The PMI collects Victorian history in all its forms and voices and I was delighted to be able to add our first graphic novel to the collection. And what a first addition!
Underground is the story of the Vietnam war told from the perspectives of activist Jean McLean and her work with Save Our Sons, Vietnam Veteran Bill Cantwell, Mai Ho a refugee from Vietnam and later Mayor of Maribyrnong, artists Clif and Marlene Pugh and their wombat Hooper- who is registered for the draft, but goes underground.
Underground presents a multi-faceted and incredibly beautiful and engrossing look at the world of the anti-conscription movement, and the impact of the war both in Vietnam and in Australia (primarily in Melbourne). It also is quite emotional with some very stark images that draw the reader in and, at the risk of sounding cliche, tell a thousand words. This is not say that it is a depressing book, far from it, there’s a lot of joy and hope as well, and anything featuring a draft resisting wombat, can’t help being lighthearted.
A note on the wombat. This is a graphic novel based on real peoples’ lives and interviews with them, though parts are combined for the sake of the narrative (these are clearly noted). So at first sight I thought the wombat was a fun narrative device. Hooper was very real though, he was a wombat that had been hand raised by Marlene and Cliff Pugh. One of the tactics of the anti-conscription movement was the ‘fill in a falsie’ campaign. The idea was to waste the National Service Office’s time by effectively spamming them with false registrations. Hooper shared registration with some illustrious names including, philosophers, pets, actors, American presidents and Australian politicians. In Hooper’s case he made it through the system as Hooper Algernon Pugh. His marble was pulled out in March 1972 and he was sent a letter summoning him for his medical exam. His journey in ‘going underground’ is emblematic of the real draft resistors who changed houses and identities year after year.
Underground actually tells fascinating historical stories, it is aimed up upper Young Adults but I learnt a lot as well. I’d heard of Save Our Sons but not of the complexity and far reaching nature of their work, and especially the fundamental changes they wrought on a number of levels. Underground is inspiring in many ways, highlighting what can be achieved with activism. It is also very much about all sides of the war, including what Vietnam veterans went through, the ongoing impact of the war for them individually and how they were treated when they came home, and in some cases continue to be treated. It is also the story of the immense damage wrought in Vietnam, and the lives of the refugees who fled and built new lives in Australia. Ultimately Underground is a story of hope. This narrative is told through the individual stories of Jean McLean, Mai Ho and Bill Cantwell, but it is also the story of Australia at this moment in time. I wasn’t alive then, but with her artwork and narrative to me it feels like Burton evokes the time beautifully. And the message of peace, and the ongoing fight for justice stretching through to Australia’s treatment of refugees today remains incredibly relevant.
These are stories that need to be told, and need to be read and while the images add new and interesting layers, the format will also make these stories more accessible for many readers. Which means that more of Australia’s complex history, which Burton definitely doesn’t shy away from, will reach broader audiences. If nothing else it’s a completely absorbing read. The images below, give you a snapshot of artwork, just click on them to enlarge them.
Another continued lockdown, time for some more collections exploration. It is Children’s Book Week so I wanted to talk a bit more about our fiction collection. I can’t access the fiction collection at the moment, so the photos are from the archive. I’ve written in more depth about the history of children’s book illustration before- you can see that post here-and I’ve done a collection spotlight on the fiction before you can see that here.
It’s been two years since I talked about the fiction collection, so I thought it was worth revisiting. Also as we are running click and collect, or click and post if you’re outside the 5km, I thought it’d be a good reminder. So remember, if you’d like a good Australian story just jump on the catalog and have a look. Search for Australian Fiction and email us at email@example.com.
So why do we collect fiction? We are a Victorian History Library, so fiction might seem like an odd choice.
We see it as a crucial part of the social history of Victoria. We only collect Australian fiction set in Australia and written by Australians. This is Australians telling their own stories, which is vitally important to the broad narrative that makes up the history of Victoria. The fiction collection can often fill gaps that you won’t find in the broader non fiction collection. Minorities are more likely to be writing their stories in fiction before there’ll be lengthy non fiction books that can be bought.
It can also be an interesting area to collect in. We mainly collect the prize winners, Miles Franklin, Premiers’ Literary Awards, Stella Prize, that sort of thing. But you need to stay out in front of it, otherwise there is a mad scramble to buy the books once the prize is announced. Usually you’ll see a lot of common titles among all the prizes, so by the time the mid year prizes come round we usually hold most of the books on the lists.
We don’t collect all Australian fiction, largely because it would be impossible, so we try to limit to prize nominees, representative fiction and fiction that fills gaps in the collection. Our overall rule is that we don’t collect children’s or young adult fiction. We do have some of the classics and if the book helps fill a broader gap in the collection, then we’ll collect it. The key example is First Nations stories. There isn’t a lot of material actually written in First Nations languages, but one of the areas that does have material is children’s fiction so we collect children’s books written in language.
Fiction is also one of our higher use areas, with some of our members joining just to use the collection. I’d like to give a special shout out to our oldest member, Mrs Rees. She’s been a member longer than I’ve been alive, and she gets first dibs at any new fiction that I think she’ll be interested in. She’s also great for recconmendations.
The other core reason we collect fiction is because an accessible collection of purely Australian fiction, is surprisingly difficult to find. It’s amazing how many Australian stories are out of print and unaccessible. Public libraries weed on circulation, which is absolutely essential for them, but being able to preserve a non weeded representative collection of Australian fiction is incredibly important.
So, to circle back to where I began, Children’s Book Week. As I said we don’t really collect children’s fiction, but you might have seen Sir Yackalot and Clementine looking at some of their favourite books on our social media this week. So in the sprit of our fiction collection telling stories that haven’t been written in non fiction yet, I thought I’d finish with a story from Clementine, our stalwart Highland Cow, about lockdown. I hope you enjoy. Ellen
Lockdown with Clementine
Clementine here is a Highland Cow
She helps, as well as her hooves allow.
When lockdown looms, up she pops,
To look after all the important spots.
She obseves the books every day,
To make sure they don’t run away.
She watches for danger with pride,
And mostly she doesn’t hide.
She builds houses out of books,
Sometimes, she sulks in their nooks.
She takes up hobbies like us all,
Climbing, to banking she answers the call.
She inspects coconut for lamingtons with Sir Yack,
Well it’s been another lockdown, which we are hopefully coming out of next week. So I thought I’d finish up the week with a quick summary of Collections under COVID for July 2021.
I’ve been working my way through a wide range of cataloging and indexing, at least lockdowns give us a bit of a chance to catch up with some of the backlog. You can see my neatly packed up boxes of cataloged books in the photo below. You’ll notice one is ex-library. We’ve had an ongoing large donation from Moreland Libraries, and smaller donations from Bayside Libraries. The PMI remains an important library of last resort.
I also wanted to highlight Taxi in the image below. This is one of the books that I track down with detective work. The National Library puts out a list of all the new books added to their collection each month. I go through it to find books for the PMI. In the case of Taxi, I emailed Euroa Health who had published a previous book by the same author, and they passed on my contact details, the author got in touch and sold us the book.
You’ll also see one book on Zoroastrians. Pre lockdown I have been working to expand the PMI’s religious collection as it is predominantly Christian. I am working with a number of other religious peak bodies to either collect or write histories. The Zoroastrians, have donated two books on their world conference held in Ballarat in 2007 as well as working to compile a history of their community in Victoria, which is wonderful.
I’ve also been helping orchestrate a love story on social media between my working from home companion- Clementine the Highland Cow- and Riannon’s (the PMI’s Library Officer- Grants and Events) working from home companion- Sir Yackalot. You can see Clementine’s antics (I always try to tie them back to the collection) and the discourse with Sir Yackalot below.
Clementine has an admirer. Sir Yackalot tried to make her lamingtons for #NationalLamingtonDay but sadly got distracted by the marshmallows. He did write her a poem though Roses are red lamingtons are black I like you even though you’re not a yak.
Clementine is very touched that Sir Yackalot tried to make lamingtons for her, and she would definitely have been distracted by the marshmallows too. She also very much loved the poem and wanted to write one back, but being a librarian’s working from home companion she decided to do some research first. So you can see her trying to absorb some poetry by osmosis while looking up love letters on our catalog. But she got distracted by finding that the Tivoli Road Baker had a recipe for lamington doughnuts. In the end though she decided to keep it simple. Lamingtons are distracting But maybe drinks are the key So I have one question? Do some yaks like tea? We await developments…..
We’re hoping to continue the story. This is the lighthearted side of lockdown- and it’s been really nice to be able to be a bit frivolously creative when a lot of over avenues for expression are closed.
I’ve continued my usual round of emails, answering reference queries (including a while spent trying to decipher a scan of a Prahran rate book from 1859). I am also talking to a number of councils about donating ephemera to the PMI, so I’ve been fielding emails in regards to that. I’ve had the time to do some ordering too, from: Melbourne Books, Wilkinson Publishing (a new find) and Tom Putt Artworks. I’ve also collected 10 electronic garden histories from the Australian Garden History Society and had a Twitter conversation with Melbourne City of Literature about donating their new walking tour brochure. So keep an eye out for all that in the collection soon.
With my other hat as Volunteer Coordintor, I’ve been keeping in touch with PMI volunteers and I’ve had a Zoom chat with the Friends of the PMI as they near the end of one region of their database of what’s where in Victoria.
Finally back on the more frivolous side, I’ve also been writing riddles and picture quizzes to try and stay connected with the PMI members on social media.
You can see this week’s selection below
We’re hoping to reopen Wednesday next week- fingers crossed anyway. And that’s all from me really I just wanted to give you snapshot of what happens in collections during snap lockdowns.
PMI Collections Librarian and Volunteer Coordinator.
I love the fact that beautiful garden books are still being written, photographed and published. As a garden book writer I know how much of your life is poured into producing a book. In the last twelve months three wonderful ‘labour’s of love’ have been written about Victorian gardens. They are all works of art and surprisingly different in their style and approach.
Perhaps the most traditional is the glorious The Garden State, Inside Victoria’s private gardens by Richard Allen. With vivid pictures by Kimbal Baker taken over four seasons, Allen describes 24 of Victoria’s best gardens divided into chapters that include Grand Rural Estates, Coastal Retreats, Old Curiosities, Hill Stations and Climate Conscious.
Much of Victoria is blessed by temperate climates, cool winters, hot summers and reasonable rainfall (although this is all now much more unpredictable with climate change). With commitment, passion, imagination, patience and time, beautiful gardens can be created almost anywhere. But many of these, especially those in the Grand Rural Estates and Hill Stations chapters, benefit from fabulous volcanic soils and more benign climate, some even have reliable water. However coastal gardens and those established with a nod to changing climate show dramatically what can be achieved in more marginal soils and climates as well. Some of my favourites are the more majestic and traditional Mawallok with its William Guilfoyle designed garden and plenteous water, Bolobek in Mount Macedon that covers 10 hectares with fabulous old trees and the Native Garden in Dunkeld at the foot of Mount Sturgeon. Then there are the newer gardens that have been established over the last 20 years including in Mildura a garden with 370 rose species, in Bellbrae a 2 hectare garden full of native and indigenous plants and finally for me the water efficient garden filled with drought tolerant plants at Illangi Farm in the Barrabool Hills.
In each of the 24 gardens Richard Allen charts the garden’s history, both the people and plants, detailing their most notable design features as well as explaining how they have passed from one generation to the next, or to new people with a passion for gardening. He also looks at how each works within the landscape and what measures have been taken to adjust to or cope with changing environmental conditions.
This is a beautiful book, full of inspiration and ideas, well worth borrowing or buying to learn more about the garden treasures of our garden state.
The Maranoa Botanic Gardens Florilegium is a compendium of vivid and beautiful illustrations of plants grown in the Maranoa Botanic Gardens. These are accompanied by a biography of each plant from Margaret Castle (Margaret is also one of the illustrators). Cynthia Watson, the mayor of Boroondara, says of this florilegium that it, “documents many of the fascinating plants that grow in the Maranoa Botanic Gardens through these intricate and exquisite botanical paintings.”
These gardens were first established when John Watson bought 3.5 acres in Balwyn in 1901. Watson was a mercantile broker by trade, but also a botanist, naturalist and horticulturalist. He didn’t build a house but immediately started to establish a private garden of native Australian plants on his land. This was purchased from Watson in 1921 by what is now the City of Boroondara. They continued to plant native Australian plants and remove weeds and non-native species. I remember walking in these gardens as a young woman and marvelling at the diversity and number of plants. Today the gardens cover 7.5 acres and contain an estimated 5,000 plants. Some 100 of these are illustrated in the florilegium.
I was initially surprised to find that the plants are not in alphabetical order of the genera or family, or even of the common name. But as Professor Tim Entwisle explains, ‘It’s a delightfully eclectic mix of plants, in a delightfully eclectic order. Not a matter of chance but – like everything else Margaret has done – a carefully considered construct. The result is very much the product of an artists eye. Why sort alphabetically by species or plant family when these are portraits, not mugshots?” Designed and printed in Melbourne, the work is the product of 16 botanical artists and is published by the local council. To go back to Prof Entwisle again, ‘This book is more than a celebration of Australian Plants and the Maranoa Botanic Gardens, it is a celebration of a community drawn together through a love of nature and art. All power to them and this book.’ I wholeheartedly agree.
Our final book is Rogue. Art of a garden by renowned garden designer Rick Eckersley with sublime photographs by Will Slater. This book is the epitome of a ‘work of art’ in fact many works of art. Eckersley discusses his philosophy and the art of gardening. But the book focuses on his garden Musk, his own personal garden, and features the work of numerous artists who were inspired by the landscapes he shaped. Eckersley explains that these artists, in turn, inspired him to produce this book. He says, ‘Reflecting on my life in garden design, it’s clear to me now that my greatest pleasure never was in the making of gardens, but rather in people’s response to them. I’m fascinated by how people become caught up in the experience of being in the garden, how they’re moved in some way, even if it’s hard to interpret or articulate.’
Andrew Laidlaw, landscape architect at RBG Melbourne, writes in the foreword, ‘The book gives us and insight into the design mastery of Rick Eckersley and the deep connection to place of his own rural garden, Musk’. He adds that ‘there is a deep calm at Musk that is all pervasive.’ And ‘whatever it is, it changes you.’ I think the same can be said about the book. This is not a book you quickly flick though, every page takes time, immerses you in one part of the garden. There are some words but it’s really the images and art works interspersed through the pages that make you stop and think about gardens, about life, about environments and our natural world.
Unfortunately Musk has recently been sold and it is not known if the new owners will maintain and continue the garden and Rick’s design. This means that this astounding book may be the only way you will now be able to see Musk. As Eckersley says in his introduction, ‘While you, the reader, might not have had the opportunity to visit Musk, my hope is that this book works to take you there, that you’re able to lose yourself in the garden’s shifting textures, colours and moods, as captured by the photographs and artworks within these pages.’ I was lucky to see Musk a few years ago. It is breathtaking and breath giving, as is this glorious book.
With a lot of new members joining the library, I thought it was time for an introduction to the history of the PMI (or a reintroduction for some of our longer term members) and the history of the PMI is always fun to write about. I hope you enjoy.
Although we didn’t have a building until 1857 this foundation date makes us the second oldest library in Victoria. The oldest is the Athenaeum Library in Collins Street, which was founded in 1839. You can see it in the photo below.
Both the PMI and the Melbourne Athenaeum are mechanics’ institutes, so I thought it was worth pausing the PMI’s story here, to briefly explain what a mechanics’ institute is. Firstly, they have nothing to do with cars, mechanics is essentially a 19th century term for blue collar worker. The concept of the institutes originated with Dr George Birkbeck in c.1800 when he gave a series of lectures to a group of skilled labourers about the science behind the tools they used. Dr Birkbeck offered the lectures at a time after normal working hours so workers could attend. This was a period when there really weren’t many educational opportunities, unless you had money. You can see Dr Birkbeck in the image below
These lectures proved to be so popular, that they became the foundation for mechanics’ institutes, the first opened in Edinburgh in 1821 and the second in London in 1823. They were founded by communities to provide educational opportunities for members through facilities such as lectures, concerts, museums, pianos, recreational activities and, most importantly for the PMI, libraries. The concept spread with colonisation in Victoria and by 1900 there were over 1000 mechanics’ institutes across the state. They are also known as school of arts and athenaeums, among other names. You’ll see mechanics’ halls all over Victoria even now. Today a couple of hundred remain in Victoria that are still running as mechanics’ institutes, mainly using the halls for community connection, but only 8 have active lending libraries, the PMI is one of them.
So, to return to the PMI. On the first of May 1854 we declared ourselves into existence at a public meeting. The original aims of the PMI were the Mental and Moral Improvement and Rational Recreation of its Members, by means of Lectures, Discussions, Library, Reading Rooms, Classes, Museum, Philosophical Apparatus &c. At the time Prahran was a village in a swamp, we predate the Town Council.
You can see Chapel Street in 1864 below, so you can only imagine how remote it would have been ten years earlier.
It is essentially important to acknowledge that the PMI was not founded on unoccupied land, the PMI stands on the lands of the Boon wurrung and Wurundjeri people. Indigenous Australians were here thousands of years before colonization and had been protecting and recording their own histories and knowledge long before the arrival of western colonial institutions such as libraries.
The driver behind the foundation of the PMI, and one of the original trustees, was Rev William Moss, a local congregational minister. He also played a key founding role in the Institute for the Blind, the Victorian College for the Deaf and Prahran Mission. Additionally he was the possessor of a very excellent beard, you can see him in the photo below.
The other original trustees were local educationist George William Rusden, local politician Frederick James Sargood (the father of the Sargood who built Rippon Lea) and Dr James Stokes. You can see Rusden and Sargood below, unfortunately we don’t have a picture of Stokes.
So, it’s 1854, the PMI has declared itself into existence, now we needed a patron. We are lucky enough to hold the original letter which states that Governer and Lady Hotham would be pleased to be patrons of the PMI, you can see it below.
So the PMI had an organisation, and patrons now we needed some land for a building. The physical foundation of a mechanics’ institutes was not a simple process, there was a lot of back and forthing with the Colonial Secretary to obtain land, and discussions about who was going to pay for it. Then James Mason enters the picture. Mason was a local publican and one of the first life members of the PMI. He donated land he owned next to his pub for the first PMI building in Chapel Street, and the committee bought some adjoining land. You can see Mason in the photo below.
But built it got, and by 1857 the PMI were the proud owners of 259-261 Chapel Street (a site which we still own though the current buildings are more modern).
The building was officially opened on the 26th of January 1857. There was in fact, a Grand Concert to celebrate the opening. We are lucky enough to hold one of the invitations to this event. Its survival is somewhat miraculous, it’s printed on silk so is very fragile. We had no idea of its existence until roughly 2014 when we received a call from a New Zealand engineering firm saying they had found it in a drawer and would we like it. We were absolutely delighted to receive it! As I said it’s very fragile, so it was in pieces when it arrived. Then in 2019 we managed to crowdfund to have it repaired and restored and housed in a custom made box, as the one of the most fascinating pieces of the PMI’s history. You can see the invitation both pre and post restoration below and it illustrates the wide variety of entertainment at the Grand Concert.
So the PMI was open with its new building. The first few years were fairly quiet (we’re also missing our original minute book so we don’t have all the detail- it reappeared in a locked cupboard in the 1980s and then vanished again), the title deeds were lost for a couple of months but they eventually turned up in the possession of a Mr Paige. The first real crisis came in 1868.
The Secretary Librarian at the time was a man called William John Allen. He wrote an anonymous letter to the South Melbourne Standard in which he was most impolite about Reverend Potter who was one of the PMI’s committee members. Now the letter was supposed to be anonymous, but unfortunately for Allen, the editor was a friend of Reverend Potter’s and told him who had written the letter. Allen was dismissed from his position as Secretary, but refused to accept that it was a legal dismissal. This is interesting because the position at time was live in and he refused to vacate the accommodation at the library.
So the committee took the roof off.
Allen, tried to sue the person who took the roof off and the whole matter ended up in court, I’ve included a link to the one of the newspaper articles in the references. Eventually, Allen was awarded damages for lost wages of fourteen pounds, but he didn’t get his job or residence back. This was the first of some ongoing damage to the building. The PMI weathered the crisis and things chugged along reasonably well, but by the 1890s things had fallen into disreapir again. The Secretary Librarian was George Cross, you can see his employment contract below
Unfortunately by the 1890s Cross was getting on in years and wasn’t maintaining either the library or the building. We have several letters in the archives detailing members attempts to contact him, so it’s clear joining was becoming difficult. By 1899 the PMI had 10 members and an almost useless collection. Once Cross was dismissed, with some difficulty but without removing the roof, most of the remaining collection was wet and or moldy and had to be destroyed, the building was also knocked down and rebuilt on the site in the early 1900s. What you see today, is this ‘new’ building, which we still own.
But, by the turn of the century the PMI was on the road to recovery, and the key to that recovery was a person and an Act of Parliament. The person was new Secretary Librarian John Henry Furneaux and the Act of Parliament was the 1899 Prahran Mechanics’ Institute Act no.1617.
The PMI was incorporated under its own Act of Parliament, which at the time protected it because any changes to the rules or governance had to be passed through parliament. This Act propped up the PMI, and it also mandated that a Town Council member must be on the committee, which helped to keep the Council invested and involved in the PMI. The PMI is still incorporated under this Act, and while it has served us well through time, it has become a hindrance rather than a help as we try to adapt and keep up with the ever changing world. You can see the current Act in the references. But to return to John Henry Furneaux. He spearheaded rebuilding the library, both the physical building and the collection and the membership base. He was a dapper gentleman, as you can see below.
He was also very successful. Classes had resumed by 1908 and soon the PMI outgrew its Chapel Street premises, as the PMI established the Prahran Technical School. The Chapel Street building was mortgaged to buy land on High Street (it took them 32 years to pay it off) and a new building was built at 140 High Street, which we occupied from 1915 to 2015, when we moved to our current building.
The foundation stone of 140 High Street was laid in 1915 by Sir Andrew Peacock, when the PMI relocated to their new premises. For his trouble Sir Andrew was presented with a silver trowel. The trowel has quite an interesting story. In 1995 there was a discussion about it’s ownership. At that point Deakin was occupying the High Street Campus of what had been Prahran Technical School, they held all the records of the Tech including the trowel, which they wanted to keep, but we saw it as an important part of our history, so in the end we had a replica made for Deakin and kept the original.
The original was placed in the safe at the Prahran Town Hall until a safe display case could be decided on.
Now this is where the trowel’s story gets really interesting. We didn’t attempt to retrieve it until the 150th anniversary celebrations in 2004. Unfortunately over this nearly ten year period there had been a large number of council amalgamations and the trowel had vanished off the face of the earth. So sadly the celebration had to go ahead with just a photo of the trowel.
But it doesn’t stop there; in 2005 Di Foster, the local history officer for Malvern, found a key to a safe that she hadn’t been able to open. The safe had come from the Malvern Town Hall clerk’s office. When Di opened the safe, miraculously inside was trowel. You can see it in all its glory below
But to return to the chronological narrative. We left the PMI with a new building and founding a tech school. With the new building open the Chapel Street buildings were leased out raising much needed money for the PMI, as they still are today. Under Furneaux the PMI revived and went from strength to strength with classes and lectures and the lending library. When Furneaux retired in 1938 he left an institute that was as far as it could be thriving.
Even before the new building was opened though it was clear that the PMI didn’t have the funds to run the technical school as well as their library and the other resources that the PMI provided, so they leased the parts of the buildings set aside for the technical school to the Minister for Education for only 20 shillings a year, with the understanding that the Education Department would run the school and leave the PMI enough space on the ground floor to run the library. This lease expired in 1947 and a new lease for 99 years was drawn up with a peppercorn rent (one shilling a year) again with the proviso that the Department of Education would run the technical school. This lease would go on to cause the PMI problems by the late 90s and early 2000s, but I’ll return to that story in a moment.
Essentially through most of the 20th century nothing really remarkable happened. The PMI enjoyed a bit of a resurgence during World War Two, with a lot of new members helping raise money for the war effort. There were also talks over the years about possibly amalgamating with Prahran Council Library, which ultimately came to nothing. Essentially, the PMI continued to continue. The archives are a trove of the minutiae of running a small library, and the small scale history of what was involved. We continued to lease out the Chapel Street shops to raise money for the library, to a series of tenants. Long term tenants included Portmans and Wittner, with a lot of letters back and forth about balconies, awnings etc, you can see some of Wittner plans for redevelopment in the image below.
As for the technical school? The junior part operated until 1971 on the site and the senior design section of the school operated until 1990 when it amalgamated with the VCA. The archives of Prahran Tech became part of Deakin and ultimately Swinburne came to occupy the High Street campus.
The PMI itself was in decline by the 1980s, the library was competing with other forms of entertainment and other lending libraries, including the Prahran Library which was always just around the corner. Membership was well down and the relevance of the PMI was up for debate. Thankfully, the Committee acted. Under Laurie McCalman, who joined the PMI committee in 1980, assessments of future direction were taken and a decision was reached to specialize in Victorian History especially in local histories of places in Victoria. The new direction began with a small collection of local histories and grew to what would ultimately become the Victorian History Library.
In 1984 Bruce Turner became the Secretary/Librarian and it was under Bruce’s leadership that the Victorian History Library really began to take shape. He sourced books from all over the country, even going to far as to write to the Danish consulate about a book about bikes. Our archives are a treasure trove of Bruce’s letters as he chased down obscure titles and promoted the PMI. You can see Laurie and Bruce in the photos below.
Bruce was Secretary/Librarian until 1996 and the new millennium was ushered in by Secretary/Librarians Catherine Milward-Bason and then Tim McKenna.
By the early 2010s the library was desperate for more space in the High Street building.
Swinburne was now occupying the old Prahran Tech site under the original 1947 peppercorn lease to the Minster for Education. As the PMI needed the space and Swinburne were not occupying it under the original terms of the lease we launched a campaign to get our buildings back. After much wrangling, the Minister for Education agreed to vacate the lease under the proviso that the PMI sold the buildings at High Street to Swinburne. The membership of the PMI was consulted and it was ultimately agreed to sell the buildings. So, under Tim McKenna as Secretary/Librarian and Cr John Chandler as President, in 2012 we undertook our biggest change in nearly 100 years, we bought a new building just around the corner at 39 St Edmonds Rd. You can see what it looked like when we bought it below
It took three years, but we moved into the new premises in 2015, 100 years after we’d moved into 140 High Street.
The new building has given us much needed new space as our specialized Victorian history collection continues to grow and adapt. We also have three Associated Groups in the building: The Victorian Railway History Library, The Cinema and Theatre Historical Society and Mechanics’ Institutes of Victoria. The library houses a 30 000 plus collection of books, ephemera, journals, electronic resources and more. We currently have three staff. If you haven’t had the chance to visit, and you should we love showing new people around, you can see the library below. We kept the original doors.
So, we’ve actually almost caught up caught up to the present. I started work at the PMI as Collections Librarian in 2016. The last five years have had a few ups and downs for the organisation. I did say this was a post about the history of the PMI, and I think you will probably all agree that we are living in historic times (though I’m sure everyone is as sick of hearing that, as they are of the word unprecedented), so I will talk a little about the last few years, and yes a bit about 2020 and COVID.
The end of 2016 saw a new Secretary Librarian, with Tim McKenna retiring and Steven Haby taking over the roll. There was also some shift in the committee with Steve Stefanopoulos becoming President in 2016, and then Dr Judith Buckrich in 2018, and Dr Michelle Negus Cleary in 2020. Some of the highlights of the last few years were our trip to Clunes BookTown in 2018, a wide ranging events program, regular booksales, running outreach to Gippsland, representing the PMI at conferences, the Victorian History Showcase, writing a new collection policy when we had to move the whole upstairs library to replace the carpet, and just trying to ensure that the PMI continued to go from strength to strength as we worked to preserve and promote the history of Victoria. The staff have been ably supported by the PMI Committee, our dedicated volunteers and the Friends of the PMI.
And then we reach 2020. I won’t dwell on last year for long except to say that we survived it, with the help and enthusiasm from members, volunteers and the Committee. The PMI came through COVID as we’d come through the 1919 pandemic, it hasn’t been easy but we made it work. We managed to pivot to working from home, and still provided an important service to our members, you’ll find a lot material from 2020 on this blog, so scroll back and have a look. We ran online events, provided click and collect as soon as we were able to and reopened the library in November. Despite being closed for a large portion of the year, our members stayed in touch and rejoined, which just highlights how much of a community the PMI is. You can see some photos from our 2020 activities below: my working from home set up, my car packed up to take all the too be cataloged material home, Clementine the Highland Cow (my working from home companion and injection of humour in our newsletters) and some of the volunteers back in the library.
And that brings us up to date. The PMI is dedicated to promulgating and protecting the history of Victoria. A task that becomes even more important as local council libraries under pressure from funding cuts and the desire to keep up with the ever shifting technology jettison some of their nonfiction collections. We exist as a largely print library in a very technology heavy world and stand by our principles that not all information is available on the internet. Our collection is about the small scale of history, it is about tracking down those little stories, tracking down the books that might have had fifty copies printed which reside in someone’s garage. The PMI’s collection is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in Victorian and Australian History. Our members include everyone from architects, to archaeologists, from fiction writers to professional historians, from family historians to film and television producers and researchers and in some ways most important of all people who just love reading about history. We have weathered many storms in our 167 year history and with the support of our members, volunteers, Friends, staff and committee we will hopefully still be around in another 167 years. If you ever want to know more about the PMI feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s the last day of Victoria’s snap lockdown. I’ve been back to working from home for two days and due to the snap nature of the absolutely necessary lockdown, this time I wasn’t able to collect any material from the PMI. Thankfully PMI staff have remote access to the onsite computers, so I am able to access the electronic resources. I was exploring them, trying to find something that I could use to write a blog post about, when I was struck by their diversity and complexity. So I thought, rather than use them as a resource for a blog post- why not make them the focus of the blog post? So that’s what I’m going to do.
The PMI is still very much a hard copy library, and the majority of material accessed by our members is the hard copy collection. That being said, we do have an extensive array of electronic material. Currently this is only available for members to access on the computers at the PMI, as it is only available on a physical sever rather than on the cloud. We are hoping to change this in the future, and make the out of copyright material available online to members.
Because it isn’t immediately obvious, many of our members aren’t aware of the electronic material, unless they are searching on the catalogue and electronic material comes up as a result. The exceptions to this are the highest use electronic areas the Sands and McDougall Directories, which we have members coming in specifically to use. Sands and McDougall Directories are post office directories. Essentially what happened was the company went round to every house in Melbourne originally, and then Victoria, and asked who lived there and recorded it. The State Library has digistised some, but not all, if you want to have a look http://digital.slv.vic.gov.au/R/?func=collections&collection_id=3907
They are a fantastic resource for tracing people, or specific addresses. The earliest the PMI has is from 1860 when it was Sands, Kenny and Co.
We run up to 1942 with these directories electronically, though not all years are available, and have most of the rest on microfiche, which see a surprising amount of use, especially the ones from the 1970s. If you’re trying to find a person, it helps if they have an unusual surname. Trying to find a Smith or a Jones is like trying to find a piece of hay in a haystack. It’s also worth remembering that street numbers change if you’re tracking down a particular property- especially Chapel Street. You can usually find the place you are looking for because the directories are organised so they tell you which streets the addresses are between and the street names are less prone to change.
But the Sand and Mac Directories are the tip of the iceberg. Even just looking at the subset of directories you’ll also find street directories, other postal directories, a couple of medical directories, directories for other Australian capitals and directories from some rural towns. This is essential small scale primary source information.
Then if you step beyond directories, the rest of the electronic resources are divided into a number of categories. If you find one on the catalogue, it will be listed as location: library computers and the call number will be the folder you can find the resource in. So I thought I’d give you a bit of a rundown of the folders and what you’re likely to find within.
The folders are:
Audio recording: Mainly recordings of PMI and Prahran Historical and Arts Society (PHAS) talks, and a couple of interviews. Everything from Stonnington City Brass, to the origins of Toorak, to some PMI and PHAS AGMs. In fact if anyone is interested, you can hear the 1986 PMI AGM below- it includes a talk about Prahran Pubs and the creation of the local history side of the PMI’s collection.
Births Deaths Marriages Indexes: These are by no means a complete births, deaths and marriages indexes. For those you should go to the Births Deaths and Marriages office for your state. These are some of the more specific ones though. For example Anglican Marriages in the districts and parishes of Alexandra and Yea 1859-1949 and St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church Beechworth. If it’s that level of specificity you’re looking for though, they can be incredibly helpful. You can see the introduction to St Andrew’s below.
Books: This is the big category. These are book in electronic formats and contains 804 items. Many of these you will also find in the hardcopy collection. There’s a lot of digitised versions of early history books, like the cyclopedias of each state and early pictorial histories. There’s also more recent born digital material, as more people begin to make work only available electronically, such as the Message Tree Project and the Ireland Family of Boronia, both of which were only added in 2020. Remember all this material is discoverable on the catalogue the same as the hard copy books. Electronic books are an area we are expecting to see grow. Unfortunately their existence can be quite hard to keep track of because not everyone who makes something electronically thinks to lodge it with a the State Library or the National Library, which is one of the best ways for us to discover new material. On the flip side, electronic work is sometimes free, or at least cheaper than a hard copy would be. You can see the opening page of the Ireland Family of Boronia below.
Cemeteries: This one is fairly self explanatory- indexes of cemeteries from across Victoria ranging from Alberton to Yea. Some have headstone pictures and indexes of those buried there, others are scans of burial register books or a combination of all. You can see a page from the Barnawartha Burial Register below.
Census: Again, fairly self explanatory and in this case not extensive. We have information on the 1836-7 and 1838 Melbourne censuses and 1838 Port Phillip census.
Compilations: This one is a bit of a grab bag, it’s essentially electronic resources that fit across two or more other categories, or don’t quite fit anywhere neatly. Such as a history of a town and the history of a cemetery in together, or gold mining sites in multiple towns, or the Rotary Club of Bendigo, or Koondrook Tramway photos from 2004. As I said, a bit of a mixture. You can see one of the Adelong Falls Gold Mill Ruins information boards below.
Documents: Electronic material that isn’t books. Mainly historical articles. From houses in Carlton to Russian emigration.
Electoral Rolls: Not an extensive selection: 1899 Federal referendum, 1939 and 1946 Commonwealth electoral rolls for Victoria. We do have Ancestry as well which has access to further electoral rolls.
Enviro Stories: This is an interesting category. A few years ago I got permission from Enviro Stories to download their work and add it to the collection. Enviro-Stories was established by PeeKdesigns environmental education consultants in 2009. The program involves students learning about their local area and passing this knowledge on to others through storytelling. The program has proven to be a simple but effective concept that enables sponsors to engage students from throughout their region.https://www.envirostories.com.au/about/
These are great local histories, with kids telling the stories of their local communities. You can see the opening page of Loving Lakes Entrance below.
Government Gazettes: Government Gazettes from the 19th century. We have a number of these in hard copy as well. They are essentially a record of what the government was doing. They are still created today. For interests sake you can find the modern ones at http://www.gazette.vic.gov.au/gazette_bin/recent_gazettes.cfm
Heritage Studies: Each year we go through the websites of every council in Victoria and determine if there are any new heritage or conservation studies available, then download them and save them to the server. These are invaluable, especially to heritage architects and anyone writing new heritage studies. They are also great primary source information and as they don’t stay on the council websites indefinitely they can be very hard to find. Having them in a central repository, makes them significantly more accessible. We stretch the definition of heritage studies to include heritage reports such as the one from Malmsbury below.
Indexes: Not a complicated one. Indexes to books in the PMI collection, some compiled by volunteers, others scanned from the books to make them more accessible.
Legal Records: This one is a small category that might expand one day. At the moment it just holds the Petty Sessions of North East Victoria.
Newspapers: We only have three: Lang Guardian, Mount Alexander Mail and Ruffy Review. As a rule we don’t collect newspapers because they are covered in such detail by the State Library.
Periodicals: These are the newsletters and journals of pretty much every historical society in Victoria. We collect them and index them so they are key word searchable on the catalogue. At the moment the majority of the periodicals from the 229 organisations are also available in hard copy in the library. We are in the process of reviewing this policy. This is the small scale of local history, locals telling their local stories and one of the keystones of the PMI’s collection.
Pictorial Collections: This is another smaller collection, we have Mortlake, Bindi Station, Chapel Street, Dandenong, Golden Plains Shire Bridges and Whroo. You can see Piggoreet Bridge in the photo below.
Pioneers: Pioneer registers. Burra to Bendigo, Pioneers along the Hume, Queensland founding families, Shoalhaven, Wodonga, Darling Downs, Gosford and Moruya.
Police Gazette: Really useful source of information about anyone who interacted with the police in the 1800s. I’ve written about them on the blog before so I won’t go into detail here. My favourite parts are the incredibly detailed physical descriptions which can be invaluable if you can find an ancestor so described.
Rate Books: These are scans of rate books from Ballarat East, Mount Eliza, Prahran, Wodonga, Yackandandah and Yea. They can be quite hard to read, but if you’re trying to find out more about a specific address, or a specific person, they are incredibly useful. You can see a section of the Prahran rate book from 1856 below.
Schools: Records from a handful of schools and school districts: Belmont High School, GW Brown, Indigo Shire, Monbulk College, Schools of the Surf Coast.
Theses: These are theses from all the Victorian universities. We’ve had a volunteer going through all their repositories and downloading and saving the relevant documents. This is an ongoing project, but covers a wide range of Victorian and Australian history.
Vertical File: The Veritical File is our ephemera collection, from newspaper articles, to theatre programs, to cooking booklets, to pamphlets and brochures. The small scale of history that often gets lost. The majority of the Vertical File is actually in hard copy. We have a volunteer who is working on indexing and filing all the material and at some point in the future we hope to be able to scan more of it and make it accessible electronically as well. You can find out more about the Vertical File here https://institutingthepast.wordpress.com/2019/05/03/collection-spotlight-ephemera/ and see some examples of the hard copy collection in the photo below
So that’s the break down of our electronic resources. As you can see they are varied and complex. So next time you’re in the library, come along and have an explore. We look forward to making some of them available to members through the website at some point in the future.
An updated and expanded edition of this authoritative work on Robert Forrester. He was sentenced for a relatively minor crime, along with many others, to sail halfway across the world as part of the First Fleet to Australia. After arriving on 26 January 1788 to a strange new world within three years Robert was granted some land in the Hawksbury Valley. Historian Louise Wilson has revised her biographical account of Robert Forrester, which was first published in 2009, with new sources to provide a fascinating account of a hard life in a land which seemed alien to someone who largely grew up in and around London. Louise has painted a picture of the day to day life of the ‘first fleeters’ but importantly also expands on interactions with local Aboriginal inhabitants – both positive and not so – and also the shaping of a place with a rich indigenous history by people with completely different ideas and philosophies to the land around them.
This book has an extensive bibliography and list of sources and is expertly indexed. The writing is crisp and entertaining yet informative and you find yourself immersed into that time of considerable change for everyone.
An excellent source for anyone interested in early white settlement of NSW and its impacts on existing indigenous culture and the land itself.
2021 Creative Writing Competition for Children aged 4 – 12
Presented by the PMI Victorian History Libraryin partnership with the Victorian Government.
We understand that celebrating Children’s Week was a little difficult in 2020 and so we are re-opening our free online Creative Writing Competition for Children on the 1st February 2021!
We believe that sharing stories with friends, family and role models can help us to feel safe, and, also help people into the future remember the important and interesting things that happened to us. So, we are asking for children over the summer, or when school returns, to:
Type up a story told to you by a grandparent, parent, carer, aunty, uncle or elder, about their friends when they were your age. What kind of adventures did they get up to? How were things different then? What made their friendships special?
The competition will re-open Monday 1st February 2021.
The competition will close Thursday 1st April 2021 at 4pm.
In light of coronavirus (COVID-19) this competition is online and to take part entries must be emailed to email@example.com
Entry is free but each entry is limited to 1 page.
A $100 prize for 1 winner in each age group is available: 4-6, 7-9, 10-12.
All entries will be published in a book to be held in the PMI’s library collection.
The PMI will announce the winners on Friday 30th April 2021.
If you would like to speak to someone for further information about the PMI and our activities, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call the PMI Victorian History Library
Tue, Wed or Thur 10am – 4pm on 03 9510 3393.
Judges will be author and writing educator Rafael Ward and performing artist and Library officer Riannon Berkeley. Our judges will pick the story that: Best captures an interesting historic experience; Has a good grasp of ideas and language appropriate to the child’s age; Is engaging and tells a narrative story.
We’d love to make this available to as many children across Australia as possible so please share with your networks and any children in your educational, work, social or family circles who might be interested.
Terms and Conditions for Creative Writing Competition
Here at the PMI we are very interested in collecting historical stories – things that people remember happening in the past – we focus on collecting stories about people, places and things in Victoria, Australia and have done so since 1854…That’s 166 years! We want to be able to read your story and know that you wrote it (your adult can help with your spelling and with your typing, but the words should be your own). Then the PMI can publish all of the entries in a book for our library that people can borrow and read.
Competition opens on Monday 1st February 2021 and all entries must be received via email by 4.00pm on Thursday 1st April 2021 at 4pm. Winners will be contacted and delivery of their prizes organised on Friday 30th April 2021.
The work must be written by the child and not be significantly re-written or altered by an adult.
The author’s name should not appear on the story.
The title of the story and the age of the child should be on the top of the story above the heading.
All submissions must be a Microsoft Word Document or Apple Pages Document, no more than one typed page in length, in size 12, Times New Roman font.
All submissions should be emailed to email@example.com with the heading Children’s Writing Competition. In the body of the email should be: The author’s name; the title of the story and a contact phone number.
No postal entries will be accepted.
The judges’ decisions will be final and no correspondence will be entered into. All entries remain the intellectual property of the authors.
By submitting your story, you agree for your work to be published, whole or in part, in: A book to be included in the PMI’s Library Collection with your first name and age. (For the protection of the children involved we will not post such content on the internet.)
Mulberry Hill was remodelled in 1926 by architect Harold Desbrow-Annear for Joan and Daryl Lindsay. It is an absolutely fascinating place to visit, because it has been left exactly as it was when Joan died in 1984, down to the pieces of soap in the bathroom which were specifically numbered. You can see them in the photo below.
Both Daryl and Joan Lindsay were important figures in their own rights. This post is going to be mainly about the house. The PMI does have a number of books about both Daryl and Joan and the wider Lindsay Family, including Joan’s autobiography Time Without Clocks and Daryl Lindsay’s The Leafy Tree My Family you can see Time Without Clocks below (The Leafy Tree was on loan). And you can explore the selection on the catalogue here.
We also have the excellent Beyond the Rock, which looks at Joan Lindsay beyond Picnic At Hanging Rock. It explores the life that she and Daryl lived at Mulberry Hill as well. You can see it below
Speaking of Picnic at Hanging Rock, one of the advantages of being a 166 year old library is that you sometimes end up with first editions of books that go on to become very famous, simply by being in existence when the book was written and buying it then. So we have a lovely first edition of Picnic At Hanging Rock. I especially like the intricate letters that start each chapter.
But this post isn’t about Picnic At Hanging Rock, or Hanging Rock itself. If you want to know more about Hanging Rock and the book you can find out more here.
So to return to Mulberry Hill. The PMI actually doesn’t have a book specifically on the the homestead. We have one conservation policy from 1998, and it gets mentions in several articles in historical society journals, a heritage study and one book on Victorian Heritage. So I want to pause here to talk a little about these sorts of mentions and why they can be useful. It also explains why we index our journals. As we have key word indexed our journals onto the catalogue I was able to discover that three National Trust journals from 2009, 2014 and 2017 each had an article on Mulberry Hill. In retrieving these from their boxes, I made a couple of pleasing serendipitous discoveries too (not just that they were exactly where they were supposed to be). In the 2009 journal, under the Mulberry Hill article, there was a picture of one of our committee members, Chris Michalopoulos with Dame Elizabeth Murdorch. In the 2014 journal there was an ad for the PMI! You can see both below, and I love how these sorts of discoveries can be made in the PMI’s very multifaceted collection. Our website and phone number haven’t changed either.
The articles turned out to be quite useful they were about: Mulberry Hill reopening in 2014, a donation to Mulberry Hill in 2009, and a long article from 2017 about Mulberry Hill on the 50th anniversary of Picnic At Hanging Rock. You can see the opening page of the final article below
From Discover Historic Victoria we have a short biography of the house and why it was so important to the Lindsays. Finally, from the Frankston Heritage Study, we have an examination of why the house has heritage significance.
This is the joy of our collection and catalogue, when you can use it to find all these disparate resources on one subject.
Therefore, while there is quite a lot of information, we do not have it all collated in one place. So one of the purposes of this post is to add to the collection, as I’ll be using my photos and information from my visit to the house in early 2019. I like the idea of being able to extend the PMI’s collection personally, in a slightly round about way, especially during COVID.
So, after what is actually quite a long introduction about how I found the information (always a worthwhile detour I think), I’ll return to Mulberry Hill itself.
I wanted to begin with a little background to Joan and Daryl Lindsay.
Daryl Lindsay came from the prolific Lindsay Family of Creswick in Western Victoria. Of the ten children, five went on to be leaders in Australia’s artistic world, including Norman Lindsay of Magic Pudding fame. You can find out more about the Lindsays here
Daryl Lindsay, or Sir Daryl as he became, was the ninth child, and a noted artist. He was also appointed director of the National Gallery of Victoria in 1941 and oversaw much of its collection growth. Mulberry Hill houses a number of his paintings. You can see one of his flower paintings and the vase that was painted in the photo below.
Joan Lindsay was born Joan a’ Beckett and married Daryl Lindsay in London on St Valentine’s Day 1922 which she described as “the only date I have ever remembered except 1066 and Waterloo”. She was a painter in her own right, but definitely became best known for Picnic At Hanging Rock which she wrote at Mulberry Hill in only 4 weeks. You can see the typewriter she wrote Picnic At Hanging Rock on below.
Mulberry Hill is a monument to the life Daryl and Joan built together. The house you see now is Joan and Daryl’s dream, but it was not the first house on the site. They found what would become Mulberry Hill when they were visiting friends in the area in the early 1920s. Joan described it as “The house of our dreams suddenly materialised under our eyes- or rather its roof and one chimney- it happened so quickly we hardly knew it had happened at all, at the exact moment in time and space when the corrugated iron roof of a four roomed weatherboard cottage at Baxter Victoria, Australia, caught and held for a moment the last pale light of the winter afternoon. In that moment the lines of our destiny were laid out as surely as steel tracks of the railway.”
They bought the house from the old couple who owned it only a few weeks later, naming it and the surrounding land Mulberry Hill after the sprawling mulberry tree in the yard. The original cottage dates to the 1880s but it was extensively remodelled by Annear, in the popular American colonial style. This work included additions purchased from Wheelan the Wrecker such as the slates, the upstairs balcony balustrade, the staircase and a few of the doors and windows. Daryl and Joan moved in, in 1926 and Mulberry Hill became the haunt of artists of all types. The Frankston heritage study has the National Trust describing Mulberry Hill as:
“A house of no architectural distinction but epitomising a phase of Australian culture due to having been frequented by many figures of the local and international art world and still containing a range of Australian paintings selected by or presented to Sir Daryl and Lady Lindsay”
While the house might not be as majestic as say Ripon Lea or Como, it does have its own charm. You can see some of the rooms in the photos below. As you’ll see they are not on a grand scale, but they do feel truly lived in.
The core of Mulberry Hill, is the artists who lived and worked there. Joan’s writing room in particular is quite striking as it is bare of anything that could be a distraction. She would write on a lambswool mat on the floor surrounded by a sea of paper, which she’d pin together and later type up on her typewriter. You can see the room in the photos below
Daryl Lindsay’s light filled studio with its paint palates and incredibly comfortable looking daybed is also a testament to his work as an artist, much of which also adorns the walls at Mulberry Hill. You can see the studio below.
The other defining feature of Mulberry Hill, is that when I say that it was left exactly as it was when Joan Lindsay died in 1984, I mean it. Her shoes are still beside the bed, Daryl’s jacket still hangs in one wardrobe (he died in 1976) and Joan’s clothes in the other, their beds are still made up, the nicknacks are on the shelves in the kitchen and as I mentioned earlier, the soap is catalogued.
Mulberry Hill, is not the best known of the National Trust’s properties. In fact is was actually closed for some time, reopening to the public again in 2014. It is still in somewhat of a fragile state- you can’t wear shoes inside hence any of the bare feet you might see in my photos- but if it weren’t for COVID it would be open now. It is a house and grounds with an odd atmosphere, but one that was very clearly a beloved home as well as the residence of two acclaimed artists. Interestingly enough, for a post that was intended to be mainly about the house itself, I have in fact written a post mainly about the influence of Joan and Daryl on the house and the imprint that they have left there, and I think, ultimately, that is as it should be.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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