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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Semmens, Edwin James (1886–1980)

by Francis Robert Moulds

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Edwin James Semmens (1886-1980), forester, local historian and community leader, was born on 20 January 1886 at Toongabbie, Victoria, eldest of nine children of Josiah Semmens, storeman and later inspector of forests, and his wife Agnes, née Veitch, both Victorian born. Educated at the Maryborough School of Mines, Ted became a state primary school teacher in 1902. After attending the Melbourne Training College in 1909-10, he taught in metropolitan and country high schools. He studied part time at the University of Melbourne (B.Sc., 1925), won a (Godfrey) Howitt natural history scholarship in zoology, and played tennis and golf. On 8 May 1915 at Armadale he married, with the forms of the Australian Church, Florence Bilton, a teacher; they were childless.

In 1927 Semmens—who was known affectionately as 'Teddo', 'E. J.' and 'Jacko'—was appointed principal of the School of Forestry, Creswick. Introducing a broad curriculum for the three-year, residential course, he set high standards and made himself available outside normal working hours to guide the study habits and interests of his exclusively male students. During his tenure the school produced some of Australia's best-known botanists, including James Willis and Richard Bond, as well as numerous foresters working in the public and private spheres. Semmens concentrated his research on the composition of Eucalyptus oils. An active field-botanist, he accumulated a valuable collection of plants which he presented to the school. In 1935 he was elected a fellow of the Linnean Society of London.

At a time when relatively few Australians were interested in preserving their country's historical records, Semmens collected letters, diaries, reports, account-books, photographs, paintings, maps, publications and objects relating to the history of the region around Creswick, Allendale, Smeaton, Bloomfield, Clunes, Daylesford, Ballarat and Eaglehawk. He gathered documents and artefacts associated with local government, religion, education, sport, community organizations, individuals, and industries—including agriculture, grazing, gold-mining, forestry, retailing and manufacturing.

Although he published little, Semmens 'saw relationships between the different types of documents long before others were aware of them'. He gave part of his collection to the Creswick Museum and donated the bulk of it to the archives at the University of Melbourne. Occupying some 200 ft (61 m) of shelving, this gift to the university has been described as 'one of the most important collections of local history source material assembled in Australia'. In 1977 the university conferred on Semmens a doctorate of forest science honoris causa for his contributions to forestry and history.

Semmens was a councillor (1951-75) and president (1956) of the shire of Creswick. He 'loved nothing better than a good debate' and 'was happy to keep talking' until it was time for a scotch. Prominent in a number of community organizations, he presided (1948-51) over the Creswick District Hospital. In 1968 he was appointed M.B.E. He and Florence created a beautiful garden at their home on the town's Eastern Hill. Predeceased by his wife, he died on 31 December 1980 at Creswick and was cremated with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • Age (Melbourne), 7 Dec 1977
  • Creswick Advertiser, 29 Jan 1981
  • clippings from Creswick Advertiser and Courier (Ballarat) (held by Creswick Historical Society)
  • private information.

Citation details

Francis Robert Moulds, 'Semmens, Edwin James (1886–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 29 October 2020.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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