It’s amazing what is tucked away in our libraries. For example, there is Mrs Butters’ extraordinary Press Dress, which was donated to the Pictures Collection of the State Library of Victoria in 1951. It has undergone extensive conservation recently.The dress, made for Matilda Butters to wear at the Mayor’s fancy dress ball in Melbourne in 1866, is considered by National Gallery of Australia curator Roger Butler to be one of the great Australian printed works of the 19th century (you can view the dress at www.slv.vic.gov.au /pressdress).
Originally, the dress consisted of a satin-silk boned bodice and hooped skirt and sash with gilded trim, while the silk panels of the skirt were decorated with images from printing plates from 14 Melbourne newspapers.
Mrs Butters also wore a headdress representing a coronet of liberty and carried a staff with a functioning hand-printing press, upon which she printed out ribbons for other guests at the ball.
Today, the bodice, headdress and staff are missing, and the skirt and sash have suffered extensive damage, but the newspaper articles and illustrations of the day give fascinating and useful descriptions of Mrs Butters and the dress.
This information has been invaluable in guiding the current conservation treatment and planned display of the dress. The skirt is a classic, full-length crinoline shape, measuring more than five metres around the bottom edge. The complex treatment took more than three months and involved deconstruction of the skirt, cleaning and stabilisation of the 14 panels and then reconstruction. The treatment also included analysis of the fabric and fibres to gain a greater understanding of the materials that make up this complex garment.
To display the dress – it was lent to the National Gallery of Australia to feature prominently in an exhibition, “The Story of Australian Printmaking 1801-2005” – a supportive undergarment was constructed. This gave the dress its classic crinoline shape (appropriate to 1866) and at the same time supported the skirt when it is on display. A reproduction bodice, based on newspaper descriptions and illustrations, was also constructed.
Matilda Butters was the second wife of the colourful Melbourne politician and businessman, James Butters. She wore the Press Dress first to a ball held at the new Exhibition Building to celebrate the arrival of the new Governor of Victoria, Sir James Manners-Sutton.
Mungindi newspaper venture
If you study a map of eastern Australia and trace your finger along the New South Wales-Queensland border west from Tweed Heads / Coolangatta almost until the border becomes a straight line (instead of following a mountain range or a river), you’ll be close to Mungindi (pronounced Mung-in-dye), a town that straddles the New South Wales and Queensland borders.
It’s about 120km north-west of Moree, NSW, and about the same distance south of St George, Qld. It was in this town on April 2, 1898, that Charles Herbert Walker, who had ‘never had any connection with a newspaper, or experience in anything in the way of journalism’, established the town’s first paper, the Mungindi News and NSW-Queensland Border Record.
For three years he had been trying to gather enough support and equipment to start a paper, but no matter what he tried, ‘nothing could be brought to a head’. Repeatedly, just when his hopes would be rising, something unforeseen would turn up and they would be dashed again.
But things had changed since the beginning of 1898 and the amount of advertising support received for the first issue - considering nobody knew what the paper would be like and Walker lacked newspaper experience - had been surprising. Walker intended to make the weekly Mungindi News a ‘bright, readable, and useful little paper’ and he noted that he had been thrown almost entirely on his own resources to produce the first issue.
He said: “The News is with the people and for the people, and will be always at their service; therefore, I hope they will make use of it whenever an opportunity occurs.”
Walker cannot have been overwhelmed with support, for he sold the newspaper some time late in 1899 and he himself had left Mungindi at the end of November 1898. He was farewelled by 25 people at the Commercial Hotel on Saturday evening, November 26, and left at 5am the next day, by bicycle, for Moree, arriving there 13 hours later.
When editors get out from behind their desks
Editors used to be at one another’s throats more than simply through the columns of their newspapers. Take this account from the Cairns Chronicle at the close of 1886: “Considerable excitement occurred in Main-street on Christmas night when Alderman FT Wimble, editor of the Cairns Post, armed with a stinging ray (stingaree) tail whip, ran up behind Mr E Draper, editor of the Cairns Chronicle, and without any warning, struck him twice across the head. Mr Draper, in turn, became the assailant, and handled Mr Wimble rather severely. A civil action is pending.”
Getting the dailies out to the country
In August 1904 the Victorian Railways introduced fast, early-morning freight trains from Melbourne to Geelong and Ballarat, and from Melbourne to Castlemaine and Bendigo, mainly to facilitate early delivery of the Argus and the Age to country districts, says Victor Isaacs. Country newspapers, however, complained that this was undercutting them, and complaints were raised in State Parliament. Subsequently the service was extended to all mainlines out of Melbourne.