Dead ends

Dead ends
When the answer is: there is no answer
1 May 2017

We like to celebrate when we find elusive pictures, articles or references and our Ask a Librarian blogs highlight these success stories, but unfortunately, not every question has a happy ending. Here are a few queries that presented me with some difficulties and disappointments.

The poem

The Burnley Archives have a copy of a poem written about the Burnley School of Horticulture gardens in Melbourne. The reference is Argus, which is either the newspaper or a pseudonym for whoever wrote it. We don't know who the person who wrote it was or when, but it would be around 1899-1905.

The full copy of the poem and the article in which it appeared is in Green grows our garden : a centenary history of horticultural education at Burnley  by A.P. Winzenried. The only reference for this item was "Argus, n.d., VCAH files."

I couldn't find the poem in any Trove newspaper searches. As The Argus is fully digitised, I was confident that I could discount it as the source, but I couldn't locate it in any other digitised newspaper either. The tone of the article and poem indicated to me that it might have been from a satirical weekly newspaper, such as the Melbourne Punch, but unfortunately coverage is limited.  

There were no real leads for anyone using Argus as a pen-name, although it could have been a rarely-used pseudonym, or even one adopted for this poem.

For me, this was the end of the search, but I tried to make other suggestions for the enquirer to follow up, my response was:

If The Victorian College of Agriculture and Horticulture files contain an original copy of the article, it may be possible to get more information from it. There is no date, but is Argus speculation, or is it printed clearly on the cutting? Perhaps it is noted separately from the cutting itself. If it is not in an album of cuttings, is there any clue on the back (even an advertisement or other information)? I also suggested checking any manuscripts of people associated with Burnley, as they may have collected newspaper cuttings and kept records.

Set of four images of the gardens taken from a newspaper

Burnley School of Horticulture page 18 in the Weekly Times (Melbourne), 28 January 1905

The opera

A PhD student is trying to find the complete citation for an opera: 'Dorothea' - music by Alan Holley, libretto by Jyoti Brunsdon, commissioned for the Australian Bi-Centenary 1988.  She can find a record for a song from the opera, but not the complete citation.

The Library has two pieces of music from this opera. These are:
Spider song [music] : for soprano and piano from the opera "Dorothea" / music [arr.] Alan Holley ; text Jyoti Brunsdon and Cage of gold [music] : flute and piano or violin and piano / Alan Holley

The score of the complete opera is not part of our music collection, only these two pieces. I searched for the opera in other libraries and institutions, but records for the composer, Alan Holley, did not include these works.

Regrettably, I couldn’t help any further, but I suggested that the student would be able to enquire at two other places. Australian Music Centre where Alan Holley is a represented artist, and the music publishers, Kookaburra Music, as they may have some record of the work.

Image of a newspaper review of Dorothea Mackellar's I love a sunburnt country

Escapes into fantasy page 24 in The Canberra Times (Canberra), 7 July 1990

The lighthouse keeper

Do you know of a comprehensive Commonwealth Employment Record that would list lightkeepers employed on Breaksea Island, Albany, WA from 1903 – 1917 and particularly the period 1915 – 1916 for James Watson?

The post of Assistant Lightkeeper James Watson on Breaksea Island is well known through the story of his daughter Fay, as seen in this Australian Geographic article and the book, Lighthouse girl, but the exact dates of his appointment are still unknown.

In this case, the researcher had already done a lot of work in trying to track down the dates and had found that coastal lighthouses were operated by the Commonwealth in 1915.

The recent Trove launch of the Commonwealth Gazettes has made these gazettes easier to search, so I was hoping to find some concrete evidence of an appointment.  I found an example from 31 August 1916:

Cutting from the Commonwealth Gazette 1916 showing lighthouse keepers

Department of Trade and Customs. Central Staffpage 2077 in Commonwealth of Australia Gazette (Canberra), 31 August 1916

Unfortunately. there was no record for Watson, J., as an Assistant Lightkeeper. It seems that the Commonwealth Gazette was not a complete employment record at the time, and the Commonwealth Public Service Gazette (for employment) was not a separate publication until the 1970s. 

In an attempt to find some official evidence, I tried checking a number of other sources including Lighthouses on the Western Australian coast and off-shore islands and several other similar items.

These are heritage study documents dealing mainly with the buildings themselves. One of the listed heritage items was a photograph of Breaksea Island staff, but there was no date given. These items are housed at AMSA offices Fremantle (Australia Maritime Safety Authority). I couldn't tell from their website if there was any other material, but suggested that it may be worth contacting them.

Commonwealth employment records may also be held at the National Archives of Australia, but the the researcher had already contacted them with no success. I checked Collections in Perth : a guide to Commonwealth Government records, but I could not say for certain if the documents they hold cover the dates required.

Although I had to end the search here, I was able to suggest contacting either the National Archives office in Perth or the Australia Maritime Safety Authority in Fremantle.

Newspaper cutting showing the Breaksea Lightohouse

Breaksea Lighthouse, page 28 in the Western Mail (Perth), 28 March 1908


When we have exhausted all the leads in the Library and online, we try to suggest alternative searches or contacts.  In addition, all questions are kept on file so we can routinely check the database when tricky questions are received.

This was the case for the next question, which was a dead end for me, but ultimately successful for the enquirer:

I have seen the image of a charcoal drawing of Jessie Mary Street by the artist E. Plachty, dated 1948, Paris in your collection. In 1943 E. Plachty made a charcoal drawing of my father, probably in Oxford UK. I have matched the signature with your picture. Do you have any further information about this talented artist, such as her first name and her dates? (I believe this artist was a woman).

Since the digitisation of the Jessie Street portrait, there have been three enquiries, including this one, about the artist, E. Plachty. National Library researchers could not find any references to the artist or other documented works when replying to previous enquiries. Both the earlier questions came from people who owned artworks with identical signatures. One believed the artist was either Czech or Polish.

Hand drawn picture of Jessie Street

Erna Plachte (1893-1986) 1948, Jessie Mary

The portrait is part of the Papers of Jessie Street (MS 2683). Jessie Street did a lot of travelling with her work, which is why she was in Paris. In a previous answer, there was speculation that she could have bought the artwork from a street artist or someone drawing faces in a public area.

More items worldwide are being digitised, so I tried searching further afield. I couldn’t find any reference to Plachty in art or general databases and there was no artist of this name listed in WorldCat other than our Jessie Street portrait. I suggested approaching French or at least European libraries or galleries for any information on E Plachty.

The suggestion was followed up and we received this enlightening reply:

I am writing again to let you know that I have consulted an art historian, Dr Katharina Ulmschneider F.S.A., in Oxford, regarding the identity of “E. Plachty”. After comparing the signature of the picture that I have, she has confirmed that the artist of our picture and yours is a well-known artist called Erna Plachte (1893-1986). The characteristic flourish at the end of her signature makes the final E look like a Y. Erna Plachte was apparently born in Berlin in 1893 and died in Oxford, UK, in 1986.

There were also some biographical details about the artist:

Erna Plachte worked with the League of Nations as an artist and at the end of her career was a tutor at the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford which still awards annual Erna Plachte scholarships for their Masters in Fine Art (MFA) Course…At the age of 90 she authored a book of her drawings entitled: An artist at the League of Nations (Als Zeichnerin beim Völkerbund), published by Carl Habel Verlag, Germany, 1983.*

Do you have more information about any of these stories? Or do you need help with your own dead end? Ask a Librarian

*With thanks to Dr J Mark Ritchie, Oxfordshire, UK. The information about Erna Plachte was passed on to Dr Ritchie by Dr Katharina Ulmschneider, F.S.A and Dr Sally Crawford, F.S.A., Co-Directors of the HEIR Project at the Institute of Archaeology, Oxford University.

Cover image: Michael Terry (1899-1981) 1961 Dirt road through trees, Jay Creek region, Northern Territory, 1961, 2,

Brilliant sleuthing re Erna Plachte - I'm a biographer of Jessie Street and delighted with this identification. Street attended the General Assembly of the League of Nations in Geneva in 1930 and 1938, but the 1948 date of this sketch suggests it was done in Paris during the 21 Sept. - 12 Dec. 1948 third session of the United Nations, Jessie Street's last as Australia's delegate on the Commission for the Status of Women she had helped found in 1946. With women's international organisations active in the League of Nations, Plachte's role is intriguing. Like all good answers, this one thus raises lots more questions!
Thanks to everyone who has commented here and via Facebook and Twitter. It is true that research can raise a lot more questions. One was about the Burnley poem: “Could that poem have been penned by Beryl Llewellyn Lucas who was a graduate of the school and wrote poetry?” This name had not come up in my earlier research, but I now discovered that Beryl Llewellyn Lucas wrote Garden Notes in the Brisbane Courier under the pen-name “Chloris.” I found examples of her work in the 1920s and 1930s on Trove. I suspected that these dates did not fit for our poem, which had an estimated date of 1899-1905. A search of Ancestry found that she was born in 1898, so could not have been the author. Any more suggestions will be gratefully received!