State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 74 Spring 2004


Christopher R. Elmore
Lionel Elmore, Passionate Conservationist


When It comes to enlarging the body of human knowledge, it is hard for us of the present era, when the production of knowledge has been professionalised and the universities, institutes and museums are seen as the natural repositories of expertise, to cast our minds back to an earlier age of the gifted and earnest amateur. Earlier centuries provide many examples of this species of man, such as Heinrich Schliemann in archaeology or Gregor Mendel in genetics, but the advances made by these people are often seen as a happy accident, since they come from no established tradition or regular place of endeavour, and are produced from no recognised theoretical base.
Lionel Elmore (1915-1996), a relative of mine whose papers have now been safely lodged with the State Library, might well be seen as one whose life was significant in this way.1 He was, in the best sense of the phrase, a gifted amateur. Almost entirely self-taught in the study of nature, his work originated from local and personal interests and was developed through a mix of formal research from established sources, consultation with experts and, most of all, the exercise of part-time, detailed field work based on a lifetime of practical experience with the outdoors. His life and methods correspond very well, in fact, with the picture we so often hold of the nineteenth-century field naturalist who, stout boots under foot and canvas pack on back, scrambles over rocks and through undergrowth in pursuit of his discoveries; who is knowledgeable about his local area, but aware of broader social and scientific trends; who lectures to clubs and schoolchildren on local sites; who sometimes nudges the established experts by providing a valuable alternative viewpoint to the current orthodoxy.
Such men are not without their limitations. Autodidacts can be needlessly contrary and idiosyncratic in the eyes of others. They have little time for expository rhetoric in the pursuit of knowledge. They often place undue faith in the self-evidence of practical experience and a welter of facts, giving their written work an intellectual intensity often lacking in style, a fully-explained context and a carefully worked-out plan of presentation for the results of their research. They can be great communicators and originators of ideas but make few concessions to any audience which is not fully briefed, totally interested and intellectually astute, although they are usually great scientific popularisers for all their limitations.2
Lionel Elmore was a man like this and his work must be understood in this way. He did, in fact, come from an established, though non-institutional, tradition which originates from the views of Enlightenment thinkers who believed that a man, no matter how lowly,
could, through education and personal effort, come to grasp the torch of knowledge both firmly and rightfully, in justification of his intellectual efforts. And through all this time of learning and self-development he remained that most elusive of social types, the intellectual gentleman; one who is unfailingly courteous and civil in his dealing with others and who never condescends to irascible or impatient behaviour but who stamps his intellectual grasp and firm commitments on others through the force of argument and the self-evidence of truth.


Lionel Kenneth Marsden Elmore was born on 22 March 1915 and died on 20 August 1996. His father was Theophilus Elmore, sometime retailer, butter merchant and gentleman landowner. His mother was Annie Murie. He was the youngest in a family of three, a brother to Ralph and Mervyn. His middle name, Marsden, signifies a collateral family link to the Reverend Samuel Marsden, and he was, through this link, also a distant relative to Manning Clark, one of Australia's best-known historians.3
Few men or women can have packed as much practical wisdom, family devotion, social conscience and intellectual effort into such a span of years. Often known to his intimate family and friends as rather absent-minded and slightly idiosyncratic, and as one

Unidentified photographer. Young Lionel Elmore beside his tourer car [ca. 1930s]. MS 13254, Box 9. La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection.

who was devoted to intellectual study of natural phenomenon and conservation research, he was in fact a warm, generous and ever-so-slightly whimsical talker and raconteur with a mischievous streak of boyish fun in his make-up.
A tall man with a towering presence, Elmore had a shock of red hair and the brawny but loose-limbed frame of a farmer and a bushman. He had big hands and he possessed the ruddy complexion of the constant outdoorsman. He moved slowly and reacted to the circumstances of life with calm reserve and amused tolerance, and was taught by his own idiosyncrasies to view the affairs of life with faint irony. His sense of curiosity stayed with him all his life, ensuring that there was always something interesting around the next corner, but not so interesting that it should threaten his sense of proportion and his state of calm.
Elmore was born, grew up in and was educated around the Dandenong area, near Melbourne, Victoria, heir to a materially poor but spiritually and intellectually rich family tradition. He was a clever scholar, excelling at arithmetic, algebra and Latin, but it was his practical and down-to-earth abilities that led him, after school, into a variety of jobs, forced as he was by the stringencies of the Great Depression to drive ice cream vans, to build vehicles in a factory at Footscray, and, after trade training, to work for a number of Dandenong builders as a carpenter, where his skill as a tradesman was notable. He applied to join the Air Force in the war years but was turned down for medical reasons. In the early nineteen-fifties he left for Kiewa, where he worked on the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme, erecting huts for the workers.
After several years of toil on the Snowy Scheme he arrived at Hamilton, in the Victorian Western District, to work on a farm called ‘Glenoevale,’ situated just outside the city limits. This farm was owned by his uncle and it was here that he came to know his cousin, Marion Eila Mcintyre (known as Eila), whom he later married, and who encouraged him to stay on and work the farm after the death of her father. He spent most of the fifties, sixties and seventies on the farm, running and managing an enterprise for which he had little previous training but which he made into a success through consistent effort and astute record-keeping—a testament to his outdoor skills, his practical ingenuity and his ability to learn fast and well. Diaries exist for this period of his life which record the day-to-day activities of farm life and the seasonal jobs which recurred each year.
After the death of his wife, his latter years of retirement were spent in the township of Hastings on the Mornington Peninsula, an area with which he was familiar from his early days, where he lived alone and became known locally as a personality in the Hastings Historical Society and as an able photographer and regular correspondent to the local newspaper on conservation issues. He used this time to reflect on his earlier field naturalist activities and to pursue further his work on the flora, fauna and natural history of the Western Plains area of Victoria, which was his great interest in life. This resulted in the penning of a number of interesting, meticulously-researched and often ground-breaking articles which were praised by professional scholars in the field.


Lionel Elmore was a great communicator and a voracious consumer of what other people had to say. In social situations he had very little small talk but he read voluminously in matters that interested him and was thus able to recount the details of many interesting factual topics, as well as to tell a good yarn based on his own practical experiences. The focus of his communication with others was his love of nature, but also, in a wider sense, the love of scientific discovery itself. We know this from his archives and papers, which contain almost a glut of retained material, either from his extensive collection of newspaper cuttings over several decades, from notes made about radio and television programs on scientific topics, from many letters and rejoinders to scientific journals and scientific writers, from his magazine subscriptions, from notes and papers prepared for scientific and conservationist seminars and field trips, as well as from the reminiscences of colleagues and family, and from his membership of learned societies.
Many scientists trained in academies and colleges retain forever a certain theoretical influence in their work, which is reflected in a sometimes technical and abstruse style of expression and a professional attachment to the objective viewpoint. Those articles which Elmore co-authored with professional scholars show this same influence and style, demonstrating that his commitment to objectivity, facts and accurate description could not be faulted. However, more so than in professional scholarly study, his scientific interests had a clear and perceptible origin in practical concerns and were always motivated by the values of an ardent conservationist and nature-lover who saw a clear moral purpose to the studies which he undertook, whether it be for the purpose of better understanding the role of phosphates in the soil to improve yield and avoid polluted streams, or study of the barred bandicoot as a means of ensuring its survival from extinction, or the study of tree growth and reforestation as a means of reversing desertification and the impoverishment of soils. This view of science with a purpose and a moral conscience is a viewpoint increasingly adopted by many scientists over recent years.
The scope of Elmore's scientific and geographic interests is startling. He was never bound by professional constraints, since he did not earn his living from science, and he used this freedom to develop the breadth of his interests. His prime concern was with conservationist issues. His interests covered all the major influential issues of the 1970s and 1980s, including the flooding of Lake Pedder, wood chipping and forest management, rainforest preservation, global warming, nuclear waste (and, later, the catastrophe at Chernobyl), recycling, oil spills, salination of farmland, contaminated waterways and toxic algal blooms, ozone depletion, and carbon dioxide emissions. He was also interested in development, heritage and planning issues.
A second area of interest was human nutrition, health, infection, medicine and population control. He was particularly interested in world population growth and the ability or inability of food crops to feed the growing numbers, together with an interest in the scientific aspects of population growth, such as the establishment of genetic data-bases, in vitro fertilisation, and the development of contraceptives such as depo provera.
He maintained a long-standing interest in the farming and economic structure of pre-industrial and traditional societies as a means of drawing conclusions about the limitations of Western methods, studying societies such as those of the Mayas and Incas, the New Guinea Highlanders, the South Sea Islanders and, of course, the Australian Aborigines. He was, in fact, profoundly interested in the climatic and geological determinants of civilisation. What possibilities for agriculture and the development of a local economic structure, he seemed to be asking, lie in the given climate, soil and relief of the local area? Always harking back to the environmental issue, he was fascinated by the question of how man's activities might have changed the ecology of a given region, as seemed to be the case with the disappearance of game species and the cutting of tree cover in ancient Mesopotamia, or the abrupt change from native Inca and Aztec crops such as cherimoya, tamarillo and pepino to familiar Western crops after the coming of the Spaniards.
A third area of interest was natural history, including flora, fauna, minerals, geological structures and patterns of vegetation cover. This area of interest he often related to farming and farm management issues, such as crop pests, yields, cultivation techniques and the use of pasture improvers. The issue of tree crops and vegetation cover was to develop into a major interest over several decades and became the subject of various writings and the cause of his attending, and often speaking at, numerous seminars on the issue. Closely allied to this area was his interest in vulcanology, palaeontology and archaeology, all of which originated as areas of interest from his time spent in Western Victoria, where he studied the volcanic features of Mt. Napier and the nearby ancient Aboriginal sites of Buckley's Swamp and environs. From this interest grew a seminal and guiding influence in the push amongst local conservationists for the declaration of a national park around Mt. Napier, the eventual attainment of which Elmore regarded as one of his most signal successes. He was greatly interested in the flora and fauna of the Western Plains, particularly in the species under threat of extinction in their native habitat, such as barred, or Gunn's, bandicoot (Perameles gunnii) and common wombats around the urban fringe of Hamilton. These local interests then led him to cast the net of his curiosity world wide.
Elmore was not a full-time bird watcher but he took a naturalist's interest in all threatened species, including Cape Barren Geese and various other species from time to time. He identified, in fact, through persistent observation, the seasonal presence and feeding habits of this species to the Fisheries and Wildlife Department in 1967, in the Lake Kennedy and Lake Linlithgow areas around Hamilton, recording observations that were later followed up by Dr. Dorward of Monash University. He was always able to assist with the

The Eastern Barred Bandicoot (perameles gunnii) which Lionel Elmore studied for more than a quarter of a century. [Source: Ronald Strahan, Mammals of Australia, 1995, p. 182]

conservation or preservation of birds and their habitat in the wild, as instanced in his own submission to the Coorangamite Study Area Project undertaken in November 1977 by the Land Conservation Council of Victoria to determine the best usage of local public land.
From this list of scientific interests, several became the subject of serious and detailed study: tree growth and land regeneration; the barred bandicoot; the common wombat; vulcanology, with special reference to Mt. Napier. Most, if not all, of these topics were written about after very long periods of dedicated and (one might almost say) loving observation, giving rise to Elmore's legendary status amongst naturalists. His opinions on a wide range of subjects were sought regularly and often by amateur colleagues, doctoral candidates and professionals alike, as his correspondence file reveals. Robert Youl, of The Department of Conservation, Forests and Lands, Victoria, Land Protection Division, wrote of his ‘fertile mind, unending curiosity and keen observations’ which ‘have left him an oracle on the basalt plains of Western Victoria.’4 Also significant, however, was the fact that Lionel Elmore was so often a pioneering spirit in scientific research on the subjects he chose to examine, as was likewise frequently acknowledged by his colleagues. In a research paper, ‘Status of the Barred Bandicoot, Perameles gunnii, in Victoria,’ the author, John Seebeck, of the then Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research, refers frequently in his text to information supplied by him, and, in his concluding Acknowledgements writes:
I am deeply indebted to Mr. Lionel Elmore, formerly of Hamilton, who has studied Perameles gunnii for more than 25 years, and who has made freely available his wealth of knowledge about the animal.5
These generous (but no doubt well earned) acknowledgements seem to encapsulate those qualities of his scientific researches better than a thousand words of praise: his dedication,

Unidentified photographer. Outdoorsman Lionel Elmore [right] sheltering with friends during an expedition 1940s. MS 13254, Box 9. La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection.

Lionel Elmore in later life, holding Aboriginal child. MS 13254, Box 9. La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection.

his unstinted sharing of knowledge, his detailed grasp of the subject. These qualities, more so perhaps than any of his published results, witness to the scientific spirit that motivated Elmore's curiosity towards the natural world and his ability to communicate his findings to others.


As well as being a scientist, Lionel Elmore was, in his own small way, a student of human affairs and a man with evident interests in many social topics and issues. These interests are known more particularly from reminiscences of family members and friends, but also from the extensive (almost overwhelming) collection of press cuttings which he made in the years between about 1970 and 1995, and from the contents of his library over a similar period.
Perhaps partly due to a collateral family connection through marriage, he was always interested in the situation of the Australian Aborigines and (according to Hamilton Field Naturalist friend, Harry Gunn) the history of the race in particular.6 So far as we know, he never studied them as an anthropologist would, but his library contains several anthropological studies of aborigines and their lifestyle, including the compendious World of the First Australians by R. M. and C. H. Berndt (1951) and the early two-volume study by R. Brough Smyth entitled The Aborigines of Victoria with notes relating to the habits of the Natives of other Parts of Australia and Tasmania (1878), both of which he presumably read with profit, and which would have appealed to his sense of scholarly thoroughness. There were a great many other books as well as these two in his library, covering early and post-European history, customs, tribal distributions and lifestyles of the various tribes. He did make a study of Aboriginal culture and history from the conservationist's point of view and, in particular, the issue of Aboriginal burn-offs which many conservationists claim was common practice during the past centuries. He was not of the opinion, like some other conservationists, that we should nowadays adopt this practice more widely in order to re-invigorate the soil and encourage remanent native vegetation, believing instead that the solution to creeping desertification was related to encouraging the growth of deep-rooted tree species. Family member Derek Warner remembers that Elmore collected Aboriginal middens from the Grampians region and donated them to the state museum in Melbourne, another aspect of his interest in Aboriginal culture. His correspondence shows that, as early as 1965 and up to the 1980s, he was actively engaged in the collection of archaeological information about Aboriginal sites of significance, including, in particular, camps and middens at Buckley's Swamp, about fifteen kilometres from Hamilton, Western Victoria, a series of finds which he reported to the Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, where they were duly recorded on the national research register.7
Elmore was also concerned with the welfare of Aborigines. He collected press reports related to the treatment and circumstances of Aborigines, and kept newspaper cuttings on many subjects of interest. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he and his wife were members of the Western District Aborigines' Friendship Circle, a benevolent Christian society which assisted local Aborigines. Elmore served as sometime President and Vice-President of this group. Not surprisingly, he had established views on the forcible resettlement of Aboriginal tribes, the practice of removing children from their parents and the sometimes disgraceful conditions under which a great many Aboriginals were forced to live. In adopting these opinions, he was in tune with progressive white opinion in the 1970s and 1980s, which deplored the mistreatment involved in such practices and conditions.
There were a great many social issues in which Elmore took an interest, particularly those with a scientific or technological component. In latter years, his collection of press cuttings covered the ethics of organ transplants, the selling of human tissue and organs, voluntary euthanasia, the treatment of women, and the effects of social change on native populations, such as Maoris and New Guinea Highlanders. At the time of his death, this collection of cuttings had grown to enormous proportions, reflecting both the consistency of his interests and his assiduous attention to current developments.
As an ardent local historian, taking part in Local Historical Society activities at both Hamilton and Hastings, Elmore's particular speciality seems to have been to photograph monuments and record significant local events. While residing at Hastings, for example, his archives show that he made a photographic record of a set of local historical markers, with the text clearly legible, and with lighting, colour balance and framing meticulously planned. These were probably the last in a long series of photographs that he took of many subjects during his lifetime, beginning with some very early shots of the region around Kiewa. Also at Hastings, he had recorded a series of shots showing the passing through of the Alma Doeppel, an historic sailing ship now based in Melbourne, and various ships from the Tall Ships flotilla which visited Victorian ports during Australia's bicentennial year. (Elmore was a member of the Tall Ships support group.) One of his last activities for the Hastings Historical Society was to rub down and re-stain a magnificent wooden mantelpiece for a local historical cottage that the Society members were restoring, giving one last exercise to his joinery skills.
As a postscript to Lionel Elmore's human qualities, it is worth noting one of the more interesting aspects of his library: the recurrence of books and magazines devoted to adventure, expeditions and geographic discovery. There was an element here, I am sure, of the spirit which informs the National Geographic Magazine, with its sponsorship of geographical expeditions of discovery and the understandable fascination of the naturalist for the study of flora, fauna and minerals, but there is also an implied element here of man coming face to face with nature in its most exotic and interesting state, which accords well with what we know about his wide-ranging curiosity. There are books about sea voyages in

Lionel Elmore, photographer. Bogong High Plains 1940s. MS 13254, Box 9. La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection.

the South Pacific, about trips to outback Australia, about life in Patagonia, life aboard the square riggers, Felix Riesenberg's account of the discoveries around the Cape Horn region, two or three accounts of mountain climbs (including Hillary's High Adventure) and the inevitable Thor Heyerdahl books (in this case The Kon Tiki Expedition and The Tigris Expedition). There is also a facsimile edition of Aurora Australis, the book produced by the Shackleton Antarctic Expedition of 1907–8. The dates of these books range over the whole of Elmore's settled life between about 1955 and 1990, showing his continuing interest in this type of human endeavour.


Throughout his life Lionel Elmore felt the grandeur and beauty of nature. He used, observed, studied, loved, respected and stood in awe of the natural world. It stimulated his practical nature, provided a subject for his unbounded intellectual curiosity, and gave a focus to his moral concerns. More than this, however, his interest in nature grew and developed as he himself matured. It began in earnest from the time of his stay at the Snowy Mountains, where he spent much of his free time in the wild. His bush skills developed in various jobs in rural Victoria Prior to 1950, culminating in his experience of land management as farmer and fire officer in rural Hamilton. As he tells us in one of his letters, he also spent many hours of his spare time during his stay there in studying a variety of natural phenomena of scientific interest, as we have already noted. In choosing to study these topics he was motivated as much by his conservationist ideals as by their intrinsic scientific interest, demonstrating an unusual amalgam of scientific curiosity and social conscience, and marking him out (in the words of the obituary in the Hamilton Spectator) as a man ‘passionately interested in conservation twenty years before it became a mainstream issue.’ He was thus a bushman, a farmer, a fire fighter, a naturalist, a conservationist and a photographer of nature. According to his cousin, the Rev. Frank Elmore, his relationship with nature was ‘the measure of his spirituality.’ It stimulated his conscience, developed his sense of beauty and was the test of his respect for truth.8
Lionel Elmore knew nature as an intimate friend and as a frightening presence. It left an indelible mark on his character when he was caught and trapped by flames during the ravaging bushfires of Victoria's Black Friday in Marysville during 1939, as he flanked and evaded the flames for two days in the company of two fellow fire fighters, sheltering in a shallow ditch or under a pile of sawdust, which smouldered but did not burn. After emerging from this ordeal he never again felt safe with fire and continued for many years as a volunteer and later Captain in the Country Fire Authority. This was the side of nature for which he had a great and abiding respect and awe.
But nature offered its beauties and rewards as well. He liked nothing better than to observe a flight of Cape Barren Geese, or to tramp the volcanic remains of Mount Napier, identifying the flora, fauna and rocks of an ancient sight. He had a great love of trees and shrubs and a clear understanding of their important role in the ecology of a district. He was a keen observer of native plant species and an ardent photographer of their blooms. He delighted in the identification of local topographical features – the course of rivers, the placement of rock middens, the distribution of soils and their varying patterns of fertility. In the Snowy Mountains he would set out cross-country on his skis to explore the surrounding countryside, with its white blanket of snow and its strange, surreal, ice-tipped trees, all of which he photographed and brought back with him to be placed methodically in one of his numerous albums. He would collect samples of rocks, and specimens of flora and fauna, all to be later preserved, classified and described, and often sent off to museums or institutions for long-term conservation.
It is often said that conservationists ‘put trees before people’ and that there is a general recession in importance for conservationists towards humanist values and the place of man in the scheme of things. Whatever one might think of this criticism in relation to the conservationist movement as a whole, it most certainly did not apply to Lionel Elmore. For him, the whole point to scientific study of the nature was to discover the impact of our actions on the future well-being of mankind as a whole. Thus, for example, the growth of trees led to the repair and improvement of the land, which led to better and more sustainable agriculture, which in turn should lead to a better and richer existence for the world's population. And what good was it to add superphosphate to pasture if such soil improvers are taken from one area of the globe to another using massive inputs of energy during the transportation phase? This, to him, was not only a waste of physical energy and a poor return on investment, but a waste of human time and effort as well; instead, why not adopt sustainable techniques of soil management and put the savings in human effort towards more worthwhile pursuits?9
Ultimately, Elmore recognised that the world in future years will face a problem not only of human survival but of aesthetic values, since human life is as much about quality as it is about basic survival. This is where the breadth of his vision comes to the fore: we are (he seems to be saying) stewards of the earth, free to study and use its products, but with a responsibility to foster its well-being. With this realisation it soon becomes obvious that man's best interests are also those of nature, and if we fail in this responsibility we doom ourselves. This, for Lionel Elmore, must have been the final justification for a life well lived.


The Lionel Elmore Collection at the State Library of Victoria is held at MS 13254, La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection. A guide to the 11 boxes of material is available.


Rod Bird, a fellow naturalist and scientist who knew Elmore well, confirms these impressions. He remembers, in particular, his near-obsession with establishing an interpretative centre and national park around Mt Napier (a project which was accomplished) and his wish to see a township reserve for bandicoots in Hamilton.


A recently-published book gives some of the family background, much of it surprising and very interesting. See William J. Metcalf and Elizabeth Huf, Herrnhut: Australia's First Utopian Commune, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 2002.


R. Youl, ‘Foreword’ to Trees and the Basalt Plains: Papers from a Seminar at Streatham on Friday, 19 August 1988, ed. L. Elmore and R. Youl, Melbourne, Department of Conservation, Forests and Lands, 1989, p.v.


Australian Wildlife Resources, 1979, vol. 6, pp.255-64


‘Vale Lionel Elmore – the passionate conservationist’, Hamilton Spectator, 3 September 1996.


The Hamilton Field Naturalists Newsletter also records that Elmore organised and led an exploration of the Aboriginal camp sites at Buckley's Swamp for the Western Victorian Field Naturalists Association on 30 October 1965.


Funeral Oration, Frankston Chapel, 26 August 1996.


From a conversation with Derek Warner in 1996.