Door to store caring for your collection - Saw Doctor’s wagon
Sara Kelly, Karen Peterson, George Serras and Ian Cramer, National Museum of Australia, 9 November 2012
SARA KELLY: Good afternoon, my name is Sara Kelly and I am the head registrar here at the National Museum of Australia. Does anyone here, apart from the staff who are here today, know what a registrar does or registration department does? I am just interested to know. No or a little bit. At a very broad level, registrars sometimes describe what they do as managing risk - that sounds very public service - or a little less broadly the physical and intellectual control of collections.
So what does that mean? The registration department here at the Museum comprises five teams totalling 24 staff. They undertake a range of responsibilities related to the development, documentation, digitisation, storage, movements and tracking, and transport of the Museum’s collections. They provide information on, and physical and digital access to, collections. They are responsible for managing the National Historical Collection, the Museum collection and the archives collection, which comprises over 230,000 objects of diverse types across four Museum sites and, through travelling exhibitions, a range of external sites.
Registration is also responsible for managing the Museum’s incoming and outgoing loans program and for providing photography services related to collection documentation, exhibitions, publications, events and marketing. Of course, we are very much part of a larger Museum team and we work closely with conservation, the exhibitions section and the curators, and together we bring our particular skills and expertise under the banner of collection care.
Only three of the five registration teams are represented here today, and they are the documentation, photography and the movements and storage teams. I will briefly mention the other two sections.
The Exhibitions and Loans section manages the transport of new acquisitions and inward and outward loans. It manages loan contracts and negotiations and Australian quarantine inspections. It participates in planning, designing and developing new galleries and exhibitions, and coordinates the installation of objects in permanent, temporary and travelling exhibitions.
And, last but not least, the collection information system section manages the collections database and the digital assets management system, providing user support and training for these tools.
I would now like to introduce Karen Peterson, who is the associate registrar of documentation, archives and digitisation.
KAREN PETERSON: Welcome. Before I start on discussing the Saw Doctor’s wagon itself and the work we have done on it, I wanted to give a brief overview of its history. Many of you have probably been down there and had a look at it in the main Hall but I will give you a bit of background. The story of the Saw Doctor’s wagon started in 1935 when Harold Wright, a young English migrant, converted a horse-drawn wagon into a workshop and home. Named the Road Urchin, for the next 34 years it travelled throughout eastern Australia as Harold offered his services as a tinker.
Later it was modified to be pulled by tractor as well, and an array of files, wheels, stones and other equipment for sharpening and repairing domestic utensils and saws were fitted to the right side of the wagon. The left side became his wife [Dorothy] Jean’s domain allowing her to store personal and domestic items, both there and in the living quarters at the back. During this time Harold and [Dorothy] Jean also raised a daughter, Evelyn May, who is the child there in the photo [image shown], while still living and working on the road. They never did settle down in one place and continued the same pattern of life until Harold’s death in 1969.
Eight years later the vehicles and their contents came to the attention of Peter and Wyn Herry who, recognising its unique story and historical importance, acquired it where it remained until it was offered to the Museum in 2002. There is a view of one side of that wagon with living quarters at the back there. [image shown]
The Saw Doctor’s wagon would probably be one of the most complex and daunting collections I have had to work with in my career, and I will go on to explain why that is shortly. But I should let you know to start with that there are at least 3000 loose items attached to that wagon. So we are not just talking about the wagon itself and the trailer that pulled it, but all the little bits and pieces that actually were contained within it.
Over the next few minutes I hope to be able to give you a bit of an insight into not only those challenges but also an understanding of how good control documentation will mean the difference between having an historically significant collection or just having a bunch of stuff because, if you are not controlling that information, then you don’t really know what you’ve got.
I should also let you know there are two types of documentation. There is the contextual history, historical documentation - sort of the how, why, where and who used and made these things. Then there is also the physical documentation that helps us account for what we have and how we manage that. My main concern today is in the latter, the physical documentation, and how that is informed by that historical contextual information.
I should also note that what I outline here today is only a very small part of what the documentation staff do. However, it really is a core part of our job. With any documentation undertaken we always allocate unique numbers; we provide a physical description; we record measurements; take images; and assign a bar code. All of that allows us to identify and track items while they are stored, moved, accessed, displayed and loaned out all over the place.
So where do you start? At the National Museum, because we collect objects for the stories they tell, we need to first of all look at the entire collection and understand the relationships between each object. The significance of the collection will often influence the documentation approach. Basically we start off with a big picture view and we work our way down to the small little detail.
In the case of the Saw Doctor’s wagon, an important part of its significance lies in the layout and organisation of the components on the wagon and the tractor that I spoke of earlier. After consultation with the owners it was clear that little had probably altered or moved since it had first been placed into their storage. This is an image of the front part of the wagon in storage at the Herrys’ place [image shown] that gives you a bit of a picture of the sheer volume of material.
A decision was made to retain as much as possible in its existing context because it physically reflects the personality of the man, his trade and lifestyle, including his desire to keep everything with the intention of using it. This is what we faced when staff first came upon it [image shown]. As you can see Harold Wright used every nook and cranny he could to squirrel things away, so we were faced with documenting thousands of these individual items - from the big items of the wagon itself right down to small loose nuts, bolts and nails.
To ensure that we can in the future reconstruct this entire wagon as we found it when needed, a mapping system using images and numbering was devised to be able to locate everything back onto the wagon. This had to be done at the outset before its move to the Museum, because all the loose items had to be removed from the vehicles to reduce the risk of damage or loss while it was in transit. You can imagine with around 3,000 items bouncing around that is not the best way to move it, so we had to remove everything off it.
A very simple approach was taken to allocate areas around the wagon [slide shown]. You can see the right-hand side, left-hand side, designated areas, and then further divide those into some manageable sections. In a collaborative effort registration, conservation and curatorial staff, while there for the uplift, numbered and tagged all these components from which the loose items had been removed, doing the same also for the loose items themselves. Then each of those numbers were related back to one of these sections. We had to number each of these little containers, so then we could number the items back to them. It was a very tiered system.
There are some examples of the container with the compartments and with the items [image shown]. They were all put into a tub and we allocated a number for that tub. There were some little loose items that we had to take off, then they were individually tagged and packed. Overall there were 135 compartments, about 200 groups and individual loose items were tagged, and around 800 images were taken in situ during this process to ensure a visual record was made of the context.
These images are a bit grainy [images shown]. This is ten years ago when we were using a Mavica camera which is what we were using. They were our digital cameras of the time and they used these big floppy disks. There are 16 disks and now you could easily fit those onto one little card. You can see how much more work was involved back then just to simply take images and how much better quality, too, the images are that today that we could take compared to these ones.
The collection made it to the Museum’s storage facility, and enough had been done to get it there safely and securely. But now there was a need to get even greater control before items started to be separated out to go into storage, for conservation work and for display and before we ran the risk of losing that context permanently. So the team documented the wagon and the tractor themselves first, and then they allocated unique numbers to each of these containers on the wagon - all 135 of them. Then from there we had to ask ourselves the question: do we document each and every single little loose piece on this wagon, all 3000 or more of them? In an ideal world we would love nothing more than to do that, but resources and time often don’t allow for this. But nevertheless it is still imperative that we can account for each and every item. Instead what we did with quite a few is that we grouped like objects and just documented them as a unit and ensured they weren’t separated out.
As you can imagine being a saw doctor, there must have been probably 1,000 files to go through. [images shown] You can see the range of material: there’s a Women’s Day magazine down to the tools of the trade, the grinding stones and the odd adornments Harold Wright made for the truck, loose pieces. He must have had a pretty amazing imagination, I think. There is the lawn mower cleaned up [image shown].
Staff also faced some other challenges throughout the process. An often hidden but always threat is the potential presence of hazardous materials and environments. We are not always certain of the environment that objects have been have been used in when they come to the Museum. For example, this had been in someone’s shed on a farm, and we don’t know what they also stored in that shed; we don’t know what activities they undertook in that shed; so we have to be quite careful with the material when it comes in as it could be covered in some sort of dust or something. Usually we get conservation staff to help us identify any suspicious residues or inherent toxic materials like arsenic, asbestos or DDT.
In this example the Saw Doctor’s wagon actually did have some cans of DDT and other poisons buried inside it. Because it was so dusty and there was such a high volume of objects, the registration staff working on this were also kitted out in the proper safety gear and equipment and instructed in the correct handling and cleaning procedures for cleaning the objects and also with conservation’s help the appropriate removal of toxins like DDT. You never know what you get when we receive objects into the Museum.
Another challenge also was the identification of objects which often require research, referencing and consultation with curatorial staff and conservators. It is important that when we are naming and describing objects that we use the correct and straightforward terminology or descriptions, because it can actually change the whole significance of an object. As an example, does anyone have any idea what that might be? [image shown] Well, it happens to be a handmade toaster for an open fire.
When you are working through a wagon that is full of this sort of material, you do have to rely on people’s information, knowledge and research as well as just what it could look like. The other thing at the other end – [image shown] I am sorry it’s not a very good image - in its usual life it’s an axe head but we call it an anvil because Harold Wright actually modified that axe head so he could use it as a portable anvil. What might initially seem like one thing or actually even be a discarded piece of rubbish may in fact intrinsically reflect the character of the owner in that he reused and repurposed things. So we have to be very careful about how we name and describe things, because it could change the whole meaning of it.
Finally, can anyone tell me what they think this container might be that was attached to the bottom of the wagon - aside from those who know already?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: We thought it was for a dog or cat.
KAREN PETERSON: Very good, it is. You can come and work in registration. It is actually the dog box for one of their dogs and I think there is a chain hanging down in there – you may not be able to see it very well. They had not only dogs, I think you may have seen in a family shot that they had cats and even took chickens on the road as well. It is a fascinating object. For us it was a great lesson in how we learn and manage these types of objects – and describe them - because when it’s so personalised, created and managed that way, we have to ensure that we are also reflecting that personal nature.
I won’t go on much further and just thank you for your attention and patience. I will now pass the baton on to George Serras, our senior photographer, who will discuss the photography undertaken on the Saw Doctor’s wagon.
GEORGE SERRAS: Welcome everyone and thanks for coming. Karen pointed out a few interesting things particularly from the staff point of view. We are the fortunate ones to get up close to the collection and experience the offerings of our collection. I think visitors have that opportunity as well when you go and see the exhibit down below.
Photography faced a couple of challenges. At 9.2 metres in length, the object is one of the larger ones that we have photographed. Because it was not very mobile, we had to create a studio environment up at 90 Vicars Street, Mitchell, which is where the wagon was housed. What we ended up doing was [image shown] placing some white paper around it to create a starting point for an image that could then be used for multiple purposes to meet web, publishing, education, marketing and public affairs’ needs - we started off with an image that laid the foundation for multiple usages.
When we first captured the Saw Doctor’s wagon it was back in 2003, and digital technology wasn’t quite up to the standard as what it is now. We had a Nikon camera which was professional in its day of about 5.3 megapixels so it didn’t produce huge results and it output at about 17 megabytes. We have a camera down here which is analog, it’s a film-based medium format camera. Because the technology at the time with film was that bit more ahead, we were able to capture medium format transparencies and have them scanned to then meet our output needs. Similar to what Karen was saying, we are talking about records in an analogue way and crossing over to digital as technologies developed. What we had to do was create some clean images for deep etching purposes. They were little details that were needed for a particular publication that we were working on. Bits of card were placed behind it in order to create the details that we were seeking.
There were also challenges when it came to capturing elements of the Saw Doctor’s wagon which have been used in the multimedia display down below. Jen Wilson, the curator who is here in the crowd, was a patient assistant because quite often I got her to position reflector boards to turn some of these images, which were quite challenging to photograph. We have elements where the exposure to sun would craze the photographic emulsion and in other cases we had the buckling of an image due to humidity and moisture. Things such as this for different metals were highlighted using particular lighting and the use of reflector boards were challenging. You had to keep on persevering until you were happy with being able to reveal the beauty of these intimate elements to the public, because for us who were up close we could see how these elements would change according to the light. That is, once they became illuminated they would start to glow and tell their own story. Trying to convey that for others to share was a challenge and our perseverance meant that we had to keep working towards getting there.
You can see the diversity of all the elements within the Saw Doctor’s wagon and how we were just lighting them to highlight elements. It continues to be a very busy object and trying to minimise the chaos and come up with some form of visual interpretation was the challenge. I don’t know how you can turn this into something clear [image shown]. It was never meant to be that way, was it? I think it sums up the character of Harold Wright with very personalised imagery.
I was very fortunate to be able to photograph the interior for the multimedia component to give people not only an opportunity to view the Saw Doctor’s wagon from the outside but also to get a sense of the interior. It was like being in someone’s bedroom or living-room all together. I felt somewhat strange as well as a bit voyeuristic in a way - being in a place where I felt I shouldn’t be but a desire to reveal elements of the interior so others can share it. It’s a very moving story that is reflected by the postcards, the photos and all the elements - most of them quite crazy in how they have been put together. This is a series of panels that were photographed on the inside [image shown]. I was just talking to Karen yesterday about this little cutout [image shown]. I have no idea how it comes into the equation but it is just so beautiful, this mosaic.
It was a very tight environment, and using a portable studio flash system - a mains-free travel kit - allowed us to get some nice interior shots. You can get a sense of the tightness of it with one of the beds down here [image shown]. It was very cosy for three people and a dog. This is very beautiful - the doors at the entry and the exit from the rear are saloon doors.
I would now like to introduce Ian Cramer from the Locations team to talk about the uplift, installation and transport of the Saw Doctor’s wagon.
IAN CRAMER: My name is Ian. My job is basically with the locations side of things. The Saw Doctor’s wagon wasn’t discovered, it had been known of for a number of years on this farm at Wangaratta. The Herrys were getting on in age and were looking at selling up their fairly extensive collections of almost everything and were going to be moving into town. The sequence was that one of the curators and one of the conservators visited them, had a look at it, left there reeling and came staggering back to Canberra. I was given a large number of very blurry, dark photographs and told, ‘This is the most amazing thing you have ever seen. It’s definitely on our “must have” list but we haven’t got a clue how we are going to do it.’
It was described to me as: Step 1, there it is sitting in the barn; Step 3, it’s in Canberra where we can work on it; Step 2 was the somewhat large box with ‘miracle happens here’, which is what I did. Actually it wasn’t just me, it was a heap of other people.
One of the things you don’t quite get when you look at these images is these were taken with a fairly serious flash. It was actually really dark in there. All the documentation shots that Karen refers to were done in the dark. The problem we had with the digital cameras at the time was that every time you took a flash it churned the batteries right down. One of the hassles was simply that you couldn’t actually see what you were doing easily. This shows what it was like [image shown], except imagine it like that but in the middle of a dust storm in the dark and you are getting a bit more of an idea.
Having looked initially at these really dark photos - and these aren’t the ones; these are ones I did a bit later - I came up with a cunning plan that before we started anything at all we had to get a handle on what the hassle was with this thing. So a group of us from the Museum, along with one of our transport providers, went down for one day to Wangaratta. It was a hell of a drive. We flew down the highway, had two hours in Wang, hammered back and on the way back you are sitting there going, ‘We have a ripe one here.’
On that initial one-day look – sort of reconnaissance - we worked out the issues we were going to be dealing with were fragility, size, complexity and the number of loose items.
The fragility: the thing looks relatively robust until you know that it’s actually made of paper, cardboard, bits of cloth - all manner of stuff just stuck together - and then a large amount of paint holding it all together and making it supposedly waterproof.
The size: George has just said that it was nine point something metres long. That was just slightly too wide to fit in any truck that is covered, and the conservators on this first trip were saying that it has to be covered. With something that fragile, if you are driving up the highway at 100 ks [km/hour], it is going to be somewhat like grabbing a ripe dandelion and blowing it. By the time you get to Canberra there is not going to be an awful lot left to conserve - granted it is a job creation scheme for conservation but they didn’t quite see it that way.
The other issue involved was the vast numbers of loose items. Ideally in a perfect world you would put the whole thing in suspended animation and move it as is to Canberra. The problem was we had to remove all the stuff for two reasons: firstly, to stop it rattling around and punching holes through the fabric of the thing itself; and secondly, and just as importantly, we had no way of moving it except on its tyres. We didn’t know what the condition of the tyres was. One of the tractor’s tyres was completely shot.
We noted all these problems and driving on the way back we are going, ‘How are we going to deal with it?’ The supposedly cunning plan I came up with was that we would take it in two bites. The first one is that a whole team of us would go there for a week, pack everything and documenting, as Karen has said, just using photographs because like I said it is dark. When you look on the side of the wagon, which is the work side, you will see tin mugs and things braised to the side. Each of them had 50 to 100 rat tail files in them, and then there were other things hidden under, on top, around and hanging off. The only way to know where to put it was to keep photographing, photographing. Then it would be taken off, put into a plastic tub, and brought outside. Breaking it down and removing all that stuff took four of us for a week. We hired a 3-tonne truck and I took it full of gear. We actually took the bits off, cleaned them up just blowing them off with air. Once the dust was off, we took second photographs as some of the stuff looked quite different. We then wrapped it all up, put a tag on with the numbers we were using and packed it up. After a week I drove the 3-tonne truck back here and we all took some leave.
The second lot was a couple of months later, from memory, to take the two items: the wagon and tractor themselves. This took eight people about two days. There is an action shot of me actually working so it’s an historic photograph [image shown]. At that stage we had just winched the thing out. There is a nice shot of the Herrys [image shown]. That was the first time it had actually been outside in 30 to 35 years. I figured it was a nice thing to have them sitting there with one of their dogs saying goodbye to it.
The next tricky bit was how to move it to Canberra. The hassle was I had a large semi booked; I had frames ready to erect on the semi to actually make a big shed around the whole thing. So that was the first bit. Then we winched it on carefully, and there again the hassle is you are using tyres which haven’t been inflated for a long time. The angles were all wrong. The wagon has huge overhangs front and rear. That’s it once we got the thing onto the tilt tray [image shown] and from that stage we reversed out against the semi and then rolled it across. This shows me doing an Evil Knievel impersonation putting the stuff together. You end up with a whole lot of people who are quite surprised by what you are actually getting paid to do. This shows a shot of the semi with the frame fully erect and the first of the tarps [image shown]. I just said to the transport company, ‘I want the biggest semi you’ve got and your three biggest tarps.’ We just wrapped it up and that’s it. The only thing that doesn’t show very easily in that shot is that it was almost completely dark by that stage.
That’s it when it got to Mitchell. You can imagine from Wangaratta up to Canberra hammering along there is quite a lot of time for something to go horribly wrong. That is wheeling the tractor in with the completely destroyed wheel [image shown]. When we were taking the parts off, we took along some tools and stuff to remove the wheel. We took the spare and brought it back to Canberra. In the couple of months between the second time and the final move, I got conservation to actually cut the old tyre off, put the new one on, pump it up. We took that back and fitted it to the tractor, and that was how we moved it.
[images shown] That actually shows it slightly after George took his iconic photos. You see the remains of the backdrop but now it’s on a trolley. One of the things we did once we got it back to Canberra was we spent a substantial amount of money building a frame. One of the things with transporting objects in the museum environment is that, if something is fragile, you make a support for it. Then the whole thing is that you move the support, not the object. The object just sits there on top, if you get it right. This shows the front end of the support. At the moment in the Hall it is still on the full support. The grey part is removable for display. That shows it outside ready to move.
Six months after we got it back to Canberra - I think this was as part of the agreement - it went on display in Melbourne. This time we could use a very big forklift and, like I said, you are lifting the big steel frame that is under it. So the whole thing went plonk, straight onto a truck. Once again, dot the dots except with forklifts because it is easier, put the frame together, put the tarps up and all that. That was the second time we moved it to and from Melbourne.
This shot here shows the wagon early October this year, ten years later. Once again, we were preparing it to move it in here. So once again you just get a very big forklift and pick the whole thing up. This time we had to put it onto a flat-bed truck as opposed to a long semi for two reasons: one, we didn’t need to put the frame around it, you just had to move it in really good weather. I was getting rather good at doing weather dances at that stage. And two is the turning circle required to get the thing into the Hall. You have to take it right round the back in those double doors in the corner of the restaurant area and you could never get a semi in there. [image shown] That takes a lot of skill by the truck operator, a real finesse.
One of the great things in the job here that makes life easier for me is when I know the people I am dealing with have that level of skill and they can get it to that level of detail. That shows that basically we had got it right. So it’s being wheeled off down the ramps. The problem with the deck around the back is that it’s not strong enough. The timber is disintegrating - it’s not disintegrating but it could - and the steel underneath isn’t too bad so you sheet it off. We have two layers of 12mm ply to spread the load and we have to keep putting the 12mm ply until we get inside. We even had to put the 12mm ply over the carpet boot cleaning strip. Once we got inside there was one more sheet to go down because we are using two sheets of ply. So we go down to one sheet and then down to the ground, otherwise there is a great thump and bits fall off. That basically is it. Thank you. [applause]
QUESTION: Had the possums actually been inside the wagon as well as underneath it?
IAN CRAMER: You couldn’t really tell.
KAREN PETERSON: There could have been possum poo inside.
IAN CRAMER: There probably was, but I didn’t go inside. I shoved a conservator inside, along with another of my colleagues. I was doing the bit outside in the fresh air with compressed air cleaning the stuff off as things were being handed out to me.
QUESTION: This is just a comment. It shows how remarkable this Saw Doctor’s wagon is that it was kept dry but, even if it was dry with rats and possums around, someone could have come in and just set a match to that because it’s not worth it. But it looks so fantastic.
IAN CRAMER: It was not exactly entombed but buried in the back end of this farm and would have been impossible to get to unless you knew where it was. It was certainly secure. That was the great thing the Herrys did - they secured it so that eventually we could get it. There was some damage. There were leaks to some areas of the roof where some of the bits of cardboard had rotted through. They were replaced by Conservation in the six-month period from when we first got it until when we took it down to Melbourne.
QUESTION: How are you going to conserve the photographs? Aren’t those floppy disks now unreadable?
GEORGE SERRAS: Karen can talk about the floppy disks, but they have been loaded onto our server. We have a collection management system and also we are almost implementing a digital asset management system which will look after all our digital files. All the film is archived in archival sleeves and kept in a controlled environment, so the transparencies are okay. The digital files that have been captured from the early stages to the more recent periods are being managed by our IT section through digital preservation procedures, but maybe Karen could add some more.
KAREN PETERSON: After those images were taken on those disks, when people came back to our office they could transfer them onto the computers so we didn’t have to keep them stored in those disks. As George said, in the ten years since that time, we have sought to improve the way we store and manage those digital images because we in the Museum, like everyone else, is affected by changes in technology and new ways of doing things. We have to try to keep up with that and look at how to best manage it. One of the ways to do that is have this new type of database and storage system that will allow for us to manage those images. It becomes even more and more important these days to create images.
I should point out that Documentation do take a lot of images but we take them for identification purposes. The aim is to get a good enough shot so that you can look at it and compare it to the object. If down the track say its label comes off or something like that, you want to make sure that is the object that you thought it was compared to the record by comparing it to the image. Whereas Photography take higher resolution images that are of publication quality. Their images are put out there for publication, whereas ours are more for internal use. That has probably answered a bit more than what you were asking.
QUESTION: I wondered whether you know if there are any descendants of the family still alive.
KAREN PETERSON: I believe the daughter moved away after Harold passed away. There has been no further knowledge.
QUESTION: Do you have any documentation about when it was first built and their life on the road?
KAREN PETERSON: I will look to the curators as well for this. My understanding was that there has been quite a lot over the years. He was quite a well-known personality on the road. Over the years quite a few articles have been written about him, his travels and stories. A particularly well-known one, but I can’t recall the publication, is where a whole chapter in that book was dedicated to him and his story. I think there was also some film footage taken of him during that time.
CAROL COOPER: There is a little bit of film footage, which unfortunately is just when the Herrys moved the wagon from the yard where it was discovered to their farm, which is still remarkable. It was certainly in a lot better condition at that point than when it was found. Yes, the family were interviewed by journalists and that is where a lot of the lovely quotes have come from. He was quite a philosophical person, and the journalist who wrote up the story wrote it very well.
This has been a real tribute to you all to see this here because it makes me think - the Museum produced a children’s publication about it - it would such a wonderful publication about the whole story, especially about how it was found and those photographs, because it’s a remarkable story of survival of something which is quite extraordinary. I have looked at a lot of the photos of the early tinkers wagons that were in Australia at the time and they are nothing like this wagon. The fact that it looks so beautiful now together with the amazing project that we did for this particular installation in the Hall with the multimedia where we got George [Serras] to take photographs of all the photographs both externally and internally. Karolina [Kilian] and some of our multimedia people have produced that multimedia piece that has been put together to tell the story with some of the quotes, but it is really an abbreviated summary of what happened.
But you’re right, it’s a remarkable story. Because we have those photographs they show us a lot about the family. We had hoped over the period that the Museum has had the wagon - we have had it on display here at the Museum a couple of times and also at open days and it’s been to Melbourne as well – that, if the daughter was alive, she would have wanted to contact us in some way. Maybe some oral histories could have been done a bit earlier as well. The reason that Mr Herry took it back to his farm was that he remembered it from his childhood and he remembered how fantastic it was.
Those steps in preservation of objects like this are remarkable. Thank goodness the Museum had the resources to purchase it and also to put this considerable amount of work, staff resources and expense into hiring of trucks and things to actually bring it back to Canberra. And then the considerable work that has gone on subsequently by Registration and Conservation to bring it to the state it’s in today. It’s a fantastic effort. There is definitely room to do more to get that story out there.
QUESTION: You have the foundation now to work back and to build the story up. There should be people around who actually saw this thing in action. It’s a lot of research, I know.
IAN CRAMER: When we were recovering it, the Herrys contacted this guy who came over and had a talk to us. He had been planning to be Harold Wright’s offsider in the last 18 months or so that he was alive. This guy was a tractor mechanic who had been called out because the tractor that tows the wagon had broken down. He did the work on it and was fascinated by the whole concept. He actually tagged along with them for 18 months learning the trade about the sharpening and all the rest. He had these great ideas that he was going to take over.
The reason the wagon actually survived was that, when Harold Wright died in 1969 in Wangaratta, they were parked in the front yard of a friend’s place there. His wife stayed in that Saw Doctor’s wagon - or probably inside if she was smarter - for about six months before she left, but they had apparently very little money at all. This guy wanted to take it over and wanted to buy it from them but he didn’t have any money either. But a mate of his, as the story goes, owned the local scrap yard and he had a bit of money. So he paid the wife - I can’t remember how much it was - and he took the tractor and wagon and kept it at his yard. The idea was that this young guy would then go out and earn enough money to pay him back and head off on the road. When we were talking to this bloke, who must have been in his fifties by then, we said to him, ‘What happened?’ He basically said, ‘Well, I kind’ve got a bit of a reality check when I thought about it.’ It’s probably not the highest earning profession around. So it stayed in the yard for about seven years. And then the Herrys, who were lovely people and inveterate collectors, looked at it and he remembered it from his childhood. I think the main thing was: ‘We don’t have one of them’, so they bought it from the scrap yard and drove it to their place.
QUESTION: To me, looking into the future, there is an incredible movie in this wonderful story that should have been told.
IAN CRAMER: Yes. There are people around who remember it. I think the range was from Wangaratta up to Brisbane, wasn’t it? It was certainly up into Queensland. They just went up and down all the time. There are a lot of people who remember it from those times.
QUESTION: What you had there was a business, a home and a family virtually made from nothing, and a great example of survival and initiative - beautiful story.
IAN CRAMER: In England Harold Wright had done a full apprenticeship as a carpenter and, as part of that apprenticeship, you learn to sharpen the saw you are going to use and how to set the teeth. He came to Australia during the Depression thinking he could be a carpenter here and get by on it. He then found that there wasn’t much money in carpentry because everyone was having a go with saws but not many knew how to reset them. I think he started on a bicycle just pedalling around based from Brisbane. After a while he got enough money and got a horse and cart.
In the middle of the wagon when you look closely - I don’t think the horse is still there but the cart is - you can actually see the framework of the cart in the middle. Then after a while the horse died, probably from exhaustion. Mind you, the photos of the horse make it look like it was an enormous thing. When the horse died, Harold decided that he would put it on a truck. It was a 1926 Chev[y] truck that was put underneath. Then apparently in the early 1960s the problem was there were little things like laws -
QUESTION: Yes, licences.
IAN CRAMER: Yes, licensing and all the rest. The Victorian equivalent of the RTA took one look at this and said, ‘Mate, I think you are a bit over the axle loading.’ Could you imagine trying to do that now? OH&S would freak out. Are there any sharp protrusions? Apart from the inverted saw blades all over it - not much.
QUESTION: Whereabouts are the flicker lights?
IAN CRAMER: There are several hundred of them; they just don’t all work. Anyway, the truck is also in the middle of that. The two wheels you can see there [image shown] are the truck back wheels. That bit is actually the cab. That’s the back wheel, the diff and all the rest is all still there. That’s the cab and actually the drivers’ seats are inside that bit there.
What Harold did was he read the rules carefully because this truck was not going to pass. He pulled the front axle off, hoicked it, did the same for the engine and gearbox, but there is still a prop shaft underneath the front seat. He chucked it all out. He welded the whole thing up into a great long A-frame front end, hooked a tractor off to it and off he set. That is because the fine print at the back of the road users handbook says that anything towed by a tractor is classified as a farm implement and therefore is exempt from legislation. So he was very clever.
QUESTION: There is a lot of science in it. When you look at the way he did it and then you think of the way they build a space station, packing stuff in, there is a lot of early science in there. It’s incredible.
IAN CRAMER: That’s another movie, isn’t it, Harold Wright in space.
SARA KELLY: Thank you very much everyone. I hope you enjoy going down and looking at the wagon again perhaps with fresh eyes after hearing and seeing this. Thank you very much Karen, George and Ian.
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Date published: 3 January 2013