The passing of historian Helen Coulson

Helen Coulson, regarded as the finest historian of the Dandenong Ranges, passed away at the age of 103 years at Echuca on the Easter weekend. Ray Peace, Knox Historical Society researcher, reports:

Helen Carlyle Duncan was born in December 1918 at Tecoma, then a tiny township in the Dandenong Ranges. Helen was the only daughter of Vincent Duncan, the East Riding member of Ferntree Gully shire council in 1930-32. The young Helen was involved in community affairs early in life, taking part in a community fair at Upwey in December 1928. In February 1946 Helen married Max Coulson of  Mornington, and had two sons, Graeme and Richard; in later life she became a grandmother and great-grandmother.

From her early years, Helen was aware of the district’s rich history. She started work for the shire of Ferntree Gully as a typist in January 1936. In the latter 1940s, Helen was writing regular feature articles for the metro media, such as The Argus and the Weekly Times.

Helen’s two interests came together in February 1952 when she was commissioned by the shire council to create a comprehensive history of the district. In a 1953 article in the Ferntree Gully & District Times, Helen described herself as ‘an everyday housewife who enjoys writing’; Helen made good use of the local media to trace some of her more elusive contacts.

The project took years of meticulous research and writing to complete. Helen was doubly fortunate, not only having the support of the shire council, but also in having the book published by a major publishing house, Longman Cheshire.

The Story of the Dandenongs was published in 1959 and was an immediate success. The book was reprinted in 1968 and 1982, and is now considered a collector’s item. More than six decades after publication, Helen’s book remains a standard reference for the history of the district and is considered by many to be the finest work of its type. Helen was also commissioned to create a private family history for the Chandler family in the 1970s.

Helen’s love of local history did not end with Ferntree Gully. In 1959 Helen moved to Horsham in western Victoria, a city to which she was closely linked for many years, then in 1977 to the port town of Echuca on the Murray River. Once the largest inland port in Victoria, by the 1970s the river port was dilapidated, and at risk of demolition. Helen Coulson was one of the prime movers of the restoration of the Port of Echuca as a heritage precinct which remains open (and popular) today.

Helen Coulson celebrated her 100th birthday at Echuca in December 2018. The event was attended by more than 100 people from all over Victoria. At the time Helen attributed the success of her first book to being the right person in the right place at the right time.

Helen spent her final years in a retirement village in Echuca but remained lucid, active and engaged with the local community to the end of her life. Helen’s dedication to the cause of local history, and the published works she leaves behind, will remain as a lasting legacy in Ferntree Gully, and other areas of Victoria where she lived and worked.

Ray Peace, Knox Historical Society

After the Dandenongs: Judy Wolff meets historian Helen Coulson

Helen Coulson with Judy Wolff.

Upwey resident Judy Wolff recalls a visit in 2018 to the then near-centenarian in her Echuca home.

‘I had heard that Helen Coulson, author of The Story of the Dandenongs, published in 1959 was, astonishingly, ‘still with us’ and living in Echuca. Coulson’s 400 page tome documents the settlement and development of the townships of the southern Dandenongs in what was then Ferntree Gully Shire. It is an authoritative work, often the first port of call by current researchers needing early facts for, say, saving a heritage building or understanding a town’s history.

With nervous excitement I arrived at Mrs Coulson’s neat home, to be greeted by a friendly full-faced woman in strong voice looking to be in her late 70s. How could this be, the author of a book written 60 years ago?

We enjoyed a long chat about her life in the Dandenongs, followed by Horsham and then Echuca in 1977 where she was a living legend, with an OAM (Medal of the Order of Australia) awarded in 2016 for her documentation of the river town’s history and advocacy for its rejuvenation.

Helen’s memory of the Dandenongs was excellent. She gave me the background of how the important work started. The Ferntree Gully shire, urged on by the late great Cr Violet Lambert, commissioned the writing project in 1952. Helen thought the shire chose well in accepting her submission, as she had been working in the rates department for ten years, and rates, she said, were the backbone of local historical research. When complete and published in 1959, the book was very well received and remains the most authoritative history of the area.

I was interested to know if Helen had trained in research or journalism as her book is meticulously referenced yet very readable. She had done neither she said, but gave all credit to one Fintona School English teacher who ‘brought language alive’ all those years ago. As a result, writing became her lifetime ‘hobby’, as she called it.

A burning question I had was, why, after completing this major work with all its personal connections, did she leave the district just one year later? Her answer was simple. Her husband, a hospital administrator, was offered a position in Horsham and naturally, as his wife, she followed.

It turns out Helen’s achievements were far from over when she left the Dandenongs. Several years and publications later about Horsham, she moved again in 1977 to the old river port of Echuca.

She embraced the town, with its derelict port and unique history. She helped found Echuca Historical Society; advocated for the new Campaspe regional library; campaigned for the restoration of the port area and set about writing the history of Echuca and Moama. In the 1980s she was made Port General Manager for significantly helping to bring the town to its present celebrity status as a heritage river port. Yet the woman behind all these achievements was remarkably relaxed and put her achievements down to accident.

‘I do what makes me happy and whatever else happens, happens,’ she said. What has happened is that this delightful matter-of-fact author and researcher has lived on for three more years since our conversation and her contribution is now even more widely acknowledged. 

I for one, share the Dandenongs’ gratitude for Helen Coulson’s significant recording of our local history and for being an inspiring example of a life well lived.’

Judy Wolff

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