Charles Archer and the squatters chair

Bob Norris lay sprawling back in a shabby but comfortable old squatters’ chair, his leather-cased legs lying along the extended arms, and his head back amongst the cushions; a good-looking fellow, with the clear, brown skin of bush life, and hair that kinked in spite of its close crop. A curly, well-browned calabash was gripped between his teeth, as he looked dreamily out over his rich grazing downs. ‘The missing hand’ by John Munn Garrie published in The Australasian 28 March 1914

Doctor Peter Bancroft, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 77227

Doctor Peter Bancroft demonstrates use of the squatters chair, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 77227

The squatters chair is an iconic item of Queensland furniture and, as illustrated in the story excerpt above, was already used to evoke Queensland rural life as early as 1914. These chairs have graced Queensland verandas for well over 100 years. The design incorporates an extension of the arm rests so the legs can be supported in a relaxed attitude without the need for additional furniture. The design of this peculiarly Queensland article of furniture has been attributed to Charles Archer, one of seven brothers who came to Queensland in the 1830s and 1840s.

The Archers were the sons of William and Julia Archer who left Perth, Scotland to settle in Lavik in Norway in 1826. The Archers maintained strong connections to Norway and wrote many letters, 153 of which are held by State Library in  OM80-10 Archer Family Correspondence 1825-1855. The letters have been digitised and are available through our One Search catalogue. State Library also holds, and has digitised OM79-17/1 Archer Family and Durundur Station Diary 1843-1844. Durundur was a property taken up by David, Thomas and John Archer in 1841 in the Moreton District near present day Woodford. This was, at the time, the most northerly inland settlement in New South Wales. Charles joined his brothers later in 1841 after working for two years in Sydney.

Durandur [Durundur] : an image of a watercolour painting, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Image number: 4624-1v000r001

Painting by Charles Archer of the the store and dwelling huts at Durandur. John Archer is working on a canoe while David leans on a spade.

Charles Archer was a particularly accomplished man, as described by his younger brother Thomas in his memoir Recollections of a Rambling Life, originally printed in Yokohama in 1897 and reprinted in a facsimile edition by Boolarong Publications in 1988.

He had by nature the gift of making himself a proficient in everything to which he gave his attention, and as a rifle, pistol, and gun shot, swimmer, sketcher, and caricaturist, chess-player and carver, and as a light carpenter, he was difficult to surpass. To these he afterwards added the art of land-surveying, and by the aid of a theodolite made by himself, and a Kater’s compass, he surveyed, and made wonderfully correct and beautifully-drawn maps of, much of the new country which we afterwards explored and occupied. … To complete the sketch of your Uncle Charlie, I may add that he was one of the handsomest men I ever knew ; his face was expressive and manly, his figure tall, graceful and well-knit, enabling him to excel in feats of strength and activity, and, best of all, his was a heart “open as day to melting charity.”

Charles Archer, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 13851

Charles Archer, aged 47 (he was 32 when described by Thomas), John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 13851

The Archer brothers played host to a special guest for several months in 1843-1844 in the form of Dr Ludwig Leichhardt, explorer and naturalist. Leichhardt entertained his hosts with lectures on botany and mineralogy and displayed his medical expertise by extracting a tooth from one of the shepherds. Leichhardt continued his friendship with the brothers and one of his last letters before his disappearance was written to John Archer, who soon left Durundur and returned to his life on the sea.

The remaining brothers, finding Durundur unsuitable for sheep, took up runs further west in the Brisbane Valley at Emu Creek and Cooyar. Thomas Archer, having been paid for his work on the Archer properties mainly in sheep, decided it was time to find a run of his own, and the land of the Darling Downs having been mostly claimed already, decided to explore further west towards the Fitzroy Downs and later the Burnett River. As a result of these explorations Thomas and Charles took up land on the Burnett River, naming their runs Coonambula and Eidsvold (named after a Norwegian town). In later expeditions Charles and William Archer discovered and named the Fitzroy River and Charles and Colin Archer explored the Peak Downs region. The Archers established a property that they eventually called Gracemere on the Fitzroy River. Part of the Gracemere property eventually became the city of Rockhampton.

Verandah of Gracemere Homestead, near Rockhampton, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Image number: 6511-0001-0015

Verandah of the Archer’s Gracemere Homestead, note the squatters chair, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Image number: 6511-0001-0015

Bronze statue of Charles Archer on his horse Sleipner, Rockhampton, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Image number: 7483-0001-0054

Bronze statue of Charles Archer on his horse Sleipner, Rockhampton, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Image number: 7483-0001-0054

Much more could be written about the Archer family and their pioneering contributions to Queensland but this brief account concerns itself mainly with the invention of the squatters chair. The prototype chair was apparently made by Charles Archer for his brother William and is referred to in a letter from William at Yarragrin (near Coonabarabran in NSW) to Charles at Durundur dated 27 June 1846. William adds a postscript to the letter “I say, don’t forget the rustic armchair”. Charles, as we have heard, was an excellent carpenter, and it was allegedly this “rustic armchair” that was the model for all the squatters chairs that have taken pride of place on Queensland verandas ever since.

Portion of a letter from William Archer to Charles Archer, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland OM80-10/107

Portion of a letter from William Archer to Charles Archer, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland OM80-10/107

The squatters chair evolved into a number of different forms, a number of which can be seen in this catalogue published by Sullivan Advertising Service on behalf of John Hicks and Co. Ltd. illustrating a selection of furniture for the 1930s home.

Furniture displayed in the Hixco Catalogue, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 191253

Furniture displayed in the Hixco Catalogue, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 191253

Leisure time at Westbrook Station, Queensland, ca. 1898, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 71827

Leisure time at Westbrook Station, Queensland, ca. 1898, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 71827

McConnel family at Cressbrook Station, ca. 1887, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 62978

McConnel family at Cressbrook Station, ca. 1887, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 62978

Relaxing on the verandah, Emu Park, 1910-1920, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 8873

Relaxing on the verandah, Emu Park, 1910-1920, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 8873

Relaxing on the verandah, Mt Isa, Queensland, 1932, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 125152

Relaxing on the verandah, Mt Isa, Queensland, 1932, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 125152

The squatters chair is one example of Queensland innovation. The Magnificent Makers exhibition currently on display in the Philip Bacon Heritage Gallery at State Library highlights other innovative Queenslanders and their creations.

Simon Miller – Library Technician, State Library of Queensland