The man, the mystery, the chair: Who was Jimmy Possum?

The man, the mystery, the chair: Who was Jimmy Possum?

The man, the mystery, the chair: Who was Jimmy Possum?

Updated 8 May 2017, 20:00 AEST

In the shadows of a small Tasmanian town lives the memory of a mysterious bush carpenter named Jimmy Possum, but did he actually exist?

Half a tree stump sits not far from a slowly running waterfall, just outside Deloraine in northern Tasmania.

For decades the final remains of the big hollow tree have been covered by fallen branches and debris, but a big flood in the region last year has uncovered them.

Griffith University Researcher Mike Epworth has travelled from Queensland to Tasmania to see this stump.

"We believe this is the actual tree that Jimmy Possum lived in," he said, looking at the stump.

"There have been stories, lots of oral histories. So according to local legend, this is it."

The legend of Jimmy Possum has lived in the shadows of Deloraine for decades.

He is said to have lived in a tree in the summer months making chairs, and traded some of his furniture for board in farms during the winter.

"Jimmy Possum is a very mysterious character, he's very enigmatic, there's no images of him, no photographs, there's no records of him," Mr Epworth explained.

The chairs he is said to have made in the 1890s and 1900s have survived and are now in collections around the country.

Daryl Smith owns the property where the remains of the tree are.

He said when he bought the land 20 years ago several older members of the community told him it was once home to Jimmy Possum and his tree.

"One gentleman in particular remembered the tree from when he was younger as a big hollow tree and he indicated where it was," Mr Smith said.

"I couldn't find the remnants of the stump initially, it's really only in June last year that it surfaced with the floods."

Could Jimmy Possum have been an Aboriginal man?

Mr Epworth is researching the Jimmy Possum chair and its history.

He thinks a picture of a man sitting next to a hollow tree, painted by an artist on a visit to northern Tasmania around 1905, could be Jimmy Possum.

The picture, along with his name, the lack of records, and some of the wood-working techniques, has lead Mr Epworth to a new theory.

"I've long thought there could be a possibility that Jimmy Possum could be Indigenous and it was just a vague feeling, but as the strands and the pieces of evidence come together that seems to be getting stronger," he said.

Mr Epworth believes Jimmy Possum stayed with local farming family the Larcombes one winter and taught the farmer, William Larcombe, to make the chairs.

It is thought the technique was then passed down through the family.

The Larcombes had several of the historic chairs and Gary Larcombe has childhood memories of his uncle Arthur making them.

"The first time I remember seeing him make one he was sitting on the veranda in a Jimmy Possum chair, making another one," he said.

"I wouldn't be surprised if it wasn't my grandfather [who taught him to make the chairs], like dad and uncle Arthur's father."

Reigniting interest in the Jimmy Possum tradition

With the backing of the National Trust, Mr Epworth has run a workshop in Deloraine, teaching members of the Larcombe family how to make the chairs.

Mr Larcombe is now planning to continue the tradition.

"I'm going to start making them myself after this experience, just to keep the family heritage going, the grandson wants to do the same," Mr Larcombe said.

There's been a renewed interest across the region in Jimmy Possum, with the Deloraine and District Folk Museum hosting the first public exhibition of Jimmy Possum chairs in almost 40 years.

"I think that's one of the great things about the mystery is that people are starting to come up with different theories and people are looking at different connections within the community," local Mayor Craig Perkins said.

Jimmy Possum chairs are kept in collections across the country, including at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.

"I'd say there may have been a Jimmy Possum and he may have been a chair maker and he may have made some of the chairs, but equally it remains a possibility that he is a mythological figure," the gallery's senior curator of decorative arts, Peter Hughes, said.

He said the mystery was part of the appeal of the chairs.

"I think the chairs have immense aesthetic appeal, as very simple, functional and a very clever design," he said.

"But I also think Jimmy Possum himself [is an appeal], as a sort of semi-mythological figure around whom a whole lot of stories can accrue and a certain kind of aura, if you like, of the kind of rustic countryman but also the independent pioneer and that sort of tradition of making do.

"We have chairs of this kind by known makers, who by no means attract the same kind of interest."