The serving sons of South Solitary Island Lightkeeper Richard William John Crossingham

This is a guest post authored by Mr Brian Crossingham.

Original Postcard from the Crossingham Family Collection – 1916 Leonard Sydney — William Arthur — George Henry

Richard William John Crossingham and his wife Amelia May (Townsend) were stationed on South Solitary Island for 10 years from 1883 to 1893. Richard was just the 5th Keeper to be appointed to South Solitary Island. He was a builder and stone mason and he and Amelia had married in St Leonards in January 1883 and took his first appointment with the service as 2nd Assistant Keeper, South Solitary in July 1883. He subsequently went on to serve in all three Keeper roles – being promoted to the Principal Lightkeeper’s role in 1890 when the then Principal, Robert Kelly, was transferred to the newly constructed Lighthouse at Smoky Cape.

Robert Kelly ‘s health unfortunately failed a few years on, and he passed away in June of 1893.  Richard was selected as his replacement and was appointed Principal Smoky Cape on 1st July 1893. Following almost 10 years at Smoky Cape, Richard was then selected for the Principal Keepers role at Barrenjoey Lighthouse (Broken Bay) where he served from March 1903 until his retirement from the service in April 1905.

On retirement Richard, Amelia and the family returned to the Macleay Valley and established a dairy farm at Long Reach on the Macleay River  – near the village of Jerseyville ( Pelican Island) and not far from Smoky Cape Lighthouse.

Children of the Island

Richard and Amelia had 10 children in all – seven while at SSIL – five boys and two girls – with their first-born Richard James born on Christmas Day 1883 on board the SS Platypus enroute to Sydney. Two boys were born on the island itself.  They had a further three children while at Smoky Cape – two girls and a boy – all were born at the Lightstation.

Their farm was prosperous at Long Reach. However, the world changed with the outbreak of World War I. Three of Richard and Amelia’s sons – William Arthur, Leonard Sydney and George Henry  – born during the days their father was assigned to South Solitary Island, enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in 1916.

William Arthur Crossingham was born on February 9, 1885, at his grandfather’s farm at Pipe Clay Creek near Moorland just north of Taree on the NSW coast.

Leonard Sydney Crossingham was born on May 23, 1889 in  St. Leonards Sydney.

George Henry Crossingham was born August 10, 1891 at South Solitary Island Lighthouse.

Growing up at South Solitary Island and then Smoky Cape appears to have served them well – perhaps it was the diet based around fish and the coastal life? – whatever it was, in their medicals all three measured just on six feet.

Life would never be the same again

William and George were lost, and Leonard was wounded in action on three occasions. This had a profound effect on the family.

All three brothers enlisted at Kempsey on the 21st July 1916 and went into camp at Rutherford, near Maitland. They were taken into the 33rd Battalion – 5th Reinforcements on 22nd September 1916.

After final leave back home to the Macleay the three brothers transferred to Liverpool Camp to prepare for embarkation.  Embarking on the SS Port Napier in a group of 152 from the 5th Reinforcements they joined other Reinforcement Ranks for other Battalions and sailed from Sydney on 17th November 1916.

The  SS Port Napier steamed to Albany, Western Australia where the convoys were marshalled and then to Durban, South Africa. After a brief stopover they continued west around the Cape of Good Hope and headed northwards along the West African coast – arriving in Devonport on 29 January 1917 – into the dead cold of one of the bleakest winters experienced.

The 5th Reinforcements travelled to Larkhill in Wiltshire (by rail) and were marched into the 9th Australian Training Battalion at Durrington on the 30th January. It was there they trained in the practice of trench warfare.


No. 2540 Private William Arthur Crossingham, 33rd Battalion AIF

On arrival at Larkhill William was ill – seriously ill according to his records – and was admitted to the base hospital then transferred to King George Hospital in London on 8th February where he passed away two weeks later on 22nd February 1917. His record states he “Died of Disease (Pneumonia)”.

No. 2540 Private William Arthur Crossingham, Crossingham Family Collection

He was buried on the February 26 in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Brookwood outside London. The Military Funeral was attended by representatives of Headquarters in London and the coffin was carried by Australian troops – the records show George and Leonard were both in attendance along with their mother’s sister Margaret (Mrs. Vere.)

William had stepped up when it was required, signed up and was prepared to put his life on the line for his country travelling to the other side of the world not knowing what he may face – he carried out his duty.  Disease turned out to be his enemy.

Photographer: Brian Roy Crossingham  Crossingham Family Collection

Leonard and George continued their training and on 5 April 1917, proceeded along with 70 other reinforcements to France and joined the 33rd Battalion billeted in Armentieres on April 28. Both were posted to “C” Company.

George volunteered to be a Stretcher Bearer (SB). He was subsequently transferred to Headquarters along with others in November 1917 into the Battalion company.

Leonard and George continued to do as much as possible together,  particularly spending leave in England where they would meet with their maternal Grandparents and mother’s family.

No. 2542 (SB) Private George Henry Crossingham MM, 33rd Battalion AIF  

No. 2452 George Henry Crossingham MM Crossingham Family Collection

In a letter to his father and published in the Macleay Chronicle 10 July 1918 Leonard describes the battle leading to what would be George’s last action. An abridged version appears below.

“George and I were on leave to England but got back to France in time to join up with our Battalion on the evening of March 21 when the big battle started. So off we went and were put into battle straight away. As the Australian Divisions used to push the enemy back in one place they were shifted on down the battle front to wherever else a break-through was being attempted; we kept this going till we had covered a hundred miles or so.

After beating back the Germans at every point at which we fought them we had two days spell during which we organised for a bigger stunt on the third day. We had to regain a village and a wood which the enemy had just previously taken from the Tommie’s. After heavy fighting we drove the enemy back 900 yards. In that nights fight we had 170 men killed and wounded and left enemy dead all over. ……… next morning, we moved on to the Village of Villers- Bretonneux two miles away. We started the Villers – Bretonneaux battle on April 4 and then we had 3 big battles in 36 hours. ………

……. we never had such a trying time in our lives. On my left the rest of the boys were fighting with the bayonet for 6 hours ……. We were shooting for all we were worth; the enemy came so thickly that we mowed them down as they came walking along. My Lewis gun team fired nearly all their bullets away and they and we had to take to our rifles. Just then one of the boys yelled out “stretcher bearers”. Of course, George was one and he jumped up about 10 yards from me. As he was bandaging a wounded lad, he got wounded himself. Something made me look around and I saw poor George walking off the field. I looked around saw a faint little smile on his face. I thought to myself that he had a nice little wound that would give him about 3 months spell in England. So I went on fighting and when the stretcher bearers returned from the dressing station they brought me a little note from George in which he said: “Leon I am done this time, say good bye to all my mates for me”

Then I began to worry about him. After a couple of days had passed the second division of Australians relieved us, so we went back a short distance for a spell and ‘eat up. Our big guns were just getting busy and putting gas shells over when our platoon officer sent for me – “Leon I have sad news for you, your brother died at the Casualty Clearing Station. You can go out tonight”. I went but only for a day and a night. The next night we were all gassed and blind so off to hospital went 350 of my battalion. I am now in Birmingham (England) hospital where I find myself doing fairly well. Poor George was wounded through the back and the bullet stopped in his stomach, that is how it came to kill him. He was recommended for the M.M. or D.S.O. One thing dad is he died a hero, did things under heavy shell and machine gun fire that a lot of us would not have done. I am sending you a photo of the last battle in which George and I fought together – where the Australians took Villers – Bretonneaux and saved the British Army.”

George was posthumously awarded the Military Medal for his actions in what has been called the 1st Battle of Villers-Bretonneux.

The recommendation read in part

For conspicuous Gallantry and devotion to duty. During operations of 4th April 1918, east of Villers Bretonneau, Private Crossingham acted as a stretcher bearer. Although under very heavy machine gun and rifle fire, he moved freely in the open attending the wounded. He worked without rest until he himself was wounded on the afternoon of April 5th while tending a wounded man. By his splendid courage and contempt of all danger he set all ranks a high example. He was undoubtedly the means of saving the lives of many men.”

George was buried in the Picquigny British Cemetery in France.

Photographer:  Betty Crossingham, Crossingham Family Collection

No. 2539 Private Leonard Sydney Crossingham 33rd Battalion AIF 

No. 2539 Private Leonard Sydney Crossingham Crossingham Family Collection

We take up Leonard’s story back when he and George completed training in England……

Leonard and George continued their training and on April 5, 1917, proceeded along with 70 other reinforcements to France and were taken on strength with the 33rd Battalion billeted in Armentieres on April 28. Both were posted to “C” Company.

Leonard was wounded in action on three occasions over the course of his deployment in France. On 7th June 1917 during the Battle of Messines he was wounded by poisonous Gas. The enemy had shelled the area around Hill 63 and Ploegsteert Wood and over 500 Australian casualties from Gas were recorded. Len was Treated in France and returned to duty 7 weeks later 25th of July.

On 5th October 1917 in the lead up to the Battle of Passchendaele (9 – 12 October 1917) Len was again wounded, suffering a  Gun Shot Wound (GSW) to the knee – He was treated in France and returned to duty  5 weeks later on 10th November.

Shortly after George’s death on 5th April 2018, Len was seriously wounded in action by Poison Gas on the 17th April –– On the night of the 16th and early morning of the 17th the Germans had saturated the trenches near Villers Bretonneux and Cachey in a 3 hour barrage in the predawn with phosgene, mustard, and irritant gasses. In anticipation of an attack the town Garrison and remnants of the 33rd were moved out quickly from their shelters in the town and into the trenches. The attack did not come! Instead, they were bombarded again in the evening for another 3 hours. Len was wounded – for the third time however this was much more serious than the first time he was gassed. There were many gas casualties in that operation. Len was admitted to hospital in Rouen in France, then transferred to England – firstly to the 1st Southern General Hospital in Edgbaston and then to the First Auxiliary Hospital at Harefield. He was improving and allowed leave and then admitted on return to No.3 Command Depot, Hurdcott before being transferred to No 1 Command Depot at Sutton Veny.

The exposure to gas at Villers Bretonneux was by far the most serious. For context there were more than 1,027 casualties in that Gas Attack including the Commanding Officer of the 33rd Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Morshead. He was less serious but was still off the line for some 3 weeks as a result.

Tragedy was to strike the family back home on 3rd September when Leonard’s father Richard received news that his wife Amelia had taken ill while visiting her sister in Sydney. She had been ill over time but had improved lately and made the trip to Sydney. Almost immediately after the first news a second telegram said she had passed away.

“We deeply regret to report that trouble keeps crowding in on Mr. R.W.J. Crossingham of Long Reach, who our readers will remember lost two sons on active service in France, while a third is seriously ill in hospital in England; for yesterday he received a telegram announcing the serious illness of his wife, and an hour or so later a further wire reporting her death. In delicate health for some time, Mrs Crossingham had her illness much aggravated by grief for her sons, but a slight improvement a few weeks ago encouraged her to take a trip to Sydney; and the move has proved a fatal one. Mr Crossingham, accompanied by a daughter, left for Sydney Tuesday Evening.”

(Macleay Chronicle – Wed 4 Sep 1918 UNEXPECTED DEATH)

Leonard eventually returned to his unit in France on the 29th October 1918 after 6 long months in recovery. The 33rd Battalion had been relieved and stood down and was then billeted in Citerene.

On the night before Armistice day  he wrote to his future bride, Janet Saul of Bellimbopinni, Macleay River and was full of hope for a speedy return to Australia.  This would however be a lengthy process. It would be nearly 5 months before Len even saw England again – disembarking on 22nd April 1919.

It would be another seven weeks in England before he embarked the Hospital Transport “Themistocles” leaving England for Australia on 12th June 1919. Len disembarked in Sydney on 10th August 1919 – nine months on from his postcard.

The Macleay Argus of Thursday 21 August 1919, contained a detailed article of a welcome home put on by the Pride of Clybucca Lodge, G.U.O.O.F(Grand United Order of Oddfellows) the night before, for Len and another soldier “Trooper Price”.  A big event with a large turnout with local Councillors and dignitaries – the reporter writes of Len –

“On the platform …. Mr. W. Crossingham and Misses Crossingham (3) and Mrs. Parish, Father and Sisters of Bro. Pte. Crossingham…..”

“Sister Crossingham pinned a medal to her brothers tunic” ……..”Pte. Crossingham felt very proud to be amongst them. There was no one wished to be back more than he did. He had been looking forward for a long time to getting back to his people and dear old Aussie and he thanked them for the kind way they had shown their wishes to him. He thanked the women workers and all the people that sent parcels across to him in France whilst he was away. There were none of them knew how much the boys appreciated those things in France. (Applause)”

Leonard Sydney Crossingham recovered from his wounds, married Janet Saul, raised a family in Smithtown on the Macleay River and lived to the age of 76.

References and Acknowledgements

Story: Brian Roy Crossingham

For information and context within the article: Crossingham Family Collection – Photos and Collective Knowledge

The Harrower Collection 9th Infantry Brigade AIF – David John Harrower ACM. 2015

33rd Battalion 1st AIF – Home | Facebook – Rod Carpenter

Never a Backward Step- A History of the 33rd Battalion: John Edwards 1996

National Archives of Australia – Military Service Records:




Fallen Brothers of the Macleay 1914-1918; Jocelyn Bakewell and Debbie Reynolds; Kempsey Family History Group Publication, 2021

Macleay Fallen – Volunteers from the Macleay River Valley who paid the Supreme Sacrifice in the War of 1914-1918; Philip Lee; published by the Macleay River Historical Society 2021

SOLDIER’S LETTER. (1918, July 10). The Macleay Chronicle (Kempsey, NSW : 1899 – 1952), p. 3.

UNEXPECTED DEATH. (1918, September 4). The Macleay Chronicle (Kempsey, NSW : 1899 – 1952), p. 4.

ODDFELLOWS WELCOME. (1919, August 21). Macleay Argus (Kempsey, NSW : 1885 – 1907; 1909 – 1910; 1912 – 1913; 1915 – 1916; 1918 – 1954), p. 5.

South Solitary Island Lighthouse – Keepers at Gallipoli

This is a guest post authored by Mr Brian Crossingham.

In the pages of the South Solitary Island Visitor log book are two very important and separate entries – one dated 10 July 1914 and the other on the 23 September 1914. Both entries having been made as Lightkeepers left the Island to join the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) and the 1914-1918 War. One keeper was born in Glasgow and the other in London – both had served in the British Navy, and both had served as Signallers.

South Solitary Island Lighthouse Visitor log book – 1880-1933, National Archives of Australia, C748 [1]
By circumstances or fate, or both, they would find themselves on the battlefields of Gallipoli at the same time and both would sadly make the ultimate sacrifice. If not on the same day, then within days of each other. One was Scottish, the other English and both fighting with Australian forces.

We can rightly look to their courage and sacrifice as part of the foundation of the ANZAC spirit borne out of that conflict.

No. 65, Private James Logan 1st Battalion, First Infantry Brigade.

His military record shows he was born James Glendinning Aiken Logan on the 26 Sep 1878 in Govan, Glasgow, Scotland, was single and had served 15 years with the Royal Navy in Signals. He enlisted at Randwick, Sydney on 31 August 1914. He was transferred to the 1st Battalion HQ – Signallers on 2 January 1915.

He had nominated his sister’s daughter, Miss Daisy Logan Gordon, Montreal Canada to receive his personal effects. He also had a brother No. 1916 Sergeant A. S. Logan, Engineers Depot, Moore Park who had made enquiries regarding James.

Along with the Battalion and Australian Infantry Force, James was shipped to Alexandria, Egypt and then on to the Dardanelles.

E. Company, 1st Australian Expeditionary Force, October 18, 1914 … [S.S. Afric, A19],
Records show James was killed in action between the 1st and 4th May 1915. 

James’ brother advised the Defence Department that their mother Mrs Jane Logan was still alive and living in Glasgow and would be pleased to receive any service medals etc.  to which he believed she was duly entitled.

On July 10, 1914 – James Logan – wrote in the Visitor log book

Just finished 5 months duty Relieving Officer, & during my stay, made very pleasant by all it proves the old saying “The best of friends must part.” So goodbye to all For Auld lang synes sake

A further notation in the Visitor log book indicated he had

Left Sydney – first Expeditionary Force and then sadly  James Logan Relieving officer  Killed Gallipoli April 28th 1915

No. 956, Private Walter J. Lowen, 13th Battalion.

On September 23, 1914 an entry made in the Visitor log book reads

Walter Lowen  2nd Assistant Solitary Island

Left for Sydney expecting to go to the front

Lowen enlisted at Rosehill Camp Sydney on 28 August 1914 and was taken in as a Signaller. His military record shows he was born in London, was 25 years old, was single and had served 5 years with the imperial Navy. He had nominated his mother Mrs Elizabeth Lowen of London as next of kin.

He embarked the HMAT A38 “ULYSSES” in Melbourne on the 22 December 1914 headed for Egypt.  Then deployed to the Dardanelles and Gallipoli. This now coincident with James Logan’s deployment.

Records show Walter was killed in action at Gallipoli on the 4th May 1915.

Having noted the death of a Private W. Lowen 13th Battalion in the casualty lists, a letter in the name of the Sydney-based Superintendent of Navigation was despatched to the Defence Department seeking clarification as to whether this was the same Walter J. Lowen 2nd Assistant Keeper Solitary Island Lighthouse, an officer of the department. This was subsequently and regrettably confirmed.

EXTENSION OF PROBATIONARY APPOINTMENT. (1915, January 13). Government Gazette of the State of New South Wales (Sydney, NSW : 1901 – 2001), p. 257. Retrieved April 20, 2022, from

A further notation in the Visitor log book tells us he had been

Killed in action at Gallipoli – per C J G

where C J G was the then Principal Keeper – Christopher J Gardner.

Both Logan and Lowen are named on the Lone Pine Memorial to the Missing.


[1] South Solitary Island Lighthouse Visitor log book – 1880-1933, National Archives of Australia, C748 P1,

[2] James Logan, National Archives of Australia, B2455

[3] Walter Lowen, National Archives of Australia file, B2455


Researched and prepared by Brian Roy Crossingham


A brief history of the Regional Museum


Looking east along High Street (Harbour Drive), the Courthouse appears on the left and the Public School appears on the right. In Coffs Collections, CC2022.11.1 @

The Coffs Harbour Regional Museum became a reality after a concerted effort by the Country Women’s Association, which started amassing objects and information from August 1952. This was complemented by George and Naomi England, who were approached to establish an Historical Society in 1955. [1]

There has been more than one Museum building. The first one was on the drawing board in 1978:

An architect is to be commissioned to prepare working plans for Coffs Harbour museum. The shire council gave its approval this week when it also voted to borrow $40,000 towards the cost of the museum. The plans will be prepared in collaboration with council staff and the Coffs Harbour Historical Society. Tenders will be called for its construction when the working plans are completed. 

The historical society, in a letter to council, said it had $6000 which it intended using for furnishings and certain fixtures. However it was prepared to put this money towards the cost of the project. The society was confident that if the money was needed it could raise extra money for furnishings. However council will not use the society’s money unless costs exceed council’s allocation.

PLANS FOR A MUSEUM (1978, February 22). The Bananacoast Opinion (Coffs Harbour, NSW : 1973 – 1978), p. 1.

A special site to display the collection was chosen at 191 Harbour Drive, and it opened in 1988. At the edge of Carrall’s Creek, it was very near to the location of Coffs Harbour’s first cottage.

The anchor in place at the original Regional Museum, 6 October 1994, mus07-7813,

The Historical Society shut down in late 2004, and the collection and the responsibility for its care were taken on by the Coffs Harbour City Council. This was officially acknowledged on Australia Day 2007.

Left to right: Terrie Beckhouse Coordinator, unknown, Dave Senior, Cec. Whitney, Deborah Dixon, (obscured) Wanda Hancock, Keith Rhodes (Mayor) Leigh Summers (Director), Bill Richmond, Alan Fardell, (obscured Steve Rae), Bernie Hynes. In Coffs Collection, mus07-13731,

Only two years later, there was an extreme weather event, the second to affect this building. (The first flood occurred in November 1996.)

on the corner of 191 Harbour Drive and Duke Street, 31 March 2009

It took a year for the Coffs Harbour Regional Museum to find a new location after the catastrophic floods of March 2009. In the interim, there was no curated exhibition space available to the public.

An old new contender emerged to be the next Museum, at 215 Harbour Drive. The building itself, with history embedded in every corner, made up for the loss of connection with the community. Even its purpose as an Antiques business prior to becoming a Museum seemed like a perfect match. It took four years to salvage the collection and prepare it for display.

Antiques, 215 Harbour Drive, 21 January 2005

At the time of re-opening in 2014, the building was 107 years old. It had been designed by Walter Liberty Vernon, state government architect, as a Police Station and Courthouse. It housed two constables; a tracker, Carty Craig, lived elsewhere.

Coffs Harbor. (1907, March 7). The Macleay Chronicle (Kempsey, NSW : 1899 – 1952), p. 2.

This building operated as the Police Station and Courthouse until the new facility was built at 20 Moonee Street in 1963, and then took on many lives. It remains as a  significant historical icon in central Coffs Harbour.

Its function as Coffs Harbour Regional Museum finished on Saturday 26 February 2022. Farewell CHRM. We’ll see you in the Yarrila Arts and Museum at 31 Gordon Street soon. Until then, the Museum’s collection is available for browsing at Coffs Collections.


[1] Coffs Harbour Vol II 1946 – 1964, Yeates, p.166

[2] The research work of Museum volunteer Gay Bell is acknowledged as a significant contribution to this article.

Coffs Harbour Police Station and Courthouse, February 1982, m2022.70.1 in Coffs Collections at

A place of dramatic endeavour: the Schools of Art

Once upon a time, the Arts referred to entertainment:

There is no generally agreed definition of what constitutes art, and ideas have changed over time. The three classical branches of visual art are painting, sculpture and architecture.  Theatre, dance and other performing arts, as well as literature, music, film and other media such as interactive media, are included in a broader definition of the arts.

Wikipedia –

Opening of the Coffs Harbour School of Art, 16 September 1904, mus07-1430 in Coffs Collections

In Coffs Harbour 

The purpose-built Coffs Harbour School of Arts was opened in September  1904, with a large ceremony attended by practically the whole town. In previous years from about 1897, an old slab school was used as a library and a general purpose meeting place.

The School of  Arts was located on the north side of High St (now Harbour Drive), between Grafton Street (now the Pacific Highway) and Castle Street.

The building was revamped in 1908, which involved moving the building back 12 feet and adding a new front comprising a library and reading room on the ground floor and a smoking room upstairs.

Coffs Harbour School of Arts 1909, M2020.39.12, in Coffs Collections

Initially the School of Arts was used for dances, balls, musical events, plays and public meetings. From 1912, motion pictures were shown, so the committee appointed Chas Dutton to be the full-time custodian.

PRESENTATIONS (1936, March 30). Daily Examiner (Grafton, NSW : 1915 – 1954), p.4

In 1919, the committee decided that a more permanent and regular showing of movies should be established, with films of Charlie Chaplin and a ‘6 reeler’ of Norma Tallmadge with pianist accompaniment. Two Pianists were also appointed to provide the weekly dance music, which they received the equivalent of $1.05 per night.

War-time meetings, farewells to enlisted men and welcomes of gratitude for returning veterans added much to the School of the Arts. The showing of movies remained popular throughout the 1920s. The School of the Arts made a quick transition to the  ‘talkies’  showing its first talkie on Saturday 10th January 1931.

SCHOOL OF ARTS TALKIES. (1931, January 30). Coffs Harbour Advocate (NSW : 1907 – 1942; 1946 – 1954), p.4

The trustees of the School of Arts decided they needed a more spacious hall and it wasn’t until 1927 that a re-build was arranged to accommodate functions like a Masonic Ball, a Hospital Ball and a Show Ball.

In 1935, the School of the Arts building was in such a dilapidated state that a meeting of its members chaired by the then President M.J.P. Hammond considered re-building. This was however delayed with only a £50 outlay for painting the front of the building which was agreed upon… a disgrace by all accounts.

As soon as the guttering around the School was pulled down by ‘peepers’,  who had been climbing up the windows to view the pictures inside, a decision to remodel the building came up for discussion again in 1937.

Various committee members were appointed to make a detailed investigation of the dilapidated Arts building, but nothing ever came of this. Mr Charles Vost was the President at the time.

Portrait of Charles Vost, c.1930s, mus07-1121, in Coffs Collections.

Soon after the outbreak of World War II, a meeting of the School’s members recommended that it should be handed over to the Dorrigo Shire Council, with the object of having a Town Hall and Shire offices built in lieu. The War put an end to all such ambitious plans for renovating the School of Arts. A further 24 years were to pass before it bowed out in favour of a Town Hall, built on a different site. During the first five or six post war years, the committee of the School of the Arts grappled with the problem of its then dilapidated building.

In 1947 an approach was made to the Shire Council offering to combine with the Council to erect a Civic Centre, with the understanding that the School of Arts  would contribute funds from the sale of its High Street property, and the Council would incorporate a public hall, billiard room and library in a new centrally located complex, with Shire Chambers. In 1948 this proposal to combine with the Council failed.

Subsequently, a proposed new 20,000 two-storied brick building received consideration and President Vost obtained Ministerial approval for it from the Department of Education in Sydney. Two months later a building committee was appointed. (Meeting minutes from various 1940s School of Arts committees are available in Coffs Collections.)

A proposal also in 1948, to have the frontage of The School of Arts converted into shops for letting, advanced another step in 1950 when that was approved and a loan from the National Bank of Australia of £3,750 were forthcoming. A fresh fruit and vegetables shop, a dry cleaners, a Library and a lottery ticket sales shop then graced the front of the building.

The High Street frontage of the School of Arts in the 1950s, mus07-11357. In Coffs Collections

The demise of the School of Arts premises took place in 1958, when it was finally realised that the property was recognised as over-capitalised in relation to the income being derived from it. Being located in the heart of the shopping centre, the site had great commercial value.

Woolworths, with an offer of £56,500, purchased the property in 1960. The offer was accepted. [1] A new venue was constructed elsewhere.

The Town Hall and Civic Centre in 1995, mus07-2875. In Coffs Collections

In Woolgoolga

Well ahead of Coffs Harbour, the Woolgoolga School of Arts was built in the 1890s to serve the social and cultural needs of the community. Although it was a poorly built wooden structure, it served for several years as the main venue for concerts, dances and a library. Catholic Masses were also held there with record congregations.

In the background, left to right along Scarborough Street are the Schoolteacher’s residence, the School of Arts and the Police Station. mus07-13170. In Coffs Collections

The Woolgoolga School of Arts had a fairly short life, according to Otho Alverson – bushworker, who settled in Woolgoolga in 1889. Otho recalled attending the dances which were held regularly there, with a single admission charge of one shilling. Each month a Ball was held and tickets for admission was three shillings and six pence for a double. People came on horseback from Corindi, Halfway Creek, Glenreagh and Bucca Creek to attend these functions at the School of Arts.

One of Woolgoolga’s residents, Ernie Younger, remembers starting school in 1907 having to move first into the School of Arts while a new school was  built between the Black Tracker’s Hut and the Police Station. [2]

The Department of Education rented the School of Arts for five shillings per week to conduct glasses there. It was officially vacated by the Department on 31st December 1908 when the lease ended.

During the 1920s, the School of Arts was pulled down and any useful timber went to the building of a house next to a store in Beach Street. The store was still standing in 1981, but the house was removed in about 1971. School tennis courts now occupy the grounds where the School of Arts once stood.

In Coramba

The Coramba School of Arts was built in Gale Street in 1912 on land donated by William Gale. As it was nearing completion it was physically moved back and a Coffee Palace was added fronting the Street.

DISTRICT NEWS (1912, June 14). Coffs Harbour Advocate (NSW : 1907 – 1942; 1946 – 1954), p.2

It became the centre of the town’s social life for many years, having its own band and at time featured a Black and White Minstrel Band with stringed instruments. Three act plays were also featured. Madame Melba, Dame Clara Butt, Slim Dusty and Ada Crossley were some of the visiting artists to  remembered from early times.

School concerts were an annual event as were Debutante Balls. In 1918 a benefit was held for a family affected by a mill accident. A few years later an Amateur Theatrical Society called “The Cats” appeared. Old timers recall ‘good shows’ being performed at the School.

Coramba. (1929, December 13). Coffs Harbour Advocate (NSW : 1907 – 1942; 1946 – 1954), p.2

SUCCESSFUL FUNCTION. On Saturday night last in the local School of Arts, a dance and concert were held in aid of the candidature of Miss Doreen Shone in the local queen competition. Mr. Les Evans, of Grafton, was mainly responsible for the thoroughly happy time enjoyed by all and also for the several concert items supplied by a party he brought from Grafton. The attendance was one of the best seen in Coramba for a considerable number of years. Molly Tomlinson, of Grafton, contributed a sword dance and the Highland fling to the accompaniment of Mr. P. McPhee with the bagpipes. Later in the night Molly again appeared on the stage, but this time recited “If.”

Mr. Les Evans greatly amused the audience with “Larrikin Tom.” “Larrikin Tom” was a huge doll, and Mr. Evans, who is an excellent ventriloquist, had everyone in the hall rocking with laughter. The orchestra consisted of Messrs.- P. Matheson, sen. (international accordion), Mr. P. Matheson, jun. (piano-accordion) and Mr. J. McPhee (drums). This orchestra was also brought from Grafton by Mr. Evans.

CORAMBA (1936, July 29). Daily Examiner (Grafton, NSW : 1915 – 1954), p.8

The functions were very successful, both from a social and financial point of view.

In Bonville

Research indicates that the old community hall (pictured below), and the School of Arts building are one and the same. The public hall still stands, near Ayrshire Park Drive.

Bonville Public Hall. mus07-1420. In Coffs Collections

Researched by Martin Jeffery – volunteer – Coffs Harbour Regional Museum 2008

Images from Coffs Collections in 2022.


[1] Coffs Harbour Vol II 1946 – 1964, Yeates, 1990.

[2] Woolgoolga, the history of a village, mid-north coast, Yeates, 2013

Illuminating 20 Years at Coffs Harbour Regional Gallery

As Coffs Harbour Regional Gallery celebrates 20 years, it’s time to reflect on humble beginnings in a tiny office space to its coming of age in a new home, Yarrila Arts & Museum (YAM), opening in 2023. Yarrila is the local Gumbaynggirr word for illuminate, brighten or illustrate.

 The list of people who made Coffs Harbour Regional Gallery a reality in 2001 is even longer than the timeline to get there, and the role it plays in enriching the community is complex. From inspiring audiences and supporting artists, to caring for collections and educating youth, at the gallery’s heart remains the drive to champion cultural development in the region. 

“Twenty years ago a group of passionate people working with the support of council helped establish the regional gallery, and since the beginning it’s staged exciting exhibitions and creative events that bring our community together,” says Acting Gallery Coordinator, Lisa Knowlson.

An existing office building, Rigby House, was acquired by the Council to house the new gallery and library on the ground floor. Initially the new Regional Gallery opened with just half of the current area, before expanding a year later into the full space you see today.

There to support the gallery over the years with events and fundraising, has been volunteer group, the Friends of Coffs Harbour Regional Gallery. “It has become a special place for us all to connect with culture,” says Friends’ President, Heather McKinnon. “One of the most important achievements of the gallery over the years has been building the relationship with our Gumbaynggirr community. We’re proud to have played a part in the gallery’s progression, including sponsoring STILL and expanding the collection of still life art.”

The Friends have contributed works ranging from Archibald-winner Ben Quilty to convict artist William Beulow Gould c.1840, and this year will fund seven acquisitions from STILL including a work by Bidjara artist Michael Cook. The gallery’s signature art prize since 2017, STILL: National Still Life Award has built on the previous success of EMSLA, first established in 2007. The biennial STILL Award was created and established by Cath Fogarty, Cultural Development, Gallery and History Services Coordinator (2016 – 2021) and her team in 2017.

Over twenty years ago, Toni Southwell had returned to her hometown of Coffs Harbour with an arts’ degree and joined the effort to set-up the regional gallery. “I was a youth representative on the working party when council sought input from artists, art groups, consultants and people across the community,” Toni says.

Opening with one paid position for a Gallery Director, Toni, like many young people in the regions, moved onto Sydney to secure work but is now back in the gallery as Programs Facilitator. She says a regional gallery bridges the gap for local artists who often struggle to find somewhere to exhibit.

“Over the years many local artists have had their work shown here and shared their stories or creative practice,” adds Toni, who is looking forward to the larger, purpose-built gallery at YAM.

One of the first exhibitions in 2001 was Our Place: Images of Coffs Harbour & Regions, which brought together works depicting the region by local artists and well-known names like Dunghutti artist, Robert Campbell Jnr. Two decades later, works by Gumbaynggirr artists will open YAM in a potential re-interpretation of this concept titled, Yaam Gumbaynggirr Jagun, here is Gumbaynggirr country.

Revisit 20 years of exhibitions and see the collection of Coffs Harbour Regional Gallery, on Coffs Collections at;

follow the story of the development of the Regional Gallery in our scrapbook of newspaper articles, on Coffs Collections at;

borrow the catalogues for the 20th year exhibitions from our libraries, to view the exhibitions again at your leisure; and

read other publications by and about the Gallery.

Cath Fogarty at the event marking the closure of the Gallery. May 2022. Photography Lyndon Jarman.
Uncle Richard Widders and Heather McKinnon opening STILL 2021, Fire & Fly Media
20 years in 2021
Rigby House – And the trees photography
Lisa Knowlson, Gallery, Museum, and Public Art Coordinator (Acting)  Fire & Fly Media
Our Place: Images of Coffs Harbour and Region October 2001  Coffs Harbour Regional Museum item 19.365


A balancing act

In the somewhat daunting queue of items awaiting our attention to be added to the Museum’s collection, we found a small set of interesting photos we had never seen before.

‘Key man’ statue, in Coffs Collections @

Unfortunately, the photos did not have any indication of who donated them or when. The Museum is often a ‘victim’ of what might be termed ‘a hit and run’. Items which seem to have historical relevance are left at the Museum door or the Library desk without contact information or details about why someone considered them to be important enough to leave with us. The queue grows longer while we try to establish the significance of items and spend extra time tracking their historical value.

Back view of the Key Man statue, shown in Coffs Collections at

Items without context,  dropped off or poorly scanned and emailed in, are less interesting all round. Should we spend the time investigating them, or only choose items for the collection which have all relevant information attached? How do we share the story around orphaned items with the community we serve?

Is Johno his real name ? Was he really Russian ? Undated article in Coffs Collections at

Fortunately, in the case of this small set of photographs, there were a couple of accompanying articles. Unfortunately, the sources and dates of some of those articles were cut off; another frequent act which slows down our research. Should we spend the time to find out more at the expense of other more deserving items?

Is his surname spelled correctly? Check in Coffs Collections at

Jonas Zilinskas was a Lithuanian-born acrobat who came to Australia as a Displaced Person after the end of World War II. In the early 1950s, he performed in Wirths’ Circus, gripping a metal bar inside his mouth for a trapezist to swing from. During a performance the trapezist moved the wrong way,  pulling the bar and several teeth from Zilinskas’ mouth. They both took a career break.

His second job was in the Newfoundland State Forest [Yuraygir National Park] as a sleeper cutter. He  lived and worked in this forest with one colleague, both dressed only in hat and boots. He invented a swingcut saw for them to use together. Before his departure two years later, Zilinskas constructed a sculpture of himself with materials to hand including keys, beer bottles, timber and concrete.

Zilinskas was able to resume his celebrated circus career with Ashton’s and other circuses.

Jonas Zilinskas was included in a 2007 series of Australia Post stamps celebrating circus performers. His story is told in Coffs Collections at

We don’t know exactly when the photographs of Jonas’ sculpture were taken, or who the photographer was, but the story they represented was extraordinary. Zilinskas made an impact. His contribution to our community and the broader Australian story was indeed noteworthy.

In the absence of complete supporting information being provided by potential museum donors, we do our best, within limited timeframes, to establish the importance of any item.  Meanwhile, the queue of unidentified items grows longer. One day, we will be able to find the right home for each of them. It’s a temporal balancing act.

When two cultures meet

From desperation comes inspiration, often manifested 10-fold when two people share ideas. When Tony La Spina met Grace Roberts, a new creative industry was born.

Grace Roberts, c. 1981. Photographer John Rotar. mus07-1365. From the collection of the Coffs Harbour Regional Museum and Coffs Collections.

Grace Roberts was a respected Bundjalung Elder. She was persistent in pursuing opportunities for children in Coffs Harbour. In 1963, she attended a meeting of the local Aboriginal Welfare committee. [1]

Also at the meeting was a new schoolteacher to the town, who had an interest in Aboriginal Affairs. His teaching subject was art. He suggested they try some screen printing, just basic designs and perhaps get a cottage industry going. This idea appealed to Grace greatly.

With her enthusiasm and the support of other women at the mission the craft work got under way.

Pottery was introduced and eventually even the children were encouraged to make small clay motifs called Mooks Mooks. These were an abstract design on a small pottery disc threaded onto a leather thong. They were neatly mounted on cardboard with a printed legend of the Mook Mook. It was to become a viable enterprise, making a small profit.

Tony La Spina with self-portrait. Coffs Coast Advocate, 18 February 1998, p.1

Art teacher Anthony La Spina had moved to Coffs Harbour in 1962. [2]

Along with raising a family of four with wife, Rae, a move to Coffs Harbour, NSW in 1962 saw Tony teaching art with TAFE (which he was to continue for the next 28 years) as well as teaching art at the Jetty High School and Orara High School – during which time he was seconded to the University of NSW for 3 years to work within the Aboriginal community establishing the Playgroup movement for children.

One of the children who created Mooks Mooks still does so today. He is local artist Tony Hart. He recalled making them and selling them for 20 cents each, a close match to their size. Their sale provided the children with much welcomed pocket money. This is a more recently created one.

Copyright Tony Hart

Each Mook Mook is unique, and when worn, is meant to discourage negative influences. It will join the work of  Tony La Spina in the Regional Gallery’s collection [3], a fitting symmetry.


[1] Grace Roberts Her Life Her Mystery Her Dreaming, Alice Becker, 1989, p.21

[2] Tony La Spina – Artwork – Julie Duell, 15 April 2008

[3] Abstract, Tony La Spina,


Happy 1st Birthday Coffs Collections !

One year ago, on 1 September 2020, Coffs Collections was launched.  It was the work of a two-year small-team project to prepare digital cultural infrastructure for digitising and sharing the cultural and historical collections of the Regional Museum, the Regional Gallery and the Library. One member of that team shared her view of the outcome:

We have never had all our records or images in one place before, and they’ve never all been publically available before. Coffs Collections has been a breath of fresh air in managing our content!

(On a personal note, it has also meant that I could find sustainable employment in my home town.) I’m so excited for our first birthday!

Nerida, Digital Cultural Collections Specialist

The new service is already starting to make an impact, on Council colleagues and the wider community. Local ABC Radio has created snippets of the interviews to replay each week. Donations, including one recently made by videographer Graham Bell, and research such as an exploration of the Glynn’s cordial factory have been inspired by the easy availability of our local history.

I use Coffs Collections to get a sense of how the environment has changed over time – i.e. have fish stocks (quantity and size) changed, what did specific places look like in the past etc. We then incorporate this information into the tours that we guide.

Elisabeth, Sustainable Living Programs Officer

The interest in preserving Coffs’ identity over time started in 1952, when members of the Country Womens’ Association decided to record information and gather artefacts about the town’s and district’s history.  Their enthusiasm, combined with that of educators such as George England (high school teacher), resulted in the development of an historical society for the region in 1955. [Coffs Harbour Vol II : 1946 – 1964, Yeates, 1993, p.167]

Mr England was keen to capture the area’s earliest history too. Another educator, Neil Yeates (university lecturer), subsequently documented the histories of Coffs Harbour and Woolgoolga in three volumes. Much of the raw materials they used and the information they captured are stored in or linked to by Coffs Collections. This service is an expression of our gratitude for their work.

In the years leading up to 2001, and with the support of ambassadors the Banana Twins, the region’s artistic endeavours were drawn to a dedicated facility. As a result, the Coffs Harbour Regional Gallery is celebrating its 20th birthday this year. All of the exhibitions held by the Gallery are available for viewing as a timeline in Coffs Collections.

photography: Jay Black

The first Coffs Harbour City Council digitisation project curated the photographic collection of the Regional Museum, and culminated in the Picture Coffs Harbour service in 2008.  It was switched off and integrated into the new service last year.

The community is fortunate to have this very accessible platform – a foundation for the discovery of our identity – which we continue to build on.

Debbie, Local Studies & Digitisation Librarian

When Create NSW funded the project to build Coffs Collections, no one had  foreshadowed the impending pandemic lockdowns.  The grant opportunity became even more significant, and resulted in a rare example of a merged regional gallery and museum service envied by many other cultural agencies.

Capturing local stories in this single convenient web location will soon be reflected in the co-location of the three cultural facilities – Library, Gallery and Museum – at one physical destination in 2022. We look forward to a shared future.

Coffs Collections makes researching our collections so much easier and more pleasurable. There is so much rich material to be explored and real gems to be found. Prepare to be taken by surprise as your view of Coffs’ history is upended!

Jo, Gallery & Museum Curator

freely available at

Dr Speece – medical man of mystery – part 3

Dr Will Speece was a much-travelled and well-read man. His contributions to newspapers wherever he went show a person with an insatiable curiosity for life, commenting on many different subjects of interest.

He appears to have travelled to Adelaide in 1890:

INTERCOLONIAL RAILWAY PASSENGER TRAFFIC. (1890, May 9). Evening Journal (Adelaide, SA : 1869 – 1912), p. 3 (SECOND EDITION).

He completed a year’s work in Cobar in March 1893:

Cobar. (1893, March 18). Australian Town and Country Journal (Sydney, NSW : 1870 – 1919), p. 16.

Dr Speece returned from the United States in 1894:

ARRIVAL OF R.M.S. ALAMEDA AT AUCKLAND. (1894, December 6). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), p. 5.

A lot of the travel required transfers through Sydney, but it is not clear where Sidney Herbert bumped up against Will Speece. Perhaps Herbert chanced on a newspaper which mentioned his name? A first hint of misdemeanour by Herbert occurred in 1891:

Advertising (1891, March 6). The Kiama Independent, and Shoalhaven Advertiser (NSW : 1863 – 1947), p.3

It did not take long for this activity to come to the attention of the police – a notice was issued for the arrest of Herbert on 15 April 1891, and he was arrested 10 days later. The subsequent four years of his hard labour broke the link.

Dr Speece was always in the spotlight in his final town of residence. An article appeared in The Coffs Harbour Advocate on 6 May 1970:

Being very short-sighted, he had great difficulty in finding his way at night and was forced to rely upon his horse’s sense of direction. On being presented with one of the newly introduced electric torches he fixed it to his horse’s head, explaining that the light was no damned good to him but the horse might make use of it.

On teh closure of the mines and the departure of most of the miners, Dr Speece remained at his home “The Fortress”, as he considered that it was the most central position in the district which he served.

(part of a reminiscence related by Mr W. Buchanan of Karangi in his address to a meeting of the Historical Society.)

A sojourn in Coffs of short duration, but with a big impact on the life of this town.

Dr Speece – medical man of mystery – part 2

As noted in our last post, Dr William Comely Speece was the first doctor to settle in the local area. The first resident General Practitioner was Dr Robert Kane, appointed in the same year as Will Speece died – 1907.

Will Speece had been in the district for only nine years. He came to Australia in December 1885 as an unassisted saloon passenger on the Zealandia.

Australia, Inward, Outward & Coastal Passenger Lists 1826-1972 Image [courtesy Find My Past]
He immediately sought to be legally registered in New South Wales:

GOVERNMENT GAZETTE. (1886, January 20). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), p. 9.

Not long after, Dr Speece attracted an imposter: Sidney Herbert a.k.a. Herbert Saunders, a.k.a. Lardner, a.k.a. Dr Spence. The names Lardner and Spence may possibly be a journalist’s misprint.  Which was his real name? The only one we know with any certainty was that he was not William Speece.

He was arrested as Herbert Saunders, and was known to police:

CENTRAL POLICE COURT. (1878, May 4). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), p. 8.
Miscellaneous Information. (1878, May 8). New South Wales Police Gazette and Weekly Record of Crime (Sydney : 1860 – 1930), p. 170.
Penrith. (1878, May 11). The Cumberland Mercury (Parramatta, NSW : 1875 – 1895), p. 3.

Before he had even crossed paths with Dr Speece, this person did four years of hard labour on a road gang.

RETURN OF PRISONERS DISCHARGED FREE since last publication. (1883, April 25). New South Wales Police Gazette and Weekly Record of Crime (Sydney : 1860 – 1930), p. 167.

Interestingly, his release information mentions that he had travelled on the Zealandia – the same ship on which Dr Speece migrated, although in a different year. This postal service ship first arrived in Australia in 1876 from England. Its passage was acknowledged as notable for the shortened time travel:

THE PACIFIC MAIL FLEET IN HARBOUR. (1876, March 3). Illustrated Sydney News & New South Wales Agriculturalist & Grazier (NSW : 1872 – 1881), p. 3. PACIFIC MAIL FLEET IN HARBOUR. (1876, March 3). Illustrated Sydney News and New South Wales Agriculturalist and Grazier (NSW : 1872 – 1881), p. 13.

Was Sidney Herbert a passenger? He is not an obvious inclusion here, although he may have travelled in third class (steerage).

ARRIVAL OF THE STEAMSHIP ZEALANDIA. (1876, February 5). Weekly Times (Melbourne, Vic. : 1869 – 1954), p. 5.

Note that the other possible names, such as Herbert Saunders and George Gardener, also did not appear.

Was he a doctor? As his most prevalent crime was “False Pretences”, it is highly unlikely that he was a registered medical practitioner. But by 1891, he had become Dr William Speece:

Offences not otherwise described. (1891, April 15). New South Wales Police Gazette and Weekly Record of Crime (Sydney : 1860 – 1930), p. 134.

to be continued…