Old Museum Stories

Sharing stories about the old museum in Brisbane

Category: 1950s

Grandeur

I would have been 10 or 11 when I came the first time. I came a couple of times on school excursions with the Ascot State School. I was born in ’52, so was at school in the late ’50s and ’60s. We would have come in by bus—the bus route went along Anthony Street. At the bottom you could get a tram from Oriel Park.

I remember the size and grandeur of the building, and the large rooms, and the quiet. When we came it was really hot, and inside was really hot, even though the ceilings were high. I remember the display cases, and not to lean on them! It was the only place you could see a dinosaur.

I used to swim at Centenary Pool and the Spring Hill Baths, and see the beautiful old building. I would see it with its windows broken—that made me sad. I think buildings need to be loved and lived in and filled with people.

I called in today as I’m here with my husband, who’s the dairy rep on the RNA council.

A note from the editor: Mary Jensen told this story to Margie Barram at the Australian Garden History Society display at the Ekka.

Our childhood memories of a special place

My earliest childhood memories are so very special to me and all my siblings. We grew up in the early 1950s around the Lota–Wynnum area. My dad built our house at Lota when there were only a very few people in the area. We first lived at Allister Street Lota  in the small two-bedroom house that is still standing to this day. Each fortnight my dad would add a little more to the house, as money was hard to come by and building materials were very dear.

We were a poor family, but very rich in love. My mum had a large family—eventually there were 12 of us kids, three boys and nine girls, but the other two boys were the babies of the family, so our brother was third in line after two sisters and then the rest of us girls down to the twin boys, so he had a lot to contend with. We were always happy and got along just fine. Our outings were very special to us because of where we were taken and it was usually on a Sunday. A lovely train ride from Lota, or Wynnum where we lived later, to the beautiful palace that was ours. That is what we had in our hearts and minds: that the beautiful museum building in the Valley was ours alone.

What fantasies we created. It was our palace—running from floor to floor lifting the brown covers that were over a lot of the glass topped display cabinets to reveal another fascinating specimen—the wonderful skeletons and exotic collections from faraway lands—the magnificent lions and tigers at the front desk—our minds went wild with imagination—then the big lung fish out on the beautiful verandah. This was our special place—we each imagined that parts of that glorious building was our “home” and we would go and visit our brother and sisters in their part of this “palace”.

Mum would always take a packed lunch for us all and then we would sit in the beautiful gardens and imagine that we were very rich indeed to have such a wonderful home. The day would never end without the obligatory climbing all over the “Mephisto,” the old war tank at the entrance. We loved that old building, it was a complete part of our childhood. Many of us married and had children and took them to visit this special place that was so dear to us as well. Until Brisbane lost its identity and some of its history, a sad day to see the museum being moved.  We have visited the new one in South Bank a few times and I am so sorry to say it has no charm. It’s clinical and uninteresting. We lost a wonderful tourist destination and a beautiful piece of history.

Please don’t ever demolish this building. It is well loved and part of Brisbane’s history. Thank you for reading.

A closer look

I’m from Ashgrove—well really Oakleigh—but its not a suburb anymore. It’s near the army base at Enoggera. I went to the Oakleigh State School in the late ’40s—over a thousand kids there then. I had an uncle who was a Queensland senator.

I remember the Mephisto from a visit in the late 1950s but really the old museum building was a place I was always going past, and every so often I’d have a closer look. I recall the dusty corridors upstairs and the display cases—full of rocks!

What took me past? I played hockey for a while—that was at Victoria Park. So I’d catch the tram to it and walk back to the museum to catch the tram home. I played school football in Ballymore Park—we’d all ride our bikes there, play, and ride back. Or those who took the tram would come back to the museum to catch their tram home. In ’59—I was fourteen—I’d always be going to the Centenary Pool. It was the place to be. I’d ride my bike over. Your bike was like part of your body. It was freedom.

I was always going past, and sometimes I’d take a closer look.

Notes from the editor: Noel Milliner told this story to Margie Barram at the Australian Garden History Society display at the Ekka. The uncle Noel mentions in the story was Senator Bertie Milliner, whose sudden death in 1975 precipitated the contentious appointment of Albert Field to the senate and the constitutional crisis that followed. Noel’s nephew Glen Milliner served as a member of the Queensland parliament.

 

In the periphery

As kids, we grew up in Bardon, before we moved to the Gold Coast in the early 1950s. I recall taking the tram and going into the museum. We were little so we came with our mother, in the late 1940s.

My strongest memories of this place though are associated with it being next to the exhibition. We’d come and eat lunch watching the sheep dog trials. When we first came we got the sample bags first—a terrible mistake, as you have to carry them all day! My greatest tip is never buy sample bags til you’re ready to go home. Another tip from that time was, if you came on the last day, Saturday, it was half price entrance.

I went to university on a scholarship, but it was being able to work on the Ekka turnstiles during my uni years that paid for everything else. They paid correct pay, and you’d work 10-12 hours a day. You had to join a union to work and I joined the theatrical union as it was the cheapest.

All these coming and goings would have the old museum in their periphery.

A note from the editor: Alan Roughan told this story to Margie Barram at the Australian Garden History Society display at the Ekka.

The gardeners

The Old Museum gardens are unique amongst Queensland’s institutional and public gardens in having a gardens maintenance and support area still on site and in operation. This area includes propagation facilities and potting tables, shade houses, compost facilities, and gardener’s storage and facilities building. This is a rare occurrence in Australia and an area that should be highly valued and kept intact and in operation.

Through the 20th century, the gardens had its own gardeners who were based at the gardens and worked from their yard and the bush house there. As well as maintaining the gardens and lawns, they propagated all the plants used for the seasonal changing displays in the beds. It should also be noted that there were generally not generous or even sufficient funds for the gardeners to undertake all they would have liked to do for the gardens. The lack of funds for new plants led from the early part of the 20th century to the gardeners collecting seed from their plants, taking cuttings and propagating and growing on the plants to meet the different garden beds displays. These gardening practices and traditions involved a considerable amount of work for the gardening staff.

It seems highly likely that the primary reasons these gardens remained generally intact and one of the finest gardens in Brisbane through the 20th century was the continuity of the gardeners, their attachment to this special place, the practices they passed on to the following gardeners, and the lack of funds to generate changes and extensive plant changes.

All the gardeners at the Old Museum Gardens were not recorded in the past studies. It would be wonderful to complete the list. Gardeners included: Ray Priest, Dave Dowdless from 1966, Col Harmon (who had been the head gardener at the Yungaba Migrant Centre, and retired in 1970), David Hockings there from 1970, Jack Kennedy head gardener, who passed on to Ted (Dude) Neilsen there from 1966 to 1979 and head gardener for 5 years, and John England.

In 1989 and 2000 when I was part of the team preparing the Old Museum Gardens conservation study I met the gardeners who were still working in the gardens, and contacted a couple of the retired gardeners. Col Harmon told me of the gingko tree that used to grow near the entrance to the bush house. It was 10 to 14 metres high and an original planting in the list of plants at the place prepared by Frederick Manson Bailey, the Queensland government botanist at the turn of the century.

Ted Neilsen recalled the large Moreton Bay fig tree which grew just near the lawn near the corner of the old fernery, the fishpond, and the round garden under the present demountable building. He also told of the seed beds being in the open where the spirit store building is now, and recalled the fine garden along there comprising a hedge along the fence, a line of alternating frangipani trees and palms with annuals displayed along the garden frontage. He had tended the historical beds of annuals removed for the dinosaurs, and the roses. He told me that “dozens came daily just to look at the roses”.

John England told me about the paths always being asphalt with tile drains or a raised timber edge, that he planted the macadamia tree in the lower garden, the bougainvillea hedge near the potting shed was “always there”, and there were two timber slatted ferneries—one open to the public—and much more about the gardens and the plants now gone but which were there through his time as gardener in this very special place in Brisbane.

The gardeners' work area, November 2013

The gardeners’ work area, November 2013

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