sealer and sailed into the area by Captain Wishart in c.1810. There is debate as to whether he actually sailed into the area or not and whether he was in fact the captain, but somehow the name stuck and the region came to be known as Port Fairy. The town itself though, as it is laid out today, comes from a little later and was actually originally known as Belfast.

The man who laid out the town was James Atkinson. He emigrated to Sydney in 1830 from Ireland. In 1843 he was granted the survey rights to lay out the town which he called Belfast. There were some people living in the town area, very basically, and inland squatters were establishing vast pastoral runs. It was to Atkinson’s benefit to retain as many of the existing settlers as he could, because then they would be either leasing or buying the land from him. Atkinson spent little time in the town, arriving in 1846 with his wife, seven children and four servants. He did not stay that long, appointing various land agents including in 1848 his 25 year old nephew (and incidentally my great great great grandfather) Robert Henry Woodward. It was under Woodward that most of the town was laid out and land either rented or sold as he remained land agent until 1869. A local council was developed as well. The majority of the public buildings you see in Port Fairy today were built on land given for that purpose.


Atkinson also purchased the islands just off the coast, including Griffiths Island where the Port Fairy Lighthouse stands today.


By 1857 Belfast was a thriving town with a population of 2190, and schools, hospitals and churches, like St John’s which you can see in the photo below.


In 1885 Atkinson’s children sold the unsold land from the survey to a syndicate of local investors and the remainder of the land was sold off, partly to the local council and partly to individuals and the era of Belfast being owned by one man was over. The town became a hub for fishing and trade and by the end of the 1800s it was one of the most important international ports in Australia, because much of the wool shorn as far away as NSW was taken by the river systems and bullock drays to Port Fairy for transportation.  The town continued to be called Belfast until 1887 when the town petitioned parliament and it was renamed Port Fairy by a special act of parliament.

So that is the beginnings of Port Fairy, a town with a rich and interesting history and if you want to explore it on more detail, all of the books below can help with that. You’ll be able to borrow them when we re-open, but if you’d like some specific information from any of them, we can scan it and send it to you. Just email



thumbnail_IMG_8140The photos are all mine.

Collections Under COVID

Collections Under COVID

I was hoping to not have to write another of these posts, but as we are back in lockdown and I’m back to my first day working from home again- I thought I’d give a brief update of what I’m working on, and how things are going to work.

Once again I have my box of books, and I’ll be working my way through some more of the cataloguing backlog, so you can expect updates and profiles of some of the titles that I’m working on. It’s always great to have the chance to highlight some of the material that is coming into the collection.


I’ll also be indexing periodicals, which is an ongoing job, and hopefully finally having the time to undertake a full periodical audit, which will basically mean going through all the periodicals we receive on a regular basis and working out if we’re missing any. It does mean I get to talk to a few different historical societies, which is always interesting.

I’m also going to be writing more blog posts, beyond my COVID ones. I’m hoping to write about a new topic once a week, to bring you more content to explore. Next week’s post will be about Port Fairy, you can see the books I’ve collected for it below. I’m taking requests so if there is something you’d me to research and write about email me at Also if you’d like to write something for the blog, just let me know.


One change for me this time is that I’ll be onsite in the library on Wednesdays, with Steven. This will allow us to begin a shelf read (going through all the books and making sure they’re in the right spot) and to scan and send material you might need. It also enables me to work on some of the fiddlier books with the right resources and to help with catalogue maintenance.

I has been really nice the last 4 weeks seeing everyone back in the library, and the enthusiasm you’ve all shown in us being open again. Thanks to everyone who was so supportive yesterday in particular as we began to work out how we would operate whilst closed, and all of you who came in and stocked up on books- it was great to see you.

While it’s sad that we’re back in lockdown, we’ll keep in contact and hopefully welcome you all back into the library in the not too distant future.



Meet the Volunteers: Elena

Meet the Volunteers: Elena


Elena began volunteering at the PMI in 2019. Some of her volunteering background was working with indexing, including some archive work with the National Trust in their fashion collection and the Beechworth Pharmacy records. She also worked in the Holocaust Museum in their archives. With this in mind I asked her to start work on the PMI’s ‘to be archived’ material. Essentially this meant using our Retention and Disposal Authority to assess old PMI records to determine whether they would be archived, preserved for a certain period, or destroyed. Elena took to the job with enthusiasm and spent a lot of time shredding old financial records that were not destined for the archives. I believe she even found some of the shredding quite cathartic. I had a go as well, and it was quite fun. She did have to spend quite some time waiting for the shredder to cool down when it got too hot.

Once she had shredded, saved, and archived her way through the ‘to be archived’ material, I introduced her to indexing old journals. Her first job was the back issues of the Eltham and District Historical Society, which had been donated by the Yarra Plenty Libraries. The PMI’s journal indexing is a bit fiddly, with some idiosyncrasies (like most things at the PMI), but Elena soon had it figured out and has become one of our regular back issue indexers.

When COVID broke out, and it was clear that her regular volunteer gig working in the Melbourne Visitor’s Centre was going to dry up, she asked us for more work that she could do from home. So, during the lock down she worked her way through the back issues of the Apollo Bay Historical Society, Mission to Seafarers newsletter and all of the Aboriginal History Journals from 1977 to the present. Now that the library has re opened Elena is going to mainly continue working from home, because she can (she is now working on Garden History Journals, and checking the books listed in the Aboriginal History Journals against our catalogue). She has, however, been in the library for the first two weeks we’ve been open, patiently printing off all the Aboriginal History Journals so they can be bound. This is fiddly, meticulous work, which often means arguing with the photocopier (always a fun job), but she got through the last of it on the 24th and they will soon be available to our members.

Elena’s enthusiasm and work ethic have been greatly appreciated and it’s always fun having her in the library. She was also one of my regular correspondents while I was working from home, as we established the best way to index the Aboriginal History Journals, so having that connection back to the PMI was very nice too.

Elena asked me to write this post, an option we always offer volunteers when we’re doing profiles, and I hope it does her hard work justice.

Cataloguing Under Covid 5

Cataloguing Under Covid 5

This probably won’t be the last Cataloging Under Covid post, but as the library is re opening next week I will be working from home less frequently, so I thought it was worth giving an update on what I’ve been working on.

Today I wanted to talk about the journey a book can take before it ends up in the library and the pieces that can survive in a book to tell its story.

One of the books I catalogued today was An Australian Bird Book by J.A Leach. This is the 1912 edition and you can see the cover in the photo below.


As you can see it is a little battered. Sometimes, we don’t know exactly where a book comes from before it arrives at the PMI. In this case, it was part of a large donation in 2017 that, as you can see, the last few books of which are still filtering through to be catalogued.

What is intriguing though is the inscription on the frontispiece


You can see on the top of the page, E. King 1957– this is the maiden name of the donator of the book, so she had held it in her library for fifty years. As you can though, it obviously has had a life before this as well.

After a little bit of digging on Trove I discovered the ‘Bird Day’ was somewhat common at schools in Victoria at the time the book was published. I haven’t managed to discover who H.C Dixon was, or who H.M.L might have been. But, in someways, I don’t mind that. It’s always interesting to be able to imagine how they might have fitted in. They are part of the story of the book.

I also found a small pressed flower


It’s obviously been there for a while, but whether intentionally or otherwise it’s impossible to tell. Like the names, the flower is part of the history and story of the book, though not one I can leave in its pages, as it will simply be lost.

The book itself is a fairly simple guide book, it’s a pocket book for field use. It has some lovely coloured plates though.


They might be slightly, less anatomically correct than you would see in modern bird guides, but they are lovely none the less.

The book itself isn’t worth anything in monetary value, despite its publication in 1912, but it was given as a present to commemorate Bird Day, it’s been used to press flowers and stayed with the same person for more than 50 years before it made its way to the PMI, so it does have a story. It probably won’t be used specifically as a bird guide again, but as an example of how Australian birds were seen at the time it is invaluable.

Inscriptions in donated books are quite common, we only cover them up if they have addresses on them, otherwise we leave them as part oft the story of the book. It’s one of the delights in dealing with donated material, finding these little things that are part of the book’s journey. Especially, when the book was given as a present. I in fact had another two books today with inscriptions in them, though simpler and less, I suppose the word is elegant, than the bird book. You can see them below


We also often find newspaper articles, letters, and random pieces of paper. If I can’t leave them with the book then I put them in a file. One day I hope to put them on display. Usually it’s impossible to trace them to their owner, and there are some cases where I do leave them in the book. This was particularly true of a donation from a deceased estate a couple of years ago. It was very large donation and the lady whose library they had come from had a habit of collecting newspaper articles that were relevant to the book and leaving them inside the front cover. The articles were worthless by themselves, but were interesting when tied to the books, so we made the decision to leave them in.

While I didn’t find any paper in any of today’s books, there is one more with an interesting provenance that I wanted to write about briefly. The book is: Australian Aborigines by James Dawson. It was written in 1881, and it was a donation at the start of 2019. As you can see below, it is a little worn.


It is actually a book we already hold a copy of, electronic and hard copy, but because of its age and its rarity we decided to keep it as a second copy. The book itself is interesting as it is one of the earlier accounts of Indigenous Australians in Victoria, though of course it has to be taken very much as being of its time. Sadly, because there is often not a great deal of written information and the oral tradition of Indigenous Australians was purposely broken, these sorts of books are often the only source available. They are colonial and can be disparaging and overly simplistic. They still provide some useful information as long as their context is taken into account. It is also an excellent example of colonial thinking towards Indigenous Australians at this time.

How this copy of the book came to be at the PMI is an interesting story in and of itself. It was in the possession of the Queensland Women’s Historical Association. QWHA is an organisation founded in the 1950s “to stimulate interest in the history and heritage of Queensland and in particular, the history of pioneer families and the contribution made by women to the development of Queensland.”

They’d had the book for many years, but when they were going through their library and narrowing their collection focus to items that were more relevant to Queensland, they thought they should find a good home for Dawson’s book as it is specifically Victorian. They got in touch in early 2019 after finding us online and we were delighted to be the book’s new home.

This is often the case with donations to the PMI, we are a new home for ex library books from other libraries who have to weed on circulation, we are a new home for books when people are downsizing, we are a new home for books when someone has died, and we are also often a first home for new books when the author wants to make sure the book will be available to anyone who would like to use it. I suppose the point that I am making is that donations are an important part of the PMI’s collection. In tandem with purchasing books, so the collection can be curated and various areas expanded, they make the PMI what it is today. Ultimately the PMI’s collection is its raison d’être and I really enjoy bringing in books, new and old, and finding out what I can about their stories along the way, as they become part of the PMI’s story.


Post Script: Since putting this blog together I sent it to the family of the lady who donated An Australian Bird Book and have discovered that HC Dixon was Humphrey Campbell Dixon, the  great uncle of the lady who donated the book. So that is another piece of the puzzle, which is very nice.