Top honour for community stalwart
By Brendan Rees
Elizabeth (Libby) Cousins remembers the days when cargo ships would arrive regularly at Victoria Docks in Docklands in the late ‘60s – well before the precinct was a dream on a drawing board.
“It was just the old wharfs there and ships would come in. There was no concept of what it could get to today,” she said.
“The only people down there were people working on the Docklands, there was no traffic, there’s nothing to go down there for unless you went to work.”
At the time, Mrs Cousins was volunteering one day a week with Australia’s National Trust, which had bought the historic tall ship, the Polly Woodside, for just one cent in 1968.
She was based at an “old shed” in South Wharf where she would sit down to her clickety-clack typewriter and help with administration tasks and send accounts to the National Trust.
Built in 1885 in Belfast the Polly Woodside was used as a general cargo ship and later converted to coal hulk where it operated in New Guinea in WWII.
“It was an absolute wreck,” she recalled when the three-masted ship arrived at Duke’s and Orr’s dry-dock in South Wharf in 1968.
“It was the tiniest thing,” she said of her contribution to the ship’s restoration, but added, “it just a useful thing to do so I said I could help”.
Mrs Cousins, who has been appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM), in this year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours List, said the majestic ship, which is now 136 years old and a major tourism drawcard, “needed a lot of work” but there were “a lot of wonderful volunteers who came down” to lend a hand.
Speaking of memories of Docklands, she described the area as “bleak” and derelict, and never imagined it would become one of the biggest urban renewal projects it has become today.
“It was just docks and they were being used in those days. It was basically before the big cranes came in,” she said.
Mrs Cousins said the news of her Queen’s Birthday Honour for her significant service to the community through charitable initiatives came as a “great surprise” but was “very humbled” to be recognised.
Her long list of achievements spans more than half a century through various community organisations (some of which she is a life member) including the Melbourne Recital Centre, the National Gallery of Victoria, the Geelong Art Gallery, The Australian Ballet, Melbourne Grammar School, Life Education Victoria, and National Trust Victoria.
One her biggest achievements was helping raise a staggering $2 million in 2006 to allow the Geelong Art Gallery to buy and permanently secure a masterpiece painting called View of Geelong by Eugene von Guerard.
Mrs Cousins, who lived in Geelong for 40 years, said she and her husband put their “lives on total hold” to raise the money in just six weeks after the 1856 oil painting had been put up for sale by then owner and English composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.
“It was a very big ask,” Mrs Cousins said, but they succeeded when the Victorian state government “stepped in” and offered $1.5 million towards the $4 million purchase price with the remainder being raised through the community fundraising appeal.
Another highlight was Mrs Cousins leading a fundraising campaign to buy two highly technical and expensive Life Education Victoria caravans that serviced various schools from Colac to Werribee to Bellarine Peninsula and throughout Geelong.
Speaking to Docklands News, Mrs Cousins said, “I just like seeing results. You have to have a reason to be in your skin and if you can do these things and make time to do it gives you enormous satisfaction.”
When asked what motivated her, she replied, “I think it’s the way you’re brought up. My parents were the first on the scene. If anyone needed help, they were there, and you just take that as a natural way that you go about life.” •