Salt of the – earth bring – sea to life – at centre

Advocate, LIBBY BINGHAM, p.D02 – 27 April 2013

HIRSUTE Lester Jackson may look a little bit like an old salt.
But before he jumped in the deep end he was pretty far removed from what you would call a maritime buff.
However, the Devonport City Council community partnerships manager was a man who loved his job.
He has been known to eat and sleep it.
So when he was given the responsibility to drive the new Bass Strait Maritime Centre project, he was soon hooked on how it could tell the story of Devonport and Bass Strait as it has never been told before.
Perhaps it was an advantage for him not to be a sailor as he set about creating a centre that would appeal to a wider audience and have something for everyone – including the ability to climb aboard and take the helm of a 1910 steamer, the SS Woniora, an impressive purpose-built ship simulator, and navigate her up a virtual Mersey River to dock.
Or just to be sitting on the glorious alfresco deck of the Bass Strait Diner, run as a not- for-profit enterprise by Devonfield Enterprises, where you overlook the parkland to the mouth of the actual Mersey River.
Lester, his boss DCC deputy general manager of community Evonne Ewins, and a dedicated crew of salt of the earth volunteers, have put in the hard yards and lived the challenge of building the centre for three years.
Sometimes a cold sweat and fear crept in that it would not happen in the time they had to get it open to satisfy deadlines and meet some exceedingly high community expectations.
When you are doing the work of a council, be it digging a ditch or building a museum, there are thousands of critics called ratepayers who have ownership of the project.
Attending the opening of the new $4-million centre a few weeks ago in front of 250 invited guests, a wave of emotion and relief swept over Lester as he could see where all the combined effort had paid off in bucketloads.
The Bass Strait Maritime Centre in itself is a beautiful building to visit.
It brings in the new and honours the old, which is the former harbour master’s residence in Gloucester Avenue.
The Devonport Maritime Museum was first opened in an old house at East Devonport in 1973, until the harbour master’s property became available in 1981 and the museum was relocated.
The new Bass Strait Maritime Centre celebrates its origins in the activities of two societies: the Devon Historical Society and the Devonport Maritime Museum Society.
With their amalgamation in 1999, a significant collection was created and maintained by a passionate if small group of volunteers up until this point.
A room will open in May that will tell the story of the development of the port city of Devonport and it is being created by the volunteers.
Where there were once a few visitors a week to the old maritime museum, there have been hundreds of people file through the doors at the new centre since it opened and they have responded positively.
On the day ‘Scape visited, the centre was humming as four knowledgeable volunteer guides escorted visitors and were telling the compelling stories that lie behind the exhibits to bring them alive.
Like many other Devonportians, Lester never tires of living on the Mersey River and watching ships glide into the working port.
”Many times I have been working at Round House Park [on Victoria Parade] and I have made some excuse to stay an extra 10 minutes so I can stop and watch a ship when it arrives,” Lester says.
The reason Lester is so invested in his job harks back to where his career started.
He joined the council workforce from Reece High School at the tender age of 15.
”Working for the council in some ways is a bit like working for a service club – you are doing work for the good of the city, only you get paid for it,” he says.
Over his 38 years with the council, where he started as an apprentice carpenter and joiner, Lester has left his fingerprints on a lot of the city’s landmark properties.
Some were more essential than others.
”I’ve lost track of how many toilet blocks we built – but there’s been a few,” he laughs.
His father, Aubrey, was a carpenter on the council building maintenance gang for 19 years and Lester worked with him for 13 of those years.
Lester’s first day on the job in 1975 took him to Tiagarra at Mersey Bluff to help build the then-new Aboriginal museum.
He can recall the challenge of moulding steel fabric and rendering several coats over it to create the cave inside Tiagarra.
”We had a boss at the time, Ray Baker, who was really good at doing things that were out of the ordinary,” Lester says.
These were simpler times with not as many regulations to satisfy.

”You just went and did the work and you didn’t have to bother too much about all the stuff we bother about today,” Lester says.
In his early days he also worked on the Eric Webster Grandstand at Devonport Oval and the grandstand at Girdlestone Park.
Lester helped to convert a church in Stewart Street from the town library into the Devonport Regional Art Gallery.
He also worked on Devonport’s historic Prime Minister’s residence Home Hill while Dame Enid Lyons was alive and she would bring them scones and tea.
He moved up ranks from apprentice to tradesman, then leading hand and was the supervisor of the building maintenance team at 29.
He was maintenance works manager until five years ago when he moved inside the council chambers to become the major projects manager, and was appointed to his current role three years ago.
”There’s no question my practical skills would be more desirable than my office skills, that’s always a challenge for me,” Lester admits. ”We’re so much more accountable now and we need to provide so much more to ratepayers.
”Back in my early days a handwritten memo would come up from the bottom office at lunch time and if I could respond to it, it would go back down to the office by tomorrow lunchtime in the mail – and if something came out of that it would be another day before it got back to me.
”Now all that happens within seconds on email or text.”
When Lester spoke at the retirement of his boss Mr Baker in 1988 he told him he could be proud to drive anywhere around the city and see things he’d been directly involved with.
”I reckon that’s become one of the greatest rewards for me too,” Lester says.
Asked what had been his favourite landmark to work on he doesn’t have to look any further than where he stands inside the Bass Strait Maritime Centre’s stunning nautical compass rose, a magnificent floor artwork.
”This new centre has been extremely rewarding and it has been a hell of a long process,” he says.
”There have been lots of holdups and disagreements to get here – and we did question at one point if we were ever going to get here when the neighbours over the road were pretty concerned about the building.
”But we worked it out.
”The reason that opening day was a lovely day for the team that has worked tirelessly on this place is that it didn’t signify the end of the project, it signified the start of what we are going to be doing.
”Over the next two or three months we will launch some more things and hopefully it will go on forever.
”Most maritime museums were started by volunteers and we were so fortunate to have had 30 years where the volunteers were the ones doing this enormous undertaking with very limited assistance from authorities to do what they did.
”We can thank them for what they did and for coming to the council with their concerns that they were getting older and could not do it anymore and we could lose what we had.”
For the council it was good timing with the Julie Burgess ketch restoration project underway and $400,000 set aside for an interpretation centre that was initially going to the eastern shore.
The council decided there was more chance of success if there was not a duplication of facilities and combined the two in one.
As there were no funds to relocate the maritime museum it was redeveloped where it was with the Julie Burgess interpretation centre.
Today as Lester speaks, a tour group of 18 people is due to have a picnic lunch before sailing on the ”JB” and visiting the Bass Strait Maritime Centre for their ticket price.
The Julie Burgess allows people to experience the story of a Bass Strait fishing ketch that is told at the centre and then they can sail in it and get a view of Devonport from the sea.
As Devonport author Chris Binks writes in his booklet on the JB: ”her story begins with her construction and launching in 1936 and beyond her story she represents a tradition of small sailing vessels on the North- West Coast that goes back to the 1820s, and to those earliest settlements which those tiny vessels helped to keep alive”.
Lester says what makes the Bass Strait Maritime Centre unique is to be able to learn about the impact Bass Strait has on Devonport, it’s people and maritime history.
”If you want to learn the incredible, thrilling story of Bass Strait and what went on in the strait over the years, this is the only place,” he said.
”The story has not been told anywhere else.
”When we see ships come up this river they have come across an ocean and sneak up this little creek at the end of it so that we can almost stand on the foreshore, reach out and touch them.
”For us we never tire of that.”