Academic Reviews

Journal of Australian Colonial History, Vol. 5, 2004, pp. 172-4

Lyall Ford, Below These Mountains; The Adventures of John Henry Mills — Pioneer Photographer and Gold Miner, Taipan Press, Freshwater, 2001, Pbk, ISBN 0 9590776 1 8, xiii + 235pp, [$24.95].

Lyall Ford, Poorhouse to Paradise: The Adventures of a Pioneering Family in a North Queensland Country Town, Taipan Press, Freshwater, 2001, Pbk, ISBN 0 646 33254 6, xix + 218pp, [$24.95].

Lyall Ford has delved deep into both branches of his family history to produce these excellent books. Below These Mountains traces the story of his mother’s family, beginning with their English background and following their adventures as immigrants to Queensland during the second half of the nineteenth century. Poorhouse to Paradise performs the same task for his father’s family. In both cases Ford has drawn on a mass of family archives, as well as newspapers and official documents, to create richly detailed accounts not only of his family, but also of their roles in the areas in which they found themselves.

Both books begin in England, highlighting the difficult conditions faced by Ford’s ancestors which prompted their decisions to emigrate. For the Mills family, it was the increasingly hard struggle to make a living as handloom weavers in Coventry in the mid 1800s, while for Charles Ford it was the lure of a better life than that which he was experiencing as a farm labourer in Wiltshire. Their experiences during the emigration process are related, with Below These Mountains in particular providing a colourful account of the conditions endured by steerage passengers on the voyage to Australia.

Once in Australia, Ford follows his protagonists through their struggles to establish themselves in Queensland, and their lives once they have done so. John Henry Mills ended up in the new gold mining township of Mount Britton, raising a family there and always hoping to make a big strike. The Ford family established themselves in the new township of Walkerston. Both towns were near Mackay, and the books are as much the story of their development (and in the case of Mount Britton, later decline) as they are of the author’s families. Both books make excellent use of photographs. Mills was a keen photographer and so has left a valuable record not just of his family, but of the areas in which he lived and travelled as well.

These are not works of deep historical analysis. Ford sticks in the main to a chronological narrative, and the books are none the worse for it. The sheer amount of detail draws the reader in. At times the minutiae almost seems overdone, but it does help provide a very thorough account of everyday life as experienced by new emigrants, creating a rich tapestry against which to set the characters. We do care when a child dies, we do care when someone marries, and the image of a tame koala sitting on a chair at the dinner table with the family (Poorhouse to Paradise, p. 44) is hard to resist. Ford writes in a chatty, conversational tone, relating his tales without pretension. The books thus serve almost as a reference guide for anyone wishing to gain an insight into what it was like to live in Queensland in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.

This is not to say they are beyond improvement. While Ford rarely strays from the topic at hand, it is difficult to see how Lady Godiva (Below These Mountains, p. 1) or the sinking of the Titanic (Poorhouse to Paradise, p. 51) are particularly relevant. There is also some repetition between the books (sometimes word for word) in areas such as the voyage from England (especially referring to a ship called the Star Queen) and also an early description of Mackay, along with the tale of a cyclone which devastated the area in 1918. Given that the readership of both works is likely to be similar, perhaps a little pruning could have been undertaken here. Such pruning could also have been applied to some of the newspaper extracts Ford reprints. In the main his use of such sources is excellent, but some do tend to go on at length. It is occasionally better to provide just a short extract and then summarise the rest of the passage, to avoid the reader’s eyes glazing over at the sight of so much small print. As mentioned, Ford’s writing style is usually most accessible, but one mannerism does grate after a while. After describing an event, he at times falls prey to the melodramatic device of adding something like ‘little did they realize that 90 years later’, or ‘they were all blissfully unaware of the tragedy that was to befall the happy couple … within a few short years’ (Poorhouse to Paradise, pp. 21 and 31). And at the risk of sounding like a total pedant, better paragraph structure and a few more commas here and there would also help the flow of the text.

Nevertheless, it is easy to see why Ford won the Queensland Family History Society’s Family History Award two years running (2002 and 2003) with these books. They are indeed excellent examples of family history. Ford’s enthusiasm for the task and deep affection for his family shines through on every page. The books highlight the importance of such work, reinforcing the fact that every family has a story to tell and it is not just the famous who make history. The Fords, the Mills’ and their descendants helped to shape Australia just as much as people like Sir Arthur Fadden, who rose to prominence in Australian politics in the 1940s and 50s after his own childhood in Walkerston, appearing in several anecdotes in Ford’s work. Historians and the general reading public alike can gain much from these books, providing as they do an accessible, informative and entertaining glimpse into the everyday lives of our forebears.

Erin Ihde
University of New England


Queensland Review, VOL. 9, NO. 1, May 2002

Lyall Ford, Below These Mountains: The Adventures of John Henry Mills — Pioneer Photographer and Gold Miner (Freshwater, Qld: Taipan Press, 2001), 235 + xiv pp. [$24.95]

In Below These Mountains, Lyall Ford — great-grandson of John Henry and Mary Ann Louisa Mills — has extensively researched and meticulously sifted through the ‘jigsaw puzzle’ pieces of his Mills family ancestry to put together a very readable and thoroughly researched account of both the Mills family and the establishment and eventual demise of the Queensland gold mining township of Mount Britton in Mackay’s hinterland. Although the book is ostensibly designed as a detailed record of the Mills family, it is not a laborious read aimed only at the family members: it also fleshes out the social situations of the era.

The reader is given the opportunity to delve into the two-part story as two quite separate entities or to read the book from beginning to end. Although the two sections investigate very different eras and totally different living environments, Lyall Ford has skilfully linked the two sections as he follows his family members from their British homeland to the harsh remoteness of the ‘Queensland wilderness’.

Part I comprehensively explores the workplace and household conditions of Coventry weavers from the early 1800s as the author locates his Mills family ancestors in that period. For the reader there is much to discover about the industrial unrest and the very different social, economic and religious circumstances of that era. Lyall Ford explores the working and household conditions in the Coventry area of England in great detail, thereby broadening the book’s audience. He carefully describes the daily life of working weavers and their families of that era and, in so doing, his almost obsessive research reveals interesting overlays of social, cultural and religious expectations and conditions. A wide range of primary and secondary sources is used by the author to authenticate and verify the situations portrayed in this section.

Part II focuses on John Henry’s childhood and upbringing and then describes his police career. John Henry Mills takes up photography as a hobby and it soon becomes a nomadic lifestyle that provides him with full time employment. This section of the Mills family history follows John Henry, the young photographer, on his numerous journeys throughout south-east Queensland during the 1870s. The story continues and changes as John Henry Mills and Mary Ann Louisa Ricketts marry, produce children and eventually settle in Mount Britton, where John Henry pursues gold mining and bee keeping.

The Mills family’s life story is greatly enhanced by the inclusion of a range of fascinating visual images from the Boag & Mils and Reckitt & Mills photographic collections. This photographic evidence lifts the textual descriptions and shows the landscape, the housing styles and the living conditions of the Mills family and others in the Mount Britton area. The photographs also document the visual changes of the Mount Britton area. The initial bark and slab dwellings of the early basic Mount Britton township eventually give way to milled timber homes with corrugated iron roofs. The discerning and skilled art of these photographers, William Boag, Albert Reckitt and John Henry Mills, has produced a tremendously important legacy that Lyall Ford has used to good effect in this publication.

From Below These Mountains, the reader learns that life was hard and often dangerous and that — as well as the day-to-day grind, the loneliness and the primitive conditions — there was camaraderie and times of tremendous fun. Great friendships were forged during the battle to survive and make a living from photography, the gamble of gold mining and beekeeping.

This book has endnotes with computer references and details that other historians and genealogists may choose to access. The family tree, comprehensive bibliography and index add other research tools to this very readable and comprehensively researched family history.

Beryl Roberts

Journal of Australian Colonial History, Vol. 9, 2007, pp. 213-215

Lyall Ford, A Photographic Record of Colonial Queensland: The Work of John Henry Mills, Professional Photographer 1851-1919, Taipan Press, Freshwater, 2004 ISBN 0 9590776 2 6, hb, xiv + 110 pp, $39.95.

Lyall Ford is a local historian who has already produced two excellent works, Poorhouse to Paradise, and Below These Mountains (both 2001, reviewed in JACH Vol. 5). Both won the Queensland Family History Society’s Family History Award (2002 and 2003). This new effort stands alone in its own right but it also serves as an adjunct to both books, particularly the latter. In that work, Ford told the story of his paternal ancestor, John Henry Mills, from his early life in England through to his varied adventures in Queensland, including his career as a professional photographer. Mills’ photographs were used to good effect to add colour to the story. But here, it is the photographs themselves that are the star. The Introduction outlines Mills’ life but avoids too much repetition for those readers familiar with the earlier study. Thereafter the photographs take centre stage, one per page for the remainder of the book (it is in small ‘coffee table’ format). And they provide wonderful coverage of many aspects of colonial Queensland: settlers, Aboriginals, housing, work, play and much more. The everyday lives of colonial Queenslanders are captured in a manner that ranges from the formal to the casual, providing a terrific insight into the times.

However, it is the information accompanying each picture that adds value to this book. Each photograph has an identifying caption and, in most cases, two or three paragraphs explaining the significance and/or story behind it. Here we see Ford’s enthusiasm and talent on display, for the detail provided is usually impressive and indicative of the great time and effort expended by the author. The book is thus not just a collection of wonderful photographs, but a valuable reference tool. Indeed many of the stories appear to be worthy of separate study in their own right: Plates 44 and 45, with their accompanying short history of Mt Abundance station are a prime case in point, illuminating a wide array of colonial issues.

In the Foreword, Clive Moore reminds us that historical photographs are ‘constructions’ (p. iv). Though Ford’s detailed information about each photograph is impressive, occasionally the opportunity to read the finer nuances goes begging. It is possible to learn much about class, race and gender from these photographs. The placement of women, children, Aboriginals and other subjects can be extremely informative. The photographer might determine how to stage the shoot, but the participants often did what they could to influence their appearance. Ford does mention, for example, that portraits ‘provide a useful record of the dress and hairstyles of our pioneer ancestors’. Ford’s commentary on Plate 104, a picture of an outing, also refers to the well-dressed participants, although whether the fact that everybody is wearing hats is because of their awareness of the need for sun protection, as Ford suggests, or simply because it was the required fashion, is debatable. Other Plates, though, could have benefited from this type of analysis. The placement of the people in Plate 24, a sugar cane plantation owner’s residence, speaks volumes about their assumed roles in life. Much could be made of gender relations, amongst other issues, in this picture and also Plates 33 and 34, again houses with people in specific places and poses. The family groups featured in Plates 99, 100 and 101 are worthy of similar attention.

Ford does borrow heavily from an earlier book, in both words and images, when covering [the cyclone], which struck Mackay in 1918, so that readers who are familiar with the first book may experience a strong sense of deja-vu. Overall though, Lyall Ford is again to be congratulated on a terrific production. The high standard of his work continues to impress and, as with the earlier books, emphasizes the importance of family history. Ford’s enthusiasm and skill ensure that we are much the richer for his efforts.

Erin Ihde
University of New England

Library services, department of education and the arts, queensland department of education and the arts

A Photographic Record of Colonial Queensland
Ford, Lyall
Taipan Press
hardcover, xiv, 110 p, ill, map, ports
Date of Review:
Over a hundred black and white photographs taken between 1851 and 1919 and clearly reproduced here providing a glimpse of colonial Queensland. An excellent primary source reference to support Studies of Society and Environment at many levels, it will also be of interest to students studying photography. A map near the beginning of the book shows the extensive area covered by travelling photographer John Mills. Students from across the state are likely to find images of familiar places that have changed significantly over time. Much information about how environment, architectural design, building materials, infrastructure, and aspects of daily life have changed over time can be gleaned from these photographs. A page is dedicated to each photograph and includes a paragraph or two of information about the historical context, sometime highlighting a noteworthy point in the image. Teachers could note the ‘values inherent in historical sources’ (SOSE, TCC 5.5) especially in regard to the reporting of Aboriginal and European deaths that resulted from the Wills massacre near Springsure. Images range in subject matter from significant public buildings to early rural settlements, from the photographer’s camp to cyclone ravaged Mackay in 1918.
Library Services, Department of Education and the Arts
XXX OZ [Highly Recommended]
Curriculum Areas:
Studies of Society and Environment; The Arts
Mills, John Henry; Queensland – History – Pictorial works; Queensland – Social life and customs
Suitable for:
Year 3 to Year 12