Author Archives: Dr Melanie Piddocke

Winton – another step along the road

The hardworking volunteers of the Winton and District Historical Society will take another positive step forward on their road to recovery when they open parts of their museum to the public again tomorrow, September 1st.  While the main building at the Waltzing Matilda Centre was destroyed by the fire in June, other parts of the complex remained untouched.  These buildings hold a wealth of varied collections, including fossils and natural history, machinery, and social history.  So if you’re in the area, why not pay a visit to this fascinating collection and continue to support the museum in their recovery.  Congratulations Winton and District Historical Society on this major achievement!


The legacy of war

When I was approached by the Springsure Hospital Museum to create a WWI display, I thought it would be an interesting opportunity to research the medical advances made during the war necessitated by the unprecedented injuries inflicted by this new industrial warfare.  The idea for the exhibition was inspired by a memorial plaque from a ward built in 1925, paying tribute to the men of Springsure who had served in the Great War.  The impacts of death and wounding from WWI were amplified in these remote Queensland towns which relied on the labour of strong young men to operate and survive.  In investigating Springsure soldiers whose experiences would assist in the telling of the medical history of WWI, my attention was seized by four remarkable brothers and the research took on a momentum of its own.

John Denis Fryer. Original image held by Fryer Library

John Denis Fryer. Original image held by Fryer Library

Many who have spent time in and around libraries in Brisbane will doubtless be familiar with the Fryer Library at the University of Queensland.  But how many are familiar with the story behind the thoughtful looking young man in a Lieutenant’s uniform whose photographic portrait hangs behind the reception desk? Perhaps few are aware of the story of his tragically short life, and the price he and his three brothers paid for their service in France.

The Fryer brothers were initially of interest to the exhibition as their parents, Charles and Rosina Fryer, were for a time Wardsman and Matron at the Springsure Hospital, and Jack, after whom the Fryer Library is named, was born there in 1895.  Although the youngest of the brothers of eligible age, Jack was the first of the four to successfully enlist, but was closely followed by William, the eldest, then Charles and Henry.

William was the first to suffer the serious physical consequences of war, and was severely wounded at Mouquet Farm in September of 1916.  Although according to his brother Charlie’s letter home he was “alright, happy and laughing”, William’s injuries were severe enough for him to be returned to Australia, unfit for active service and his capacity to earn his living at his former occupation as a labourer was estimated to have been reduced by half.

Charles Fryer before the war

Charles Fryer before the war

In the same action which saw William’s active military career ended, his brother Charles was buried alive three times by exploding shells, only narrowly escaping with his life.  Charlie suffered through the appalling Somme winter of 1916/17, struggling through the worst conditions experienced in 60 years, and like thousands of others, suffered exhaustion, constant stress, and trench foot.  Charlie’s letters home cannot disguise his homesickness, as he longs for the “old bush life in the bush of Queensland, where you can get wood for a fire and a free old life”.  Witnessing his friends killed around him weighed heavily on him.  Charlie stoically endured the horrors of the Somme until he too was killed in action near Bullecourt on April 5th, 1917.

Henry had joined his brothers in France somewhat later, but was precipitated into the grim trench warfare of the Western Front and sustained a fractured elbow from a gunshot wound at Messines in 1917.  Also declared unfit for active service as a result of his wounds, he was returned to Australia.

As the only brother remaining on active service, Jack wrote to his sister in June of 1917 “S’pose it’s my turn for a clout now”.  As a Lieutenant, Jack’s chances of wounding or death were high, with the average life expectancy of Lieutenants on the Western Front estimated during some stages of the war at as little as three months.  Despite the grim odds, Jack endured for over another year, finally receiving severe gunshot and shrapnel wounds during an attack on his trench at 4am in August of 1918.  Unfit for further active service, he remained recuperating in England until after the end of the war, at which time he returned to Australia.

On returning to Australia, Jack re-entered the University of Queensland to continue his studies which had been interrupted by the war, but failing health in 1922 led to him missing his final exams to receive treatment for tuberculosis at a soldier’s convalescent home in Brisbane.  It is likely that he contracted the disease in the squalid conditions of the trenches, and there seems to be an understanding within the family that his lungs had already been weakened by a poison gas attack in 1917.  Alarmed at his sudden decline, his mother traveled to Brisbane to collect him and bring him home to Springsure where she could nurse him.  All efforts were in vain however, and Jack died in February of 1923 at the age of 27.

William Fryer as a child

William Fryer as a child

The stories of Jack Fryer and his brothers are most eloquently told in the letters they sent home from the front, now held at the Fryer Library.  While they commented very little on the experiences they encountered in places now etched in the Australian collective memory, their personalities come alive through their letters – their concern for each other and their friends, the family jokes they share, and their desire to allay the fears of those left at home.  The Fryer letters build a picture of a close, loving family with a dynamic probably more familiar to the 21st century than the early 20th, and the grief of family and friends at Charlie’s death in action and Jack’s terminal illness following the war is still palpable.

Henry Fryer before the war

Henry Fryer before the war

During a recent visit to Springsure, I was privileged to meet and talk with relatives and descendants of the Fryer brothers, and others in the community who remembered them well.  Together with their letters and photographs, this provides such a tangible link with the past so as to make it appear so much more immediate.  My thanks to the Fryer Library and the Springsure community for assisting with this research.

Keep watching the MDO blog as more of the Fryer story unfolds in the lead up to the exhibition at the Springsure Hospital Museum.

Springsure Hospital, built in 1868

Springsure Hospital, built in 1868

Winton Fire Response – the next phase of recovery

After the enormous effort by volunteers from the Winton and District Historical Society and Queensland Museum staff Ewen McPhee and Sue Valis to recover objects from the fire damaged Waltzing Matilda Centre in Winton, the next stage of the recovery process could begin.  Ewen and Sue returned to Winton with MDOs from across the state, Melanie Piddocke, Josh Tarrant, Lydia Egunnike and Jo Wills, to assist museum volunteers with the next step in cleaning and conserving objects retrieved from the fire.  During the week we were also joined by Deborah Bailey, Director of Operations & Communities for Queensland Museum, who lent an extra pair of helping hands.

Despite extensive damage to the main building at the Waltzing Matilda Centre, a significant number of objects were retrieved for cleaning and conservation.  As other parts of the facility containing the remainder of the museum’s collections were untouched by the fire, this provided excellent working spaces for the cleaning process.  The excellent documentation, organisation, and knowledge of the collection by the volunteers further added to the efficiency of prioritising and locating items to be cleaned.

Most of the items recovered had suffered surface damage from soot, while some paper based materials had suffered water damage in the fire fighting process.  Under the watchful eyes of our conservators Sue and Lydia, we all learned special techniques for dealing with the unique challenges of object recovery post fire. Against the continual hum of generators and vacuum cleaners, the cleaning process was started.  After a solid week of cleaning, significant inroads had been made on many of the objects, and the area reserved for clean objects began to fill up.  It was time for the MDOs to say a regretful farewell to all the volunteers at Winton, who have not only worked incredibly hard since the fire but had also been wonderful hosts to the MDOs throughout the week.  But, with a long road still ahead of them in recovering and rebuilding their museum, the MDOs and Queensland Museum will continue to support them in this important process.

MDO response to fire at Waltzing Matilda Centre

Following the fire late last week at the Waltzing Matilda Centre in Winton, MDO Ewen McPhee and object conservator Sue Valis from Museum of Tropical Queensland are traveling to Winton today to assist museum volunteers with an initial assessment of the site.  Ewen and Sue will spend the next few days providing support for staff and volunteers at the Centre as they begin the recovery process, and in consultation with them will begin to formulate a longer term plan of how this support can be continued into the future.  Further updates regarding the MDO team response to this event will be posted here.

A very special birthday

In my last post, I wrote about Langenbaker House in Ilfracombe and the special stories the collection inside told.  In this post, I will introduce you to another special house with a unique closed collection, but from the opposite end of the social scale.


Greenmount Homestead today

Greenmount Homestead at Walkerston near Mackay turns 100 this year.  Greenmount was originally the residence of the Cook family, who had been amongst the earliest land owners in the Mackay region.  John Cook, the son of Welsh immigrants, first arrived in the Mackay region in 1862, only two years after John Mackay himself had established a cattle property called Greenknoll on the southern side of the Pioneer River.  John Cook took up land on the northern side of the river and called his property Balnagowan.

John’s interests expanded to include sugar cane growing and processing as this industry gained momentum in the region, and parts of his land were turned over to sugar cane, supplying Pleystowe Mill, and John soon became one of the Mill’s directors. He remained in this position until his death in 1901, at which time his son Albert Alfred took over the management of Balnagowan.

Greenmount under construction in 1915.

Greenmount under construction in 1915.

It is Albert Alfred we have to thank for Greenmount Homestead.  Albert acquired the land, which incorporated John Mackay’s original Greenknoll, in 1912 and supplied the Mackay-based architect William Sykes with some rough drawings for a homestead.  Sykes created an impressive traditional Queensland style homestead from these drawings, and construction was completed in 1915 by local builders Carter and Co.  The homestead’s impressive facade, sweeping views, and commanding location at the top of the hill would leave no visitors in doubt as to the wealth and importance of the Cook family.

Albert and Vida had three children, Thomas, John and Althea.  John died in 1929 at the age of 17, so on Albert’s death Thomas managed the property together with his mother and sister, as well as his wife Dorothy.  Thomas and Dorothy had no children and by the mid 1970s were spending an increasing amount of time away from Greenmount.  Thomas died in 1981 and Dorothy, now living permanently at Buderim on the Sunshine Coast, gifted Greenmount Homestead to the Pioneer Shire Council in 1984.

Albert Cook and his children Thomas, John and Althea, Christmas 1920.  The tricycle seen in the photo is still at the homestead.

Albert Cook and his children Thomas, John and Althea, Christmas 1920. The tricycle seen in the photo is still at the homestead.

Like Langenbaker House, Greenmount contains a virtually untouched record of the activities and tastes of three generations of one family.  Unlike Langenbaker House however, it represents a family familiar with wealth and status, and this is reflected in the objects remaining in the household.  This includes large numbers of books, photographs, portraits, children’s toys, fine furniture and impressive dining sets.  Active cattle breeders, the Homestead also contains records of the successful Aberdeen Angus, Brahman, and Santa Gertrudis stud established by Albert and Thomas Cook.  A man of many talents, Albert was also a skilled water diviner with two publications to his name, and his water divining equipment can still be seen at the Homestead.

Office bookcase at Greenmount Homestead

Office bookcase at Greenmount Homestead

Greenmount Homestead is celebrating its 100th birthday with a Heritage Fair on May 31st.  So why not come along and learn more about this remarkable piece of Queensland history.  But the question on everyone’s lips is – will the Queen send Greenmount a telegram?

“I got a bit tired at the last”

Langenbaker House, Ilfracombe

Langenbaker House, Ilfracombe

In the dusty back blocks of the tiny hamlet of Ilfracombe in central western Queensland sits a small house with a big story.  Known as the Langenbaker House, this modest timber and corrugated iron dwelling is not only a remarkably preserved example of life in the central west from the late 19th century, but also of one particular family who called this place home for over 100 years.  MDO for Central Queensland Melanie Piddocke recently had the opportunity to get to know the house, its contents and its previous occupants while making an inventory and condition assessment of the objects inside the house.

Harry and Mary Ann Langenbaker were married in Barcaldine in January of 1890, when Harry was 31 and Mary Ann just 18.  Harry was a teamster, earning his living transporting goods (especially wool) between the central rail line and outlying towns and sheep stations.  Teamsters went where there was work, and when the central rail line was extended to Longreach in 1892, nearby Ilfracombe developed as a strategic place from which teamsters could operate.  Harry and Mary Ann accordingly packed up their house and belongings and moved everything to Ilfracombe in 1899.  By this time the couple had had five children, only one of whom had died in infancy, and were to raise six more in the tiny house.

Mrs Langenbaker's piano

Mrs Langenbaker’s piano

Once a common style of workers dwelling in the area, the Langenbaker House is now the only surviving example of its kind.  It demonstrates once typical features of teamsters houses, such as the lattice work around the front and rear verandas, made from the iron hoops originally used to bind wool bales, and the easily dismantled and erected timber frame design.  But what makes this house even more remarkable is what is inside.

The last Langenbaker child, Bernard, grew up and lived in the house until his death in 1991, at which point the house and all its contents was transferred to the ownership of the then Ilfracombe Shire Council for preservation and interpretation for the public.  The three family members who spent the most time in the house – Mary Ann and two of her sons, Leslie and Bernard – are most in evidence in the house as it is today.

Mrs Langenbaker's wardrobe door

Mrs Langenbaker’s wardrobe door

Mary Ann, reported to have been a “real lady…very dainty”, can be discovered through the copious amounts of needlework around the home and great care and thought given to window and table dressings.  Mrs Langenbaker also taught piano to local children and provided the music for local dances to help supplement the family income, and her upright Beale piano still sits in pride of place in the living room.

Most touchingly though, Mrs Langenbaker listed her children and their ages on the inside of her wardrobe door, at which time the eldest was 28 and the youngest just 6.  She ends the list with “I got a bit tired at the last”.

Les's window

Les’s window

The relatively undisturbed quality of the house is largely thanks to Leslie Langenbaker, who became blind around the age of 17 as a result of a neurological injury sustained in a riding accident.  From that time, furnishings were left unaltered to allow Leslie to find his way around.   According to contemporary accounts, after his accident Les became afraid of the idea of people putting their hands through his bedroom window at night, so chicken wire was nailed across the outside of the window to put his mind at rest.  This is still in place.

Mary Ann Langenbaker lived in the house until she died at the age of 92, and is buried in Ilfracombe cemetery along with her husband and four of her children.  While the Langenbaker House story is notable as much for its representativeness of ordinary life, it is at the same time about the extraordinary lives of women like Mary Ann Langenbaker who created stability for their families in a remote and challenging environment.

Museums and Marcia

Yeppoon two weeks after Cyclone Marcia passed through the area.

Yeppoon two weeks after Cyclone Marcia passed through the area.

While communities in the Livingstone and Rockhampton Regional Council areas are still recovering from the effects of Tropical Cyclone Marcia, Lydia (MDO for Southern Inland Queensland) and I have been visiting museums in affected communities to offer collections care advice and assistance.

The rapid increase of Marcia from a relatively weak cyclone to a severe category 5 is a timely reminder that preparation is a museum’s best defence against severe weather events.  The potential for severe damage from Marcia was very real, and in the days leading up to the cyclone I had been in touch with as many groups as possible to talk over their preparations.  Although Marcia was still at that stage a relatively weak system, groups were taking the threat seriously and preparing well, ensuring the best possible outcomes for their collections and allowing themselves sufficient time to also prepare their own homes and families.

Roof damage in Rockhampton.

Roof damage in Rockhampton.

A well thought out Disaster Plan is invaluable in situations such as these.  Having a plan of action to follow, and a system for obtaining assistance should it be necessary, makes a very stressful situation considerably easier to manage.  But a Disaster Plan is only as good as your preparation – revise it, practice it, and make sure everyone knows what to do!  If you are interested in learning more about disaster preparation and response, visit the Disaster Recovery section in the Resources page on our blog.

In the aftermath of Marcia, no significant collection losses have been reported, and most groups seem to have escaped with relatively minor damage.  The museums were well aware, however, that the days following a cyclone are no time for complacency, and were carefully monitoring their collections for hidden leaks and mould growth, which can occur easily in the hot, humid and still conditions which inevitably follow.

The visit was also a reminder that, while some people have had their lives seriously disrupted by Marcia, most local businesses are trying to get back to normal so if you’re considering a visit to these regions, don’t shy away because of cyclone damage – come along and support local businesses and visit a museum or two while you’re there!

Yeppoon - as beautiful as ever.

Yeppoon – as beautiful as ever.

Way Out West

As the new kid on the MDO block, I have recently had the privilege to travel to the western areas of Central Queensland to meet groups caring for cultural heritage in the west.  In a trip that covered Nebo, Clermont, Emerald, Springsure, Barcaldine, Muttaburra, Winton, Longreach, Ilfracombe and Isisford, I encountered everything from dinosaurs to diggers, as well as meeting the dedicated volunteers caring for these collections in the often hot and harsh outback.

Daph Bashford's 1976 rich boiled fruit cake at the Barcaldine and District Folk Museum.

Daph Bashford’s 1976 rich boiled fruit cake at the Barcaldine and District Folk Museum.

A new type of object for me was a 1976 prize winning rich boiled fruit cake, preserved in its own purpose built glass dome and proudly on display at the Barcaldine and District Folk Museum.  It was originally intended that the cake would last about five years under its dome, but thirty eight years on the cake is still going strong, although the temptation to sample its rich fruity goodness isn’t hard to fight.

Possibly most famous for its role in the 1891 shearer’s strike which ultimately led to the formation of the Australian Labor Party, Barcaldine has a rich agricultural and social history which is evident in the architecture and monuments about the town.  Much of this history is eloquently told and on display at the Barcaldine and District Folk Museum.  Aside from the fruit cake above and a wealth of social history items linked to the town, the museum also has an interesting collection of WWI material, including this pair of French airman’s goggles.

French airman's goggles, brought back to Barcaldine by a local soldier.

French airman’s goggles, brought back to Barcaldine by a local soldier.

Also a central location in the 1891 shearer’s strike but now more famous for a major fossil find in the area in 1963, Muttaburra is a small town with a big history.  When grazier Doug Langdon stumbled across some unusual looking rocks on his property, it led to the first recorded specimen of one of Australia’s prehistoric giants – Muttaburrasaurus langdoni – named for his discoverer.  Affectionately known as ‘Mutt’ or ‘Dino’, the dinosaur is recreated in the park in the middle of town, and each year fossil enthusiasts visit the area in the hope of making the next big find.  Muttaburra has more on offer than dinosaurs however, with the A.A. Cassimatis Store and Cottage and the Dr Arratta Hospital Museum capturing a snapshot of life in Muttaburra in a more prosperous time.  The range of goods on display at the Cassimatis Store helps to reinforce how essential these general stores were to remote communities, stocking everything from farm and stock supplies to boiled lollies and over the counter medicines.

Dinosaurs were still on the menu in Winton, with a visit to the Australian Age of Dinosaurs.  With a dedicated team of staff and volunteers constantly chipping away at fossil deposits, what’s on offer at the AAOD is continually evolving (unlike the dinosaurs themselves!).  But as with Muttaburra, there’s so much more to Winton than dinosaurs. The heritage listed Corfield and Fitzmaurice Store not only has displays ranging from shearing to, yes, dinosaurs, but also offers a rare opportunity to see the virtually unaltered interior of an early 20th century general store, complete with manager’s office, clerk’s cubicle, and flying fox or cash railway for dispensing change.

Folding stools and the beautiful broad planks of the haberdashery counter at Corfield & Fitzmaurice Store, Winton.

Folding stools and the beautiful broad planks of the haberdashery counter at Corfield & Fitzmaurice Store, Winton.

Another rare survivor in Winton is the Chinese market garden and store of Willie Mar.  The garden, which had provided Winton with fresh fruit and vegetables since the 1920s when Willie’s father commenced operations, only ceased to produce commercially in 2000 when floods impacted heavily on the aging Willie and his garden.  Willie himself passed away in 2007, and many residents of Winton have vivid memories and engaging stories of Willie and his garden.  Although the fruit and vegetables are gone, Willie’s shop and house remain at the site, as well as evidence of the ingenious pond watering system common to Chinese gardens.  The Chinese skills and traditions of farming small patches of land with a continual crop yield became an essential part of community health and survival in many outback towns and the excellently interpreted Willie Mar site is a tangible reminder of this now extinct tradition.  The progress on this site will be exciting to watch as the Friends of Willie Mar continue to interpret and share the site.  A special thanks to the Friends of Willie Mar group and the volunteers at the Qantilda Museum for taking the time to share with us their wonderful collections.

Willie Mar's shop at the Chinese market garden site.

Willie Mar’s shop at the Chinese market garden site.