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October 2014

A Spirited Defence

The Rise and Fall of the Billabong Park Horse Era Museum

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Riding to the rescue

Read however decided to go ahead with the sale of Billabong Park, holding an auction on the 24th April 1970. This initiated a spate of correspondence between the Department of the Interior, the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) and the CTB on the possibility of the Government purchasing Billabong Park.

Initially the Government was not keen on the idea of purchasing Billabong Park. This view softened after the auction failed to attract any bidders. Manager of the NCDC, L.R. Killen wrote, "Officers of the Commission have examined the material in the Museum and have reported that in their view, it is an authentic collection, truly reflective of a particular period of Australian History." Killen continued, "Clearly, it will become in time increasingly difficult and expensive to build up such a collection of relics." Yet despite the appreciation of Billabong Park's cultural value, the Government was still reluctant to purchase Billabong Park.

Then on 21st August 1970, less than 24 hours before a second auction, the Department of the Interior purchased Billabong Park from the Reads for $59,000. At the time, Billabong Park housed a collection of over 500 items including 52 horse drawn vehicles. The Canberra Times reported the Minister for the Interior, P.J. Nixon as saying, "I am very pleased to announce this purchase of early Australiana." It also reported that, "He [Nixon] hoped the museum would become the nucleus of a large collection of Australian historical items."

Ransomes, Sims and Jefferies 4 NHP Portable Steam Engine parked outside Billabong Park
Ransomes, Sims and Jefferies 4 NHP Portable Steam Engine parked outside Billabong Park.

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"The exhibits have been so much part of our lives for a long time"

Sale of Billabong Park to the Department of the Interior was finalised in November 1970. The Department then leased Billabong Park back to Harold and Mary Read to manage on the Government's behalf. This gave the Department time to decide the future location of the collection and cost recovery through selling the Billabong Park site for urban development.

As the new owners, the Department now started receiving loan requests for collection items from a variety of organisations. One of these requests was from the CSIRO who were hosting the 14th International Congress of Entomology in August 1972. Wishing to borrow the prize-winning grain collection, S.W. Bailey (CSIRO) wrote, "I would like to add that these samples of grain are of continuing interest to us and that if the Museum is ever re-organised and this exhibit became redundant to your needs we would be very glad to provide a permanent home for it." In September 1972, the Department agreed to a permanent loan of the exhibit to the CSIRO. This was this first of the larger collection items to find a new home.

Harold and Mary Read continued to manage Billabong Park until 29th June 1974 when they moved from Canberra to Wales. Mary wrote to the Department of Capital Territories, "My husband and I will leave Billabong Park not without regret as the exhibits have been so much part of our lives for a long time."

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Looking for a home

As early as 1972, the NCDC planned to move Billabong Park exhibits to Cuppacumbalong Homestead at Tharwa. In 1974, the NCDC engaged consultants to prepare a master plan for Cuppacumbalong that was to include a barbeque area, a miniature train and sheep shearing demonstrations. The consultants were to "Investigate removing all the exhibits from the Horse Era Museum and displaying the best of them in existing out-buildings." However, by March 1976 the Government had made no progress developing Cuppacumbalong and started looking for alternative locations for displaying the exhibits.

On 22nd March 1976, Director of Recreation & Tourism M.A. Hodgkin wrote to the City Manager's Office, "There does not seem to be any prospect of proceeding with the Cuppacumbalong proposal in the immediate future." He continued, "Following your previous approval a selection of appropriate items from the Horse Era Museum has been placed in the outbuildings at Lanyon. After a thorough cleaning and some minor restoration work they will be placed on display - possibly within one month."

The Billabong Park Horse Era Museum at Watson finally closed on the 29th of March 1976. In February 1977, the Craft Association of the ACT took out a five-year lease on the site beginning a new chapter in the buildings life.

Department of the Capital Territory press release announcing the closure of Billabong Park
Department of the Capital Territory press release announcing the closure of Billabong Park.
Ray Greenaway collecting his 1886 Liberty Belle Coach in 1977
Ray Greenaway collecting his 1886 Liberty Belle Coach in 1977. This was one of the exhibits on loan to Billabong Park.

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A bright future

This was not the end for the Billabong Park collection with some exhibits remaining on display at Lanyon. The balance of the collection languished in substandard storage at Lanyon, Cuppacumbalong and Fern Hill. M.A. Hodgkin (Recreation & Tourism) described these storage facilities as a "conglomeration of galvanised iron farm buildings in three locations."

In May 1977, J.R. Thwaite (Recreation & Tourism) wrote to the City Manager's Office "As you know we have had the Horse Era Collection in storage for approximately twelve months and during that time staff ceilings have prevented us from appointing a curator/restorer. Also during that time plans for a permanent building to house the collection have been 'shelved'." Thwaite then suggested meeting with the Department of Administrative Services for the possible handover of the collection to the National Collections Section "who at the present time has under its care other national items of a similar nature."

Although the National Collections Section had moved to the Department of Home Affairs by November 1977, they were still interested in taking custody of the collection. In May 1978, J.S. Brigg (Recreation & Tourism) wrote the City Manager's Office, "Officers of the Department of Home Affairs have advised that they could offer a high standard of protection at storage facilities available to them at Fyshwick." They also proposed that TAFE students carry out restoration work on the collection. Brigg continued, "They see the Horse Era Museum Collection as a valuable addition to their National Collection. In short, in their hands the collection has a bright future." The National Collections Section assumed responsibility for the Billabong Park Horse Era Museum collection in July 1978.

Items retained from the Billabong Park collection now make up the National Museum of Australia's 'Horse Era Collection No.2'. Had it not been for Harold and Mary Read's foresight and dedication to preserving these relics of the past they may have been lost to us forever.

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