George Swain, the State Library’s last residential caretaker, sadly passed away this week. A WWII veteran, he brought up a family of six children in an apartment on the roof of the Library’s dome, living there until the early 1980s. In a post he wrote for the dome centenary in 2013, George reminisces about bringing up his family on the roof of the Library.
Moving into a public building in the city from a house in the suburbs the children had to get used to a different lifestyle very quickly.
The youngest boy was only four years old when we moved to the apartment on the roof of the Library but he soon got the gen of security; it was not long before he had a bunch of keys dangling from his belt as he did the rounds! When he was old enough he kept pigeons on the roof. They were homing birds, so he would sell them at Vic Market and within a couple of weeks they would be back in his flock, ready for resale.
Our ‘penthouse’ apartment was 80 foot above the art galleries with access by either private lift or beautiful stone spiral stairs.
We were situated between big sliding metal doors designed as a safe sanctuary in the event of fire or disaster. There were areas on the roof open to the sky divided by the lift room machinery. We were surrounded by a high brick wall and had room there for a clothes line, recreation areas, and cages for our pigeons. We had a private entrance to the flat from the ground or gallery floors. The flat was larger than our previous home so we were able to have a bedroom each, with our six children going to schools or colleges within walking distance.
We had an Australian terrier dog as a pet. When there wasn’t any public around, one of our kids would take the dog to one end of a gallery and another would call him from the opposite end. The dog would go flat out but his feet wouldn’t be able to get traction on the polished floor. As he passed the other kids hiding behind the show cases, he would put on the brakes and his four legs would be out stiff as he slithered and sailed past, his little legs locked!
On days when there was a street parade, we would rope off a section of the lawn out front, set up chairs for our staff. Moomba parades passed out the front. There would be St Patrick’s Day or Empire Day marches down Swanston Street and the labour unions and banners moving en masse down Russell Street. On occasions that royalty was present we would go up on the roof and view proceedings from there.
I remember a presentation of merit being held in the galleries with Prince Philip as honoured guest. At the last minute the caterers confided they had forgotten the cutlery. We saved the situation by getting some from our kitchen!
The reminiscences of George Swain, are held in the Library’s Manuscripts Collection. They include his life at Glen Huntly; in the Armed Services during World War II; family details as well as a lengthy section dealing with his work at the State Library.