The shadows of Deloraine play home to the legend of Jimmy Possum – a chairmaker from the late 1800s and early 1900s whose name has been lent to a style of timber chair common across northern Tasmania over a century ago. Primitive in form, Jimmy Possum chairs appear simple in design, but have proven to be astonishingly sturdy and functional.
Like many early versions of Australian stick furniture, Jimmy Possum chairs were shaped by hand from local timbers. Their unique design is characterised by the configuration of the chair’s legs intersecting the seat and being housed in the arms. Furthermore, the arms are also intersected by the two side back rungs that join the seat and headrest. No part of the chair was turned, presumably because Jimmy Possum lacked all but the bare basics of woodworking equipment – a simple drawknife, axe, adze and penknife. Each of the chair’s elements are single, solid pieces of timber.
Most interestingly, the structure of a Jimmy Possum chair compresses as the sitter applies downward pressure, thereby becoming inherently stronger. It’s a masterful design, constructed from ancient tools and techniques, that still impresses contemporary furniture makers today.
A range of Jimmy Possum arm chairs, including children’s chairs, have been unearthed across Tasmania over the course of the past century. Some of them have emerged from old farmhouses around Deloraine, some were stashed in outbuildings and left to rot, whilst others have been salvaged in parts and painstakingly restored. Each piece holds tight to its own tale of intrigue.
But who exactly was Jimmy Possum? The truth is, we really don’t know. With no factual records to draw upon, questions continue to swirl around the identity of the chair’s creator. The mystery and history of Jimmy Possum is something that has fascinated researcher Dr Mike Epworth for decades.
Mike is well versed in the Jimmy Possum story. A ring in from Queensland, he’s currently championing this widely unknown element of Australian design history in an attempt to document it for future generations. “The Jimmy Possum story is about celebrating one of this country’s earliest folk traditions, Australian vernacular furniture. These pieces of furniture were formed by necessity, created from an amalgamation of encountered alien materials and debris from a long journey over the seas. The style is a study in simplicity and has largely been overlooked or forgotten.”
Mike is in Tasmania frequently as he and his wife, documenter Bronwyn Harm, work on their continuing project – the latest phase funded through an Australia Council grant. “We’re slowly documenting Jimmy Possum stories, both by audio and film,” he explains. “We’re also very keen to locate owners of any chairs in order to invite them to be a part of an exhibition planned in 2022 at the Queen Victoria Museum in Launceston. This certainly isn’t about collecting…we’re not antique dealers. It’s an important opportunity to gather examples together for an exhibition that the public can enjoy. Following that, they will of course be returned to their owners. Essentially we are just keen to connect with owners and hear their stories. Sometimes one little piece of peripheral information can lead to much more.”
As an eighth generation vernacular furniture maker, whose First Fleet ancestor is recorded as making a bed at Sydney Cove before June 1788, Mike’s passion for timber furniture making is clearly evident. “My interests evolved as a child,” he explains. “Having lived through Cyclone Tracy in Darwin, I knew what it was like from an early age to lose everything and have dearly loved objects destroyed. I was never one for school, and gravitated towards making and repairing. I quickly become intrigued by connections between people and place too.”
Pausing to consider his own journey, Mike continues, “By the time I was 18 I had started making chairs using some quite heavy timbers. These prompted me to set about trying to resolve my own design problems…my chairs were tending to come loose and before long I set off to Melbourne to learn some more about design so I could apply it to my craft.”
The trip south took Mike a step closer to Jimmy Possum country. “I studied at RMIT in Melbourne and discovered a boom in primitive Australian design. A Jimmy Possum chair came to my attention while working at Hooper’s Antiques and I found myself astounded by the simplicity of the design.”
“It resonated with me on many levels. It was so simple but so effective,” says Mike. “I couldn’t believe that it got even stronger when I sat on it. It was an ingenious solution that I couldn’t improve upon.”
Mike explains how from that moment onwards, he crafted his own Jimmy Possum chairs. “I started off making copies, and then modified them a little to play with the back. I now build them with 12 back rungs to better fit the shape of the back…it’s a little more comfortable than the original five with the centre one running up the sitter’s backbone.”
As the decades have ticked away, Mike has carved a career in research and the arts, simultaneously uncovering many other early Australian chairmakers. “The Jimmy Possum tradition is unique though. The design is bound to that one place in northern Tasmania, around Reedy Marsh and Deloraine. We can trace references back to it as early as 1887 and there are suggestions it could even extend another 10 or 20 years prior to that. We’re talking about Australia’s most important folk design tradition and that’s pretty special.”
There are two key eras for Jimmy Possum design. One being around the turn of the 20th century and a second revival period in the mid 1970s. “They were rediscovered then and two things happened. Firstly the tradition was revived and they started being made once again in the area, and secondly, antique dealers caught on and started scouring the state for originals. We’ve managed to trace about 50 now, but it’s likely there were around 400 made in total so there’s every chance a number of Tasmanians have one stashed away in a corner or thrown in the shed.”
Various theories have emerged as to the identity of Jimmy Possum himself. The leading hypothesis is that there was an original maker who formulated the style and he sold or swapped his chairs for two shillings or ‘grog’. “Other makers copied the style and gave them to friends and family. Times were tough and people had to be creative with very little. The materials were sourced from the local area and the result was a strong and beautiful chair for people with very little money,” says Mike.
“There’s a beautiful possibility that that original maker was an Aboriginal man,” he smiles. “There are certainly stories that have been handed down through the generations that suggest that, and we have one lone painting that could possibly depict the original Jimmy Possum.” The artwork Mike refers to features a lone man squatting in the hollow of a tree. “A Pioneers Home was painted around 1905 by a visiting artist and the man in the image certainly looks indigenous,” he explains. “No one in the Tasmanian Aboriginal community seems aware of his identity, but there is the possibility that he could have come across –willingly or unwillingly – as a shepherd from South Australia, where it was common for older Aboriginal people to utilise hollow trees as shelters, unlike communities in all other Australian states.”
Mike continues, “What we do know is that local legend tells us Jimmy Possum lived in the hollow of a tree, and that the landscape in the painting matches well with where we think that exact tree is on a property in Deloraine. It’s quite possible Jimmy Possum stayed with a local farming family, the Larcombes, and taught the farmer how to make the chairs. The technique would have then been passed down through the family, and indeed key Larcombe relatives have childhood memories of that occurring well into the 1950s.”
Of course, there are multiple other theories derived from the local area. One possible contender includes the notion that the term is the result of a possum, named Jimmy, visiting a local chair each night for a feed. Simple, but quite plausible.
Another explanation is that possum furs may have been draped over the chairs to provide both warmth and comfort. “They tend to be a little hard on the back, so covering one of these with a fur would make sense,” says Mike. “We do tend to see nail holes across the back of the chairs which could be where the fur was attached.”
A third option links Jimmy Possum chairs to the district’s possum snarers and trappers. “It may have emerged from the making culture of Tasmania’s mountain huts,” muses Mike. “The huts were simple but ingenious, much like this design, and the hut culture certainly provides context to the history of these chairs.”
Wherever the truth lies, what is clear is that Jimmy Possum is an important feature of Australian furniture design. Unlike conventional histories constructed around text and images, the chairs themselves are the primary source of evidence in this story and they are all important and valuable in their own way. “There is a real beauty in this unresolved tension,” says Mike. “Although in one way I’d like to know the truth, I also appreciate how inclusive these theories are. With the evidence we have at hand, Jimmy Possum still has so many possibilities.”
Finishing his explanation Mike closes, “The mystery and history of Jimmy Possum is something that many Tasmanian’s haven’t even heard of, yet it’s absolutely a story of national importance. I love the integrity and authenticity of these pieces that were made before the time of perfection and consumerism. To be able to find out more about them would be a win for Tasmanian history and a win for today’s makers who continue the tradition by hand too. We’d love to welcome some more Jimmy Possum chairs to the exhibition in 2022…what a treat that would be.”
Have a Jimmy Possum story to share, or think you may have a chair right under your nose? You can get in touch directly with Mike Epworth at firstname.lastname@example.org or 0405 993 557. Mike regularly runs Jimmy Possum chairmaking workshops in the Deloraine district for those who want to walk in the footsteps of Jimmy Possum himself.
The Jimmy Possum Appreciation Society on Facebook is also a great source of further information.