Our whole world spun

When the Library put out a call to see how readers were using the collection from home, a fascinating story came to light.

 

On the first day that isolation restrictions forced her three children home for school, Frances decided they should do something fun at lunchtime.

Thirteen-year-old Jemima and ten-year-old Lotte dressed up in their music teacher mother’s shirts and skirts and arranged themselves near the verandah of their heritage home outside Bathurst. They covered their mouths and noses with cloth masks. They were re-enacting a photo of two women during the 1919 flu epidemic, seated beside the very same verandah.

The Library collection contains two photographs taken on the Avoca property near Bathurst. One features a Sullivan family picnic by the Macquarie River in 1904. The other features Lillian Lamph and Eleanor Sullivan together in a garden, wearing protective masks during the 1919 flu epidemic. The Library acquired both photographs as part of the ‘At Work and Play’ collection, a Bicentennial project to collect images of 24 NSW towns between 1880 and 1940. The project’s co-ordinator, former Curator of Photographs and now Emeritus Curator Alan Davies, described the basic selection criterion as: ‘Will this photograph be of interest to other Australians?’

Frances and her husband Rob discovered the two photographs of their property 14 years ago, when they moved into Rob’s family home. Frances was pregnant with Jemima. The house had no inside bathroom — only a bath on the verandah fillable through a small window next to the laundry copper and ‘outhouses up the back paddock’. Frances’ parents researched the house and found the two photos in the Library collection. Frances says the image of the flu epidemic is now well known in Bathurst. The Bathurst Base Hospital used it in the Emergency waiting room during their renovations as part of a large collage of health-related photos.

Jemima and Lotte’s re-enactment not only brought this historical image to life but gave them a broader perspective on their own experience. ‘What took us all by surprise was the suddenness with which our whole world spun,’ says Frances. ‘One minute the kids are busy going to school and doing all their sport, music and activities. Then everything stopped.’

Jemima and Lotte re-create a photograph of two women at their home in Bathurst during the 1919 influenza pandemic, March 2020

Jemima and Lotte re-create a photograph of two women at their home in Bathurst during the 1919 influenza pandemic, March 2020

Lillian Lamph and Eleanor Sullivan during the post–World War I influenza epidemic, Bathurst, NSW, 1919
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For Jemima and Lotte, inserting themselves into the women’s images was a moment of realising that they understood how these people must have felt and that they were living through a similar historical event. As Frances puts it, ‘It doesn’t matter that those women didn’t have technology or that their world was a different pace to begin with, everyone’s day is full of something and all those somethings had to stop and be re-thought.’

Frances’ family is uncannily attuned to history repeating. Some years ago, during her fifth or sixth lesson with a new violin student, the student revealed that she was playing her grandmother’s violin. Frances shared her pleasure, remarking that she too played a family instrument — her grandfather’s violin. What the student then revealed was that her grandmother was a Sullivan. Her family had sold the house to Frances’s husband’s family. The Eleanor Sullivan of the photograph was not her grandmother but a great aunt — and the last time the student’s violin had been played was in Frances’ house. If that weren’t coincidence enough, the incoming Head of Strings at the Mitchell Conservatorium Bathurst revealed that her ancestors had originally come from Scotland to Bathurst to start the gasworks. The house they built was Frances’ house. It so happens that descendants of all three owners of Avoca are now living in Bathurst playing the violin!

Frances’ mother has already suggested that, when the self-isolation is over, they should re-create the second Avoca photo — the picnic by the Macquarie River. Frances laughs that they can wear their Easter bonnets. But while the image of Eleanor and Lillian was easy to replicate, the other might be more difficult. ‘I know where it was taken,’ says Frances, ‘but it’s a funny spot to have a picnic these days. Every time the river floods, things shift. The banks and trees have changed considerably over the years.’ Some things are bound to the past by history’s indelible changes.

When friends are finally permitted again, they may indeed head down to another spot by the river. If not a re-creation, they can create a new moment in history for a future archive.

Mathilde de Hauteclocque
Library Assistant, Information & Access