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Old Colonist mosaics inscripted

This is a sneak peek into edition 25 of Traces!

By Beth M. Robertson, Manager of Preservation, the State Library of South Australia

A unique collection of photographic mosaics depicting South Australian colonists has been inscripted into the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Register.

On 16 December 1871, businessman (and former convict) Emanuel Solomon placed an advertisement in the South Australian Register announcing that he would host a banquet at the Adelaide Town Hall to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the proclamation of South Australia. In doing so, he unwittingly set in motion the creation of a series of photographic mosaics depicting 19th-century settler society that is unique in Australasia.

In 2007, the State Library of South Australia embarked on a project to preserve and digitise ‘Old Colonist’ mosaics and a later series of ‘northern pioneers’, and worked to identify the more than 1700 men and women depicted. The inscription of the collection on the Australian Register of the UNESCO Memory of the World Program in April 2023 was the culmination of the project.

The term ‘Old Colonist’ signified someone who had arrived in the first five years of the province of South Australia (1836–1840), and stayed in the aftermath of the economic crisis that caused others to leave and immigration to plummet in the early 1840s. Solomon’s newspaper advertisements invited ‘those who have taken a share in the heat and burden of the colony’s early days’ to attend. Both women and men applied for the free tickets, resulting in a published clarification that ‘the Banquet is intended for Old Colonists of the Male Sex’. More than 500 men enjoyed Solomon’s hospitality, and the event was described in immense detail in the press, including a toast to the ‘absent ladies’.

A week after the banquet, Solomon placed advertisements inviting men to have their portraits taken at Henry Jones’s photographic studio, opposite the Town Hall, to commemorate the event. Ten days later, Jones’s former employer, Townsend Duryea, began advertising his own intention to create a large group picture of male Old Colonists. Duryea had been South Australia’s preeminent photographer since 1855, and was no doubt aggrieved that Solomon’s commission had not gone to him. In May 1872, Jones decided to make amends to ‘Lady Old Colonists’, inviting them to sit for a companion group (which he did not complete until 1881).

I began work at the State Library in 1987 as the inaugural Oral History Officer. At that time, Jones’s ‘Old Colonists Banquet Group’ of 515 men and ‘Group of Old Colonists’ of 597 women were displayed on either side of the entrance to the microfilm reading room. Wondering whether any of my forebears were included, I asked about an index. I learnt that there were separate lists of names for these and other mosaics. I was also warned that the indexes were incomplete and frequently inaccurate. I remember thinking that somebody should do something about that. Twenty years later, as Manager of Preservation, I found myself in a position where I could.

To find out what Beth did next, check out the latest edition of Traces.

Pictured: ‘Group of [women] Old Colonists’ (detail), by Henry Jones. Image courtesy of the State Library of South Australia: B 19985.

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