Canberra Times

Print this article | Close this window

Gang-gang. Lyall Gillespie's Pearls

Ian Warden

Published: February 10 2015 - 11:45PM

The movers and shakers of the exquisite and innovative Hall School Museum are rejoicing over the receipt of 125 big boxes known to contain plenty of "pearls".

We will tell you, in a moment, what this treasure trove of boxes represents. But first we digress a little to say what a shame it is that there is no published poetry about Tuggeranong. It is surely a place on God's earth you'd think bristles with inspirations for a poet.

But wait! Rapture! There is published verse about Tuggeranong and Lyall Gillespie (1919-2006), the colossus of the research and writing of early Canberra's history, gathered some of it into his 1994 book Early Verse of the Canberra Region.

In one of our two pictures we have Gillespie looking rapturously happy at the launch of this book. In the other picture he is as city manager (1978-1982) escorting British prime minister Margaret Thatcher on her visit to Canberra. 

One of the book's Tuggers verses, written anonymously in 1895 and published in the Queanbeyan Observer, opens unflatteringly:

Just lend me your ear and I'll sing you a song  

Of the belligerent matrons of Tuggranong.

Then in 1915 with the Commonwealth planning to build a (never-to-eventuate) £200,000 national munitions arsenal at Tuggranong (potentially creating oodles of jobs) the poet "Ingomar" leapt into satirical verse in the Queanbeyan Age. Here are two of his epic's mock-optimistic verses.

Then come along to Tuggranong.

Coax the wife or lug her along.

Sound the horn and beat the gong.

O come along to Tuggranong!

Hasten along to Tuggranong,

The jobs are chanting loud a song.

Here's the place you can't go wrong.

O hurry along to Tuggranong!

It was so very typical of the great Gillespie, an indefatigable and obsessive collector of everything about early Canberra, that even those sorts of verses would be grist to his mill and that he would publish a book of them.

Now Hall School Museum has, in the aforementioned 125 boxes, everything that Gillespie collected in a lifetime of collecting, including, pricelessly, his Canberra collections of historical materials.

After Lyall's death in 2006 his son Neil took all of his father's collections into his, Neil's, home in Theodore. There they filled several rooms and a garage. Now Neil Gillespie is retiring to Queensland but has made a gift, to the Hall Museum, of the whole voluminous lot. He has promised Phil Robson, the honorary curator of the museum, that when the boxes are thoroughly fossicked through they'll yield lot of "pearls".

Robson doesn't doubt it. It is hard to imagine any collection more pricelessly valuable to the understanding of the ACT's past than this collection of things. It ranges from 40,000 detail-crammed index cards relating to Gillespie's painstakingly researched eight books about the region, to boxes of Aboriginal artefacts. Gillespie's forebears were anciently involved with the region and its great properties long before the federal capital city was imagined here.

Robson envisages the day when this collection, once duly sorted and catalogued (and where possible digitised), will be a vast "cultural resource". He's sure it will be pored over by generations of school and tertiary students and historians investigating the way we once were on the Limestone Plains of NSW and then in early Canberra.

Some researchers will discover too what it was like to be a child in Lyall Gillespie's times, because (blessed are the obsessive collectors because without them all historical knowledge would fade away) he even kept some of his favourite playthings, including some magic tricks.

Robson explains that Neil Gillespie was very keen to give the collection to the Hall School museum. It is the one, true, proper place for its home. Lyall Gillespie and his predecessors (who by the way include his famous newspaper columnist grandfather James "The Wizard" Gillespie) were long-time Hall and district identities. Lyall Gillespie went to the school that is now the museum. Schooling history was dear to his heart and in researching and writing his book Early Education and Schools in the Canberra Region he became the authority on this as on so many subjects.

Neil Gillespie wanted his father's collection to remain entire because he thinks of it as a collection about his father's whole unusual life of collecting and researching. He, Neil, thinks it a testimony to what an extraordinary individual can achieve in a dedicated lifetime. The School Museum was happy to oblige in this whereas other sorts of more orthodox museums might only have wanted the absolute, readily exhibitable "pearls" of the collection. It's also important to Neil Gillespie, and to the Hall museum, that the collection be available and accessible to all who ever want to be enlightened and delighted by it.

"Neil wanted the collection to boost the profile of the [Hall] museum and to be available to everyone, and not stuck in boxes in storage," Robson advises. It will be quite some time before all of the Gillespie material starts to become available, exhibited and online. The collection, lugged from Theodore to Hall and now waiting in a classroom, is dauntingly huge, and the museum is busy with upcoming things. A World War I exhibition about Hall men who went to the Great War, will open in a few weeks.

Phil Robson thinks it may be April before a careful, cluey, cataloguing  team can begin to come to systematic grips with the 125 enticing boxes and their pearl-containing contents.

This story was found at: