Who Were the Queensland Government Printing Office “Devils”?

Guest Bloggers Louise Martin-Chew and Matthew Wengert, 2019 John Oxley Library Fellows.  Louise Martin-Chew and Matthew Wengert are developing a proposal for an exhibition and a book about the Queensland Government Printing Office (1861-2013) titled Designs Devils Details which reflects the people, the work produced, and the intriguing elements on the William Street, Brisbane building in which it was housed. As an institution it spanned, produced and illustrated this long period of Queensland’s history.

In a profile of award-winning writer Kristina Olsson in QWeekend (February 15-16, 2020) she listed, amongst her earliest reading memories, the Queensland School Reader, which was produced by the Queensland Government Printing Office from 1948 right through until the late 1980s. Her memory would gladden the heart of artist Druce Williams, who worked at the QGPO for his entire career, between 1945 and 1991. When we interviewed Williams at his outer suburban Brisbane home, Druce showed us examples of the school readers that he designed over the years, and some of the “blueprints” that were produced as proofs of these books. His dedication to his craft was complete. He said, “I was so tied up in the jobs that I shut everything else going on in the office out of my mind. I had to do that so that I produced the best. Everything I handled was for school children, or adults, or the public. It was very important that they got the best I could possibly give them. There was no room for half hearted.”

These delightful school readers, painstakingly illustrated, taught generations of Queensland school children how to read. Soon We Read was produced for levels graded according to colour. Hand-writing text books were created by hand, ruled with lines to guide the writer’s letters. Williams said, “The ruling department included Gwen Rogers (who married Cyril Jackson who also worked at the QGPO) and Lloyd King – they were the backbone of that business”.

George Gee (1923-2020), camera operator at the QGPO from 1948 to 1982 recalled, “The Education Department was one of our biggest customers and we printed all the school books, the maths books, history and geography which became social studies. In those days before computers, every government department had a lot of forms. The Printing Office had a group of women were real experts at ruling up by hand. The negatives were made from that folder and then from the negative we made the plate and printed it. The client would tell us the colour of lines they wanted – black, red or blue usually.”

For Druce Williams, the Printing Office was his first job, offered to him after he won a poster competition aged 15. He worked there until he retired in 1991, and the artisanal hand-crafted nature of what he made is visible in the way these objects look – often embossed, with the painstaking attention to detail required in a pre-digital era. He recalled, “The first job I got was on the printing plates, the lithographs, under the direction of Jimmy Burrows. We printed photographs that were taken for the islands during the war, all aerial shots of the different places that needed bombing.” Burrows taught him “a hell of a lot. Without Jimmy I wouldn’t have survived”, he said.

Now 90, Williams is still an accomplished artist. However, his work for the QGPO occupied so many years of his life and remains a source of great pride. His designs for the Casket Office, the art union that emerged post world war one in Queensland to support a returned soldiers repatriation scheme, was done on a small scale and to a format but each lottery had seasonal innovation. His design for a Christmas lottery was the year that the Golden Casket revenue first topped one million pounds, gratifying given that it funded construction of many hospitals, and the world-class maternity services Queensland enjoyed.

He also recalls printing a new map of Brisbane, inking up that piece of history: “It was all done on the plates: the pigments were mixed, lines drawn out on paper, then a negative was made, printed on the plates, then when the colour was applied, every colour on the whole thing was printed down. I knew where to put the colour, and remember filling them all in, the yellows and blues used to make green.”

While much of the QGPO’s output was for government, other items were done for private companies for a price. Williams recalls a souvenir card for the Canadian soccer team printed in 1937, an invitation for a luncheon for Admiral Lord Mountbatten in 1946, and letterheads for Campbell Brothers. Thousands of items passed through Williams’s hands during a 46-year tenure at the QGPO. Many of them are preserved within the State Library of Queensland’s collection and drawing them together reveals the graphic design trends, the machinery changes and the technological innovation that was so dramatic over the years of the QGPO’s operation.

Golden casket art union : Queensland state lottery golden jubilee, 1917-1967 (John Oxley Library collection)

Resource list

Golden Casket Art Union Ticket. Box 15845 O/S A3

Special Doomben Cup casket: first prize £40,000. [poster; c.1960] HPT SPO 076

Super special Melbourne Cup Golden Casket: first prize $200,000. [poster; c. 1968] HPT SPO 078

Special Melbourne Cup casket: first prize £50,000. [poster; c.1960] HPT SPO 080

Golden casket art union: Queensland state lottery golden jubilee, 1917-1967. Golden Casket Art Union, Brisbane [1967] [history and promotional booklet, containing numerous B&W photos of health facilities funded by the Golden Casket] Q 336.17 gol

Report of the manager together with statements of accounts, etc. Golden Casket Art Union, Brisbane [1940s-1960s; Serials] S 336.17 001

Report of the Royal Commission Appointed to Inquire into Certain Matters Appertaining to the Golden Casket Art Union. [1950] [accusations and rumors of dodgy results––found to be untrue; Royal Commission report printed by QGPO of course] P 336.17 que

Tram Ticket and Golden Casket Art Union Ticket ca. 1945. (John Oxley Library collection)

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My father, Kevin Henry, worked at the QGPO from 1942 as a 12 year old.