“Where’s my ten shillings?” and other peculiar museum correspondence

Written by Sebastian L. Harris, Jess Satterley, Caitlin Court, and Exton Fraser. Library Volunteers, Queensland Museum.

“How should we categorise this?” we wondered after reading stories of farmer debates, tales of woe and the occasional exploding animal.

Ten archaeology students from The University of Queensland and University of New England recently helped complete the first phase in a pilot data visualisation mapping project with the Queensland Museum Library.

For six weeks, they dove deep into the archives, documenting, photographing and transcribing letters received in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In addition to the intended filing, examining years of correspondence led to some unexpected findings. Among them, evidence of exactly how little the idiosyncrasies of our society have changed through time.

Museums have always been repositories of knowledge and before Google they were often where people sent their questions. One such question arrived at the museum in 1910, requesting help settling a debate between colleagues. The colleagues? Farmers. The debate? Whether bandicoots and rat-kangaroos (not to be confused with the North American kangaroo rat) ate grubs and worms. They do, by the way.

From within these queries, we also found an impressive collection of pay rise requests. Some were quite humorous, like Mr B Harrison’s, arguing that the letter recipient’s mother would certainly have agreed he deserved a raise. While not every request was answered, we can report Mr Harrison did indeed get a raise and poor mothers continue to be dragged into it to this day.

Contrary to the generally buttery nature of raise requests, “My pet died” was certainly a different way to begin a letter. The 1884 death of Mr Birch’s beloved pet lizard was not only tragic, but useful. Rather than burying it, he donated the reptile for herpetological study. Similarly, Miss Cox sought museum advice on how to correctly stuff her cat, which is apparently another way to honour the family pet.

While the somewhat alarming (and regrettably relatable) love some folks held for their pets was clear, Archibald Meston’s letter definitely changed the tone of our animal-related correspondence. Instead of sharing his fondness for reptiles, he instead described how he caught “wary crocodiles” with dynamite, which is certainly effective, to say the least.

Among the financial woes and irreconcilable love of pets, we stumbled upon exhaustion and melancholy; a theme we, as university students, recognised instantly.

The phrase “Send more wine” perfectly embodied naturalist Kendall Broadbent‘s blunt, authentic exhaustion. Other correspondence phrased similar emotions with slightly more eloquence – such as Robert Etheridge Jr., who had “no idea whether he has been standing on his head or feet for some time”.

Though Mr Broadbent and Mr Etheridge seemed at their wits’ ends, we did locate a sliver of optimism from Henry Suter’s memo to leave you with: “I do hope I will live long enough to see the arrival of the ten shillings you still owe.”

Mr Suter requests lost payment for the “unfortunate Ceratodus”.

Despite being confined to the Library Archives for almost a century, all the mother references, love of pets, and sarcastic quips reminded us how little an effect time can have on us. We have no doubt the correspondence will continue to deliver – and eagerly hope to find a receipt for ten shillings addressed to Mr Suter.