Windwells: Channelling and Divining


State Library of Queensland

 Image Credit: Anthony Hamilton


This exhibition focuses on a moment in South-East Queensland towards the end of the nineteenth century where everything and anything seemed possible. In particular, it reflects the lives and influence of these characters: the infamous Professor Pepper, who temporarily settled in Brisbane after an infamous career at the London Polytechnic, the admirable Griffiths Brothers, who fine-tuned the iconic windmills that proved to be an international export success story; and the intriguing Mr. Palethorpe, Toowoomba-based water-diviner with mysterious powers of national repute.

Professor Pepper first came to Brisbane to extoll the virtues of science, and to exhibit his wonderous ‘invention’ titled “Pepper’s Ghost” where, through the use of judiciously positioned mirrors, spectres that moved through solid objects could seem to appear to audiences. In a Victorian era hungry for manifestations of the metaphysical, Pepper invited people to recruit the benefits of science over those of ‘magic’ advocated by side-show spruikers. However, his own success as a show-man made the gaps between the arts of oratory, magic and science seem indecipherable, and after he was sacked from the Polytech he came to Brisbane where he worked in a range of guises: as a theatrical showman; as an unsuccessful cloud-seeder; and as the author of the first chemistry classes in Queensland.

Meanwhile the problems of drought in South-East Queensland continued to challenge the imaginations of people like the Griffiths Brothers and Mr. Palethorpe, each of whom responded to the immensity of this threat in imaginative ways.

There are other ways in which the sense of history and belonging is as essential a resource to life in South-East Queensland as is that of water. The archives of the John Oxley Library offer a means of bringing the richness of those hidden channels of history to the surface, just as the iconic Australian windmills have long tapped other mysterious sources of revitalisation.

This exhibition invites you to make your own mind up about the degrees to which the channels of inventiveness, fabrication, science, myth, magic and art have remained as rich underground water-ways for the people of South-East Queensland and beyond.