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Spirit of Inquiry in Port Macquarie

Roslyn Russell, National Museum of Australia, 13 June 2009

CAROLYN FORSTER: We are delighted that we have Roslyn Russell to speak to us today. Apart from Ros working at the National Museum of Australia here, Ros has been part of the Friends for quite some long while because Ros is editor extraordinaire of our Friends magazine. It would not look as it does without Ros’s wonderful expertise.

Ros is a historian and museum specialist and editor of the Friends magazine, as I mentioned, and has been working part time at the Museum as a curator in Gallery Development. She is working on the ‘Spirit of Inquiry’ module for the new gallery to be opened in 2011, as some of our other speakers are working on that new gallery.

She has been working in the area of history and museums for over 20 years, both in Australia and overseas. She is the author of several books on Australian history. Her most recent publications are Ever Manning: Selected Letters of Manning Clark 1938-1991, published in 2008, and she is the co-author of Significance 2.0, published last month by the Collections Council of Australia. She recently retired from the position of managing editor of Museums Australia Magazine, which she held from late 2000.

Roslyn’s next book will be an illustrated biography of the ornithologist John Gould for the National Library of Australia, to be published in 2010. She is also very involved in UNESCO’s Memory of the World program. Ros came and spoke to us about that some while ago - it’s a fascinating program for the preservation of documentary heritage and Ros is a member of the International Advisory Committee which will have its ninth meeting in Barbados next month. I am delighted to introduce you to Roslyn Russell and she is going to speak about the Spirit of Inquiry in Port Macquarie. Thanks for coming today, Ros.

ROSLYN RUSSELL: Thank you, Carolyn, for those kind words. I am speaking today about the work I have been doing on ‘Spirit of Inquiry in Port Macquarie’. ‘Spirit of Inquiry’ is a module for our new permanent gallery that deals with scientific investigation in various places around the country. Port Macquarie is one; Townsville is another; and our own Australian National University (ANU) just across the way here, is the third. I have chosen to talk about Port Macquarie today because it has some fascinating storylines that I am going to briefly sketch for you in this time we have together.

‘Spirit of Inquiry’ in Port Macquarie is focused around amateur science. Some of the other exhibits deal with medical science and other forms of applied science at a professional level, but for the Port Macquarie one we have chosen to look at amateur scientists working on their own interests in this particular place. As you would know if you have been to other talks about the new permanent gallery, the connection between people and their activities in a place is fundamental to the new gallery’s underlying ethos. So amateur science in Port Macquarie is the focus, and the amateur science that most covers these storylines and exhibits is that of astronomy, although there are other amateur scientific pursuits that I will also look at - hence the setting sun going down over the mouth of the Hastings River [image shown].

Before we go to Port Macquarie though, I want to talk a bit about amateur science in New South Wales in the nineteenth century, because that is where our first storyline originates with the figure of Alexander Macleay who came out to Australia in 1826 as Colonial Secretary. He was already a Fellow of the Royal Society and an eminent person with a wonderful collection of entomology. He brought with him his scientific enthusiasms and six of his children. He needed some money because he was running into financial problems in England, and of course coming out to the colonies for a good job was a good way to repair your fortunes. We now know his name from the Macleay Museum in the University of Sydney. He and his family’s collections were the foundation collections for that wonderful museum in Sydney.

It’s a bit of a side tangent in a sense talking about Alexander Macleay, but I am dragging him in and in that context of colonial science because it was with this household that our first storyline interest, Annabella Boswell, was concerned. Alexander Macleay’s household was unique, I suspect, in the early colonial society of New South Wales because it was one of educated women. The girls there studied not just botany but entomology, zoology, ornithology, marine biology - all the other ologies - astronomy, horticulture and landscape gardening. They were very well educated indeed. They had a wonderful library that had fantastic features and its list of contents gives an insight, as Elizabeth Windschuttle says, to the first family of intellectuals in New South Wales. What was in their library? All these things [image shown]. It was a wonderful collection that was brought out to what was pretty much an intellectual wasteland for a long time until people like Alexander Macleay promoted colonial science and created a nucleus of people who were interested in scientific pursuits.

He was one of the foundational inspirations for the first actual museum founded in New South Wales, the Australian Museum, which was founded in 1827 in his office in the Colonial Secretary’s department. You can see the family of the Macleays, particularly the girls, were much better educated than many of their peers. One of them, Fanny Macleay, was herself a very keen botanical illustrator and in these days would have had a wonderful professional career. So keep those ideas about Alexander Macleay and his family connections and his family ethos in your minds as I keep on talking.

We are now heading up the coast to Port Macquarie to a man called Archibald Innes. Archibald Innes was the commandant of the convict settlement at Port Macquarie in 1826 after it had been established in 1821. He wasn’t particularly successful in that job but while he was in Port Macquarie he had a chance to scope out the territory and see what kind of place it was going to be - spotted that it was the entrepot for a hinterland full of timber and access to the New England plateau. As soon as he was discharged from his army position and as soon as free settlement was allowed in the area, he applied for a land grant, and in the same year as he applied for a land grant, he married Margaret Macleay, the daughter of Alexander Macleay, one of those well-educated women from the Macleay household. They went to live up at a place called Lake Burrawan by the Aboriginal people - he promptly called it Lake Innes after himself.

The construction of his estate began in 1830-31 and was completed in 1838-39 with the help of much convict labour. The system was that you got your land grant and you applied for a number of convicts. You then had to bear the expense of those convicts’ board and lodging, but they gave you free labour. Many colonial fortunes were based on this system.

Archibald Innes was from a well-connected family. He came from Scotland from a place called Thrumster. He devised his own coat of arms - you can see it there on one of his book plates [image shown] - which was completely illegal and unofficial. The College of Arms in London knew nothing about it, but he had his own ideas about what his coat of arms should look like and had it reproduced. This is some of the traces of the colonial era that he would have known in Port Macquarie - some graves on the hill above Town Beach showing the grave of a man who was shot by escaping convicts [image shown].

Archibald Innes built a magnificent house called Lake Innes House. There is a little model in the Port Macquarie Historical Museum, a kitschy model with plastic flowers and so on, but it does give you an idea of the kind of house it was. It was built around a U-shape with a central tower from which he could look out across the water and see his ships, because he had shipping interests as well as agricultural interests in Lake Innes itself, coming up towards the harbour mouth at Port Macquarie. The inside of the house was very luxurious. It was fabled amongst people who visited. They came and saw the luxury of what was for people from Britain a colonial outpost with its damask wallpaper, chandeliers, beautiful paintings and art works. There was a painting about which someone came in and said, ‘Oh a Paulo and here in colonial New South Wales in the 1830s.’ It actually wasn’t a painting by Paulo Veronese; it was by his son. Nevertheless, Innes owned some remarkable art works and also a remarkable library.

He also had a huge stables complex, an extensive well-built stables. He boasted that he could supply a mount any guest that came to stay. His hospitality was legendary. He was also extremely extravagant. One of the people to whom he extended hospitality over a long period was his niece Annabella Innes, who was later Annabella Boswell. Annabella was the daughter of his brother George. She and her mother and sister and their father had stayed at Lake Innes House in the late 1830s for George’s health. He was poorly. I suspect he probably had tuberculosis, as many people did in those days. He gradually faded and he died in 1841. After going backwards and forwards from various properties, Mrs Innes, Annabella and her sister Margaret came to live up at Lake Innes House with their uncle, who said to her mother, ‘My house is yours. You sit at my right hand. Everything I have is open to you.’ His hospitality was extended to this family of his brother for about six or seven years.

Annabella Innes is our first character in this story. She was a young girl. She came to Lake Innes House at about the age of 14 up to the age of 18 to 20. She kept a meticulous journal. She was a meticulous observer and she was also a botanical watercolourist. Where did she learn all these skills? In the household of the Macleays in Sydney, because when she lived in Sydney she was at school there but it wasn’t very satisfactory and the Macleays took her in. She became a special protégé of Fanny Macleay, the lady I mentioned before who was a botanical watercolourist and scientist, who wanted to adopt her she was so keen on her, but she didn’t. Annabella learned at the feet of these educated women in the Macleay household the skills of observation that she brought to her journal, to her observations of the night sky and to her botanical watercolours.

[Image shown] There is Annabella as a young girl, probably in her mid-teens at the time she wrote her journal. That is a photograph that is held in the Port Macquarie Historical Museum. She actually wrote the journal at the time but then much later in life she went back and revisited it. So the journal, as it was published first of all in the late nineteenth century and then again in 1965, was essentially her going back and looking at it interpolating some material as commentary and then there are verbatim reports. Even looking back 20 or 30 years later, she remembers the first day she came to live at Lake Innes House. She describes the beauty of the environment, the lovely gardens and how gorgeous it was - obviously in memory it lived on for her. That is what it looks like today [image shown]. It is still pretty and quite nice, but the beautiful gardens, the beautiful house and so on are well and truly not there any more. But it is still a lovely setting.

Annabella was educated by another Macleay woman - her aunt Margaret Innes, formerly Margaret Macleay who had married Archibald - was her tutor there at Lake Innes House, so she carried on the education provided by her sister Fanny in Sydney. Annabella reflected as a mother herself - she had four children when she finally grew up - on how her aunt managed to make the time to educate all these children she had. She had three children of her own, two daughters and a son, and the two girls from her brother-in-law’s family. You can see the kinds of things they did: they went at 10 o’clock to school; they read the usual religious things that people did in those days; they had lessons; they wrote dictation and so on. Obviously they were very apt pupils and she was a very diligent teacher. They also had access to the books that Archibald Innes had in his library. A few things are still held by the Port Macquarie Historical Museum.

In 1843, just a year after she came to live at Lake Innes, there was the comet of 1843 - not Halley’s comet but a preceding one, and Annabella put her powers of observation to use. Here is where we have our connection with colonial astronomy, because she gave us for posterity a detailed description of what this comet looked like. I will give you just one example. She talks about the day where they watched for the comet. It appeared. She talks about what it looks like and gives quite a detailed description of how it is positioned in relation to other stars. She knows the astronomical terms like the zenith, for example. There is more of this - this goes on for a fortnight. She gives a precise and detailed description. Remember this is a girl of 14 or 15 years. It is quite impressive that she was so diligent about recording this natural phenomenon.

She also took up painting wildflowers. She would have been taught flower painting in Sydney by school teachers and by Fanny Macleay. There is a story that goes along with this, where she is talking of her former love of drawing reviving. What had happened was that she had had one teacher who didn’t like the way she painted or drew. She said, ‘No, that is no good. That is bad practice. You must do this,’ and she gave them classical busts, pictures to copy and things like that, which basically stifled Annabella’s creativity and made her work in a very formulaic kind of way. But once free from that influence and seeing the flowers in their natural environment around Port Macquarie, it sparked her interest in botanical illustration again. Dido was her cousin. They resolved to paint at least one wildflower per week. This is very typical of Annabella Boswell. She has programs of things that she is going to do. She also makes lots of clothes and has lots of gossipy conversations in her journal. But you can see the sense of a young woman very determined to record things properly and to have a program of work that she carried out on a regular basis.

Here are some photographs of her drawings [images shown]. These are not very good photographs. We will get much better ones for the exhibition in the gallery. This is the convolvulus plant and various other plants that you will see in much better form when we borrow them from the Port Macquarie Historical Museum for the gallery next year.

Lake Innes House where Annabella lived is now a ruin [image shown]. It is one of the few genuine ruins in Australia; we don’t have very many ruins. It is not particularly gothic but it is interesting to see what the grand house that Archibald Innes created has come to today. It was a bit like Sleeping Beauty’s castle. You can see the convict-made bricks. I have one of these bricks on the table that you can look at later on, which was lent to me very kindly by the Port Macquarie Historical Museum. If you look very carefully you will see what is called a frog mark. There are about six different frog marks from the Lake Innes archaeological collection of bricks made by individual convict makers. They made them from clay on the estate and baked them there. The whole thing was self-sufficient. He had a home farm and all those kinds of things as well. Each maker had his own mark. That brick has the ‘I’ mark which actually stands for Innes. Someone decided to put Innes rather than their own mark on it.

Here are the ruins of those magnificent stables [image shown]. They are quite amazing: extensive and very well built. Archibald Innes was able to command the best colonial artisans. He could pick and choose the best people to work for him.

I mentioned Sleeping Beauty’s castle before. Margaret Innes had access to lots of botanical cuttings, because Alexander Macleay was part of that great network of people who were sending plants around the globe from Kew Gardens that Sir Joseph Banks promoted, where they were transplanting things from one colony to the next, or from England out to Australia and other colonies as well. Margaret Innes is credited, or otherwise, with bringing into this country lantana - we don’t know whether we thank her for that or not. I haven’t got any lantana or Mysore thorn but she brought bamboo. [images shown] You can see a huge canopy of bamboo that you can still see at the entranceway to what would have been the grand entrance of Lake Innes House, a ginger plant down there and the briar rose called the Macarthur rose. Until the 1950s and 1960s this whole site was engulfed by this stuff. You can imagine there are bits of brick work sticking up out of nowhere, and masses of this kind of invasive vegetation all over the place. National Parks and Wildlife got into it and they have cleared it. They have made it a site that you can now go to and visit. If you go to Port Macquarie it is well worth going on a guided tour of the site.

This is what remains of the residential block of Lake Innes House [image shown] - think of those damask wallpapers, chandeliers and the Veronese painting. It is one of those ‘things come to ruin’ stories, I am afraid.

There is a picture of Annabella Boswell as she was later in life [image shown]. She married and went to Scotland - she was born in Australia obviously - and never returned to Australia but she had an enormous fondness for the place. Somehow or other her watercolour sketches, her diaries and photographs of her have fetched up in Port Macquarie again, and we are able to borrow them for this exhibition. She married a man called Patrick Charles Douglas Boswell, one of the large Boswell family that included the Boswell of Samuel Johnson, who was employed in the Bank of New South Wales. Then he inherited the family estate. Annabella died in 1914 so she lived a very long life. Her life spans almost the next person we are going to talk about. This is one of the volumes of her journal from Port Macquarie that we will be borrowing for the exhibition [image shown].

We go on to our next story about William John Macdonnell who was also in Port Macquarie. He was there from the 1880s to 1910. He actually died before Annabella Boswell did, but he didn’t die in Port Macquarie either. William John Macdonnell was more seriously in the amateur - but highly successful amateur - astronomer area. Annabella was a young girl very meticulously recording natural phenomena, but he was a serious scientific observer.

If you have been down in the Hall recently you will have seen the telescope that is the signature object for the ‘Spirit of Inquiry’ module for the new gallery, which was owned by William John Macdonnell. But before that he was well connected to the scientific instrument fraternity because his father was one of the principals of Brush & Macdonnell who were makers and retailers of scientific instruments in Sydney. He had a family background in scientific instrumentation so an interest in science presumably as a result.

We are going to be borrowing this pocket sextant sold by William Macdonnell’s father that is in the collection of the Powerhouse Museum [image shown]. William Macdonnell as well as being an amateur astronomer was also a bank official and he, like Patrick Boswell, worked for the Bank of New South Wales. This is the Bank of New South Wales building in Port Macquarie which was relatively new when he came there in the mid-1880s to manage the bank [image shown]. That is a ledger we are going to borrow from the Westpac archives showing his signature as bank manager at Port Macquarie [image shown].

He built an observatory behind the bank, a dinky little wooden number with a dome and all the rest of it [image shown]. You can see the telescope pointing out and William John Macdonnell standing in front of it. This is from the Morton album held at the Port Macquarie museum which has these wonderful photographs of Port Macquarie going right back to the late 1800s, including these wonderful examples of photographs of William Macdonnell and his observatory which housed the telescope that you can see downstairs in the Hall. When we found this photograph it was tremendous, because Kirsten Wehner’s father Hermann, who is a Friend of the Museum, was in the process of fixing up Macdonnell’s telescope and Kirsten tells me they were very pleased to have this photograph so that they could look at how it was assembled in situ.

This is the wonderful telescope that is downstairs [image shown]. I won’t talk about it much here because the information is down there. You can read it better than I can talk about it. It is a fantastic object and it is really exciting to think it is going to be our signature object for the ‘Spirit of Inquiry’ module. This telescope was used in Port Macquarie for transits and observations that were made by William John Macdonnell. He had already been involved with professional astronomers at Sydney Observatory for a transit of Venus in the 1870s and he continued to feed information to those observatories throughout his career.

[Image shown] Here is an example of a page from his transit observations that he made with this telescope at Port Macquarie observatory - that is his own personal observatory - from 1885 to 1887. We are going to be borrowing those from the State Library of New South Wales. Here is a picture of him in later life [image shown]. He fell on hard times - as did Archibald Innes. I forgot to mention that Archibald Innes fell on hard times in a major depression in the 1840s and had to give up Lake Innes House and become a gold commissioner up in Newcastle. William Macdonnell had to sell his telescope in 1895 because he couldn’t afford to keep it. He had to sell it to raise some funds as a result of the 1890s depression - these things tend to be a persistent refrain - but he continued to make observations with other scientific instruments. The telescope passed through various hands, including other astronomers, and finally came to rest here at the Museum as part of the National Historical Collection.

The last person I want to talk about is a man called Thomas Dick. He wasn’t an astronomer; he was an oyster culturist. He came from a family that virtually pioneered the oyster culture business in the Hastings. They weren’t always that popular with other people because they kind of appropriated some of the best parts of the river for growing oysters. But Thomas Dick was also a very keen amateur scientist. He was interested in everything: in mineralogy, in Aboriginal culture and in the scientific aspects of oyster culturing. The Australian Museum would buy lots of slates of oysters as specimens. He once sent a letter to them saying he had a fantastic theory about mineral specimens and their collections and could he write an article for their museum journal because he had a revolutionary theory about how these petrified fossils had come to be. The curator wrote back and said, ‘I think that the Australian Museum journal is too modest a violet for a revolutionary theory.’ They weren’t going to be sticking their necks out any time soon about revolutionary theories from Thomas Dick. But he was very respected. He was a fellow of the Royal Society of New South Wales and had articles on Aboriginal cultural objects published in their journal. We will be borrowing one of those also for ‘Spirit of Inquiry’.

One of the most important things he did was to record the traditional life of the Indigenous Birpai people of the Hastings in photographs between 1910 and 1927. [Image shown] Here he is up to his knees in water in the Hastings with oysters, as that is what he did for a living. He had a tremendous collection of Aboriginal artefacts, all sorts of geological material and things like that. But, tragically, when he died his wife discarded the lot. It’s a sad story about his death but it is a sad sequel that his wonderful collections, which he had offered to the Australian Museum which had rejected them, were dispersed or just discarded.

His family business was oyster culturing. This is a picture I took up at Port Macquarie at a place called Mud Creek, which should be called ‘mosquito creek’ because about ten entered the car as soon as we jumped in, tremendously rich for oysters, as you can see [image shown]. He recorded the activities of the Birpai people in hundreds and hundreds of photographs taken over these years. He was a very good photographer and what he did was - these people weren’t living a particularly traditional lifestyle in the early years of the twentieth century - the Birpai people were persuaded to assume roles and role play traditional life in locations around the Hastings. We can pick out some of those locations today. I am not sure that is quite the right location [image shown] but there is an Aboriginal man up there who is going to help us with putting locations with Thomas Dick photographs. Here is a gentleman standing on a sandhill with a boomerang and a shield [photo shown]. Thomas Dick set that particular picture up. I went to some of the locations where we know he took some of the photographs. This is another photo [shown] where they are in their canoes and spearing fish at one of the waterways around the Hastings Port Macquarie area at a place called Lake Cathie. We know that Thomas Dick took photographs of Aboriginal people in this kind of situation around Lake Cathie. Here is another one at Mud Creek where the oysters were [photo shown]. These are the kinds of locations in which he posed people. He also went into the mountains with them for days at a time to do other poses.

Sadly, it was at another place, Tacking Point, where he took many photographs, on his 50th birthday that Thomas Dick drowned. This is a picture of Tacking Point today [photo shown]. It is rather sad to think that many of the photographs that we know him for - there are many hundreds of them held in museums around the world. There are some held in AIATSIS across the road here, in the Australian Museum, in the Queensland Museum and in the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology in Cambridge. He has a worldwide reach in terms of his representations of Aboriginal people taken around Port Macquarie.

The Thomas Dick photograph collection is a very significant photographic collection. It is not pretending to be recording Aboriginal people as they were at the time because clearly they were not living a traditional lifestyle. But he got to them early enough for them to be able to remember what their traditional life ways were and has preserved for us a record of their traditional life in these series of photographs.

Port Macquarie is about to open, if it hasn’t already opened, a big new cultural facility called the Glasshouse. They are going to have a big display of Thomas Dick photographs in there. So if you are in Port Macquarie at any time, it would be worth having a look at the Glasshouse exhibition. They are also going to have Indigenous implements in the floor and things like this. They have done the whole thing with the agreement of the local Aboriginal community and there are various agreements as to what they can and can’t show. We, of course, will abide by the same agreements. For ‘Spirit of Inquiry’ we will be having a slideshow presentation of some of the Thomas Dick photographs, hopefully interspersed with pictures of the kind of locations that he took the photographs in.

That is a brief survey of the three major stories we have about Port Macquarie. There are a couple of little side stories. One of them is about the persistence of astronomy in amateur science and astronomy in Port Macquarie today. It is amazing how things thread through the history of a place, from Annabella with her comet observations in 1843, to William Macdonnell with his quite developed observatory providing valuable observations of the night sky around Port Macquarie in the early 1900s, right through to today when there is still an observatory up on the hill above Town Beach and a very keen Astronomical Association.

This observatory was opened in the 1960s by the then Government Astronomer of New South Wales, Harley Wood. I was interested in that because I have written a book on Harley Wood, so I was quite interested to find out he was the one who opened the observatory. They have a telescope obviously. They have night viewings there. They have quite crowded nights during the week. There are often many tourists in Port Macquarie because it’s a big holiday place.

Astronomy is alive and well in Port Macquarie today. They also have, as a connection to the bigger professional astronomical world, an orrery, a model of the solar system that was made in Sydney Observatory by Harley Wood - or made by his instrument maker Horace Pinnock and obviously supervised by Harley Wood. So the connection between Port Macquarie and a major observatory is still maintained by this artefact that is in the Port Macquarie observatory. Port Macquarie and amateur science is still a persistent story. If you ever do go to Port Macquarie, it is worth having a look at the museum where they have Annabella Boswell’s artefacts, and at the observatory where you can still see the night sky if you go there. Thanks very much.

Date published: 31 July 2009