Throughout my Tasmanian childhood there were two small oil paintings hanging beside the open fire in our farmhouse sitting room. When the wind blew, the hessian backed wallpaper ballooned out, and the pictures nearly fell off their nails. I was always intrigued by them, and when I inherited them from my mother in the 1980s they took pride of place in my own home.
The pictures are quite primitive, and date from the 1930.s Unsigned and originally unframed, they were given to my mother by her brothers Reg and Ray Larcombe. My uncles had purchased them from an amateur artist by the name of Archie Cameron, for five shillings each. Ray, Reg and Archie were workmates on the Tasmania’s first Hydro Electric Scheme at Tarraleah. My mother told me that Archie Cameron was an alcoholic, and that he dashed off the paintings and sold them whenever he was short of cash. But was this true?
They were done on sections of old tea chest. One is of the upper reaches of the Derwent River;
The other is a stark portrayal of the newly constructed hydro canal, built to carry water 14 miles from the river to the power station. According to my mother, there was a tragic event connected with the canal. Apparently some young children were playing on it when one slipped and was left hanging onto a cross bar. The others ran home to tell their mother, but just as she arrived the child fell, and was washed away by the torrent of water.
Here is an old photograph of the canal under construction, taken from a similar spot.
Certainly there were children in the area. The families of workmen began to arrive almost as soon as the project began. They were housed firstly in tents and later in more permanent dwellings. Life must have been so difficult , especially during harsh Tasmanian winters. Note the outdoor washing stand in the photo below.
A one-room school was established.
This huge hydro electric project created work for nearly a thousand men as the country struggled to recover from the Great Depression. The following is a poignant letter from the era. It was preserved by the recipient (a storekeeper) and discovered fifty years later in the pages of a book bought at a rural ‘clearing out’ sale. Coincidentally, Cethana would also become the site for a hydro-electric power station.
Depression era letter from Cethana, Tasmania.
I always wondered who Archie Cameron was. To my shame it was not until after my mother’s death that I did some research and found his obituary (22 August 1966) in The Examiner, a northern Tasmanian newspaper.
It is difficult to separate family folklore from fact. Judging from the obituary, Mr Cameron had led a very interesting life. An earlier snippet from the Examiner (July 1928) mentions Archie giving a talk to the Launceston TOC H club about a six month archaeological expedition into the Sudan.
I can’t help wondering whether he was a manual labourer at Tarraleah, or held some more important position. Unfortunately, the Hydro Electric Commission have not retained a record of his employment. And was he really an alcoholic? I do hope not. Thankfully, I have never been able to find any record of a child being swept away in the canal either, although certainly workmen lost their lives in it. Sadly, my Larcombe uncles are no longer alive and I am unable to check the stories. After the Tarreleah project was completed they were employed on others; Bronte Park, Poatina, Gowrie Park etc. Archie Cameron was a good deal older, so it is doubtful if he did the same.
Here is the completed canal as it appears today;
Much as I love them, the pair of paintings would not be regarded as great works of art, and have little intrinsic value. However, they are important items of Tasmanian social history. I now live in New South Wales, but it is my intention to return them to Tasmania one day.
UPDATE – CAMERON FAMILY MEMORIES
Following publication of this story I was contacted by Archie Cameron’s grandson, Roger Cameron. I was delighted that he confirmed my feeling that his grandfather was not a drinker. He also forwarded me a photo of Archie in British Army uniform.
Today, Tarraleah village is privately owned and operated a boutique leisure complex.
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