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.

Image of George Swain

George Swain

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.

Image of a page of writing

A page from George Swain’s reminiscences held in the Library’s Manuscripts Collection, MS 12853

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.

Photograph

“Watching Moomba from roof of Library, La Trobe St detour for building of Station” Reminiscences of George Swain, 1922-1981, MS 12853

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!

Photograph

George pictured on the Library forecourt following a wedding. Reminiscences of George Swain, 1922-1981, MS 12853

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. 

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This article has 30 comments

  1. Thanks Sarah, Dad (George Swain) was certainly an amazing man. I have very fond memories of growing up at the State Library. Teena Rumpf

  2. What a great thing for the State Library to put this on their blog, many thanks for sharing dads story, it was a very special time living in the State Library.

  3. What wonderful memories captured both in print and photos, of a time long past for generations to come. I have been told many stories by my Mother & Father-in-law, my husband and his 5 sibling of their time living here. They hold very fond memories for everyone which are recounted from time to tim and passed to the next Swain generation.

  4. Great story Sarah. I remember visiting the house when I first started working at the Library. I never knew six Swain child grew up there. The story of their dog running down the galleries is priceless.

  5. What an amazing story!! Loved reading it….any authors out there…this would make a great kids novel!! Imagine the adventures!!

    Thanks for sharing.

  6. This is the first time I knew of a family residing there. I’m grateful this detail was published. It puts a human touch to those austere buildings.

  7. Thanks Sarah, for sharing that the Library has many more stories than those between the book ends. Another fascinating aspect of Melbourne and that interesting building “up near RMIT”

  8. I worked at the State Library from 1977 to 1980, again from 1989 yo 1990. I had no idea the Swains lived there. Amazing.

  9. but no reason as to why they had to live there

  10. From Sylvia’s experience things were difficult in those days feeding the family. No supermarkets in the city then, in fact few people lived in the inner heart of Melbourne. Nearest supermarket was over in Carlton. Better side was her church going where she had a choice of cathedrals to choose from. I remember the first computer in Melbourne – cupboards and cupboards in this huge storeroom. Another interesting taxidermy room was the area for stuffed birds and animals – so life like. R.I.P George and Sylvia.

  11. Has the Swain family ever thought of putting together George Swain manuscript into a novel? Would be a fascinating read and a good insight.

  12. Russell Wallace.

    Hi Sarah,
    Thanks for that. What a delightful story of George and his family. A pity that the apartment was not listed for heritage. A treasure indeed.
    The Library is about people.

  13. I wonder anyone have any photo of the ‘penthouse’ apartment then.’
    Loverly story.

  14. When I saw the photo of George Swain I thought OMG it’s Uncle Norman from the Tarax Show (who was Norman Swain). Were they related? They certainly look similar. (Growing up on top of the State Library sounds like my ideal fantasy childhood. Phantom of the Opera style.)

    • I had the same thought, unusual name and similar facial features. I remember meeting Norman Swain in Puckle Street Moonee Ponds many years ago and was able to thank him for the wonderful childhood memories I still have his Story of Christmas 78rpm.

  15. I’m gobsmacked! This story sounds like something from another dimension like in The Lion, Witch and Wardrobe. My father, Philip Garrett, would have started work at the Library about 1922 and worked in research until he retired about 1969. My twin brother and I have memories of running amock up and down the spiral staircases and on to the roof.When Dad was involved in research that required he went in on Sundays, he’d let us loose.The only time we managed to show decorum was in the Reading Room. The man in the tower ( it seemed much taller then, to 5 year olds) terrified us. Our father had put the fear of God into us if we were ever to disturb this sacred space. Thank you for sharing this amazing story.

  16. Well! I learn something new every day.
    The descriptive events that went on “after hours ” deems this a Melbourne classic.

  17. Thank you for sharing and providing this opportunity to learn more about the library’s ‘private life’. Hope that these humane stories and places continue to exist.

  18. I love the son selling the homing pigeons (Haha) and the Aussie Terrier running through the gallery. Great story. Thanks for sharing.

  19. Aaron Gregory Lerpiniere-Tunn

    Who has not thought about living above a library?! 🙂

    Lovely article!!

  20. Melissa Kate Smith

    Earlier on, my grandparents, The Harris’ a married couple, were long term caretakers of The Old Melbourne Goal & sent me a lit of original memorabilia. They have both died now & I would love to know what year span they were caretakers as most of the stuff is not dated.

  21. Love this earthy honest story thank you
    Should be made into a movie like “Hugo”
    Or a “Night in the Museum” haha

  22. What a wonderful story. They were lucky kids!

  23. Elizabeth Trudgeon

    This is a wonderful story of an interesting life in an unusual place to live. However, in his time there did George Swain have a wife, and if so, did his wife have anything to do with the raising of their six children ? How sad is it that she does not merit a mention by the writer although in those days it was generally the wife who brought up the children.

  24. What a great insight. I had no idea about caretakers and families living above the library. Thank you to the Swain children that commented below offering more insight – what a fun and beautiful family. Thanks for sharing beloved SLV.

  25. I remember George through our contact at the Australian Institute of Genealogical Studies. He was one of our valued volunteers who contributed greatly to the running of the organisation. Nothing was too much trouble for him. A lovely man.

  26. What an amazing journey George had. His memoirs would be a very interesting read. His children would have rare exceptional experiences living on the roof of an historic library- what a dream that would have been.
    I myself would have been reading 24/7.
    Living breathing history.
    Why don’t they have a caretaker now!? It’s ideal accomodation and certainly the library requires on site security and maintenance.
    Thank you for sharing
    ❤️

  27. I was a student at the National Gallery School 1963-1966 (then situated in the basement and top floor of the building). I had no idea there was a resident caretaker either. What we did have was full time permanent men who were attendants in the building. One sat behind a desk every morning at the Russell Street entrance where we signed in. We all knew these men well. Back then government policy was to provide secure employment instead of outsourcing ‘security’ to dodgy companies as they do now in the new NGV up the road

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