Category Archives: Cobb+Co Museum

Henry Lawson’s other skill

Henry Lawson remains one of Australia’s best known poets and authors a century after his death. Poems such as ‘The Lights of Cobb & Co’, ‘The Teams’ and ‘Andy’s Gone with Cattle’, and short stories like ‘Joe Wilson and his Mates’ flowed from his pen. His face has adorned banknotes and stamps.

Henry Lawson’s life was glorious and tragic in equal measure. At once blessed with insight and eloquence, humour and empathy, he was also cursed with melancholy loneliness and alcoholism. As a young man in the 1880s he struggled to overcome a limited education and the isolation of profound deafness. Yet, in the vernacular of the day, he was not without prospects. Henry Lawson was a skilled tradesman; a coach painter.

Henry became apprenticed as a 16-year-old in 1883 to Hudson Brothers, a large construction and railway engineering company with over 1000 staff. He learned his trade painting railway carriages and wagons at Hudson Brothers new workshops at Clyde (Granville) in Sydney, and for a time at their Newcastle works. Henry seems to have been at least proficient, as he considered Hudson Brothers good employers who ‘imported the best mechanics and treated and paid them well.’ [1] (However he may have had a rough time with his foreman at Newcastle.)

A railway carriage built by Hudson Bros. in the 1880s. Image State Library of New South Wales.
Hudon Bros. workshops at Clyde (Granville) in Sydney. Image State Library of New South Wales.

Henry subsequently worked for coachbuilder William Kerridge in Castlereagh Street Sydney, the home of ‘quality’ coachmakers such as Vial’s and Angus and Sons. Kerridge’s carriages regularly won prizes at the Sydney Show, and William Kerridge himself sometimes judged carriage classes. Indeed he was regarded highly enough to be made chairman of a coachbuilder’s conference in 1886. (Sydney Morning Herald, 7 Dec 1886. p8).  Henry Lawson later described William Kerridge as ‘an old fashioned tradesman and gentleman’ who had some employees with him for over 30 years. And in return William Kerridge wrote Henry a reference describing him as ‘a steady, trustworthy, hardworking, young man.’ This was certainly a description at odds with Henry Lawson’s later decline into alcoholism and poor mental health.

Coach painting was quite an involved trade to learn. Paints did not come premixed. Painters ground coloured ochre, and blended white lead base powder with linseed oil, terebene hardener, varnish and other mysterious additives. The trade at the time seemed somewhere between science and alchemy. Coach painters painted, sanded and rubbed back coat after coat of paint to produce glossy finishes. It took over a week to properly paint a carriage. Painters could ‘pull’ fine straight lines, paint intricate scrolls, and even produce signage and lettering on trade vehicles. For this they were paid at the same rate as the blacksmiths, body makers, and upholstery trimmers, and even a little more in some shops than the wheelwrights, although apprentices were paid only a fraction of the tradesman’s rate. (SMH, 11 June 1884. p12.)

Paint recipes from The Coach Painter’s Handbook and Guide, Henry J Drane.
A popular brand of paint provided the inspiration for Arvie’s surname.

Unfortunately ill winds were blowing towards Henry Lawson, the carriage industry and the country. The carriage conference William Kerridge chaired in 1886 discussed the effects of drought and cheap imported components on the trade. And an economic depression which even consumed the huge Hudson Brothers business was just around the corner. In 1890 William Kerridge closed the doors of his Castlereagh Street workshop but Henry Lawson had already moved on. He had studied at night while an apprentice in the unsuccessful hope of matriculating to university. A life of letters called.

In the late 1880s he was house painting for money but also establishing his name as a poet. Poems such as ‘Faces in the Street’ (1888) and ‘Second Class Wait Here’ (1899) depict the circles Henry moved in at the time, amongst Sydney’s poor in tenement slums. (Today properties in Phillip Street where he lived for a time and Castlereagh Street are amongst the most expensive in Australia.)

Although he considered Hudson Brothers good and fair employers, Henry Lawson drew on his time as an apprentice coach painter as the setting for two of his darkest short stories; ‘Two Boys at Grinder Brothers’’ and ‘Arvie Aspinall’s Alarm Clock’. Arvie Aspinall, is a very young apprentice at Grinder Brothers’ Railway Coach Factory. He tries to help his widowed mother pay the bills, but they still struggle to make ends meet. Arvie has neither the time nor money for interests outside of work believing… ‘it would be better if young fellows of this country didn’t think so much about racin’ and fightin’.’[2] His subcontractor boss Collins underpays the underage apprentice ‘babies’ and works them beyond the standard hours. And he preaches in the park on Sunday.

Arvie is given an alarm clock by a benevolent society after it was reported in a local paper that he was found sleeping outside the factory, having arrived for work in the dark with no way of telling the time.[3] The benevolent society as it turns out is supported by the Grinder family, but their charity is paid for by the labour of those they purport to help, and only extends so far as to keep the workforce ‘grinding’ on in poverty.

On the face of Arvie’s clock are the words,

Early to bed and early to rise
Makes a man healthy wealthy and wise.

‘“Mother!” he said suddenly, “I think it lies.”’ Young Arvie, suffering from overwork, malnutrition and an untreated chest infection dies shortly after in his sleep.[4]

Henry Lawson was writing in the depths of the 1890s economic depression which exacerbated the plight of an already poor underclass. The stories are a reminder that ‘The Wonders of the Victorian Age’ in our museums, such as the railway rolling stock at the Workshops Rail Museum, were produced by a multitude of long forgotten Arvie Aspinalls working long hours, six days a week. And the urban coach painters, blacksmiths, coachbuilders and wheelwrights who built the carriages in Cobb + Co Museum almost never owned one themselves.

Jeff Powell
Curator, Cobb+Co Museum


[1] A Fragment of Autobiography

[2] Two Boys at Grinder Brothers

[3] Arvie Aspinall’s Alarm Clock

[4] Ibid

References

Geoff Barker, 2018 ‘Hudson Brothers’ Building & Engineering Company’. State Library of NSW.

Henry J Drane, 1896 The Coach Painter’s Handbook and Guide, London. Reproduced in Harness, Vehicles, Timber and Coach-Painting, Dene Bindery, Liverpool NSW 1980.

Ross Edmonds, ‘Henry Lawson and the Wickham School of Arts’, Hunter Living Histories, University of Newcastle.

Peter FitzSimonds, ‘From the Archive’, Sydney Morning Herald, 25 Jan

Henry Lawson, ‘Arvie Aspinall’s Alarm Clock’ first appeared in The Bulletin, 11 June 1892, page 11. Also 1896, While the Billy Boils. Angus and Robertson, Sydney.

Henry Lawson, A Fragment of Autobiography (vol 2) 1899. Angus & Robertson Manuscripts, State Library of NSW.

Henry Lawson, 1900 ‘Two Boys at Grinder Brothers’, Over the Sliprails. Angus and Robertson, Sydney.

Mike Scanlon, ‘Henry Lawson link should be marked.’ Newscastle Herald, 14 March 2014.

A Story of artists and the museum

Written by: Andrew MacDonald, Factory Supervisor Cobb+Co Museum

Biological science can inspire artists, not only with form but also display style.

In a previous life I worked in the art department of a regional university, where I looked after the studios and taught sculpture techniques. One of my colleagues was the textiles lecturer, and we decided to collaborate after we noticed similarities in our work. I predominately used timber and metal, Sarah Rayner worked in fabric with embroidery and weaving.

We began by partially making a piece each then handing it over for the other to complete. After the first couple we couldn’t stop, deciding to collaborate to produce an exhibition with a museum feel.

Source material

We agreed that our work would be botanical or insect inspired, like case moths, beetles and seed pods. As we both lived in rural areas, Cabarlah and Ravensbourne, we focused on local species like Grevillea, Eucalypts, Flindersia, Castanospermum and other trees around us.

These forms were closely observed, manipulated and re-imagined in a combination of materials. To better view the locale, I walked along the road from Sarah’s house to Ravensbourne National Park. I noted native vegetation and exotics, and collected finds on the roadside. One discovery that changed our approach was a shredded inner tube. It became the material we could both work with, and physically joined many of the pieces.

Display style

We both identified as ‘museumophiles’ and loved the old Queensland Museum. The memories of pulling out drawers of pinned insects prompted us to display our work in a museum collection style. We designed glass fronted cases with handles, and labelled many works like insect displays, with a pinned tag bearing an obscure Latin name. We spent many hours inventing titles with the help of a Latin dictionary and a glass of wine.

The first exhibition was at the Toowoomba Regional Art Gallery, who purchased three of the works for their collection. With that success we approached Artisan Gallery, of Craft Queensland who agreed, and we received an Arts Queensland grant for exhibition and catalogue costs.

Runaway success

The popularity of the exhibition prompted an extension at the gallery. From local media coverage we were picked up by several curators, which meant inclusion in the Craft Australia exhibition, Material Speaks, at SOFA, Chicago; and we were asked to apply for a large sculpture commission with Brisbane City Council.

Our proposal was accepted, and we went on to install larger works very similar in content and style along Melbourne Street, West End. The inspiration was the original rainforest vegetation of the area. We used aluminium- cast or pressed, to make the pieces durable. We also produced laser cut aluminium lettering, of faux Latin nomenclature, like Flindersia westendus.

Old works re-imagined

My role in QM is a fascinating mix of technical and creative work, with a dash of history. At home I still make constructions in aluminium and rubber, and Sarah now makes exquisite porcelain pieces based on native flora. Working at QM suggested a way of linking old and new pieces, by mixing them into the museum displays. The forms find new echoes with collection specimens, and the display boxes merge into the museum matrix!

Visitors to Cobb+Co have the opportunity to see more than horse drawn vehicles. The Inquiry Centre has an eclectic mix of objects from the past, fauna specimens, and physics interactives. Can they stimulate new connections or creations in the observant visitor?

CHANGING COMMUNITIES. CHANGING LIVES.

For decades across the Queensland Museum Network, hundreds of volunteers have generously given their time and knowledge to ensure visitors to our museums enjoy an experience to remember.

This year for National Volunteer Week, we celebrate the theme, “Changing Communities. Changing Lives”. We know our volunteers do exactly that, with visitors often speaking of the lasting impression left after an encounter or tour with a ‘volly’.

This year we would like to say thank you, and acknowledge the generous contribution of all volunteers by sharing a few favourite memories from across our campuses.

Marylin Jensen OAM, volunteer at Cobb+Co Museum in Toowoomba.

Cobb+Co Museum

Marilyn Jensen OAM has been volunteering at Cobb+Co Museum for over a year now. After retiring, Marilyn thought it would be an opportunity to promote craft skills that are simple to do, and encourage others to have a go or join a group in their local area.

“My favourite time at Cobb+Co Museum is every time I’m there, as every day brings new questions and people asking them,” she says.

“It’s the pleasure of helping someone else know and learn something new.

“It’s a pleasure to show someone how a natural fibre is processed to a useful garment, and encouraging people to have a go and be happy, and enjoy life and our wonderful community groups and museum.”

Kyle Harmer, volunteer at The Workshops Rail Museum in Ipswich.

The Workshops Rail Museum

Kyle Harmer started out at The Workshops Rail Museum as a volunteer two years ago. Graduating to a Visitor Service Officer within a year, Kyle still also volunteers his time as one of the Museum’s expert model builders, working on the museum’s model railway – the largest of its kind, depicting scenes from Queensland’s extensive rail network.

Kylie has many great memories from his time volunteering at the museum, but one that stands out in particular.

“Whilst rejuvenating the model one day a young visitor came up to me and said ‘that’s what I want to do when I grow up!’”.

“That was really cool.”

Mike Saw, volunteer at the Museum of Tropical Queensland in Townsville.

Museum of Tropical Queensland

Mike Whiting started volunteering at the Museum of Tropical Queensland in 2001. He said while there have been many changes of staff, displays and volunteers over the years, a very significant change has been the introduction of special and in-depth training given to help volunteers present stories accurately and confidently to visitors of the museum.

“I have so many memories but probably my favourite was confidently giving my first and special talk on the “Three Incredible Small Boat Stories,” he said. 

“What makes being a volunteer worthwhile is just being able to help our visitors understand more about of all the museum’s diverse displays, which cover topics such as maritime history, palaeontology, biodiversity and marine biology!

“It is such a wide range of topics and it’s all important information that is relevant to North Queensland.”

Janice Neill, volunteer at Queensland Museum in Brisbane.

Queensland Museum

Janice Neill has been a volunteer with Queensland Museum since 2012, when the museum celebrated 150 years of connecting and collecting.

“We now have extra space to host larger exhibitions, but staff still have the same dedication to share their enormous wealth of knowledge with volunteers and visitors,” she said. 

Janet has many fond memories from travelling exhibitions and displays, but also appreciates the smaller, simple moments inside the museum’s walls.

“Every day is an exciting day talking to the school groups in the Discovery Centre and recently the Discovery Day for Little Learners.”

If you would like to become a volunteer at any of our campuses, please complete the online Volunteer Expression of Interest form.

The convict who got Australia’s wheels turning

Australia’s first wheelwright* was Hugh Hughes, a convict with the First Fleet in 1788.

He was the only wheelwright in the First Fleet so Hugh would have been kept very busy. Wheelwrights had to have the eye, skill and accuracy of cabinetmakers, but it was also a very laborious trade requiring strength and endurance. Hugh Hughes would have soon discovered timbers in this strange land were much harder than any he encountered in England.

There was no powered machinery at the time to saw and dress the ironbark, blue gum and stringy bark. Every timber component Hugh made was split, sawn, chipped and shaved with wedges, pit saws, adzes, axes, draw-knives and spoke shaves. Even the lathe that turned the wheel hubs was hand powered. Hugh, like country wheelwrights in Britain, probably even felled the trees he needed.  Yet Hugh Hughes was not making the big wheels, carts and wagons we might expect.

Continue reading The convict who got Australia’s wheels turning

The women of Cobb & Co

“Who will forget the meal served at Loder’s mail change? Roasted goat, prickly jam and jelly, splendid home-made bread, to say nothing of the hot scones and ‘nanny’s butter’, which made up a real ‘rich’ meal, and one that cheered the heart of the traveller for the next stage of the journey.”

– William Lees, on the Loders of Waldegrove change station near Surat QLD, 1916.

Cobb & Co coach drivers like Whistling Tom Elms, Flash Harry Bruce and Let ‘Er Go Gallagher were almost legendary in their lifetime, but for every coach driver there was a host of other workers keeping Cobb & Co’s coaches and horses on the roads. Grooms at stables and bush change stations harnessed, watered and fed the horses and cleaned the yards. The cooks not only fed the passengers, they grew the vegetables, fed the chickens and collected the eggs, milked the cow or goat, separated the cream and churned the butter. The cook might have even shot the wallaby or cockatoos in the stew.

Couples like Mr and Mrs Loder at Waldegrove ran the horse change between them. If there were no men around the women got on and did everything regardless. Mrs Fox and her four daughters ran the changing station at Boonoo Boonoo, on the Warwick to Tenterfield route. Women publicans and their families ran many of the country hotels where Cobb & Co’s parched and weary passengers stayed overnight. Their hotels acted as booking agents for Cobb & Co as well. Women filled vital roles in Cobb & Co’s day-to-day operations ‘on the ground’.

Continue reading The women of Cobb & Co

Electric Vehicles: Technology recharged

Electric vehicles (EVs) are gradually becoming visible on Queensland roads. The pioneer of this cutting-edge electric technology was a plain 1980s parcels van.

The converted Bedford van carried the digital clock showing Robert de Castella’s time in the 1982 Commonwealth Games marathon in Brisbane. For a short time the van was perhaps the most watched vehicle in the world. The Lucas Bedford van was virtually silent and produced no exhaust fumes, making it perfect for use in sporting competitions like the marathon and 30 km walk. It has a range of 100 km and a top speed of 80 kph.

Continue reading Electric Vehicles: Technology recharged

THE WHEELS ARE IN MOTION

Many expressions we use today date back to the era of ‘horse and cart’ transport. Cars feature 21st century technology like sat-nav systems, but they also have reminders of travel in the 1800s. The dashboard was originally a timber or leather panel in front of a buggy which stopped mud from the ‘dashing’ horse flicking onto passengers. On rainy days buggy owners also rode with the hood up like modern convertibles.

Buggy drivers wore gloves when handling the leather reins to keep off leather oil and dust. These were stored in the glove box. What is too big for the glove box goes in the boot. The boot box on a coach was under the driver’s seat, behind his boots. The boot is still for luggage, but is now at the back. The driver on a coach was in control, sitting up on the box seat. People still use the term to describe a position of power.

Horses and carriages were dark colours. Accidents occurred in towns at night if buggies did not have headlights and taillights. A bit of red glass in the back of coach lamps showed which way a vehicle was going, that is which way the horses head and tail were pointing. If an accident was likely the driver hoped the brake shoes stopped the wheels. Brake shoes were made from old shoes nailed to the brake block. The leather gripped the iron tyre.

And we still refer to the horsepower.  And even the term car can be traced back to cart, carriage and the Roman words carrum or carrus, and the even earlier Celtic word karros, meaning cart or wagon.

Travel is central to our way of seeing the world. Consider the following expressions.

From the horse era we have…

  • In ‘the box seat’ driving the project
  • ‘Reining in’ the troublemakers
  • Like the horse team we need to ‘pull our weight’ or we will be ‘dragging the chain’
  • We won’t ‘put the cart before the horse’
  • We hope with a favoured project the ‘wheels don’t come off’
  • You can ‘jump on the bandwagon’ like everyone else
  • And after partying hard we might ‘go on the wagon’, but then hopefully not ‘fall off the wagon’.

Jeff-Blog-image1-bogged-down
Bogged down in a sticky situation. A Cobb & Co coach on the banks of Mary Ann Creek, Yuleba – Surat road, 1011.

We don’t want to be…

  • Bogged down
  • Caught in a rut
  • Pushing it up hill
  • Going downhill
  • Getting off track
  • Letting the grass grow under our feet
  • Facing a hard road ahead
  • Going nowhere
  • Going round in circles

We do want to be…

  • Going forward not backward
  • On the straight and narrow
  • Chasing the light on the hill
  • Taking the road less travelled
  • Achieving the milestones
  • Moving on
  • Facing new horizons
  • Moving up in the organisation
  • Climbing the corporate ladder
  • Have a career (but not downhill or into a truck!)

jeff-blog-image2-wheels-up
It’s all gone wheels up. A capsized loaded wool wagon near Blackall. Image courtesy State Library of Queensland.

We say…

  • Life we say is a journey.
  • ‘You can’t stop progress!’

We think in spatial and often linear metaphors, even if we are not physically moving anywhere. Western thought has been dominated by ideologies of ‘progress’ for centuries. There may be ‘no going back now’, ‘the wheels are already in motion’.

Jeff Powell, Curator, Cobb+Co Museum