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.

Screen Shot 2020-09-03 at 3.53.26 pm

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

Collecting Under Covid 2

Collecting Under Covid 2

It is the end of my working week again, so I thought it might be a good time for another short update. I picked up more material from the PMI yesterday, but I’ll be writing about that next week because I wanted to talk about what I’ve been working on today.

Today has been about finding material to add to the collection, and growing the PMI’s electronic resources.

A big part of my job is being on top of material becoming available that fits with our collection policy, this often includes going through a publisher’s entire listing to see what is relevant. As I’ve explained before, at the moment the book budget is frozen but these checks still need to be made, so new material can be purchased as soon as it is possible again.

So, today I was going through Magabala Books and the publications of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS)

This means checking their backlistings and new books and other publications (in the case of AIATSIS) and seeing what we have, what we don’t and what fits with the collection policy. For anyone interested you can see the PMI’s collection policy here

Both of the organisations I was going through are Indigenous publishers, so I wanted to talk a little about our policy. The PMI collects:

All works on Indigenous Australians. Indigenous groups do not adhere to state/territory boundaries and interstate policy has had a profound effect on Victorian policy. The same principles outlined for Local Histories also apply.

The idea is to create as complete a picture as possible of Indigenous history, and (largely due to the scarcity of material) this often means reaching beyond Victoria’s boundaries, and collecting material such as children’s books when there is no other resource for the information. This is especially true of books written in Language, because if a children’s book is the only written form of Language available, then it is a vitally important part of the collection, they are also a great source of Indigenous stories.

I was also lucky enough to take part in an online book discussion about Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu today. It tied in beautifully with the material I’ve been looking through today and was really interesting (it also included a virtual tour of Melbourne Museum’s Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre by a curator). Additionally, it was an excellent networking opportunity to explain the PMI’s Indigenous collections to other professionals.

But to return to the collecting. Between AIATSIS and Magabala, I managed to find just over sixty books we didn’t have that fit with the collection policy. Some fit more closely than others, as in they are specifically Victorian, so they will receive first priority when purchasing begins again. These books have been added to my growing list of to be purchased items, and they’ll be an excellent resource at the PMI in the not too distant future.

There were some, however, that I was able to acquire immediately. AIATSIS has some electronic resources that you can download for free. I added their two, to two other electronic resources that I’d sourced yesterday when going through the National Library’s Recent Additions. So I had four electronic resources to catalogue. Under normal circumstances, as in if I was in the library, I’d upload them to our server, but for now I have just saved them to Dropbox and I’ll pick the files up in the library next time I’m there.

The PMI has a wide range of electronic resources, ranging from books, to audio, indexes, gazettes, databases, heritage studies and directories. These are all available on the PMI’s computers. We are looking at the possibility of making some available to members online, but it will depend on our new website when it is up and running. Today’s four come under books, using a broad definition of the term.

We have Latrobe Valley Social History: Celebrating and recognising Latrobe Valley’s history and heritage


FOLA anniversary celebrating 25 years 1994-2019 / text: Daniel Ferguson

25th Anniversary Booklet_FOLA_32pp_web

And the two from AIATSIS

The Gunditjmara land justice story / Jessica K Weir


Indigenous partnerships in protected area management in Australia [electronic resource] : three case studies / Toni Bauman and Dermot Smyth.



The four are quite different, but between them they represent both the work I’ve been doing today in finding new Indigenous books for the collection, and the diversity of the PMI’s electronic collection. It’s been an interesting day, finding all these new potential and actual resources, and I’ll be back next week with some of the material I filled the box with yesterday.

Hope you found it interesting

Collection Spotlight:Local Histories: Tootgarook

Collection Spotlight:Local Histories: Tootgarook

Part 1 Early Days.

Image 2 Elevated view of unidentified coastline and ocean art original


Tootgarook is just one of the many beautiful peninsula towns within the Shire of Flinders and today can be found between Rosebud and Rye, although historically the boundaries of these three suburbs are not as defined. Once the home of the Bunurong peoples, the peninsula was visited as early as the 1790s by white explorers, fishermen and bark gatherers. It was the site of the brief Collins Settlement, the first European Settlement in Victoria 1803-1804. Although now the ideas of leisure and the Mornington Peninsula are often inseparable there was little to be had for the early pioneers. At the kilns, on the farms, in the scrub and forest, the daily round was hard, repetitious, often lonely and rarely profitable. The houses of the period reflected their occupants’ way of life. Built of what was handy: wooden slabs, limestone, wattle and daub, and clay, quarried on the site or nearby and locally shaped into bricks and baked. As the years went by when useful material could be salvaged from wrecked or disabled ships it was also used.

Squatters and Pastoralists

From 1837-1841 grazing licences were taken up in the Port Phillip area. Squatting licences of 10 pounds per year were issued for any run. Under this system almost the whole of the Port Phillip District was acquired by squatters. In 1847 the Council gazetted and introduced in 1848 regulations that allowed squatters to purchase pre-emptive rights to their household blocks. Holders of pastoral runs were able to purchase up to 6400 acres of their runs before any land in the locality was made available to the general public. This privilege was given in recognition of their pioneering efforts. Pre-emptive right plans, which had to be lodged with the authorities, survive as important historical documents and show the boundaries of PR Allotments. As well, they often show the locations of buildings, fences, tracks, and descriptions of vegetation and soils in the vicinity. The area of Tootgarook was gazetted December 11th 1850 as an area of 6400 acres.

One of the first peninsula settlers was Edward William Hobson, in 1837 he held land as far as Point Nepean as a ‘squatter under licence’ and applied for a lease of the ‘waste land’ with a rated carrying capacity of 700 cattle and 5000 sheep. A condition of the application was that the applicant must have occupied the land for 12 months. As Hobson was, and had been engaged in Gippsland since 1843-44, someone must have sustained the rights as the original occupant. Hobson had also bought Woolwoolooboolook from George Smith and it is possible that they were partners in Tootgarook too.

Land owners and Leisure

Edward William Hobson’s application was granted, but he wrote to the Superintendent La Trobe ‘begging’ to transfer the licence to James Purves which was signed on July 16th 1850. James Purves, an architect, was the first in a long line of Melbourne businessmen to acquire property on the Mornington Peninsula. The transfer was not affected without friction however, as Hobson wanted payments for improvements to the holding. A visual survey in Purves’s name in 1851 accorded him a frontage of three miles east along the Bay from White Cliffs, to a point somewhere between Tootgarook and West Rosebud and three miles inland. Leisure, as we understand it, came into life of the Peninsula with men such as Dr Godfrey Howitt, J.B. Were, J and J.L Purves, Charles Gasvan Duffy and W.E Hearn. These men were among several remarkably gifted individuals for whom the Peninsula became a retreat from their Melbourne city lives. Purves described parts of his land as beautifully wooded and parklike, studded with banksia. Purves and others used some 15 acres of it as a racecourse and picnic ground. The remaining land fattened cattle and Horses were raced along the beach at low tide. Some records show that on June 23rd in 1869 Mr Purves forfeited in settled district to the Council; others suggest the estate remained with the Purves family until it was auctioned in 1890.


In the early days individual mail deliveries simply did not exist. Mail was collected from the post office by everyone. Initially the mail came from Melbourne to Mornington by a four horse coach, from there to Dromana by a two horse coach, and from there on, by a mailman on horseback. One carried mail to Portsea and back, another to Flinders and back. The inward mail arrived at Dromana at 3pm and the outbound mail arrived at Dromana at 8-9pm. Wally Gibson had the local mail contract for many years and it was a tradition that the mail must go through in all weathers or in the face of any other disaster.

It is recorded that in the year 1858, 180 pounds were paid per annum to Francis Cavell to carry mail from Snapper Point (Mornington) to Tootgarook. Official records show that the first Post Office was opened 18th January 1858 as the ‘Tootgarook Post Office number 165.’ There is a possibility (but it is unverified) that the Post Office operated for a time from the school or teacher’s residence known as the Tootgarook common school with the Teacher Thomas W. Courtney. The name was changed to Rye 1st September 1879.

Early Tootgarook Schools

On the 4th December 1855 The Church of England opened the first Tootgarook school with William B. Wilson as Head Teacher. In 1856 the Denominational Schools Board granted 200 pounds for a school building. The earliest recorded correspondence with the Board of Education is dated 16th July 1867, advising: The ‘Tootgarook common school No. 623’ “Needed aid with the master’s salary, and that the committee wanted it to become a vested school.” The building was 30ftx16ft with stone walls, a wattle and daub kitchen with an “utterly bad” paling roof.

By August 1873 John Cain, Correspondent of the Board of Advice of the Kangerong Road District, requested ‘a SAFE State School,’ to replace ‘a DANGEROUS Church School.’ In November Head Teacher George Ellis enquired about his future position at this still non-vested school. 12th May 1874 one wall fell and a second was dangerously cracked. After only two days the school resumed in John Campbell’s building which consisted of one large room 30ftx18ft, and two small rooms, all rented for 10 shillings weekly. On the 11th of August Departmental Architect and surveyor, Captain F.R Grantham of ‘Mitford’ Flinders, pronounced the building suitable, ‘though lacking a fireplace.’

In May 1875, John Cain recommended walls of local limestone, which was abundant, would improve with age, required very little maintenance and would be cool in summer for the proposed new school. Lime burning was about to be resumed and a great increase in population was anticipated. Thomas Doyle, who succeeded W. O’Connor, as Head Teacher, blamed the leaking thatched roof and lack of a fireplace for his and the children’s frequent illnesses. Thomas Doyle must have requested leave of fourteen days, because correspondence indicated it would not be granted, until he ‘visited the nearest Medical Officer on some Saturday’. This would have been quite a journey of 22 miles to Snapper Point. Between the 31st October – 20th November 1875 the little old school No. 623 closed and the new building, SS1667 Rye, opened  under Head Teacher Thomas Doyle.

The later development of Tootgarook will be continued in part 2.

Image from State Library of Victoria Collection:


Books used for this article:

History and Heritage: Shire of Flinders Heritage Study. Context Pty Ltd. Dr Carlotta Kellaway and Helen Lardner. 1992.

994.52 FLIN CON

Victorian Squatters. Robert Spreadborough and Hugh Anderson. Red Rooster Press 1983.

333.3 SQU

Lime Land and Leisure: Peninsular History in the Shire of Flinders. Charles N. Hollinshed. Shire of Flinders Municipal Offices 1982.

994.52 FLIN HOL

Vision and Realisation: A Centenary History of State Education in Victoria, Volume 3. Education Department of Victoria 1973.

370 VIS

Rye: A Book of Memories Compiled and edited Nell Arnold. Rye Tootgarook Area Committee.

994.52 RYE ARN

Other interesting books on the area:

He Volunteered For Service: The men of Rye and District who enlisted during WW1. Linda Berndt, Danielle Burns and Pauline Powell OAM. Rye Hisotrical Society. 1968.

994.52 RYE MIL

Amongst the old folks: Rye cemetery. Phil Cain and Mick Woiwod. Rye Hisotrical Society. 2007

994.52 RYE CEM

Arthur Dark: My memories of Rye

994.52 RYE DAR

Rye: A short history compiled by N. Arnold on behalf of the Neapean Historyical Societ 1981.

994.52 RYE ARN 

Rye: A book of memories originially compiled by Nell Arnold 1985. Rye Historyical Societ 2nd Edition 2018

994.52 RYE ARN

Rye Primary School NO.1667: A history of the limeburners’ School, village and pioneering families celebrating 125 years 1875-2000.Patricia Appleford.

994.52 RYE EDU

Collection Spotlight: Books on Music

Collection Spotlight: Books on Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collection Spotlight: DVDs

Collection Spotlight: DVDs


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collection Spotlight: Theatre history at the PMI

Collection Spotlight: Theatre history at the PMI

By Riannon

theatre history

Theatre has been an important part of the Melbourne cultural landscape since its inception. Community theatres have become meeting places for artists and audiences to converge, study, challenge and share creativity and ideas and often experiment with the Avant Guard. Professional theatres have generally provided more ‘mainstream entertainment’ and an important part of the artistic economy and creative support structures for Melbourne. The first ‘official’ theatre in Melbourne was Queen’s on the west side of Queen Street between Bourke and Little Bourke Streets and opened in 1843. This was after much conjecture when the other ‘penal’ colonies had already began theatrical presentations. Queen’s was well built, but small, it’s packed house only earned 91 pounds/11/-. Royal, the Alexandra (in 1928 referred to as His Majesty’s and currently Her Majesty’s) was built in 1886.

Did you know that the PMI has the original Opening Souvenir of the Melbourne Comedy Theatre from 1928? A beautiful book with original ribbon intact detailing the opening night of “Australia’s Latest and Most Artistic Playhouse – The Comedy”. In fact, not just this building, but this historic site, holds much interest for theatre goers. The opening of The Comedy was a part of the longstanding plans of J.C. Williamson Ltd (The Firm) to provide “an intimate” theatre for Comedy. Prior to 1855 this was the site of the Hippodrome where “circuses and horse-and-tank drama’s flourished”. The stage was a solid dirt embankment and had a tank for “water sensations”. The stage had a roof, but the stalls and pit “were open to the skies” so when it rained and audience took shelter in the covered gallery the performers would shout out across to them. The Kelly Gang was played “and when in doubt as to his lines, Ned Kelly on his steed would fire a few rounds of revolver shots and yell, “To the bush, boys, to the bush!” and gallop off. Nobody seemed to mind.”

George Coppin and his wife often starred in the earlier mentioned Queen’s and are integral to the history at the site of the Comedy Theatre. Coppin built 6 theatres in Australia. He make his fortune in 2 years when he took a weatherboard theatre in Geelong with a capacity of 500 and extended to catch all the passing gold diggers from Ballarat flocking through Geelong and to Melbourne. At 35 he returned to England. He knew how difficult it would be to get a theatre in Melbourne, so had an iron theatre constructed and prepared into sections in England. Coppin brought this portable theatre to Melbourne and had it erected on the corner of Lonsdale and Stephen (now Exhibition) streets. In 1855 The Olympic, 88ft. by 40ft, fondly known as The Iron Pot, was opened by George Coppin who “has it on record that he saw diggers in the ‘roaring days’ wrap nuggets of gold in banknotes and throw them onstage. ”

Jump through the years of vaudeville and travelling tents and we land in the 1960’s where I’m going to highlight some amazing resources from our collection that celebrate one of our most integral and persistent theatres in Melbourne: La Mama.

From the earliest days, Lygon street had its fair share of artists, but in the late 1960’s the artists started to define Carlton. The establishment of La Mama theatre by Betty Burstall was the most significant factor in Carlton becoming, at this time, the home of alternative theatre in Australia. Bustall had just returned from New York where coffee houses put on theatrical performances that punters could watch for the price of a coffee. She wanted to create “cheap, accessible theatre that was immediate, exciting and challenging” reflecting Australian voices and experiences.  She thought Carlton, with its flair and nearby students, was the place to try.

Behind the Del Monaco tailor shop on the corner of Lygon and Drummond Streets there was a small, two storey building that had been around since 1883. It had been used as a printers’ workshop, a boot and shoe factory, an electrical engineering workshop and a silk underwear factory.  Burstall opened La Mama as a coffee house staging poetry and play readings with the first play staged being Jack Hibberd’s Three Old Friends. La Mama continues to thrive under the direction of Liz Jones, despite the building being reduced by flames last year, with patrons and government funding pledged to a rebuild; it is acknowledged as one of the most important small theatres in Australia. “La Mama is virtually unique in Australia as a place that nurtures new theatrical talent at a grassroots level and it continues to provide a vital stepping stone for emerging artists…to get a first show.” With a second theatre, The Carlton Courthouse Theatre in Drummond Street, La Mama’s influence continues. La Mama spawned many offshoots and breakaway groups, two of the most well known being the Australian Performing Group operating out of the Pram Factory in Drummond Street and the Melbourne Filmmakers Co-Operative based in the Holdsworth Building. Our very own Judith Buckrich created two shows at La Mama in the 1980s, Uncultured Pearls and Reflections in Water and Glass and it seems that the building and the ethos of the place have remained much the same since I also worked there too in 2014 with A Pocketful of Joy (except that the  family of stray cats who used to live at the top of the La Mama stairs had moved out).

Whether it be stray cats that frequent stairs, Gold Prospectors throwing nuggets onto the stage or the actual pistols and water tanks of the Hippodrome; one can never say that the stories held in the PMI’s collection are not also performative or theatrical. Perhaps this will spark your interest to investigate and enjoy the theatrical and performative corners of our collection which house many interesting Australian Drama, Theatre and performance resources.

Used in this article:

La Mama / Adam Cass and the La Mama community.

Lygon Street : stories and recipes from Melbourne’s melting pot / Michael Harden.

Comedy Theatre: opening souvenir Saturday April 28th, 1928 / compiled by Phil Finkelstein

Theatre buildings in Australia to 1905: from the time of the first settlement to arrival of cinema : volume 1: text and illustrations / Ross Thorne.

Curtain call / as told by Nancye Bridges to Frank Crook.


Just some of the many resources that might interest you:

The dictionary of performing arts in Australia. Vol. 1, Theatre, film, radio, television / Ann Atkinson, Linsay Knight and Margaret McPhee.

La Mama, the story of a theatre / Liz Jones with Betty Burstall and Helen Garner.

The Pram Factory : the Australian Performing Group recollected / Tim Robertson.

Community theatre in Australia / edited by Richard Fotheringham.

Summer of the seventeenth doll / Ray Lawler.

The Drover’s Wife / Leah Purcell

Minefields and Miniskirts: Australian women and the Vietnam War / Siobhan McHugh

Theatre Heritage Australia: Onstage 2009-2012

CATHS’s databases are available on our public computers for members to search and they work out of the building and are always up for a chat. The Cinema and Theatre Historical Society are a wealth of knowledge to tap into.

Collection Spotlight: Ephemera

Collection Spotlight: Ephemera


The PMI ephemera collection began its life as a vertical file collection (we’re in fact still in the process of changing the name on the Library Management System). A vertical file is clippings of articles (mainly from newspapers) and the PMI’s is about Victoria and especially towns in Victoria. Over the years it has also accumulated brochures and other programs and pamphlets. Then in 2017 the decision was reached to transition it away from a newspaper clipping focus to a pure ephemera collection. This has resulted in an immensely varied collection of everything from programs, to brochures, to maps, to cookbooks. It also makes any travel PMI staff do interesting, because we collect all the surrounding ephemera. It is not unusual for us to walk out of a tourist information centre with half the contents (you can see an example below), or have people photocopying information that you aren’t allowed to take with you.


We have also been actively seeking ephemera, we’ve been writing to councils and historical societies to have them send us their brochures. It is both an organised and serendipitous collection. All new material is sorted into folders for indexing. It is currently indexed by Sonya, one of our dedicated volunteers. All material in the ephemera collection is key word searchable on the PMI catalogue.

The material is called ephemera because it is ephemeral- that is lasting for a short time- and this is what makes it invaluable. It is often the sort of information that doesn’t make it into history books, it can be very local and small scale. Additionally, it is also fascinating social history, especially with some of the more social items such as little cookbooks, household guides and theatre programs. The advertising, clothing and what is considered important can give an unexpected insight into an era or a place.

The ephemera collection contains nearly 11 000 individual items covering over 1000 places and subjects. You can find folders for Victorian towns and suburbs from Abbotsford to Zumsteins and a wide range of subjects from Alcohol to Writers. While there are many old brochures and pamphlets etc in the ephemera collection, the modern material will become increasingly valuable and useful over time as it isn’t preserved anywhere else and becomes unique. Even though the modern material may not seem remarkable, the ephemera collection brings together a geographically disparate collection that isn’t accessible anywhere else.

Ephemera resources make a fascinating adjunct to all research. You can see some examples at the start of this post and you can explore the indexed material using or delve into an area or subject you might be interested in by searching the subject with the words vertical file.

There are all sorts of gems in the ephemera collection, just waiting to be discovered.

Collection Spotlight: Databases: The Police Gazettes

Collection Spotlight: Databases: The Police Gazettes

police gazette

This Collection Spotlight we thought we’d shine the light on our electronic resources. The PMI has a really strong collection of electronic resources, from books, to audio recordings, indexes, electoral roles, databases, periodicals, rate books, heritage studies and more. Today though we are going to focus on one of the databases: The Police Gazettes.

The Police Gazettes at the PMI runs from 1855 to 1930 and existed to provide information and instructions to members of the police force.

They can be extremely useful for almost all types of research and isn’t just a record of criminals. It records people who came into contact with the police in a wide variety of ways.

For example towards the end of last year we had a member who was trying to track down a great grandmother and we found the grandmother listed in the Police Gazettes. Now the grandmother wasn’t a criminal, but her husband had deserted her and run off to WA, so she was listed as his wife because as a deserter and the police were circulating a description of him to track him down.

Our Gazettes are electronic and can be key word searched. You can also access them through the library edition of Ancestry, though the PMI records are more complete.

The gazettes are a great, slightly left of field, way of thinking about research and they can also just be interesting. They are the small scale of history, not the grand scale – though some of the scandals that make their way into them can be quite grand. For the most part though, they depict normal people and the many ways (both good and bad they came into contact with the law).

They have some excellent descriptions of people too, they can be extremely evocative.

Private James Crane deserted from H.M Service in the 99th Regiment on the 28th of December 1854. He is described as 5 feet 9 inches high, sallow complexion, dark brown hair, grey eyes, native of Saint Paul’s, Dublin, a laborer, marked with letter D on left side, dressed in regimental clothing.

George Shelley charged with in 1874 with forging and uttering a cheque. He is described as English, 38 years of age, 5 feet 9 inches high, medium build, fresh complexion, brown hair, sandy beard, whiskers, and moustache turning grey, blue eyes, left eye slightly turned upwards, long face, large red nose, general appearance that of a drunkard, a joiner, and travelling painter; dressed in old dark coat, light tweed trousers, and old dirty-looking billycock hat.

Caroline Dark was charged on the 11th of January 1884 with disobeying a summons. She is described as a Victorian, prostitute, 5 feet 6 or 7 inches high, sallow complexion, dark hair, stout build, full face, dissipated look, fond of drink ; wore old dirty dark clothes, and black straw hat.

 Mary Kelly was charged on the 11th of July 1894 with stealing five pounds from the house of Nellie Dyer in 64 Napier St Fitzroy. She is described as Servant, about 23 or 24 years of age, 5 feet high, medium build, dark complexion and hair with fringe; wore a black dress body trimmed with braid, brown felt hat trimmed with brown velvet and a wing, and a black veil.

On the 13th of February 1904 pattern-maker Edward Robinson was asulted and robbed by three Men in Princess St Port Melbourne. He described them as let. 28 years of age, 5 feet 8 inches high, red hair, red moustache, slight build ; wore dark grey paget suit and black alpine hat. 2nd. 19 to 21 years of age, 5 feet 6 or 7 inches high, slight build, slight stoop, long pale face , clean shaved ; wore dirty clothes, dark alpine bat. 3rd. 20 to 21 years of age, 5 feet 7 inches high, a light build, moss-coloured hair, no hair on face : wore darkish clothes.

In 1914 Jane Juckett was being enquired for by her mother. She was described as 18 years of age, 5 feet 4 inches high, stout nuggety build, florid complexion, full face, dark-auburn hair, one tooth missing, from front upper set; wore a dark three-quarter costume, black hat, and black shoes.

In 1924 Georgina Hyem, milliner, reported a brown leather bag containing money and private papers stolen from her shop. The two thieves are described as lst. About 5 ft. 10 in.; dressed in a dark velvet dress, short fur coat, black suede shoes and black hat with a peak on each side. 2nd. About 5 ft. 7 in.; dressed in a dark one-piece dress, black shoes, and black hat with sprays at the rear.

So, as you can see they really bring the people to life. This is of course only a small sample of what can be found in the gazettes. They’re another PMI resource that you can explore next time you are in the library.

Collection Spotlight: Periodicals: The Spirit of Progress

Collection Spotlight: Periodicals: The Spirit of Progress


spirit of progress photo


As part of a new initiative to more closely highlight the incredibly diverse collection the PMI holds, we are going to be discussing an individual collection item each month.

We are kicking off with the always very visually appealing Art Deco and Modernism Society journal Spirit of Progress. It’s an excellent example of the many national periodicals which feature in the PMI’s collection.

The journal covers all things relating to Art Deco and Modernism: updates on planning for Art Deco and Modernist buildings all around Australia, the history of said buildings, the Art Deco and Modernism movements more generally and much more. It is truly amazing the immense influence that the movement had.

It can also show you exactly what Art Deco and Modernism is and what falls under its umbrella. You might be very surprised to discover how much Art Deco and Modernism surrounds you in your city or town.

Spirit of Progress is a must for anyone interested in design, art or architecture. It can also be useful for other less immediately related areas of research. For example, you might want to add accurate historical colour to your historical fiction or discover the history behind a building your ancestors might have lived in.

As well as being informative, Spirit of Progress is always lovely to look at and really interesting.

For example, did you know that:

In 1934 there was a dance held at the Palais de Dance (on the site of what is now the Palais Theatre) to celebrate the end of the Centenary Air Race from London to Melbourne. The dance hall was decorated as an airport with hangars, a revolving aeroplane suspended from the ceiling and searchlights lighting model aeroplanes.

In the 1920s it wasn’t the ‘done thing’ to have too much of your dress shirt exposed under a suit, so three-piece suits with a jacket, trousers and waistcoat were a must. Trousers were held up with a belt or suspenders and were high waisted and short – often exposing a man’s socks.

Bricks, in a variety of patterns and colours, are a feature of a number of Art Deco designs and can be seen across Melbourne. This was helped by the brick yards in South Yarra and Richmond, and later Hawthorn and Camberwell, making use of Melbourne’s extensive clay pits. The most common brick in Australia was the ‘ordinary red’ and came in a variety of colours such as sun-dried and unburned.

The Wesley College Chapel on Punt Road was opened on the 3rd of March 1936 and designed by Harry Norris, who also designed the Nicholas Building in Swanston Street. The money for the chapel was given to the school by the Nicholas family who built their fortune by producing Aspro, which was a version of Aspirin they developed after the German made Aspirin was banned in Australia during WWI.

Spirit of Progress only represents a fraction of our journal collection and a fraction of the works that we hold on art, design and architecture. So, come into the library and explore, you’re sure to find something fascinating.

You can find all of Spirit of Progress from 2000 to the present in the library and indexed on our catalogue.