Previous Find of the Month - 10/2020


October 2020

Some recent publicity on previous Finds of the Month has got us thinking about re-visiting some of our more popular articles from years past. A selection of our articles has been printed in the Canberra Times’ ‘Panorama’ supplement and other reminders are popping up on various social media platforms. Two photos recently uploaded to ‘The Canberra Page’ on Facebook turned our minds back to one popular article from October 2014, reminding us of times when many forms of transport were horse-drawn and much of our agriculture was reliant on horse power. For this month’s ‘find’ we thought readers would be interested to re-visit the story of the Billabong Park Horse Era Museum.

A Spirited Defence

The rise and fall of the Billabong Park Horse Era Museum.


The National Museum of Australia’s exhibition ‘Spirited: Australia’s Horse Story’ celebrates our relationship with horses since European settlement. Back in the 1960s, Yass couple Harold and Mary Read also wanted to celebrate the role of horse-drawn transport in Australia’s history. A group of files about their struggle to establish and continue their Billabong Park Horse Era Museum are this month’s ArchivesACT Find of the Month.

1968 Billabong Park promotional flyer

A Museum in a Chook House

Located in North Watson, Billabong Park was in operation from August 1966 to March 1976, but its story goes back further than that In December 1962, Harold George Read wrote to the Department of the Interior expressing his intention to construct an “early Australian township.” Read, who ran a service station in Yass, had been collecting and restoring old horse drawn vehicles for this purpose over the preceding three years. Initially he had intended to build on his own land outside Cooma but felt Canberra would be a more suitable location. The Department saw merit in Read’s proposal and a 7¾-acre site in North Watson (Block 1 Section 62 Watson) was set aside for a museum in December 1963.

Billabong Park Business Name Certificate of Registration.


On 23rd September 1964, Read was offered a 25 year lease on the site for “the conduct of an establishment and the display of individual items or relics being to the approval of the Minister.” The Canberra Times, reporting on the lease, quoted Read as saying “We aim to commemorate the good old days of the horse era with a light-hearted, yet dignified, exhibition.”
Read’s lease conditions included a building scheme for “a residence costing not less than $30,000 [to be commenced] within six months and completion within twelve months.”  In February 1965, Read applied for an extension of time to erect a museum building as he was having difficulties raising finance. While Minister for the Interior, Doug Anthony, rejected Read’s request for financial assistance from the Department, he did provide a temporary solution. Read was offered rental of one of the Canberra Showground poultry sheds to house his collection at $1000 per year. Read accepted this offer and opened his museum there in January 1966.

Read’s financial problems were soon resolved when in May 1966 he took on a business partner, Richard Littlejohn, a grazier from Harden. Building of the $24,000 Billabong Park Horse Era Museum, located on Stirling Avenue, Watson, was soon completed. Opening in August 1966, Billabong Park’s collection initially consisted of over 100 exhibits that included 40 horse drawn vehicles.

Billabong Park Horse Era Museum main building.

An Expensive Business

In the museum foyer, amongst some smaller collection items, visitors could find over 200 bottles of prize winning grain dating back to 1885. The immaculately restored buggies and carriages were in the west wing. The collection included rare items like an 1841 buggy once owned by the noted explorer Hamilton Hume and a hearse dating from 1872.


The hearse, built by Burgess and Moller in Hill End for Undertaker William Reed, was the source of some drama for Harold Read when collecting it in 1962. The Canberra & District Historical Society Journal (June 1967) reported that Read had purchased the hearse from a Mrs Musgrave of Sydney in 1962. On his arrival in Hill End to collect the hearse, Read was confronted by a couple of locals telling him “You can’t have our hearse!”  After several phone calls, with the sale of the hearse being confirmed, Read was able to load it onto his trailer with the assistance of the reluctant locals.

The following photographs from the file 125/62/1#01: Blk 252 Gungahlin - Now 1/62 Watson (Horse Era Museum) illustrate Read’s restoration work.  They show an 1869 Cobb & Co Freight Wagon before and after restoration. The excellent condition of many of the Billabong Park exhibits was a result of Read’s restoration work.

An 1869 Cobb & Co Freight Wagon before restoration.


The Cobb & Co Freight Wagon after Harold Read's restoration.

Despite the quality of exhibits and the positive media stories about Billabong Park, Read was soon facing financial difficulties again. Billabong Park had a steady stream of visitors but not enough to make it a profitable concern. Read put this down to Billabong Park’s location some distance from the Federal Highway and the inadequate directional signage allowed by the Department of the Interior. The North Watson location was also some distance from most of Canberra’s popular tourist spots. By 1970 Read was considering auctioning Billabong Park, land and contents separately or as a going concern.
Director of Tourism L.R. Watson wrote in a 1970 Canberra Tourist Bureau (CTB) memo, “He [Read] has about 20,000 patrons per annum, which bring in a maximum of $6,000, but this is not all income, for he has capital repayments and a small annual land rent of $110. Lack of finance has forced both he and his wife to seek regular employment in Canberra.” Read considered patronage to Billabong Park needed doubling to make it a financially viable concern.

The Department of the Interior provided the following ideas to stimulate patronage:

  • Introduction of a “special tourist feature sign system” that would embrace Billabong Park.
  • The “name Horse Era Museum was not sufficiently attractive to visitors” with “Coach Museum” being offered as an alternative.
  • Approaches had been made to the Department of the Interior to establish a Pharmaceutical Museum and a Veteran Car display in Canberra. The Department thought Billabong Park could incorporate one of these.
  • Improved road access to Billabong Park.
  • Regular window displays in the Canberra Tourist Bureau’s Melbourne Building office.


The following Canberra Tourist Bureau memo and accompanying photos indicate that Read, unofficially, acted on one of these ideas.

Canberra Tourist Bureau memo of Billabong Park signage (File 70/10 folio 25)


(1) "A new, and fairly large, blue and white sign reading “Coach Museum 100 yards" had been swung below the existing black and white road sign on the Sydney highway. Obviously this must have been put there by Read. The FAS said he did not intend taking any action in regard to the sign.”

(2) "The sign inside the Horse Era Museum grounds was somewhat dilapidated and, in fact, now read "HOR MUSEUM". (If Read cannot attend to his own signs, it seems he is not all that interested in getting more clients!)”

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 C TB 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.

“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.”

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.

Ray Greenaway collecting his 1886 Liberty Belle coach in 1977. This was one of the exhibits on loan to Billabong Park.

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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References

  • 125/62/1#01: Blk 252 Gungahlin - Now 1/62 Watson (Horse Era Museum)
  • 125/62/1#02: Watson Section 62 Block 1 - Horse Era Museum - Part 2
  • 125/62/1#03: Watson Section 62 Block 1 - Horse Era Museum
  • 69/4059: Housing of Cobb & Co Coach and Birtles Car – Requisition of Cobb & Co Coach
  • 70/0010: Dept of the Interior - Tourist Bureau - Billabong Park Horse Era Museum (H. G. Read)
  • 71/2123: Internal Audit - Special Investigation - Horse Era Museum
  • 74/475: Stocktake - Horse Museum
  • 76/3024: Land Policy Branch - Horse Era Museum - Block 3 Section 62 – Watson
  • A921-F3740: Billabong Park (Deregistered 7/1/71)
  • G80/0012: Canberra Development Board - Horse Era Historical Collection
  • SP2172#1: WATSON062-03
  • SP2172#2: WATSON062-03
  • ZA73/323#01: Horse Era Museum – Future Care & Management – Part 1
  • ZA73/323#02: Horse Era Museum – Future Care & Management – Part 2
  • ZA75/163: Horse Era Museum – Transfer to Cuppacumbalong

Links to Canberra Times articles

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