5 March 2024

New exhibition dredges up objects from the bottom of historic Canberra well

| James Coleman
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old cast-iron cot

A cast-iron cot circa 1832 was among the objects recovered from the well at the Duntroon Dairy. Photo: James Coleman.

Ask a child to clean their room and you just know where everything on the floor will end up. It turns out the people of bygone generations had a similar approach to dealing with stuff they didn’t want or need anymore.

But in this case, the equivalent of ‘under the bed’ was ‘in the well in the dairy shed’.

From now until 14 July, the Canberra Museum and Gallery (CMAG) in Civic is hosting a new exhibition celebrating all the objects found at the bottom of the well at the historic Duntroon Dairy near Parkes Way.

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“It seems to be a thing in archaeology that you find multiple things down old wells,” senior curator Hannah Paddon says.

“Maybe it’s some kind of Irish or Scottish tradition, I don’t know.”

In 1825, after Scottish merchant Robert Campbell had lost one of his ships at sea on government service, he was granted 4000 acres of land along the Molonglo River, as well as 700 sheep and £3000, and the Duntroon estate was born.

Buildings included the Campbell’s homestead, now the officer’s mess for the Royal Military College, and what’s believed to be the oldest building still standing in Canberra, the Duntroon Dairy, originally constructed in 1832 to provide milk and butter for the tenant farmers.

The produce was stored in a 3.4 by 2.8-metre well in the back room, designed to work as a sort of early fridge by using water seepage in the surrounding ground to keep it cool, even in the heat of summer.

“And then I guess it was handy to double up as a rubbish bin once once they stopped using it as a dairy,” Hannah adds.

Duntroon Dairy

The well at the Duntroon Dairy was used to keep produce cool. Photo: James Coleman.

From 1977, four periods of excavation of the well have pulled up a total of 764 random objects, including several metal four-post bed frames, a child’s cot, and the oldest object in the CMAG collection, a working door lock dating from the reign of William IV (1830 to 1837).

“There have been other locks like it found in the ACT, but no one knows where they’ve come from or what buildings they belonged to,” Hannah says.

Close to half of the objects have since been lost, and many of the others make up broken crockery and other pieces of objective rubbish, but those normally safely tucked away in the CMAG vaults have been dusted off to feature in ‘Duntroon Estate – work with all your might’.

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The exhibition “brings together domestic objects, family textiles, estate records, early photographs, and archaeological finds associated with the Duntroon house, dairy and woolshed and celebrates the people who lived and worked on Duntroon Estate during the era of the Campbell family”.

Some of the standout items include a croquet ball, weathered from use and found under the homestead in 1996; a small white petticoat embroidered with an ‘S’ on the back for either Sophia or Sarah Campbell; an original shingle from the roof of the dairy, complete with hand-made nails; watercolour sketches by Marrianne Campbell; and metal sheep tags used to keep track of flocks before fences were installed.

Many items are set to a wallpaper backdrop of the same pattern as the house. Photo: James Coleman.

Hannah says it has been an effort to wrangle it all together because of how many families have lived on the estate over the years.

“There are just so many different contributors, and there are way more stories in my head than we could ever impart here,” she says.

“But the families are really great, and the time they take with us – it’s wonderful to learn about this key part of Canberra’s history.”

‘Duntroon Estate – work with all your might’ is open daily from 9 am to 4 pm at the Canberra Museum and Gallery and online until 14 July. Hannah Paddon will also lead a guided tour for the ACT Heritage Festival from 13 to 28 April.

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