Inside the Collection

ANZAC Day, The Sydney Morning Herald and a Dolls House

"Charlaine" dolls house, 1946
Dolls house “Charlaine”, 1946. Gift of Elaine Molloy, 2009. Powerhouse Museum Collection, 2009/32/1.

What do ANZAC Day, The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper and this dolls house in the Museum’s collection have in common? The answer is a heartfelt story which began when Charlie Sellers, who worked as a linotype foreman in the compositing section of the Herald, promised to build his youngest daughter, Elaine, a dolls house.

Charles (Charlie) Thompson Sellers was too young to enlist in the First World War so he put his age up. He served in the 10th Field Company Engineers of the AIF. By the time the Second World War broke out in 1939 he was married with two young children and at 43 too old to enlist. This time he put his age down by 9 years and served in the 2/6 Field Company of the Royal Australian Engineers where he rose to Staff-Sergeant.

Charlie first saw action in the Middle East but in 1942 his battalion was recalled to the Pacific. After the Japanese invaded Java he was taken prisoner and interned in Glodok Prison, Batavia. After that he was sent by ship from Java to Moulmein in Burma. On board the unsanitary conditions caused much illness. For two years from October 1942 he worked on the construction of the notorious Burma-Thailand railway and on New Year’s Day, 1944, was sent to Tamarkan Camp in Thailand where he worked continually repairing a nearby 7-span steel bridge after regular bombing raids by Allied pilots.

By the end of the War in the Pacific on 2 September, 1945, the Herald had five staff members in POW camps and all were thought to have survived. There was much euphoria celebrating the end of the War and families eagerly looked forward to being reunited. Tragically for the Sellers family this was not to be and news of Charlie’s death filtered through a month after the Japanese surrender. He had died 8 months earlier of Cerebral Malaria on 28 January, 1945, and was buried in the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, 129 km NW of Bangkok, with full military honours.

Tributes to Charlie came in, one particularly from the War Correspondent, R.D. Rivett, who said:

‘I first met Charlie at the Bicycle Camp, Batavia [now Jakarta], in April 1942. In October that year we were moved to Burma and, after the gruelling [trip] on the Jap hellships, Charlie was put into the base hospital at Thanbyuzayat. Though very ill, he took charge of water distribution for the whole camp of 3,000 men, besides working selflessly in the interests of his mates in a hundred other ways. … On June 15 in the second raid by Allied planes on the hospital a number of P.O.W.s were killed, and Charlie had a narrow escape, being blown through the air by a blast for some distance without suffering a scratch. The hospital was then abandoned and Charlie and thousands of other sick men had to carry their gear out into the jungle for six or eight miles to a ruined camp where we slept in the open without proper roofs, through two of the wettest weeks of the rains. I’ll never forget staggering into this camp, and finding Charlie already there supervising the distribution of food to the exhausted men … Later, at the 30-km and 55-km Hospital camps Charlie again proved himself a bad patient but a sterling man by working ceaselessly to assist the M.O.s [Medical Officers] and camp staff in looking after the sick. At the end of 1943, just before we were brought out of the Burma jungle, Charlie was very sick with pellagra, chronic malaria and malnutrition. But in Thailand, at the Tamarkan camp, things were much better and for most of the next year, he was very bright and ceaselessly active looking after ‘his boys’ in the Tamarkan hospital. I said good bye to Charlie on January 5, 1945, when I was transferred to another camp a few miles away, [Charlie died three weeks later]. Charlie Sellers will not be forgotten by anyone who knew him. He has written his name on the history of the Australian forces in the Burma prison camps and his pals are immensely proud of him. He made me proud to be a fellow newspaper man and prouder still to be his friend.’

Charlie had been a very popular staff member at the Herald, a great organiser and always at the centre of service to others. The dolls house was built by Charlie’s friends there after the War. It’s thought that by doing something for the family of their lost work mate probably helped a little in their grief. It’s hard for us to imagine today the heartache felt in every street and town by the grieving mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, and wives and children left without fathers. The dolls house is representative of the anguish felt by many people at the loss of colleagues in work places all over Australia during the Second World War.

Detail of dolls house "Charlaine" name plate
Detail of the dolls house showing its name plate.

The dolls house was formally presented to 11 year-old Elaine Sellers and her family at a special ceremony at the Herald offices in 1946. It doesn’t look like the typical commercially-made dolls houses of the 1940s but a model of an actual building constructed with traditional house-building techniques. It’s even got a little separate free-standing outside toilet complete with a roll of toilet paper hanging up inside the door. (Many Australian homes at the time were still not connected to the sewer). Also, above the front door is a small brass name plate. (Naming houses was common place before house numbering). It’s called ‘Charlaine’, a combination of Charlie and Elaine, so their names would be joined forever.

Elaine kept the dolls house for 63 years until donating it recently to the Museum. When I acquired it she was concerned that Charlie’s story should be told and his memory perpetuated. I reassured her that when we bring objects into the collection recording their stories is vitally important as it adds immeasurably to the life and soul of the objects. So on ANZAC Day 2012 we remember Charlie Sellers through his daughter Elaine and her dolls house made by the men and women of the Herald.

Post by Margaret Simpson, Curator, Transport

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