History of May Gibbs Children's Literature Trust

On Monday 20th February at our AGM, Mary WIlson provided us with the fascinating history of the May Gibbs CLT.

It is always of interest to find out about like minded organisations.

Here is her speech.

                                              CBC  AGM 22/2/2107          Mary Wilson  (Patron MGCLT)        


                                     “ May Gibbs Children’s Literature Trust”


The president Karen Mutton and members of the Children’s book Council of SA. Thank you so much for inviting me to speak about the May Gibbs Children’s Literature Trust tonight. The Trust  has been going for nearly 18 years and has awarded over 150 Fellowships or Mentorships around Australia so it has quite a story! 


I acknowledge that we meet on aboriginal land and pay respect to the original custodians whose spiritual connection with it was and is forged through storytelling and cultural practices.


I am in awe of the collective and individual knowledge you all have about Children’s Literature and I cannot hope to match it! Tonight I am going to give you a broad sweep of  my story of the Trust, how it began ,  the inspiration behind it , what it has done, what it is doing now and  how relevant it can be in the future?


Now, how it began:


Many of you will remember the Australia –wide Campaign“Nutcote for the Nation” in the 1990’s to save “Nutcote “ for 44 years the studio/home of the  earliest  professionally trained Australian children’s author /Illustrator May Gibbs, located on Sydney harbor at Neutral Bay.


Many of  us became involved as teachers, Librarians, writers and illustrators  and lovers of Children’s literature. The aim was to save her studio/home (designed   in 1924 by architect BJ Waterhouse) as a national treasure, to honour the contribution May had made to Australian Children’s literature over her long life (1877-1969, she died at 92,) and  for it to be  to be focus for Australian Children’s Literature and the environment. At this stage it was in the hands of developers who planned to demolish it.




My involvement began in 1989 when I was rung by Author Christobel Mattingley  to help save the Nutcote from  the developers.  Christobel told me that May had been advised to leave the little house in her will to UNICEF “ for the Children of the world” and the copyright of her work to the Crippled Children and Spastic Centre of NSW. Sadly, that adviser did not realize UNICEF sold it to developers in 1970 and planned to use the money to help children in other ways.  Christobel was contacting everyone she could think of ,teachers, authors, artists , librarians etc around Australia to alert them of the imminent loss of this significant studio /home.At time  I was past president  of Delta Foundation ,Educational and Cultural  Foundation , and we were about to hold our annual Seminar at “ Tanderra “Yankalilla  , the subject that November was to be “Children’s Literature and the Environment” . We invited Christobel to attend and speak,and  hearing the story, immediately pledged our help.


A Support group “ Nutcote forthe Nation “ was formed in SA and I became the SA Chairman with a wonderful enthusiastic group.  We immediately planned a picnic in Botanic Park and”Read Ins” for Nutcote  and an Exhibition of May Gibbs work at the State library curated by Juliana Bayfield . A little later I convened SA Friends of Nutcote and we had over 300 members!  Similar groups were formed interstate, notably in Victoria by Liz Honey and Ann James .The May Gibbs   2 Foundation was active in NSW. This campaign touched the hearts and minds of all ages around Australia.


May’s works were prolific and covered a wide range of material, from :


=Illustrations for book covers


=Posters for Mothers and Babies Health Association ,


 =Enlistment Posters and postcards sent to soldiers during the first world War            War


=Small illustrated books for children


=Over 15 Longer illustrated such as Snugglepot andCuddlepie (pub  1918) (and never out of print)


=For nearly  over 40  years from  1924 until she died,in 1969  she created 1968 Bib and Bub  Weekly  Cartoon Strips and 331 Tiggy Touchwood  strips, which appeared in the Sunday Mail,  around Australia,  and


=346 Weekly Short Stories “Gumnut Gossip- Extracts from the Daily Bark”  from which children learned to read and often made their own scrapbooks.


=Educational Publications and Correspondence courses for children in country areas.




May had a tough time as a woman from her publishers, She was paid half the amount her male counterparts received , and also as  paper was scarce, and the reproduction of her beautiful art work was not perfect which broke her heart. Those amongst you here would understand this agony!


The hallmarks of her work were enduring, her botanical accuracy, her humour often satirical, her care for children as she raised issues affecting their welfare, her concern to protect the environment,  where through imagination she made the bush come alive, and her concern for literacy. Her social commentary meant she informed readers of contemporary issues affecting their lives, with great humour and compassion. She was a significant figure in the lives of man ! 




I have drawn the broad canvas of her work just to show you how prolific and powerful an influence she was in her lifetime , for which she was awarded an OBE.


I can recommend two beautiful books” Mother of the Gumnuts “ by Maureen Walsh (pub1985) and”May Gibbs,More than a Fairytale” an artistic ,life by Robert Holden and Jane Brummitt(pub 2011) which contain  a great deal of information.




 There was a dramatic moment when it looked as though Nutcote would be lost.


A fire mysteriously broke out in the underground laundry overnight. Fortunately the next door neighbour, a Mrs Devine noticed smoke and by Divine intervention  literally ,Nutcote was saved!  The North Sydney Council then decided to back the campaign , and paid the residue of the $2.86m owing to the owners.


 But fundraising had to continue to restore“Nutcote”, to maintain it and run programs to make it viable. So the Mayor Ros Crichton set up The Nutcote Trust with  members drawn  from  NSW and interstate , SA, Vic ,Queensland ,ACT . This was when Hon Ian Wilson, Jeff Prentice, Ann James and others were appointed to reflect the Council’s and supporters’ national approach  and to raise the money from Governments and private donors.  But there was still had a long way to go before it could be opened to the public.


As the restoration was carried out and we furnished Nutcote with May’s desk, folio cabinet , wardrobe( sold at auction after her death), and collected  other furnishings like an old telephone ,wireless  ,blue and white china and kitchen and laundry  equipment , the garden  around the existing  banksia tree was replanted,    we could see how much inspiration May drew from Nutcote and daily life around her, as she worked in the garden ,walked her Scotty dogs  and rather dangerously  drove her open Dodge car”Dodgem” out into the bush. She also drew on memories of childhood in the bush in South Australia and Perth, the sea voyage out from England, and current events such as wartime rationing, collecting pots and pans to help the war effort, the radio broadcasts of cricket and current affairs, and  observing people’s attitudes , and foibles!




Facilities for visitors had to be planned.Then a 3 storey apartment block came up for sale over the road from Nutcote, overlooking it to the Harbour Bridge . There was great excitement. It was  fraction of the cost of a new building and the integrity of” Nutcote” and the fragile gardens  could be preserved. This building could provide an off -site Education Centre and wet area for workshops for children on the ground floor, the middle floor would be a changing Exhibition area for May’s works and that of contemporary writers and illustrators , and the top floor would be a writers –in- residence apartment for creators of children’s literature, and administration office . May’s garage could now be converted to a shop, tearooms and toilets . It was an ideal set up.




In 1994 restoration was completed and Nutcote was opened to the public.The


Committee of the Nutcote Trust knew that no Museum could exist on entrance money alone,and that an Endowment Fund would have to be created. So in 1998 the May Gibbs Children’s Literature Trust was formed through the Nutcote Trust  to work with it  to attract visitors and inspire  ongoing  funding,  to make Nutcote a viable educational, artistic and environmental Centre, and for exhibitions and activities to honour May Gibbs . Ann James on the Board   gave the advice to Ian as Chairman and Jeff Prentice as Deputy that the greatest gift to support the creativity of contemporary writers and illustrators,  was Time . Children’s literature was at the bottom of the pile in attracting Government funding.Picture books in particular fell between being literature and art quite ignoring its impact as visual literacy! It was decided to raise money for Fellowships and Mentorships  and to create partnerships to support Nutcote.


Delta Foundation in South Australia raised money for a “May Gibbs   Nutcote Fellowship “and Elizabeth Hutchins was selected to take up the first residency. She relished the chance to work with children in this setting and to experience some of the magic of May Gibbs and her studio home,and to attract visitors .




Sadly some outside the Committee of the Nutcote Trust thought the programs should focus only on May Gibbs and the house as a Museum.They persuaded the new Mayor to appoint councillors to take over the Board,  and not to continue its Education Centre and Writer –in- Residence programs .




This was a hard time for the interstate trustees,who had worked  so hard to set Nutcote up to be viable,and to honour its objectives to the many supporters around Australia ,who had raised money for it to be a National Treasure.




However there have been some great advantages in what happened next!


IanWilson(Chairman)  and Jeff Prentice ( Deputy) and interstate supporters decided to continue with the May Gibbs Children’s Literature Trust to  continue to offer Creative time Fellowships and Mentorships  to Australian Children’s Authors /Illustrators nationally and to keep May Gibbs ‘ name before the public throughout Australia. )The aim was  to fundraise  to purchase studio apartments in each state if possible,  and for support groups  to be  created  in States  around these apartments.




The inaugural fellowship was shared by Ann James from Victoria and Tania Cox


from Ayr, Far North Queensland in 1998. They took up residence at Kathleen Lumley Post Graduate College in North Adelaide. On 16th March during the Adelaide Festival of Arts ,the  Trust was officially launched in the Adelaide Arcade with over 140 people in attendance. The Children’s book “Baby” written by Queensland author Tania Cox illustrated by Ann James   published by Working Title Press was also launched that evening.


The second May Gibbs Fellowship was accepted by Shaun Tan from Perth. Shaun illustrated John Marsden’s book “The Rabbits” published by Lothian Books which won the CBCA Picture Book of the year Award in 1999.Shaun took up his residential Fellowship in May at  the University of Melbourne working  with students  in the Department of Language , Literature and Education.


The Third May Gibbs fellowship was  accepted by Bronwyn Bancroft the Aboriginal artist , book illustrator and textile designer from Sydney who stayed it Dromkeen Riddell’s Creek in Victoria.




There was great excitement as by this time enough money had been raised to purchase the first studio Apartment in South Australia at  2/232 Osmond Tce Norwood,a suburb of Adelaide! May Gibbs arrived in Australia in 1881 in the Hesperus at the age of 4 with her mother and brothers. They eventually settled in Queen Street Norwood where there was a well, fruit trees and bushland Later May settled in both Perth and Sydney. It seemed so appropriate to have a studio  close to May’s early childhood home!


The Fellowships and financial support became very successful and gradually over the years  the Trust was able to purchase an apartment in Melbourne , Canberra and Brisbane, and award regular Fellowships nationally. The support groups were wonderful.


A special feature of the Trust is the establishment of Program Committees consisting of  professional volunteers in Adelaide , Melbourne Canberra Brisbane and Sydney. Initially each State program committee had a chair which liased with, our first National Program Chair , Elizabeth Hutchins  in Adelaide.


 Now the National program Chair is your talented Julie Wells and we are thrilled  Julie will be able to bring you up to date with how that Committee operates.


The first Program coordinator was Nan Halliday and much loved. She set the tone of professional and warm organizing of fellows. Sally Chance has been in that role for 6 years and has built on Nan’s expertise in her own engaging way . She will be leaving us this year to further her studies and we will miss her very much.


 The Trust has 40 Volunteers across Australia and I am sure that those who have taken responsibility will affirm that their involvement with the Trust has added to their own personal and professional development.




 As I said, Ian Wilson was the First  and Founding National Chair with Jeff Prentice Deputy.Dianne Gray followed him. A lawyer and grandmother, her professional and steady hand and delightful personality as Chair, kept the Trust true to its values.


Now the Chair is Elizabeth Clare, former President of Adelaide Rotary, who has a very able Board consisting of Dianne Gray ,Fij Miller,  and Sally Chance


 The support groups are amazing and generous.


They meet and greet the fellows and keep an eye on them sometimes run them around, and arrange the fundraising at which Fellows give their time to and meet donors,  and speak about their work. Alle Goldsworthy is the current SA Chair,


Judy Russell the Brisbane Chair, and she and her committee  meet and greet and take fellows to Rothbury on Ann Studio in Brisbane, and arrange the fundraising speaking events. Virginia West is like Mother Earth to Fellows in Canberra ,now helped by Harriet Gray , who settle Fellows in The Liversidge Apartments  in the  gardens of the ANU.  Dr Belle Alderman who runs the Lou Rees Collection is generous with her time with fellows in Canberra .




Successes: Over the years, through the provision of physical space, the Trust has given authors and illustrators active and practical assistance in their


creative work,  and partnerships  have been made with Universities, Libraries , schools to maintain the human interface .  Apartments have been purchased in Adelaide , Melbourne ,Canberra and Brisbane, and in SA partnerships with Seymour college through the Von Crompton fellowship , Scotch College through the Iva Bridgland Fellowship.and Victor Harbor school. Over the years it has had partnerships with  Univerities of Melbourne  , Flinders ,and  Brisbane  and Melbourne and Brisbane Libraries, and the Canberra Museum.The Trust has no government support . It is registered  as a charitable organization so donations are Tax deductible. It is not backed by any one publisher, nor has it vested interests. It has the welfare of the creators of children’s literature and children it serves at heart.


- Quotes from Diary Entries from Studios :(See website  www.maygibbs.org.au)


Liz Honey( Vic )Adelaide


John Nicholson  




Pam Rushby-ACT


Lorraine Marwood- Brisbane. “Starjumps”(Verse Novel, won PM Literary Award)


Many Fellows have won awards or been short listed and two, Boori Pryor and Leigh Hobbs have been appointed Australian Children’s  Laureates to inspire children and families  to read and be literate. I often think of early fellow  Sofie Laguna at the studio, who wrote “ My Yellow Blanky” (now a Miles Franklin Award Winner, for “Eye of the Sheep”).




On going .  


 There are always changes and opportunities presenting themselves to the Trust. Whether it is a change of residential accomodation or partnerships or personnel bringing their skills ,or changes in technology , and we welcome this . The bottom line is the welfare of Fellows, and the  children and families  with whom their  work brings them into contact.


The last latest development for the Trust   is the Ian Wilson Memorial   Fellowship for an emerging writer or illustrator.  We are thrilled that Georgina Chadderton is the first recipient . She is from Adelaide but will take up residency at The Burrow in Norwood in March and work on her Graphic novel”Oh Brother” about growing up with a brother with autism. I have invitations here if any members of the CBC would like to hear her speak at our next function at the Burnside Library in Thursday 16  March 6.30 to 8pm in conversation with Greg Holdfield.


How relevant is the Trust and how will it be in the future? . For this I go back to May Gibbs. For me she is the touchstone of inspiration for the Trust.


How effective her creative output was, her experiences coming from UK to make her home  in Australia. She saw the patterns and beauty of nature and was a keen observer of life around her.I invite you to revisit her life and work!


Hallmarks of her work:


Her environmental awareness and  botanical accuracy


Her social commentary


Her concern for literacy


Her humour


Imagination and empathy


 Care for children


She faced fears  


Lifted spirits


Informed and delighted  adults and children at the same time.


Children hear it in your voice and see it in your eyes and gestures as you read to them.These are all powerful attributes of storytelling and poetry and art ,which are evident in the work of our Fellows and will be always relevant.




I hope this has given you my bird’s eye view  of the aims  and work of the Trust.




I will finish now by quoting Dr Belle Alderman in Canberra in her  CBC of Australia Oration in 2003, who said,”The May Gibbs Children’s Literature Trust is the latest example of innovative and creative ventures to support Australian authors and illustrators and so to bring them into contact with their Community”.


Her testimony and that of the Fellows and the schools and libraries, Universities  teachers, children, and parents and everyone who meets our Fellows  keeps the Trust alive and going!


Thank you so much for listening . We would welcome anyone to join our activities so do contact us if you would like to.


www.maygibbs.org .au(Website)




Refs:    MGCLT Website ,and Diaries.


           Australian Children’s Literature-Finding a voice”,JeffreyPrentice (pub2016 Braidwood press)   




Delivered at Black Friars School Library Prospect SA.




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