Documenting Play: From the Front Line

This article was published in Play and Folklore no. 66, December 2016, by Museum Victoria.

In 2007 and 2008 I had the privilege of working for the Childhood, Tradition and Change project
as a fieldworker. The project was funded by the Australian Research Council Linkage Project Scheme and received additional support from the National Library of Australia, Museum Victoria, Deakin University, Curtin University and the University of Melbourne. The research was conducted over four years (2007-10), and material was recorded in nineteen schools across Australia by eight fieldworkers working in pairs.

The aim of the project was to gain a ‘snapshot’ of play occurring in Australian playgrounds and to build on an extant body of work compiled by researchers in the 1950s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. (1)

Entering the field

Armed with pencils, notebooks, cameras, folders, microphones, a packed lunch and studio-quality recording gear (from the National Library of Australia), my colleagues and I set out to document what primary school kids were up to during their free play time: at recess, lunch, and as they headed home each day. Continue reading

Halloween in Australia? It’s been here much longer than you might think…

Earlier this month, farmer Rusty Dredge was preparing to harvest around 150,000 jack-o’-lantern pumpkins on his farm near Broome, WA. Most of these pumpkins will have now made their way to homes in Western and South Australia where they’ve been stabbed, hacked at, and lovingly transformed into ghoulish lanterns for Halloween.

A steadily growing celebration in Australia, many are embracing the event as a day of imagination, revelry and a bit of fun for the kiddies around the neighbourhood. There’s also loud opposition against the adoption of an essentially consumer-based American tradition that is distinctly un-Australian.

If you’ve read anything about Halloween in the last few weeks you’ll know that modern day Halloween descends from the Celtic celebration of Samhain (pronounced ‘sow-in’) and catholic tradition of All Hallows or All Saints. Aside from the onslaught of mass marketing and made-in-China trinkets and costumes, the way Halloween is celebrated throughout the world still incorporates a hotch-potch of distant images and rituals originally from Britain, Ireland, Scotland, Europe and the Roman Empire.

Whatever your thoughts about trick-or-treating, consumerism, spirituality or pumpkins, Halloween has in fact been celebrated in Australia for a very long time. It may not have been mainstream, but it was certainly part of the fabric of social life in many areas, and a celebration that often focused on young people and romance.


The first acknowledgement of Halloween in Australian print was in The Geelong Advertiser when the event was included in an annual calendar in 1847 (left).

A quick flick through a possible 26,616 newspaper records in the sainted Trove database also tells us that throughout the mid-late 1800s a ship named ‘Halloween’ frequented Australian shores bringing tea from China (below).

(1875). The ‘Halloween’ in an unidentified port.

The most enduring mention of Halloween in Australian newspapers however, tell the story of Scottish immigrants. The earliest records of Caledonian Societies celebrating Halloween date back to the 1850s in Adelaide and some societies continue to celebrate to this day. Annual Halloween balls were the most popular form of event and these grew in popularity into the early to mid-1900s.

Following is a list of some of the places where Halloween has been celebrated.

QLD (Kalgoorlie, Rockhampton, Brisbane, Maryborough, Cairns, Charters Towers, Mulgrave, Roma & Gordonvale), NSW (Lismore, Armidale, Leeton, Broken Hill, Glen Innes, Woonona, Lithgow, Macleay & Uralla) SA (Adelaide, Mount Gambier,  Mount Barker & Balaklava), VIC (Bendigo, Castlemaine, Beaufort, Mildura, Maffra, Longford, Melbourne,  Hamilton, Williamstown, Forest Creek, Prahran, Sunshine, Dandenong, Shepparton, Ararat) TAS (Launceston), NT (Alice Springs, Parap) WA (Kalgoorlie, Perth, Fremantle, Dangin, Kulin, Noman’s Lake, Leonora).

The Leader, (Melbourne VIC) November 2 1901, p.36

Halloween balls and concerts usually took place in church and Mechanics Institute halls, town halls and theatres. Most celebrations included decorations of Scottish tartan, the symbol of the thistle, recitations, pipe bands, musical performances, dancing and the singing of traditional Scottish songs from the ‘auld country’. Food included sweets and dainties, apples, nuts, Haggis and ‘champit tatties’ (Scottish mashed spuds).

Border Watch (Mt. Gambier SA) November 2 1948, p.8

Games were played by the young folk – bobbing for apples or trying to catch apples on strings with the mouth (dookin’ for apples), egg and spoon races, bun eating competitions, potato races and a very puzzling game of ‘beheading the rooster’. (right)

On occasion, descriptions of Halloween events would appear in newspapers; sometimes recording the fashions worn by the ladies and members in attendance.

Halloween customs around courtship were also practised by young men and women as featured in the writing of Robert Burns. (Try combing your hair and eating an apple at the same time).

From The Register (Adelaide) 31 October 1906 below:

In Australia there are few cities or towns in which absolutely no notice is taken of Halloween by the Scottish residents; and the Caledonian Society in South Australia has for many years religiously observed it.

The original significance of the pulling up of a stalk of kale by each member of a group of young people going out hand-in-hand into the field with eyes shut was that the characteristics of the stalks which each secured would give a preliminary indication of the kind of partner the future would bring. If much earth adhered to tbe root, this was held to be a sure sign that marriage would ensure a fair share of riches. A sour taste on biting the stalk was a bad omen, foretelling union with an ill-natured spouse.

Proceeding further in the mystic investigation, the lads and lasses obtained a number of nuts, to each of which was assigned the name of one of the party. These were put Into the fire side by side, and if they burned quietly it was a sign of courtship and marriage, but if they started or jumped away from one an other, the movement predicted mutual aversion. Any maid who bad not in this way found her ‘affinity’ had, however, other resources of prophecy open to her. If she went alone into a dark room with a lighted taper or candle, and began to eat an apple and to comb her hair at the same time, it was supposed that a face would suddenly appearin the looking glass peeping over her shoulder and wearing the likeness of her future husband.

Various games, such as biting at apples swimming in a bowl of water or dangling on a beam of wood with a lighted candle at the opposite end were also indulged in on the eve of All Saints’ Day, with the object of merrymaking.

The popularity of the festival, especially among the younger members of the gentler sex, seems to have been largely due to the natural tendency of such prophecies as those of Halloween to bring about in time their own fulfilment. A good deal of latitude was allowed in the naming of the nuts which were burned in the fire, and mental reservations not known to the bystanders were apparently the rule.

Not much can be found in the way of trickery, though mischief was obviously part of the culture of Halloween:

Kapunda Herald (SA), March 18 1887, p.6


(1943) [Halloween Party for U.S. Servicemen… U.S. Red Cross Club]
(1984) Public Library S.A.

Happy Halloween!

Whether you do or do not celebrate – raise a glass to those who’ve been celebrating in Australia for over 150 years.

Unidentified (1938) Illustrated front cover from The Queenslander, October 26 1938. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

Superstition, Shoes & Secrets – Australia’s History of Concealed Objects and Evil-Averting Symbols.


Below is a transcript of the content that appears in the video (with a few extra pictures and a comment here and there):

1863 Sydney, Australia

George and Mary Hurley move into a house in Lower Fort Street, Dawes Point.

During this period, families often lost their children to disease and illnesses that pose no threat today. Life expectancy was significantly shorter and colonists carried many fears to a new and hostile country – including fears of evil spirits and bad luck.

By the time the Hurley family took up residence at Fort Street, Mary had given birth six times though only three children survived. Mary bore another three children while at Fort Street. Of the nine, only five of her children would survive to maturity.

In 2003 the Fort Street house was being renovated. In the roof cavity, a tiny shoe and lace collar were discovered. Expert opinion suggests that these items may have been hidden by the Hurley family.

Continue reading

“It’s Just a Joke”: The Dark Side & Lore of Prejudice.


Joke cycles. We’ve all come across or taken part in them throughout our lives. There are chicken jokes, knock-knock jokes and lightbulb jokes. Remember those awful dead baby jokes? The jokes that circulated when the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff in 1986? Not long after email became a ‘thing’, it took just hours (some say minutes) for jokes about Princess Diana to circulate online after her death; quickly becoming one of the most widely known joke cycles of modern times.

There are mainstream jokes, sick jokes, dark humour jokes and jokes relating to celebrities or events. Then there are the kind of jokes that are visual (memes and cartoons for example). Pranks and practical jokes. Generally we associate ‘jokes’ with fun, lightheartedness and joviality.

…which is true of course, unless you’re the subject of the joke.


Jokes are also subversive; used to mock, demean, shame and perpetuate cultural and social myths that maintain a gaping hole between ‘us and them’. Jokes about women, feminists, men, Islam, Judaism, asylum seekers, the LGBTQI community, indigenous people, British people, fat people, skinny people, Catholics, the Irish, blonde jokes, greenie jokes, redhead and redneck jokes… and the list goes on. Continue reading

Folk-lore. A Birthday Survey.

First coined by William J. Thoms on 22 August 1846, the word ‘folk-lore’ has become an enduring lens through which we analyse and acknowledge ‘informal culture’. ‘Folk-lore’ (yes, initially hyphenated but no longer), turned 170 years old this week.


It’s also a term that has arguably become a victim of its own folklore. What is it? It’s at once fairly simple and horribly messy. More of that later… Continue reading

Superstitious? A Snapshot of Modern & Remembered Superstitions & Beliefs.

State Library SA B-7723-80 Effie Conigrave dressed as good luck 1887
State Library of South Australia [B7723-80]
There’s something about this picture that may (or may not) make you feel queasy…

Meet Effie Conigrave, age 17 and dressed as ‘good luck’ in 1887. We’re given no clues as to why she’s dressed as ‘good luck’. Nor do we know if this outfit actually did bring her any luck. Based on her frock and cap (and a sizable dose of superstitious belief from childhood), I would hazard a guess that this young lass may have tragically and unwittingly cursed herself to a miserable existence of epic proportions. Not only is she wearing a horseshoe upside-down; she has chosen to do so four times. An invitation for disaster.

Whether we think we’re superstitious or not, superstitions are a significant part of our cultural heritage. Most of us can name a few, though we often don’t even realise we’re actively passing them on. Indeed, many of us don’t even understand why we carry them on; nor do we remember exactly what they mean. (Superstition is also a fabulous song too, by the way).

1930s Bushells Tea advertisement  From The Australian Women's Weekly, 21 January 1939. jpg
Bushells Tea Advertisement, Australian Woman’s Weekly, 21 Jan 1939

Do you ‘touch wood’? Say “bless you!” when somebody sneezes? Cross your fingers (physically or verbally as a  gesture of good will)? Turn a teapot clockwise or anti-clockwise? Resist opening an umbrella inside? Throw a pinch of salt over your shoulder after spilling some? What would you do with a horseshoe if you found one? Continue reading

Australia Votes: A Long Campaign in Memes. Dank memes, #FakeTradie and what we’ve been sharing. #MemeWars #MemeElection

Do you remember where you were when the upcoming Federal Election was announced? Me neither, though I do recall feeling queasy, vowing to stop watching the news and preparing for the inevitable onslaught of mind-numbing slogans, over-simplified arguments and social media stunts. Seventy-five days sentenced to political hell. Election campaigns are a bit like witnessing a nasty car bingle. You want to look away but you can’t. It all starts appearing in slow motion.

Via an anonymous Facebook profile and Twitter, I have been following pages of major political parties, their affiliated organisations, unions and community or interest groups.  Many of these pages include groups who identify as far-left and far-right. The objective: to watch the election unfold (or unravel) through the lens of memes shared by Australians regardless of their political leanings.

meme def.jpg

The following observations are based on (and feature) some of the hundreds of memes collected so far.

We accepted that winter was coming. The horror was palpable:

Continue reading


Folklore. Why folklore?
We’ll be getting to that shortly. You can follow on Facebook in the meantime…
Cultural observances and commentary through the eyes of a folklorist, oral & social historian. Diving into the nitty-gritty of who, how and why we are.

Food, family, internet, traditions, music, dance, children’s culture, arts, superstitions, social media & history. Prejudice, politics, gender, sex, feminism, racism, conflict and other contemporary issues.

The everyday aspects of our lives that inform who we are through ‘intangible culture’.

Folklore is the perfect second skin. From under its hide, we can see all the shimmering, shadowy uncertainties of the world.” ― Jane Yolen

Blog title taken from: G. Seal; “The Hidden Culture: Folklore in Australian Society” (Oxford University Press, 1989).