Feature image

Tasmania’s Stories

The legend of Jimmy Possum

Edition 188_Epworth

The legend of a reclusive bush carpenter named Jimmy Possum persists in craft-minded Deloraine – and his chairs are treated with respect by knowledgeable collectors far beyond the town.

A researcher from Queensland's Griffith University, Mike Epworth, travelled to Tasmania this year to investigate the tale.

Locals took Mr Epworth to a tree stump which is reputed to have once been part of Jimmy Possum's makeshift residence.

He is said to have lived in the Deloraine area during the 1890s and until approximately 1910 in a bush dwelling either made from, or joined to, a hollow log or tree.

Locals say he produced his chairs of simple stick construction from local timbers with a bushman's tool set – an axe, adze, drawknife, spoke-shave, penknife and try plane.

Once complete, the chairs were often painted green or grey and sold for two shillings and sixpence.

It is believed that somewhere between 200 and 300 Jimmy Possum chairs exist, including examples held by the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and other institutions around the country.

Some say the sheer number of chairs suggest that Jimmy Possum was a local style of the period, rather than an individual.

Others insist that Jimmy was a real person – perhaps Aboriginal – who was a fringe-dweller in Deloraine society and traded chairs for warm shelter during winter, as well as selling them.

Woodwork blogger, Chris Schwarz, a well-credentialed aficionado based in Kentucky, is a skeptic.

"Lots of people have debated whether Jimmy Possum was a real man or more of a hoop snake or drop bear from the Australian imagination," he wrote recently.

"To my eye, [a Jimmy Possum chair] looks a lot like an Irish stick chair, with some interesting variations.

"The most unusual part is the role of the legs in the chair’s structure ... they pass through the seat to become the stumps for the armrests.

"The legs are tapered so that the seat simply wedges on to them. And, like a Windsor or Welsh chair, the more you sit on the chair the tighter the joints become."

Surviving Jimmy Possum chairs are made from blackwood or eucalypt – materials that were in abundant supply around Deloraine more than a century ago.

Their structural heart, the slab seat, was roughly trimmed with an axe or adze. A drawknife or crude plane was used if further shaping was needed to the top surface of the seat.

The underside remained roughly hewn in most cases, and an auger or a brace 'n' bit may have been used to bore holes for the spindles and leg inserts.

There are some examples where it appears that a burning iron was used for this purpose.

Design Tasmania took the legend seriously enough to stage a Rethinking Jimmy Possum exhibition in Launceston in 2014.

An impressive line-up of furniture makers produced their own versions of the rustic chairs and sales were brisk.

More recently, Mr Epworth told the ABC: "Jimmy Possum is a very mysterious character, he's very enigmatic, there's no images of him, no photographs, there are no records of him."

Mr Epworth thinks a picture of a man sitting next to a hollow tree, painted by an artist on a visit to northern Tasmania around 1905, could be Jimmy Possum.

"I've long thought there could be a possibility that Jimmy Possum could be Indigenous and it was just a vague feeling, but as the strands and the pieces of evidence come together that seems to be getting stronger," he told the ABC.

The researcher believes Jimmy Possum stayed with a local farming family, the Larcombes, over one winter and taught William Larcombe to make chairs.

It is thought the technique was then passed down through the family.

With the backing of the National Trust, Mr Epworth ran a workshop in Deloraine, teaching present members of the Larcombe family how to make the chairs.

Gary Larcombe told the ABC he was planning to continue the tradition.

"I'm going to start making them myself after this experience, just to keep the family heritage going," he said.

There has been an upsurge of interest across the region, with the Deloraine and Districts Folk Museum hosting the first public exhibition of Jimmy Possum chairs in almost 40 years.

The gallery's Senior Curator of Decorative Arts, Peter Hughes, said: "I'd say there may have been a Jimmy Possum and he may have been a chair maker and he may have made some of the chairs, but equally it remains a possibility that he is a mythological figure.

"I think the chairs have immense aesthetic appeal, as very simple, functional and a very clever design," he said.

Deloraine Mayor, Craig Perkins, said: "One of the great things about this mystery is that people are starting to come up with different theories and people are looking at different connections within the community."

Mystery and aesthetics are a heady mixture.

Whether or not Jimmy Possum ever lived in Deloraine, it seems his legend is unlikely to die there.

Image courtesy of the ABC

3 October 2017, Edition 188

Back to index

Like to know more?

Join our eFriends mailing list and once a month we will keep you up-to-date with the news that’s flowing in our state. You could win a prize in our monthly competition.

Join us

Become an eFriend

Join our mailing list

Join our eFriends mailing list and once a month we will keep you up-to-date with the news that’s flowing in our state. You could win a prize in our monthly competition. 

Brand Partnership

Are you a Tasmanian business or operator? Join us in raising the profile, quality and value of Tasmania’s products.

Apply online

Facts about Tasmania

Tasmania

Tasmania is the southernmost state of Australia, located at latitude 40° south and longitude 144° east and separated from the continent by Bass Strait. It is a group of 334 islands, with the main island being 315 km (180 miles) from west to east and 286 km (175 miles) north to south.

Tasmania

Tasmanians are resourceful and innovative people, committed to a continually expanding export sector. In 2012-13, international exports from the state totalled $3.04 billion. USA, China, Taiwan, India, Japan and other Asian countries account for the bulk of exports, with goods and services also exported to Europe and many other regions.

Geography

Tasmania is similar in size to the Republic of Ireland or Sri Lanka. The Tasmanian islands have a combined coastline of more than 3,000 km.

Geography

The main island has a land area of 62,409 sq km (24,096 sq miles) and the minor islands, taken together, total only 6 per cent of the main island's land area. The biggest islands are Flinders (1,374 sq km/539 sq miles), King, Cape Barren, Bruny and Macquarie Islands.

Geography

About 250km (150 miles) separates Tasmania’s main island from continental Australia. The Kent Group of Islands, one of the most northerly parts of the state, is only 55km (34 miles) from the coast of the Australian continent.

Climate

Twice named 'Best Temperate Island in the World' by international travel magazine Conde Nast Traveler, Tasmania has a mild, temperate maritime climate, with four distinct seasons.

Climate

In summer (December to February) the average maximum temperature is 21° Celsius (70° Fahrenheit). In winter (June to August) the average maximum is 12° C (52° F) and the average minimum is 4° C (40° F). Snow often falls in the highlands, but is rarely experienced in more settled areas.

Annual Rainfall

Tasmania’s west coast is one of the wettest places in the world, but the eastern part of the State lives in a rain-shadow. Hobart, the second-driest capital city in Australia, receives about half as much rain as Sydney.

Annual Rainfall

Annual rainfall in the west is 2,400 mm (95 inches), but hardy locals insist there is no such thing as bad weather, only inadequate clothing. If you travel 120 km east to Hobart, you experience a much drier average of 626 mm (24 inches) a year.

Population

The 512,875-strong community spreads itself across the land; less urbanised than the population of any other Australian state. Hobart, the capital city, is home to more than 212,000 people.

Capital City

Hobart nestles at the foot of Mt Wellington (1,270 m / 4,000 ft) and overlooks the Derwent Estuary, where pods of dolphins and migrating whales are sometimes seen from nearby beaches. Surrounded by thickly forested rolling hills, the city is home to the state parliament and the main campus of the University of Tasmania.

Capital City

Its historic centre features Georgian and Regency buildings from colonial times. Hobart is home port for coastal fishing boats, Antarctic expeditions and vessels that fish the Southern Ocean.

Land Formation

Mountain ranges in the south-west date back 1,000 million years. Ancient sediments were deeply buried, folded and heated under enormous pressure to form schists and glistening white quartzites.

Land Formation

In the south-west and central highlands, dolerite caps many mountains, including Precipitous Bluff and Tasmania's highest peak, Mt Ossa (1617 m / 5300 ft). More than 42 per cent of Tasmania is World Heritage Area, national park and marine or forest reserves.

Flora

Vegetation is diverse, from alpine heathlands and tall open eucalypt forests to areas of temperate rainforests and moorlands, known as buttongrass plains. Many plants are unique to Tasmania and the ancestors of some species grew on the ancient super-continent, Gondwana, before it broke up 50 million years ago.

Flora

Unique native conifers include slow-growing Huon pines, with one specimen on Mt Read estimated to be up to 10,000 years old. Lomatia tasmanica, commonly known as King's holly, is a self-cloning shrub that may well be the oldest living organism on earth. It was discovered in 1937.

Fauna

Tasmania is the last refuge of several mammals that once roamed the Australian continent. It is the only place to see a Tasmanian devil or eastern quoll (native cat) in the wild and is the best place to see the spotted-tailed quoll (tiger cat), all carnivorous marsupials.

Fauna

The eastern bettong and the Tasmanian pademelon, both now extinct on the Australian continent, may also be observed.

Fauna

The Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, was Australia's largest surviving carnivorous marsupial and is a modern day mystery. The last documented thylacine died in captivity in 1936 and although the animal is considered extinct, unsubstantiated sightings persist.

History and Heritage

Aboriginal people have lived in Tasmania for about 35,000 years, since well before the last Ice Age. They were isolated from the Australian continent about 12,000 years ago, when the seas rose to flood low coastal plains and form Bass Strait.

History and Heritage

Descendants of the original people are part of modern Tasmania's predominantly Anglo-Celtic population.

History and Heritage

Tasmania was originally named Van Dieman’s Land by the Dutch explorer Abel Janszoon Tasman in 1642. The island was settled by the British as a penal colony in 1803 and the original name was associated with the convict era. It was changed to Tasmania when convict transportation stopped in 1853.

Economy

A resourceful island culture has generated leading-edge niche industries, from production of high-speed catamaran ferries and marine equipment to lightning-protection technology.

Economy

Tasmanians produce winches and windlasses for some of the world's biggest ocean-going pleasure craft; large-scale inflatable evacuation systems and provide specialist outfit-accommodation services to the marine industry.

Economy

The Wooden Boat Centre at Shipwrights Point has re-established the skills and traditions of another age and attracts students from around the world.

Economy

Tasmania is a world leader in natural turf systems for major sporting arenas and in areas of mining technology and environmental management. Its aquaculture industry has developed ground-breaking fish-feeding technology and new packaging.

Economy

Tasmanians sell communications equipment to many navies and their world-class fine timber designers and craftsmen take orders internationally for furniture made from distinctive local timber.

Economy

The state is a natural larder with clean air, unpolluted water and rich soils inviting the production of 100 varieties of specialty cheeses, as well as other dairy products, mouth-watering rock lobsters, oysters, scallops and abalone, Atlantic salmon, beef, premium beers, leatherwood honey, mineral waters, fine chocolates, fresh berry fruits, apples and crisp vegetables.

Economy

Tasmania is a producer of award-winning cool-climate wines, beers, ciders and whiskies. Other export products include essential oils such as lavender, pharmaceutical products and premium wool sought after in Europe and Asia. Hobart is a vital gateway to the Antarctic and a centre for Southern Ocean and polar research.

Economy

The industries in Tasmania which made the greatest contribution to the state's gross product in 2010-11 in volume terms were: Manufacturing (9.4%), Health care and social assistance (8.2%), Financial and insurance services (7.2%), Ownership of dwellings and Agriculture, forestry and fishing (each 7.1%).

Getting to Tasmania

Travel is easy, whether by air from Sydney or Melbourne, or by sea, with daily sailings of the twin ferries Spirit of Tasmania 1 and 2 each way between Melbourne and Devonport throughout the year.

This site has been produced by the Brand Tasmania Council © 2014

Brand Tasmania

Become an eFriend

Close

Join our eFriends mailing list and once a month we will keep you up-to-date with the news that’s flowing in our state. You could win a prize in our monthly competition.

I’ve already subscribed