Sharing stories about the old museum in Brisbane

Category: 1940s

The beginning of a lifetime love of natural history

This is a reflection of my father’s time at the Queensland Museum.

In late 1944, at just 16 years of age, Ivor Filmer walked down Gregory Terrace from Brisbane Grammar School one day, to the Queensland Museum. There, he asked the director if there was any chance of employment. Ivor was informed that most of the staff were at the war, and he would be ‘very useful’.

1946, taken during the RNA show

Not long after Ivor commenced the director, Heber Longman, became ill, and was on sick leave for long periods. So it was that Ivor became the junior assistant, at aged 16. At a time when a search on the internet for information was many decades away, Ivor was delegated to handle the enquiries on natural history from the public, and by post. He recalls that the information had to be found, and there was no one else to do it, so in effect he couldn’t help learning many things. His instruction was to elicit ‘two pertinent facts’ and the information would be given via phone to the director for confirmation, by Miss Murphy in the office. The large library, full of weighty tomes and priceless literary works, was Ivor’s domain. A ladder was available for access to high shelves.

Receiving a specimen (undated). Ivor on right.

As a young assistant in the museum at this time, Ivor did almost every job there was to be done. He cleaned and fumigated display cases and spirit tanks, ran messages, arranged displays, labelled specimens, filled up jars, made catalogues, registered acquisitions and identified specimens— sometimes with Mr Longman’s help, but often he had to do it on his own. When Longman was away, he answered most of the public enquiries. When Miss Murphy was away, he was clerk as well.

Ivor was enthusiastic about the museum and natural history. Daily, he kept a diary to record the tasks he completed and the conversations he had with Longman, who encouraged the young naturalist, discussing distribution, nomenclature, biology.

At Longman’s retirement there was excitement and consternation, when at short notice, on 11 June 1945, the Duke of Gloucester decided to visit the museum, and on that very day the director was away sick. The duke arrived, dressed in military uniform with the duchess by his side. They were accompanied by the governor of Queensland, Sir Leslie Wilson, and his aide. The welcoming party, comprising J. Edgar Young (honorary paleontologist), Michael Beinie (head attendant), and Ivor, guided the royal couple and the governor around the galleries. The duke then signed an historic bible, donated by J Wilkinson, the first member for Moreton in the federal parliament. According to Ivor, it was a dull overcast day, and matches had to be lit occasionally to show the duke a specimen or to light up a label. Looking back one wonders just what the duke thought about a state museum where matches had to be used for illumination of specimens and labels. The museum galleries were lit with electricity for the first time in their history only in August 1948.

On 14 August 1945, World War II ended. Ivor recorded the receipt of that news:

“A unique day in our history, and in my life. Peace was officially announced at 9.30 this morning, and at the museum we received the news with joy. The attendants rang the bell, shouting “Hooray!” through the galleries and Mr Longman and I found an old Balinese gong which we banged and made a loud ringing noise outside the back door, but there was no one there to hear us”.

Ivor particularly enjoyed the field trips. Many times he made expeditions with other staff, usually to collect perches for bird displays. They would catch the train from Brunswick Street to Mitchelton and then walk to Samford Road or to Ferny Grove, sawing off the logs they needed and carrying them back to the station in sacks.

1948, Ivor on right

Ivor also started assisting with taxidermy. “24 March 1947: an important day in my career— tackled my first skin”. He assisted in the maintenance of displays, and many other tasks, from 1944 to 1952. His keen interest in natural history persisted after he left the museum and he continued to send in road-killed and storm-washed specimens. While in charge of the Australian Inland Mission Hospital at Birdsville from 1957 to 1959, he collected more than 200 vertebrates, including rare mammal and bird specimens, some of which were mounted for display. He usually air-freighted the specimens from Birdsville to Brisbane and on one occasion he sent a live python, with two rats in the container to serve as food. However, when museum staff opened the box they found that instead of the python having eaten the rats, the latter had nibbled the python. In all, Ivor spent 8 years or so at the Queensland Museum.

Some of these notes are also located in the book A time for a museum: history of the Queensland Museum: 1862-1986. The authors utilised various notes from Ivor’s diaries that he kept at the time.

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.

In a secluded part of the gardens

I am Isobel Mary Siddans, nee Newton, now 91, of Maleny. In a little secluded part of the museum gardens, my husband Reuben Stanley (Stan) Siddans proposed to me.

A note from the editor: This story was recorded by one of the helpers at the Friends of the Botanic Gardens stand at the Ekka. Isobel and Stan announced their engagement in July 1946, and were married in February 1947.

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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