My great grandfather William Larcombe arrived in Launceston, Tasmania in December 1856 aboard the ship Alice Walton. William was then aged 25. He was accompanied by his 20 year old wife Sarah (nee Parker) and their two small children; Leah and Thomas. The family were from Devon, and were assisted migrants. After many years at Evandale they moved to Reedy Marsh and neighbouring Willowdale, an isolated rural area about 11km from Deloraine.
They were sheep farmers. Over the years their family continued to grow. Those who survived to adulthood were Leah, Thomas, Martha, Emma, William, Mary, Alice, Esau, Alfred, James (my grandfather), George, Samuel and Walter.
They were a self-sufficient lot, as most rural people were. In the Larcombe case, this included making their own furniture; particularly chairs.
My great-uncles William, George and Samuel Larcombe are said to have been taught the craft by Jimmy Possum, an almost mythical figure who lived in the area (in a hollow tree, some say). The painting below, dating from 1905, is believed by many to be of Jimmy Possum at the entrance of his unique home..
The story goes that Jimmy would leave his tree in winter and be taken in by the Larcombes and other local families, including the McMahons and the Upstons. My grandfather James married Nora Upston, whose brother George Upston was also a chair maker.
My cousin Frank Upston tells me, ‘As a kid there were a couple [of chairs] around home that belonged to Grandma Upston, George’s wife.’ Frank remembered them as just ‘funny old chairs’, that were sitting outside under a big laurel tree. He also recalls that his aunt, Walter Larcombe’s widow Florrie, had similar chairs at her place at Reedy Marsh before she moved into Deloraine.
The unique feature of the chair is that the legs are tapered and angled, and that they pass through both the seat and arms. A great advantage of this design is that the joints tighten under the weight of the sitter. So simple, so clever.
The only one of my great-uncles I ever met was Sam. I remember being taken to visit him in his little house at Willowdale. I was about eight and he must have been at least eighty. He died in 1962, aged 85. I see him still, with a shock of white hair and rheumy eyes. He was sitting at a table on which there was a huge block of strong cheese, and some bread. The walls of the room were covered with years of calenders. I wonder now whether I also saw a Larcombe chair that day.
It is wonderful that the tradition of Jimmy Possum chairs, and by association the Larcombe chairs, is being kept alive by Mike Epworth. Over many years, Mike has been making the chairs, researching and documenting their history, and passing on the skills to descendants.
In May 2017 Mike ran a chair making event at Deloraine. It was part of the National Trust’s annual Heritage Week programme. Unfortunately I was unable to attend, but some of my cousins were there. There was even a visit to Reedy Marsh and Willowdale, where a likely contender for Jimmy Possom’s hollow tree was identified. By the way, there are Jimmy Possum and Larcombe chairs on permanent display at Deloraine’s Folk Museum.
Fortunately Mike extended his workshops to the mainland. My partner Rob and I attended one in Sydney, where we also heard more about the wonderful social history of the chairs and their makers. We took the opportunity to have a little go with the ‘draw knife’, a traditional tool. The interesting thing about the design of the chairs is that the legs protrude through the seat to support the arms. The bonus of this technique is that the more a chair is sat upon, the tighter the joints become.
The original chairs are now highly desirable, and sell for figures my ancestors would find hard to believe. I love how they were carefully repaired by their owners down the generations, evidence that they were greatly treasured.
Examples from the various Deloraine families are known under the umbrella term of Jimmy Possum Chairs. There is a Jimmy Possum Appreciation Group on Facebook if you would like more information. It is run by Mike Epworth
UPDATE – SEPTEMBER 2020
On Father’s Day my niece posted some photos of my older brother Ken making his version of Larcombe chairs in Tasmania. He is such a modest, unassuming fellow, but very talented in all manner of crafts. I’m so moved and delighted that he is carrying on the family tradition.
You can read more about Jimmy Possum and his connection to Deloraine (and the Larcombe family) HERE.
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